It’s an alternate 1985 where God exists and he’s American, a retired hero must rescue people from a fire to get hard, and a vigilante screams out to be killed in a world that’s turned its back on justice. Watchmen is the most celebrated graphic novel from Alan Moore, the man who coined the term, and it remains, after all these years, an incredible story that weaves hard-hitting images with political, philosophical, and revisionist text. A sharp tale making an entire medium of entertainment take a look in the mirror – it’s small wonder Hollywood’s been scrambling for ages to get the film produced. But Watchmen is like The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t belong to Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, or DC Comics. No, no, no. It belongs to its fans, and they are many.

Fans claimed that Watchmen was unfilmable, just like the aforementioned Rings. Indeed it does feel like an unsavory prospect; we open these pages and see superheroes sharing panels with scenes of sex, superheroes behaving rather like Mad Max in the original Mad Max, superheroes who’d rather blame the blue guy in the room for shooting a pregnant Vietnamese woman than take the responsibility for himself. Aside from graphic content and themes, Watchmen is of course a 12-issue comic, and each issue is an episode. One episode jumps around in time – how do you do that in a movie and keep things moving forward? All too often filmmakers don’t appreciate the disparaties in mediums, and believe that translations will always work.

Perhaps that is what happened here, but the end result was a fantastic experience, a movie version of a great story that maintains the great story and embodies the spirit and feel of the comic’s panel-to-panel nature. Every shot is thoughtfully composed – no doubt these guys took the Rodriguez/Miller route and went to the comics for the storyboards – the lighting and colors create a hyperreal image that only stops moving when the slow-motion button is hit. Just like in 300, Snyder’s use of slow-motion is appropriate because it slows on actions that were originally read on the page with eyes that linger and focus. It also gives the action an unusual rhythm as we move through hard streets and cavernous corporate buildings.

There’s a simple joy that fills me when watching a good adaptation, but it isn’t unqualified. As much as I like to study what actors were chosen and how well the themes translate, there’s something almost uncanny about hearing dialogue you’re familiar with. This was a major issue for me with movies like Memoirs of a Geisha and other flicks where I read the book right before watching (that one was for school): it feels very artificial when actors are speaking dialogue that originates from somewhere that’s not a screenplay; it’s difficult to fool yourself that these words came from the character’s head.

There’s also the issue that Watchmen is actually unfilmable, but I don’t believe it’s in the way that the collective masses tend to say. The problem is that Watchmen was a post-modern comic, and to nail this home (as if opening with Captain America’s death wasn’t enough) we have a comic-within-a-comic, which is read by a minor character throughout the story. We get glimpses of the macabre tale, Tales of the Black Freighter, every now and then, and it serves a purpose. Unless you’re watching the Ultimate Cut, a version that’s over 3 hours (the Director’s Cut is 2 hours and 40 minutes), you don’t get to see the Gerard Butler-narrated comic-within-a-comic. I haven’t seen it as standalone nor in the Ultimate Cut, but it doesn’t matter – it wouldn’t have the same effect.

Tales of the Black Freighter in Watchmen the movie would have no purpose because Watchmen the movie isn’t a comic. A movie that’s revisionist towards comics doesn’t have the same effect as the source material – it’d be like if Once Upon a Time in the West or Pulp Fiction were novels, and we had movie references from Shane and High Noon written out on the page.

I do feel like the problem is mitigated somewhat by the filmmakers – we hear the Ride of the Valkyries as the Comedian rides into Vietnam on a helicopter, a song that might as well just be called the Apocalypse Now song. That’s what it reminds us of, and coupled with Vietnam War imagery, we’re in familiar movie territory. That’s one instance where Watchmen the movie takes advantage of the medium’s asset to make it uniquely a movie.

I suppose that the superhero genre in film by the year 2009 was also in need of a revision, but of course Watchmen the movie made very little impact and like the equally R-rated Punisher War Zone a year before, didn’t make a box office splash. At least, not for a Watchmen movie. Hollywood would go on to take little notice, making Captain America, Iron Man 2, Thor, Green Latern, The Green Hornet, The Dark Knight Rises, another Superman, another Spider-Man, Kick-Ass, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men First Class, Jonah Hex, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World from 2009-2012 (fingers crossed for Nelvedine/Taylor’s Ghost Rider). Aside from Scott Pilgrim, I saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine and thought it was the dumbest crap ever, with precisely three seconds of gold (a wonderful reaction shot to a gazing Stryker during a ‘tense’ and ‘dramatic’ scene).

Without speaking for all of those above, X-Men Origins: Wolverine really captured what was wrong with the superhero genre. It’s stale, and it panders to a fan base. Instead of rich characters we have to fill out a quota of characters – alright we got steel man, invisible man, laser man, blue devil man, mega man, ultra man, woman man, cat man, Poke mans – and instead of a compelling premise from which to draw a decent story we have oh-my-gosh-let’s-pull-pages-from-this-this-this-and-this, ‘this’ referring of course to the bountiful source material in the case of X-Men.

Watchmen, to get back on topic, isn’t of course new, but is akin to Unbreakable and The Incredibles – yes we have superheroes, but we have a different type of superhero story. Many say, and I agree with this, that Watchmen is more a science-fiction story than a superhero one. It deals with cold war anxieties, experiments gone wrong, and at the end, alien invaders and outer limits – staples of the genre. Because we have a science-fiction structure with superheroes as the players in a greater tale rather than the center of the spotlight like the bat symbol, we open up so many narrative and thematic possibilities that modern filmmakers dare not tread. At the end of X-Men we’ve learned nothing – in fact nothing has changed for anybody. There is really no point except $300 million, or however much that particular movie made.

Maybe that’s cynical, but it did feel like a very, very commercial picture that didn’t go for the bar. Not that it was set high but anyhow Watchmen had aspirations, as a comic and as a film. As a movie, it had to hit upon what the fans wanted – an easy task, as everybody involved was a fan. It had to tell a cinematic story, not a simple adaptation. And most importantly it had to maintain what Watchmen was all about, asking questions about the measure of heroism and the morals of justice. Like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Watchmen treats every frame delicately, and the product is an extremely well-made film that looks amazing even during the most mundane bits. It’s violent, but not overly so where anything extreme, like sawing through arms or repeated strikes to the head with a cleaver, are very obviously CG and don’t look so great.

It’s a very nearly literal adaptation, but it’s a smart one. The filmmakers realized that 100% direct translation wouldn’t work – perhaps they heard the shouts – and went about constructing a slick, often disturbing, sometimes affecting, and always throught-provoking experience.

If you’re worried about the length of the Director’s Cut, I honestly don’t know what to tell you. I’m no good with long movies, and I watched this over the course of two nights. Personally I don’t see it as a problem because I like that as much of the comic was reproduced on screen as possible; this Watchmen is truly the definitive movie version – disregarding the Ultimate Cut, there will never be a more complete version, although the lack of the newstand guy and Black Freighter reader was noticeable.

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