Watchmen is the latest adaptation by filmmaker Zack Snyder, whose film 300, based on the Frank Miller comic book series of the same name, became a $210 million phenomenon in 2006. Watchmen is also the latest adaptation from the works of Alan Moore (V For Vendetta, From Hell, and, ahem, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen), much to the recluse creator’s dismay, who has admonished all such work. Watchmen, the comic, is deemed sacrosanct among the fanboy faithful and is considered to be a culture-crossing read. The graphic novel has been defined as a thinking-man’s comic while also being a catalyst of change within its own genre introducing more mature themes into the world of multi-colored tights and masks.
Watchmen, the film, is essentially a murder mystery that takes place in an alternate 1985 where Nixon is still president, the U.S. won the war in Vietnam, and superheroes are illegal. The Comedian, a costumed hit-man, is murdered causing another costumed hero, Rorschach, an ink-face blotted, overcoat-wearing detective of sorts who provides the film’s ongoing monologue, to believe there is a growing conspiracy against former heroes. This conspiracy begrudgingly reunites some of these watchmen as they launch their investigation. Murder, violence, and blood, lots of blood, follows.
Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse provide a faithful adaptation of the graphic novel providing exact panel-by-panel reproductions in some cases and maintaining a healthy majority of the original dialogue. Coupled with spectacular F/X work, most noticeably on the electric-blue CG-character Dr. Manhattan, the film looks professional, real, and even scary. Where the film takes liberties is with the staggering amount of violence and gore added, a realm in which Snyder seems to reign.
Watchmen, as story, is definitely R-rated material. Rape, impotency, sex, and the aforementioned Dr. Manhattan, who is naked for most of his screen time (he no longer requires clothes for he neither modest nor requires their protection), certainly sets this story thematically apart from the recent Iron Man and Dark Knight hits. But as genre-breaking as the initial story might have been, Watchmen is still a genre film and must abide by certain parameters that bind together such genre pieces. These are all ignored allowing instead the glorification of violence and a level of gore more suitable for Snyder’s zombie film than his superhero one. Violence and superhero action can go hand-in-hand and Snyder does use such to lengthen scenes noticeably shorter in their original form, like Comedian’s murder. In other instances, such as the disturbingly-powerful near-rape scene, and a mugging attempt on two of the former heroes, the violence detracts from the hero’s true path, and used instead to shock the mainstream audience and satiate the teenage videogamer. Whereas the source material might have been a game-changer to an audience accustomed to secret identities and dastardly villains, Moore and Gibbons presented a mature murder-mystery complete with a whodunnit reveal ala Agatha Christie. Snyder instead focuses on the horrific side of action, earning the R-rating not for mature, complex themes, but for hard, brutal violence shocking to those expecting another entry into the Spider-Man or Batman realm.
Watchmen is a sophisticated, multi-layered mystery that uses superheroes as the backdrop and is not easily compared to films such as the X-Men, but this isn’t quite the game-changer it could have been. For all its broken tropes, Synder ignores most of the book’s commentary for yet another surface-level excuse to have fun with costumes.