Watchmen - the Movie
by Philip Chien
23 years after it premiered as a comic book series, the "Watchmen" has made it to the silver screen. It's a fairly faithful adaptation of the 1986-1987 12 issue comic book which many claim gave comic books credibility in the literary world. After the twelve issues were published a "Trade Paperback" with all of the issues and some bonus features was published. That's remained in print and has gone through 20 printings.
Watchmen is an alternate history with a handful of superheroes. Only one hero has actual superpowers, the others are adventurers - wanna-be Batmans. At first the heroes are praised, but then the question is asked "Who watches the Watchmen?" as people ask if the heroes are becoming too powerful. Many of the heroes work for the U.S. government and are strategic tools used to win the Vietnam war. That results in enthusiastic support for President Richard Nixon and a repeal of the 22nd amendment to the Constitution which limits how long an individual can serve as the President of the United States. Nixon gets reelected again and again. Eventually the Keene Act gets passed which outlaws the superheroes, excluding the ones working for the government. One of the original heroes from the 1930s retires and opens an auto repair shop and in his spare time writes a book about life as a superhero. Another ends up in an insane asylum, one is murdered by a homophobe because she's a lesbian, and others quietly retire without revealing their identities. One of the next generation of heroes becomes a millionaire and merchandizes superhero dolls and products based on himself and his teammates, one defies the ban and continues to operate on his own as a vigilante, and a couple live in a government research lab. These are not your father's comic book heroes!
Watchmen is an ensemble movie and none of the main characters really stands above the rest. The stars all have acting experience, but none is a superstar - at least not yet.
One of the reasons the Watchmen comics felt like the real world was the inclusion of real-life people in the background. In the movie presidents Kennedy and Nixon, Andy Warhol, Ted Koppel, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Annie Leibowitz, and The Village People appear among others. But if you blink you'll miss many of them. Director Zack Snyder said, "It's a history with similarities to the one we all know. The big - the sounds and sights - are largely the same. It's the details that are different."
Fundamentally the story's a simple mystery - one of the heroes gets killed at the beginning, one is framed for a murder, and one is accused of causing those around him to get cancer. Is somebody trying to eliminate the heroes? It's told in intricate flashbacks that reveal more about the characters and how they became heroes. It's a gripping story in any form - whether it's a novel, a comic book, or a movie.
The movie's rated "R" for violence, language, nudity, and sexual situations. All are important for the story and none of it is gratuitous. This is certainly not a comic book - or movie - for younger kids!
One very obvious name is missing from the movie's credits: original writer Alan Moore. Artist Dave Gibbons is credited as co-creator of the original comic book without any indication of who the other "co" is. Moore has been very upset with how his previous comics, like "300", "Vendetta", and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" have been converted into movies and chose to distance himself from the "Watchmen" movie. Moore is mentioned only casually in the production credits, notes the studio's publicity department prepares for the press. In contrast Gibbons was a consultant for the movie and created some of the artwork used to advertise the movie.
The original twelve comic books total 416 pages. Even though the movie's a lengthy two hours and 43 minutes it couldn't possibly include every detail. The comic within a comic, "Tales of the Black Freighter," was scripted but removed due to time and budget reasons. Instead it's been created as an animated feature which is being released separately on DVD.
There are many subtle touches in the movie. A billboard celebrating peace between the U.S. and Soviet Union includes the word "Peace" in Russian. Another billboard talks about VietNam as the 51st state. When Dr. Manhattan battles the Viet Cong the music is "Ride Of The Valkyries", the same music which played in similar scenes in the seminal film "Apocalypse Now."
Younger viewers may not get some of the subtle connections to real life when the comic book was first published. 1986 was the peak of the arms race between the superpowers, and one of the tensest periods during the Cold War. That's reflected in the movie where Dr. Manhattan's self-imposed exile gives the Soviets the courage to invade Afghanistan, bringing the world a step closer to World War III.
The moviemakers tried to replicate many of the frames from the comic books, but of course they couldn't replicate how the placement of frames on a page and colors can affect the reader's moods when reading the story. The ending does deviate from the comics, but not in a way that is extremely objectionable. (Purist "Watchmen" fans will certainly disagree though.)
One of the repeating themes throughout the comic book is a "Smiley face" button. Artist Dave Gibbons found out something amazing - a crater on Mars looked like a smiley face. Galle Crater is located on the eastern rim of the Argyre Planitia impact basin on Mars. The Viking spacecraft photographed it in the 1970s and later spacecraft have taken higher resolution images. It's just a coincidence, like the infamous Mars face. If you take photos of thousands of craters, dried riverbeds, mountains, and other features on Mars, some of them will look like recognizable features. Gibbons thought the coincidence of an actually smiley crater on Mars was too good to pass up, and it was written into the story, appearing on page 27 of the 9th issue. The movie also shows Galle crater.
As a publicity stunt the studio created a 70-foot high image of Dr. Manhattan over the Thames river in London. Giant water cannons were used to create a wall of water which was used as a screen to publicize the movie.
A potential "Watchmen" movie was discussed when the series first came out in 1986 and various proposals were suggested. Several directors and studios were attached to the project at different times but all of those concepts eventually fizzled. It's taken 23 years for the "Watchmen" to make it to the big screen - and it was worth the wait.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. Gale crater photo from NASA. Crater on Mars frame from "Watchmen" issue 9 copyright DC Comics.
Official DC Comics Watchmen site.
Official movie website.
Order the Watchmen Trade Paperback from Amazon.com.
Order the Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood DVD from Amazon.com.
Order the Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic DVD from Amazon.com.
Order other Watchmen products from Amazon.com.
Smiley face crater on Mars.
About the author
Philip Chien has been a comic book fan since before the "Watchmen" mini-series.
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