Zack Snyder’s 2009 live-action adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal 1986 12-issue miniseries Watchmen was polarizing at best, and the past nine years certainly haven’t been much kinder to the film. However, despite the largely poor critical response and the underwhelming box office reception, Watchmen is hardly the terrible comic book film many claim it is. In fact, it’s actually far better than you likely remember, and we here at Epicstream are prepared to tell you why:
Jackie Earle Haley
Let’s get this one out of the way right off the bat.
Casting decisions in superhero movies are almost always the subject of debate among comic book fans, but few can argue that Jackie Earle Haley fully embodies the spirit of Walter Kovacs/Rorschach. In fact, try reading Watchmen today without hearing Haley’s deep, raspy voice whenever you come across one of Rorschach’s word balloons or journal entries.
OK, now let’s move on to the real nuts and bolts…Advertisement
From the moment Watchmen begins and Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’ kicks in, it becomes crystal clear that you’re in for a film that knows exactly how to make the most of its soundtrack. That entire opening montage – as visually striking as it may be – would hardly be the highlight it is without that musical pairing.
Then, of course, you have Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower as Nite Owl and Rorschach make their way to Ozymandias’ lair, as well as the appropriately bleak use of Simon and Garfunkel's The Sound of Silence during The Comedian’s funeral. In both cases, these songs help set the perfect tone and invoke a welcome and timely sense of nostalgia.
It’s Largely Faithful to the Source Material …
One major point of contention for moviegoers is that Watchmen is a slave to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic book source material. However, one could also argue that Snyder’s devotion to keeping the film as faithful to the 12-issue miniseries as possible is actually one of the strongest aspects of Watchmen.
It isn’t just elements of the story that are ripped straight from the page, either. From a visual perspective, many of the shots in Watchmen look and feel exactly like Gibbons’ artwork (sans the color), which is almost certainly a byproduct of Snyder using actual panels from the comic for the film’s storyboards. This is further enhanced by Snyder’s quintessential use of slow-motion shots, as these moments help capture iconic images from the source material and frame them as works of art unto themselves.
Take, for example, The Comedian being thrown from his penthouse window, Rorschach using his grappling gun to enter the apartment or Doctor Manhattan’s flashback to his accident and the subsequent fallout: in each of these scenes, it’s as if you’re actually watching a live-action comic book.
…And Yet, It’s Not a 100% ‘Direct’ Adaptation
For as much as Snyder’s devotion to the source material should be praised, there’s also a reason that Moore and Gibbons’ original story was deemed “unfilmable” by Moore himself. After all, the book’s overall length, as well as the complexity of both the story and the characters make Watchmen a bold decision for a live-action film adaptation. Thankfully, though, Snyder wasn’t so blinded by his love of the source material that he refused to make cuts, embellishments, and full-fledged changes to the narrative when necessary.
Obviously, the biggest change that comes to mind Ozymandias’ sinister plan to unite the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In the comic, he creates a manmade ‘alien’ that he deploys in NYC, which kills millions but subsequently gives the two feuding nations a common enemy, thus bringing them together. However, in the film, Snyder decides to tweak this decidedly “comic-booky” premise and employ a more grounded approach by having Ozymandias convince the world that Doctor Manhattan’s energy signature is the cause of those millions of deaths.
While this change alone drastically improves one of the weaker points of the original story, Snyder also manages to capture the overall cynicism of Watchmen without dwelling on it like the comic does at times. Admittedly, this does mean he uses a style-over-substance approach that skimps on characterization and storytelling in favor of visuals in some instances. Overall, though, it’s this very approach that makes the so-called “unfilmable” Watchmen a satisfyingly digestible adaptation of the incredibly dense source material.