Decades in the making, and with a fan-base sceptical that the genius comic could ever be properly translated to the big screen, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) divided opinion at the time and has not garnered a good reputation since. As a first time viewer 13 years on, I take a look at whether Watchmen actually deserves it’s negative notoriety.
A Difficult Inception
It’s fair to say that Watchmen was one of the most anticipated comic to film adaptations of all time, both for good and bad reasons. The ground-breaking graphic novel changed the face of comics almost overnight by bringing structural invention, subversive wit and gritty absurdism to the traditional superhero stories that DC was famous for. It questioned conventional morals, changed the way comic books could be read, and broke down the entire nature of what superheroes and supervillains could be.
All of this was going to be exceedingly difficult to accurately portray on film, and perhaps unsurprisingly the adaptation was fraught with difficulties, being in on-and-off production since 1991. Its writers and producers were caught in legal battles for the rights with different studios, while Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, Michael Bay, Paul Greengrass and even Tim Burton were all in line to direct at one point or another.
There are two ways of looking at Watchmen as a film. Is it a good adaptation of the comics, and/or is it a good movie in its own right? Unfortunately, my answer to both parts of the question is a resounding ‘No’.
The Direction or The Writing?
The problems with Watchmen are often put squarely on Director Zack Snyder, and while his critical reputation since hasn’t done much to dissuade this idea, I don’t think the direction is the primary issue. Sure, there is far too much unnecessary action and the film does little to justify its three hour runtime, but overall the looks and sounds are alluring. The prominent use of classic ’60s counter-culture hits in the soundtrack is a little strange considering it takes place in the ’80s, but the cinematography captures a strong atmosphere of the alternative history setting. There are occasional moments of dark humour, and the cast, specifically chosen over big Hollywood stars for their lack of notability, do a decent job of not overacting their parts.
The most intriguing thing about the novel is its thematic depth, but sadly that has been almost entirely lost in the film. Whether this is actually down to David Hayter and Alex Tse’s writing itself or the way their screenplay was put into action is debatable, but for the most part the characters come across devoid of any mortal nuance and are presented in ways which feel entirely focussed on their surface level attributes. In the final half hour of the film some depth starts to appear, but by that point we are already two and a half hours in and it feels like too little too late. It’s especially the case with fan-favourite Rorschach, whose diary entry narration and unsophisticated dialogue give a woefully inadequate representation of the character.
Worse still is The Comedian, whose misogynistic violence is given nowhere near enough condemnation. In films like A Clockwork Orange, Fight Club and Bronson, the ultra-violent lead characters are given a balance of understanding and disapproval so as to present them in a way which augments the viewers understanding of morality. The Watchmen novel does this too, but with the film that balance is way off. As such the scenes of rape, sexual assault and femicide in particular feel extremely problematic and have aged awfully.
The Misplaced Infatuation
My broadest criticism is that the film is too much in awe of the novel. It’s more a direct transfer to the screen than a true adaptation, designed to put the novels on a pedestal rather than craft a great film from their substance. It’s this kind of idolisation which Alan Moore was railing against when he wrote Watchmen, so it’s no wonder he hated the idea of this, or any of his works, being made into a film.
If you pick the right ones then superhero comics can often be moved to the screen without much remodelling involved; it’s a tactic Marvel are experts at. Watchmen is simply not one of those comics though. There is far too much subtlety and intricacy involved, and by focussing on making the visual aspects and the storyline as faithful to the novel as possible, the ultimate meaning behind it is lost. For a film that took so many years to make, the lack of thought that went into its writing is surprising and shocking.
So, does Watchmen deserve its poor reputation? Yes it does, and whatsmore it should act as a warning. If you are going to try and adapt a source as irreverent, ground-breaking and unique as something like Watchmen, then you need to look beyond the surface and adapt the meaning of the work rather than just its appearance.
Do you think Watchmen is as bad as it seems, or are you a fan of the film? Do you think Watchmen can ever be truly adapted to the big screen?
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