To say the Watchmen film (2009) had a long and checkered production history is a massive understatement. Originally a 12-issue mini-series written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons that was released in 1986, it was a revisionist superhero story about a mysterious assassin killing off costumed superheroes but this is merely a springboard for a brilliant dissection of the genre and comics in general by manipulating symbols and icons. It also addressed the fear of nuclear annihilation that was so prevalent in the 1980’s. The series was a critical and commercial success despite Moore and Gibbons’ intentions for it to act as an epitaph to the superhero genre and ended up revitalizing superhero comics and spawned numerous rip-offs. It wouldn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling.
In 1989, just after he finished making The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam was approached to direct a film version of Watchmen by producer Joel Silver. Sam Hamm (Batman) wrote the screenplay, which by all accounts was awful. So, Gilliam discarded this draft and wrote his own with Charles McKeown (his screenwriting partner on Munchausen). Gilliam felt that the mini-series was unfilmable as a traditional two-hour film. The biggest problem lay in the financing. According to Gilliam, Silver said that he had secured a $40 million budget but in actuality he only had about $24-25 million. In 1996, after the success of 12 Monkeys, Gilliam was asked again and turned it down.
Nothing happened with the project for many years until it was announced that screenwriter David Hayter (X-Men) had signed a seven figure deal to adapt Watchmen for the big screen and possibly even direct it for Universal. Larry Gordon, who had long held the rights to Watchmen was going to produce the film. Originally, Hayter pitched Watchmen as a mini-series for HBO but the cost would have been an estimated $100 million. His way to condense the mini-series into a two-hour film was to break down the story points into their main components.
Filming was to being in Prague sometime in 2004; however, the option was picked up in April 2004 with Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) being named as the director for Revolution Studios. By July, the project had moved over to Paramount when the deal fell through with Revolution. However, by early November 2004, Aronofsky was off the project due to scheduling conflicts with pre-production on The Fountain (2006). Paramount’s insistence on getting Watchmen out in theaters by summer of 2006 forced them to find another director fast. In late November of 2004, they picked Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy) to direct using Hayter’s script. It did not take long for problems to arise when in April 2005 Paramount was looking to cut the film’s budget by 20% while Greengrass was immersed in pre-production at Pinewood Studios in London, England. One of the reasons cited was the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar to the British pound. However, the studio put the project in the dreaded turnaround (i.e. development hell) in June of the same year because of change of studio heads and the new one felt that the budget for such a risky project was too high.
Finally, in 2005, the film’s producers took the project to Warner Bros. and approached Zack Snyder to direct as they were impressed with his work on 300 (2007), a stylish adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name. Screenwriter Alex Tse was hired and he took elements from Hayter’s drafts while maintaining the Cold War setting of the comic book. The resulting film polarized critics and was a modest commercial success. Taking his cue from Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Sin City (2005), Snyder set out to make a visually faithful adaptation, often recreating certain panels exactly as they were presented in the comic book but ran into trouble when he deviated with his own preoccupations and stylistic flourishes. The end result is a film that is at times brilliantly faithful and also deeply flawed – a mixed bag but also an admirable attempt at an impossible task. The Ultimate Edition version, which fused the director’s cut with the animated short film, Tales of the Black Freighter (a comic book that runs throughout Watchmen, often commenting on the action), is the most complete version of Snyder’s take on the material.
Set during the mid-‘80s amid the nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States, Watchmen begins with two police detectives investigating the mysterious murder of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) whose alter ego is the costumed superhero known as the Comedian, an amoral mixture of Nick Fury and G. Gordon Liddy. Another costumed vigilante by the name of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) – imagine Travis Bickle mixed with Sam Spade – decides to conduct his own investigation and realizes that the Comedian’s death is only a small fragment of a much larger puzzle. He proceeds to notify the surviving members of the superhero team he belonged to: Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wlison) a.k.a. Nite Owl, a Batman-esque crusader now retired; Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) a.k.a. Silk Spectre, a beautiful woman pushed into the business by her famous mother, Sally (Carla Gugino), the original Silk Spectre; Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) a.k.a. Ozymandias, a billionaire businessman and considered by many to be the smartest man on the planet; and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), an omnipotent being capable of manipulating matter on a cellular level. As Rorschach’s investigation progresses it appears that someone is trying to eliminate all of his former team members but to what end?
The first indication that director Zach Snyder imposes his trademark style occurs in the prologue when the Comedian is killed by a mysterious assailant. Not only does he drag out the fight, but he also unnecessarily employs his slow motion/speed up technique. However, Snyder makes up for it with a superbly executed opening credits sequence that introduces this world and its alternate history timeline (i.e. the Comedian assassinates President Kennedy on the grassy knoll) while also including all kinds of visual Easter eggs for fans of the comic book (like showing how minor character Dollar Bill died). As a result, there is something for newbies and fans alike.
For everything Snyder gets right – the look and feel of the film, which features some truly astounding production design that completely immerses you in this world – he maddeningly gets other things wrong when he adds bits to scenes that have no purpose except to add a little more action for our ADD culture, like in the scene where Rorschach is discovered by two police officers as he’s searching the Comedian’s apartment. The masked vigilante subdues one of them and disappears before the other can collar him. Why? To show what a badass he is? This is unnecessary as actor Jackie Earle Haley’s excellent performance does that for him.
Another nice addition is the integration of an animated rendition of The Tales of the Black Freighter, a comic book within the graphic novel about the sole survivor (voiced by Gerard Butler) of a shipwreck who desperately tries to make it back home to his family before the pirate ship of book’s title does. Snyder nails the nightmarish Tales from the Crypt vibe of the comic while also restoring the newsstand scenes between the vendor and the kid reading the book, which fleshes out this alternate world.
Snyder makes some blunders with a few of the musical cues, like using “Ride of the Valkyries” in the sequence where Dr. Manhattan slaughters Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War. The director is obviously paying homage to the famous use of the song in Apocalypse Now (1979) but it is unnecessary and too on the nose. However, the most glaring miscue is using “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen instead of “You’re My Thrill” as it was in the graphic novel. Do we really need this song played yet again in a film? This song and all versions of it need to be retired from cinema indefinitely.
For the most part the casting is spot on. Patrick Wilson put on weight to portray the slightly out of shape Dan Dreiberg and with his retro haircut and defeated posture certainly looks the part. Wilson gives Dreiberg a slightly sad, pathetic vibe, which suits the character. Billy Crudup nails the eerie detachment of Dr. Manhattan, a god-like being bored with humanity. The actor adopts a neutral tone akin to that of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Perhaps the best realized and most faithfully recreated portion of the graphic novel is Dr. Manhattan’s tragic backstory, which also attempts to present his worldview: he perceives the past, present and future simultaneously. Crudup does a nice job of showing the transition of Manhattan from a mild-mannered scientist to omnipotent super being with some eerily uncanny recreations of panels from the graphic novel. We see how Manhattan’s ability to manipulate matter on a cellular level radically changes the course of world history (for example, the U.S. wins the Vietnam War with his help). According to Moore, his aim with Manhattan was to show that he “does not perceive time the same way we do. We have a character who’s post-Einsteinian, who seems to accept that all time is happening at once. Past, present and future. And to him, the past is still there, and the future is there, right now.”
Thankfully, the flashbacks depicting the Comedian’s backstory don’t shy away from his amoral behavior: trying to rape the original Silk Spectre and killing a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his child. Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a fantastic job conveying his character’s skewed worldview: how everything is part of a big, dark joke that only the Comedian gets. In his own way, he realizes that what costumed superheroes do – fighting crime – is ultimately meaningless in the face of nuclear annihilation. The darker and more chaotic things get the more he likes it. Morgan is also able to dig deeper during his tearful late night visitation with an old foe, giving us tantalizing hints at a much, darker and larger scheme at work – the knowledge of which got him killed in the first place.
Easily the strongest performance comes courtesy of Jackie Earle Haley as the sociopathic Rorschach. The most important thing he does is get the voice right. Everyone has their own idea of what he should sound like and Haley got it. Not only does he look great in the costume but also out of it during the portion of the film where he’s unmasked and in prison. The actor is even more chilling as he recounts to a psychiatrist how he became Rorschach and the incident that transformed him permanently into his costumed alter ego. This section of Watchmen offers a glimpse into his disturbing worldview in what is easily the darkest, most bleak part of the film, much like the graphic novel. But again, Snyder imposes his style unnecessarily, adding his own gory flourishes to Rorschach’s showdown with a kidnapper. It is excessive and clumsily executed like something out of a cheap B-horror film whereas the graphic novel was much more horrifying because it left the criminal’s fate to your imagination. Snyder is too busy making Rorschach look cool and failing to realize that in the graphic novel Moore and Gibbons were deconstructing the romantic costumed superhero myth and exploring what motivates someone to dress up and fight crime and how this might warp them. Rorschach wasn’t meant to be a cool character but a depressing, frightening one. His backstory was where, according to Moore, “we actually go for the heart of darkness, we go to the very center of this black, depressing sort of pre-nuclear worldview.”
The most significant miscasting of the film is actress Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter. While the attractive actress looks the part, she lacks the acting chops required for the role. Known mostly for romantic comedies, Akerman looks lost in the role, which is unfortunate as it’s the most pivotal part and arguably the most complicated character in the book. Laurie’s relationship with Dan is the emotional center of the story and this is diluted in the film by the casting of Akerman. Carla Gugino, who ironically plays her mother in the film, would’ve actually been better in the role – or, maybe Jennifer Garner who demonstrated a capacity for action and drama in the J.J. Abrams television show Alias.
Another glaring miscast role is that of Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt. The actor doesn’t look like the character or really act like him either. He’s a little too smug and too over-confident in his portrayal whereas in the graphic novel Veidt was subtly condescending to those around him, coming across as almost distracted, the reasons for which become apparent later on. Snyder has said that he didn’t want to cast recognizable movie stars in the major roles but for Veidt, a celebrity in his own right and by his own making, this would’ve been a wise move. I always thought that Jude Law would’ve been a good choice as he looks the part and showed the capacity to play unlikable characters in films like The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Plus, while doing press for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Law admitted to being a huge fan of the graphic novel and probably would’ve been willing to take a pay cut.
Watchmen perfectly summarizes Snyder’s limitations as a filmmaker. He slavishly recreates panels and sequences from the graphic novel without demonstrating any understanding of what they mean. For example, the climactic scene where Laurie convinces Dr. Manhattan to come back to Earth, that there is more to the universe than random molecules colliding with one another is handled all wrong. In the graphic novel, we find out that Sally loved the Comedian, even after he tried to rape her. The fact that she could feel for a person who committed such a horrible act goes against all logic and that Laurie was the product of their act of love is what convinces the Manhattan to renew his interest in humanity. The film waters this down completely and Sally says that she made a mistake being with the Comedian that one time but that she loves Laurie anyway. Whereas, the graphic novel is a thought-provoking look at human nature and our fascination with costumed superheroes, the film dilutes and tries to make it palatable for a mainstream audience while still trying to appeal to fans of the source material. This schizophrenic attitude is arguably one of the biggest flaws of the film.
Watchmen is a flawed mess of a film – one that gets many things right but also gets a lot of things wrong – but a fascinating one nonetheless. If I’m being overly critical on Snyder it’s only because I love the source material so much that seeing it brought to life in a film was at once exhilarating and depressing. One has to give Snyder credit for making it at all, for using his clout to make sure it was R rated and keeping it set during the ‘80s – two things he went to the mat for with the studio. He made the best possible film one could with the limitations of a feature film format. Ideally, the graphic novel could only truly be done justice in a mini-series format aired on a cable channel like HBO, which would free the filmmakers of the constraints of network television. Watchmen asks many questions but perhaps as Dave Gibbons points out, it really asks the big question: “Who makes the world? Who is responsible for the way the world is? And a lot of it is planned, but a lot of it is just sheer chance. There are patterns, the pattern that we perceive, but there are patterns going on underneath it. And that’s what we tried to show. With these sub, almost subliminal patterns that go through things, echoes, repeating shapes, motifs turning up in unexpected places.” Is the world made of patterns or is it sheer coincidence? The graphic novel expertly examines these questions and offers an entertaining story as well. The film? Not so much.