Watchmen: Zack Snyder’s Version of Alan Moore’s Cult Graphic Novel

Watchmen, Zack Snyder’s eagerly awaited screen adaptation of Alan Moore’s cult graphic novel, is one of the movie events of the season. 


Dense, provocative, excessively brutal and ultra-violent, “Watchmen” is decidedly not kids or adolescents fare.  This visionary movie goes way beyond Snyder’s previous effort, the box-office hit “300,” which by comparison seems simple, straightforward, too dependent on digital effects, and (intentionally or unintentionally) campy.


Snyder’s work is original, or matchless by any standards of comic book pictures, including the “Batman” franchise.  Hardcore fans of the source material book may quibble with some of the changes made, including the different ending, but there is much to admire about the picture, which ultimately does capture the spirit of the novel. 


I also expect the movie to divide film critics, perhaps even sharply so.  Whether you like or dislike it, at the end of this intensely sensorial experience, the barrage of images and sounds will overwhelm you.  For some, it will be an elating adventure, for others a frustrating experience of keeping in synch with the briskly-paced saga, numerous characters, and multiple themes. 


It’s been a turbulent road from page to screen.  First, the novel was considered “truly unfilmable,” and countless directors, such as the fantasist Terry Gilliam and the postmodernist Darren Aronofsky, have expressed their wish to “translate” the novel to the big screen.  Then there were court battles between Warner, which is releasing the picture domestically, and Fox about copyrights to the property.  But now that the movie is finally playing in a plex near you, it’s time to put this excess baggage aside and to appreciate the film for what it is, or for what it tries to do and mostly succeeds.


Released in early March, amidst mindless comedies and inept actioners, “Watchmen” does Hollywood proud as a serious, even grave meditation about all the issues that continue to concern us: legitimate authority, use and abuse of power, science and technology, the role of the government in securing and regulating our everyday lives.   And the movie doesn’t neglect more personal or domestic issues, such as trust and love, sex and happiness.  Two of the film’s strongest sequences deal explicitly with sexual gratification and sexual and emotional impotence.


“Watchmen” is nothing if not ambitious, fresh, and challenging, a work that commands our attention by delivering various pleasures, from the most visceral to the most cerebral.  Here is an ensemble-driven picture that contains so many stories, and stories within stories, that it may be hard to follow for viewers accustomed for more conventional and linear mainstream entertainment.


A key to the success of the film is in its unusual casting.  There are no major stars, not even actors of the caliber of Christian Bale, Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire.  Instead, the roles are cast with talented character actors on the order of Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, and Matthew Goode, actors who literally disappear within their ever-shifting identities and masks. (the handsomer Patrick Wilson is deglamorized and at first barely recognizable).

Set in Gotham in 1985, “Watchmen” displays a dark world defined by fear and paranoia, where individuals who once donned masks to fight crime are now hiding. It’s a milieu in which an all-powerful being has changed the global balance of power, pushing the world closer to nuclear than it’s even been before. In this apocalyptic context, facing impending Armageddon, desperate men and women engage in desperate activities.


Spray-painted across a wall in a dark New York alley is a question that runs through the narrative: “Who watches the Watchmen”  Indeed, a moral puzzle defines the film: Who has the right to say what’s right and what’s wrong, and who has the right to enforce those decisions  More importantly, who should (and does) monitor those who decide what’s right and what’s wrong

In the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, there was paranoia about the Cold War and fear that it might escalate.  Hollywood reflected these fears with a cycle of right-wing movies, such as “Top Gun,” “Rambo” and “Red Dawn,” all revisionist works that aimed to boost patriotism, even chauvinism. Thus, when the tale starts, we learn that the costumed vigilantes have changed the course of history: Nixon is very much alive and still in office and the Vietnam War was a triumph for America (there are scenes about the defeat of the Vietcong). 


Originally published by DC Comics from 1986 to 1987, “Watchmen” first appeared as a 12-issue limited comic book series. It was then republished as a graphic novel, which has become legendary. The blood-stained “smiley face” on the cover, the image of a clock face advancing closer and closer to midnight, the 12-chapter structure, all indicated a complex, evocative work, full of pop culture references and allusions. “Watchmen” is the only graphic novel to win the prestigious Hugo Award and to appear on Time magazine’s 2005 list of “the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.” 


The novel has been praised for reflecting the zeitgeist, giving voice to anxieties and fears about the uses and abuses, paranoia, impotence, and paralysis experienced by average people considered to be insignificant by the power elite; there’s a witty scene in the movie, in which Henry Kissinger advises Nixon about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.


Subverting, deconstructing, and then reconstructing the concept of superheroes, the movie introduces half a dozen characters, “real” people who deal with ethical and personal issues and struggle with neuroses and failures.  Each is a symbol of a different kind of power, obsession, and psychopathology. 


Playing the film’s core group of “Masks,” or adventurers, are Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II; Billy Crudup as Jon Osterman, aka Dr. Manhattan; Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias; Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre; Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs, aka Rorschach; Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Blake, aka The Comedian; and Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl II.

The movie maintains the book’s chief attributes, its intricate, multi-layered storytelling and dialogue, symbolism, flashbacks and meta-fiction.  The screenplay, adapted by David Hayter and Alex Tse, keeps the novel’s depiction of superheroes as human characters subject to similar socio-psychological pressures as other ordinary people.  Like its source, it is a self-reflexive movie.  You could also say that the storytelling itself has the nature of a clock, or clock ticking, dealing with the human condition in a way that interweaves elements of fate, serendipity, coincidence, and timing.


(Incidentally, these themes also pervade David Fincher’s vastly different romantic epic “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. ” One day, a scholar should compare the uses and meanings of clocks in such diverse pictures as Zinnemann’s 1952 Western “High Noon,” the Coen brothers’ 1994 “Hudsucker Proxy,” “Benjamin Button,” and now “The Watchmen”)

On one level, the film is a multi-layered mystery, set in an alternate American society, in which costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday life.  The prevalent image is that of the Doomsday Clock, which charts the tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and is watched with alarm as it moves closer and closer to midnight.


The opening sequence, a montage set to Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” later intercut with Bob Dylan’s classic “The Times They Are A-Changing,” introduces the characters, placing them against a political context in which Nixon is serving his third term as president.  An ultra-violent scene follows, which justifies the picture’s rating, depicting in graphic detail the brutal beating and murder of the Comedian, ending with his crash on the sidewalks from the 32nd floor of his skyscraper building. 


“Tonight, a Comedian died in New York,” Rorschach writes in his journal. “Somebody knows why.”  Holding that the Comedian may just be the first, Rorschach sets out to warn the members of the closely-knit group that had fought by his side–six souls tied together by fate and desire to make their own brand of justice. His first visits Dan Dreiberg, who as Nite Owl II was his partner and close friend when they were Masks and he was despised by both the police and the citizens.


As the outlawed vigilante, Rorschach perceives the Comedian’s killing as a reason for a reunion of his former chums, thus setting out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all superheroes, past and present. To that extent, he reconnects with his former crime-fighting legion, a group of retired superheroes, only one of whom, Dr. Manhattan, has true powers.  Rorschach unveils a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future. 


The voice-over narration informs us that it’s October 13, 1985.  The tale then jumps to October 16, October 21, and so on.  But the narrative is truly multi-layered, with flashbacks within flashbacks spanning four decades (from the 1940s to the 1980s), crisscrossing story strands, setting changes from Earth to Mars and back, and psychological histories constructed for each of the central characters.


Rorschach is clearly the saga’s most intriguing character.  The only Mask to openly defy the Keene Act, which outlawed costumed heroes, he hunts the gutters for “society’s vermin.”  Though we live in a complex world with shades of gray, for Rorschach, the world is either black or white.   Rorschach’s psychology and ideology are reflected in the mask he wears, with shifting, mirror image patterns of black and white, like the inkblots of a Rorschach test. Rorschach serves as the story’s perverse detective, driven by uncompromising pursuit of justice.   Brilliantly played by Jackie Earle Haley (last seen in an Oscar-nominated turn in “Little Children,” in which Patrick Wilson was a co-star), Rorschach is a particular type of (anti) hero, a psychotic misanthrope, motivated by hate and obsession, not your typical moralistic do-gooder as seen in “Spider-Man,” “Batman,” or “Iron Man.”


One of the most impressive and touching narrative strands is the transformation of Dr. Manhattan, his life, tragedy, death, and rebirth as a superbeing.  A huge, glowing figure in blue shades, Dr. Manhattan is played with great nuance and subtlety by Billy Crudup.  As member of the romantic triangle, he competes with Dan Dreiberg for the love of Silk Spectre, herself a femme fatale killer.  Helmer Snyder juxtaposes the two lovers in two vastly different sexual encounters that bear humorous tones. While Dr. Manhattan “suffers” from erectile dysfunctionality (perpetual hard-on), Dreiberg battles sexual impotence and can only be aroused by particular acts. The sight of Dr. Manhattan, who transforms into a double character while making love, is striking, frightening and macabre, and so is a later image of a quartet of identical Dr. Manhattan(s) parading with their huge penises.

Drawing on the visual vocabulary of film noir, most of the scenes in “Watchmen” are rain-soaked and nocturnal.  I won’t be surprised if Snyder and his crew have watched thoroughly such neo-noir classics as “Taxi Driver,” “Blade Runner,” and “Seven,” to which their movie bears stylistic resemblance, though ultimately bears its unique signature.

So why, you might ask, is the film flawed and merits B+ or A-.  For a number of reasons.  First, it has an excessive running time of 162 minutes, which means there are some uneven moments.  Second, it is not totally accessible to viewers who are unfamiliar with the literary source. Third, While Haley is brilliant and most of the cast proficient, Matthew Goode’s performance is not entirely satisfying.  Fourth, the last hour, especially the long prison sequence, is not as strong dramatically as what precedes it.  The movie is ultra-violent, perhaps gratitously so, beginning with the first sequence, in which limbs are broken and sawed-off.


As you may have heard, only illustrator Dave Gibbons is credited onscreens, and mucvh has been made from Moore distancing himself from this production (and Hollywood in general).  Yet it’s all relative.  Of all the previous screen adaptations of Moore’s work, including the Hughes brothers “From Hell,” “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” and most recently “V for Vendetta,” “Watchmen is the most impressive and the only one that merits the label of an ambitious art work.


This is a 2300-word review and space doesn’t allow me to dwell on the richly dense and evocative score and sound effects.  So I’ll just conclude by saying that if Moore’s “Watchmen” is credited with elevating the graphic novel to a new art form, “Watchmen” the movie should be treated similarly, as a new art form. 




Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II – Malin Akerman
Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman – Billy Crudup
Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias – Matthew Goode
Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre – Carla Gugino
Rorschach – Jackie Earle Haley
Edward Blake/Comedian – Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl – Patrick Wilson



A Warner Bros. (in U.S.)/Paramount (international) release and presentation, in association with Legendary Pictures, of a Lawrence Gordon/Lloyd Levin production. Produced by Gordon, Levin, Deborah Snyder.

Executive producers, Herbert W. Gains, Thomas Tull.

Co-producer, Wesley Coller. Directed by Zack Snyder.

Screenplay, David Hayter, Alex Tse, based on the graphic novel co-created and illustrated by Dave Gibbons and published by DC Comics.
Camera , Larry Fong.
Editor, William Hoy.
Music, Tyler Bates.
Production designer, Alex McDowell.
Supervising art director, Francois Audouy.
Art director, Helen Jarvis; set designers, Bryan Sutton, Allan Galajda, Jay Mitchell, Rodirigo Segovia, Peter Bodnarus, Andrew Li, Maya Shimoguchi, Rich Romig, Aaron Haye; set decorator, Jim Erickson.
Costume designer, Michael Wilkinson.
Sound, Michael McGee; supervising sound designer, Eric A. Norris; sound designer, Jeremy Peirson; supervising sound editor, Scott Hecker; rerecording mixers, Chris Jenkins, Frank Montano.
Visual effects supervisor, John “DJ” DesJardin; visual effects producer, Tom Peitzman; visual effects and animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks; visual effects, the Moving Picture Co., Intelligent Creatures, CIS Visual Effects Group. Special effects makeup, Greg Cannom.
Stunt coordinator/fight choreographer, Damon Caro.

MPAA Rating: R.

Running time: 162 Minutes.