In 1984, a young and little-known writer named Alan Moore was approached by DC Comics to take over writing duties for their book Saga of the Swamp Thing. Moore took on the assignment and from his very first issue (which was titled “The Anatomy Lesson” and made Swamp Thing’s origin story even more tragic and horrific than it was before), he introduced many of the horror elements that helped increase the book’s sales and made many people pay attention to and care about Swamp Thing. It also made people who read comics and people who create comics sit up and take notice of what Moore was doing in his corner of the world. It inspired Moore’s then-editor, Karen Berger, to hire other talented writers from the United Kingdom to write comics for DC, a decision that would eventually lead to the creation of Vertigo, the adult-themed comics imprint for DC Comics. In 1986, towards the end of his run for Saga Of The Swamp Thing, Moore teamed up with artist Dave Gibbons (largely known for his work on 2000 AD, Dan Dare, and Doctor Who Weekly/Monthly) to create a story that would both comment on and deconstruct superhero fiction in comic books. That story was Watchmen.
Watchmen was praised by nearly every critic who read it and won numerous awards for its accomplishments. It won the Eisner award for Best Writer, the Eagle Award for Favourite Writer and Favourite Comic Book, and the Hugo Award for Other Forms. Twenty-two years later, after many unsuccessful attempts, director Zack Snyder adapted the graphic novel and turned it into a feature film, which opened in theaters on March 6, 2009.
Set during 1986, in New York City and in an alternate universe where Richard Nixon is still President and all superheroes have been outlawed by the United States government, Watchmen tells the story of Edward “The Comedian” Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a retired superhero who is found dead after being viciously attacked and thrown from the window of his apartment building. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a ruthless and uncompromising vigilante who has refused to give up his war on crime, learns about Blake’s murder (as well as the fact that he’s really The Comedian) and believes that it could possibly be the start of someone finding and murdering other superheroes. He informs his former colleagues Dan “Nite Owl” Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), Laurie “Silk Spectre” Jupiter (Malin Akerman), Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt (Matthew Goode), and the incredibly powerful, near-omniscient Jon “Dr. Manhattan” Osterman (Billy Crudup). It isn’t long before Rorschach’s theory of superheroes being under attack seemingly proves to be correct, as they each find their lives threatened and turned upside down by unknown forces, and what they all end up discovering about who is responsible for this and why it’s all happening could end up endangering their lives, as well as the lives of everyone in New York City in ways that they couldn’t possibly imagine.
One of the reasons why there were so many difficulties in getting Watchmen adapted was because an intricately-drawn, painstakingly written story told in twelve parts and held as the gold standard of comic books was seen by many as a Gordian Knot that was impossible to cut. Narrowing all of it down into a two-hour narrative that would please critics, audiences, and fans of the comics wasn’t the easiest feat to accomplish, though that didn’t stop others from trying. Sam Hamm (no relation to Jon, as far as I know), who co-wrote the screenplay for Batman, took a crack at adapting it and even changed the ending to make the story a little simpler. Terry Gilliam was once interested in directing the film, though he wasn’t entirely pleased with Hamm’s draft and worked with two other writers to make a film that would be more to his liking. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you ask), Gilliam ended up walking away from the project. It languished in Development Hell for several years until David Hayter, Tim Burton, Michael Bay, Paul Greengrass, and Darren Aronofsky each expressed interest in adapting Watchmen. Bay, Greengrass, and Aronofsky all left to work on other projects, and Zack Snyder — thanks to the success of his previous film, 300 — ended up in the director’s chair and tasked with finally bringing Watchmen to life in live-action form.
Despite the fact that Snyder and co-screenwriter Alex Tse were rather faithful in what they chose to adapt from the graphic novel and how they chose to do so, and that much of the film defied the expectations of many who thought that it was downright unfilmable, there were still some critics and fans who were evenly divided on how they felt about Watchmen. There were those who thought that the visuals and special effects that helped bring Moore and Gibbons’s creations to life were outstanding, but felt that it was all too faithful and even slavish to the source material, that it lacked the graphic novel’s spirit and ingenuity, and only made it even more clear that this was a story that could only be told in comic-book form. And then there were those who were very much satisfied with what was done by Snyder and company in adapting it, who felt that the story was fully up to par with all of the visuals onscreen, who felt that Snyder did exactly what Moore and Gibbons did in portraying the extreme actions and motivations of those who dress up in costume to be either a superhero or a super-villain, as well as feeling that the film’s ending was superior to the ending of the book.
I mean, who would have ever guessed that a film directed by Zack Snyder would cause such a divided response among the people who see it and then talk about it? I’m just as surprised and flabbergasted as you are.
But if there’s one thing that critics, audiences, and Watchmen fans were at least able to agree on, it’s that the opening-credits sequences, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are A-Changin’” and further delving into the alternate universe that Watchmen takes place in, was an absolute masterwork.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan has proven with his performance as Negan on the last couple of seasons of The Walking Dead that he’s really good at playing a character who’s charming and knows exactly what to say to get his point across, but is also capable of ruthless behavior to let those with him and those against him know that his authority is to be respected. His performance as Edward “The Comedian” Blake is no different, as we get to see the sides of him that make us understand why he was loathed by so many (his attempted rape of Sally Jupiter, his murder of a pregnant Vietnamese woman), why he was respected as well (his skills in fighting crime and carrying out the occasional political assassination), and his stark realization of what true evil is and how his way of living life on his own terms is made to feel like one pointless joke.
Drinking beers and exchanging war stories with Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, is more than enough to make Dan Dreiberg satisfied as he lives out his retirement from taking over as the second Nite Owl. Or so he tells himself, right up until Rorschach shows up in his apartment with news of Blake’s murder, which leads to his reunion with Laurie Jupiter. It isn’t long before his interactions with them force him to accept how incomplete he has felt living life as a normal citizen, and that suiting back up to help the innocent and keep his fellow superheroes out of harm’s way is what ends up making him feel alive again.
There are several things that Laurie Jupiter discovers about herself once she learns of Blake’s murder. She is forced to confront that her relationship with Dr. Manhattan is a relationship with someone who long ago lost touch with his humanity, to the point that he thinks having sex with her while working on a project in his lab is a good idea. Like Dreiberg, she discovers that being a superhero and doing something is far more appealing to her than being a civilian and doing nothing, and doing that alongside Dreiberg as she falls more and more in love with him is an offer she’s not interested in refusing. She’s also finally forced to discover and confront the one thing about her past that she’s been running from for so long, in terms of who her father really is and why her mother made the decision that she did to let go of her own past and be with him. After surviving the end of the world and seeing it happen up close and personal, understanding how fragile and unexpected life can be is something that Laurie is fully able to grasp as she fully accepts who she is and what she’s truly meant to be.
And don’t make the mistake of getting on Laurie’s bad side, whether it involves trying to rob her at knifepoint or being foolish enough to imply that her only real purpose is to f*ck Dr. Manhattan and keep him happy as an employee/weapon for the U.S. government.
If there’s one thing that Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt seems to have in common with the John Doe Killer from Seven — besides the fact that they both believe that their mass killings will spread a message that will make people talk and change the ways they look at the world — it’s that they both believe that you can no longer just tap people on the shoulder to get their attention, but that you have to hit them with a sledgehammer. And in Adrian’s case, his sledgehammer involves murdering a former colleague (The Comedian), sending another one to prison after framing him for murder (Rorschach), poisoning the scientists and technicians who work for him after they all finish assisting him with his master plan, and then accusing another former colleague of infecting the people around him with cancer before blaming him and his technology for an attack on New York City that ends up killing over three million people (Dr. Manhattan). Yet, despite his arrogance at carrying out such a horrific plan, there is no guarantee that the world resulting from Ozymandias will even be permanent, or that he won’t be revealed for his part in the attack on New York. But this wouldn’t be the first time that a rich and powerful multi-millionaire with a silver tongue does something horrible and avoids suffering any actual consequences for what he’s done, nor would it ever be the last.
It’s not at all easy to look at life and the people living it alongside you the same way again after surviving a near-death experience. And for Jon “Dr. Manhattan” Osterman, whose own near-death experience grants him immense god-like abilities as shown in the beautifully-composed scene set to the music of Philip Glass from Koyaanisqatsi, his reaction to it is…no different, and yet, different in ways beyond description. Not only is he granted actual powers, but he is also able to view time in the past, the present, and the future all at once, which only serves to increase his apathy towards the human race, as his need to interfere and try to prevent tragedies from happening seems completely pointless to him. It isn’t until he helps Laurie realize the truth of her father’s identity, and comprehending all of the circumstances that led to her birth, that he remembers how random and precious life is. No matter how much he feels the need to leave Earth and call Mars home so that he no longer need concern himself with its inhabitants or the tangle of their lives, no matter how distant he may feel from his own humanity and from humanity as a whole, it can’t and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“None of you seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you! You’re locked in here with me!” It’s a damn good quote (so good that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez herself quoted it on Twitter not too long ago), and if that doesn’t tell you all that you need to know about Rorschach and how uncompromising he is when it comes to fighting crime and not caring about the odds he faces when doing so, even while locked in prison with criminals who have every reason to hate him and want him dead, nothing else will. Despite everything about him, his hard-boiled narration letting us know his every thought … his origin story that shows when and why he ceased showing mercy to the criminals he goes after … his cool-but-very-unsanitary costume … how inventive he is when taking down cops who have him surrounded as they attempt to arrest him, or prison inmates trying to break into his cell, Rorschach is never made to look like the hero of the story that we actually want to be like, and he’s rarely made to appear that way. Not by Moore and Gibbons in the graphic novel, and not by Snyder here. We may cheer him on as he lashes out against those who get in his way, but there are limits as to how admirable we’re supposed to find him. And much like police officers who think that having The Punisher’s skull symbol on their squad cars combined with the colors for Blue Lives Matter, people who admire Rorschach, who think he’s cool and badass, and want to follow in his footsteps for whatever reason, don’t seen to know or care about those limits. And it’s usually for the wrong reasons.
As the release date for Watchmen grew closer, there were those who wondered what Alan Moore’s reaction to the film would be. Moreso, since Moore’s opinions on his books being adapted and his opinions on DC Comics as a company were always known to be…well, heated.
In short, regarding his previous working relationship with DC, Moore expected to be given back the rights to Watchmen once the book was no longer in print, which seemed very likely back in the late ’80s, since trade paperbacks collecting single issues together for one complete volume weren’t nearly as popular and common a practice as it is now. But once Watchmen was published as a trade paperback and became a bestseller — ensuring that it would never go out of print and DC would continue owning the rights to it — it was one of many reasons why Moore wanted nothing to do with DC and why things have been rocky between them ever since. (For a longer and more detailed explanation of this particular beef, click here.)
As for the film adaptations of his books, Moore really didn’t like how The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen turned out, nor did he expect it to be any good in the first place, nor was he at all happy about From Hell going from an intricate examination on the page of Jack the Ripper and the women who were murdered by him to a two-hour-long murder mystery that concealed the identity of Jack The Ripper as if it meant to be a surprise twist in an episode of Law & Order, and where everyone from the cops to the sex workers looked way too glamorous in 1800s London. So much like he did for the film version of V For Vendetta, which he was also unhappy with, he took his name off and refused to be credited for his part in writing the source material, leaving only Dave Gibbons to be credited as co-creator.
Moore’s opinions on Watchmen the film weren’t all that glowing before he saw it, mainly because he had no intention whatsoever of seeing it for himself…
“I would rather not know [about the movie],” said Moore. “[Zack Snyder] may very well be [a very nice guy], but the thing is that he’s also the person who made 300. I’ve not seen any recent comic book films, but I didn’t particularly like the book 300. I had a lot of problems with it, and everything I heard or saw about the film tended to increase [those problems] rather than reduce them: that it was racist, it was homophobic, and above all it was sublimely stupid. I know that that’s not what people going in to see a film like 300 are thinking about but… I wasn’t impressed with that… I talked to Terry Gilliam in the ’80s, and he asked me how I would make Watchmen into a film. I said, “Well actually, Terry, if anybody asked me, I would have said, ‘I wouldn’t.”’ And I think that Terry [who aborted his attempted adaptation of the book] eventually came to agree with me. There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can’t.”
And if Moore didn’t have enough reasons to be bitter with DC Comics before, he was given plenty more reasons to flip every table in sight, as DC went forward in 2012 with Before Watchmen, a multi-issue prequel to Watchmen, followed by Doomsday Clock, which isn’t an exact sequel to Watchmen, but does contain several of its characters, including Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias.
“What the comics industry has effectively said is, ‘Yes, this was the only book that made us briefly special and that was because it wasn’t like all the other books.’ Watchmen was something that stood on its own and it had the integrity of a literary work. What they’ve decided now is, ‘So, let’s change it to a regular comic that can run indefinitely and have spin-offs.’ and ‘Let’s make it as unexceptional as possible.’ Like I say, they’re doing this because they haven’t got any other choices left, evidently.”
Despite all of this, Moore still had a sense of humor when it came to how he was perceived regarding his reputation in the comic-book industry and also how Watchmen itself was perceived, as evidenced by his 2007 guest appearance on The Simpsons, alongside fellow comic-book writers Daniel Clowes and Art Spiegelman.
After the release of Watchmen , Zack Snyder went on to direct the so-divisive-and-polarizing-that-people-are-still-talking-about-it-after-all-these-years film Man Of Steel …
Followed by the so-divisive-and-polarizing-that-people-are-still-talking-about-it-after-all-these-years sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice …
And I’ve said it before and will say it again: the less said about ALL of the behind-the-scenes bullshit that led to Justice League being released and turning out the way that it did in the hands of both Warner Bros. and Joss Whedon, the better.
It was announced this past January that Zack would be directing a film for Netflix titled Army Of The Dead, about “…a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, during which a man assembles a group of mercenaries to take the ultimate gamble, venturing into the quarantined zone to pull off the greatest heist ever attempted.” It will be the first film that Snyder has directed since Justice League, which he walked away from during post-production after his daughter died by suicide, and despite the polarizing reputation that Snyder and his films tend to inspire (as evidenced by the responses to his Q&A this past weekend at screenings of the director’s cuts for Watchmen and Batman v. Superman, which you can read about in this article by Jodi, and in this article by Hypable.com contributor Lelanie Seyffer), he had his supporters who were thrilled to see him returning to the director’s chair and a lot less thrilled to see people use the announcement as another opportunity to take shots at him. One of those people was none other than Barry Jenkins, Academy Award-winning director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk.
(The fact that Jenkins tweeted this on the same day that we all first heard about the Jussie Smollett case, back when our thoughts about it were “Oh my God, this is HORRIBLE and for so many reasons!” and not “What the hell is even happening at this point because I’m just angry and confused at every damn body right about now?!,” most definitely contributed to him wanting to see more kindness from people on Twitter and a lot less f*ckery. Which, considering how many of us were feeling on that day, is pretty understandable)
And as if Alan Moore didn’t have enough motivation to storm the offices of DC Comics and transform into a gigantic snake so he could eat everyone there, it was also announced that HBO would be working with Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost and the television adaptation of The Leftovers, to develop a television adaptation of Watchmen later this year, starring Jeremy Irons, Tom Mison (rest in peace, Sleepy Hollow, which stopped being good and watchable after Season 1), Don Johnson, Louis Gossett, Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Academy Award-winner Regina King.
It’s safe to say that because of the graphic novel that inspired it that still remains a beloved classic among its millions of fans, because of the person who directed it who inspires equal amounts of both admiration and vitriol from the people who discuss him and his work, and because people are still torn on whether this was a great adaptation or a film that bit off far more than it could actually chew, Watchmen will continue to be a popular and passionate topic of discussion, especially when it comes to where it stands among other comic-book films. Whatever its place in history will turn out to be as time goes on…well, that is left entirely in our hands.
Header Image Source: Warner Bros.