“Never surrender. Not even in the face of Armageddon.”
Ahoy, Minutemen! Aidan here.
The only comic book on TIME Magazine’s “100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century.” Cited as one of the few “unfilmable” pieces of literature ever written.
There are graphic novels. There’s Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Art Spiegelman’s Maus.
But then there’s Watchmen.
The definitive work of the greatest mind in comic book history, Watchmen was originally published as a DC miniseries in the mid-1980s and met with immediate critical acclaim. Set in an alternate 1980s timeline, it chronicles a vigilante named Rorschach as he uncovers a plot to kill off retired superheroes. It’s a meticulously constructed monolith of satire, noir, character work, and superhero mythology.
It’s the greatest comic book ever published.
It was the second one I’d ever read – I picked it up in seventh grade along with The Ultimates, in an attempt to revive my interest in reading comics – and nothing has compared since. So, when the film (after decades of false starts) looked like it was finally going to happen (and with Zack Snyder at the helm, no less), my ninth-grade self was stoked. I doggedly followed Watchmen‘s production from the start, my heart melting at even the most uninteresting leaked set picture.
Then, the trailer at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight. The first time I’ve seen a trailer receive a standing ovation. Suffice it to say I was distracted for the duration of Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece that followed – I couldn’t stop thinking about that Watchmen teaser. I mean, look at it! We were creaming our fanboy jeans at that thing. It’s greatness.
My life was counted in days until the film’s release, and when I finally saw it….
I hated it. It sucked.
It was campy and cartoonish. It felt rushed. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) was stupid, and his accent irritating. My favorite parts of the book were different from how I had envisioned them, and my fanboy bubble was burst at the realization that I’d finally gotten a three-hour, R-rated Watchmen film that I ended up hating.
The thing is…. I did warm up to it!
My fifth viewing was of a limited theatrical release of the Watchmen Directors Cut – and it blew me away.
As films like Blade Runner, Alien, and Daredevil exemplify, director’s cuts can truly make all the difference in the world. Watchmen‘s was subtle, filling out the film in a way that allowed it to breathe – I felt immersed in the world of the Director’s Cut like I did in the world of the book. In comparison, the normal theatrical release felt like watching someone flip through SparkNotes of Alan Moore’s masterpiece.
Zack Snyder nailed this adaptation. It’s gritty, gorgeous to behold, and well-paced – an extraordinary feat for a narrative as sprawling as Watchmen‘s. Besides a few questionable exceptions (such as Malin Akerman and the aforementioned Matthew Goode), casting and performances are spot-on. Jackie Earle Haley is the perfect Rorschach, something I even acknowledged when first seeing the film – he’s small, scrappy, and ruthless to the bone.
Billy Crudup gives a poignant tour-de-force as the apathetic Dr. Manhattan, perfectly mirroring the book’s depiction and altering exactly what’s necessary in order to make his arc more cinematically compelling.
The production design is a miracle to behold. This is the definition of world building. Going above and beyond what I’ve seen any film do – featuring typed newspaper articles, books on background shelves, TV commercials and exact color palettes from the book, Watchmen feels like Watchmen.
Snyder’s film is one of the most doggedly faithful adaptations I’ve ever witnessed, and its existence is truly something to behold. It’s unapologetic and hard-hitting, a film that’s hard to grasp without previous knowledge of the material or multiple viewings. But this is a rare occurrence when that extra effort is worth it – discovering Watchmen is so damn satisfying.
When you find yourself distracted by any of the film’s shortcomings – be it Ozymandias’s half-assed German accent or Malin Akerman’s young age – bear in mind that this movie exists. A nearly frame-for-frame, three-hour-long, R-rated superhero noir film. It’s a labor of love, and dammit, I can’t call myself a cinephile if I don’t appreciate it.
The Watchmen Directors Cut of the film is the perfect cut. Just lean enough, just epic enough, just powerful enough. An amazing feat of cinema and a landmark in literary adaptations.
I’m with Snyder till the very end.
See you next week with another installment of Movies That Deserve More Love!
Until then…. Who Watches the Watchmen?