Posted by: Nick Walters | March 18, 2009

WATCHMEN! We love you all!

I came to Watchmen late. I was aware of it when it was first released back in 1986-87, but I was never a comics fan – I only ever bought 2000AD and Doctor Who Weekly/Monthly, which I am still getting (I have every issue). I’m also not a fan of superheroes – I find Batman tedious, and agree with Christopher Priest when he says that Christopher Nolan is wasting his time on something that is “inherently frivolous.” That might upset Dark Knight fans but it encapsulates how I feel. I can accept Doctor Who, who travels in time and space in a police box that’s somehow bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, because that’s science fiction. But not Batman, who is just a berk in a silly costume, and who, if he tried to fight crime on the streets of Knowle West, would be laughed off the street – or more probably, glassed and fed to the dogs.

I suppose, though, Superman is SF. He’s an alien who only has super powers cos he’s on Earth. Oh, and Spiderman’s powers are due to a radioactive spider, which is science fiction, however simple. So that blows that theory! Anyway, my point is, costumed heroes, whether super-powered or simply berks in suits (albeit highly-trained, athletic berks in suits) have never interested me. Which is probably why I like Condorman so much. But let’s not go there…

So, Watchmen, then. A story about – amongst many other things – people who dress up and fight crime to protect society. Vigilantes. An exploration of why someone would want to do that, and what it does to them. And what could happen when this is taken to the extreme (Ozymandias and his plan). Right up my street. I know there are comics fans, fans of superheroes and masked adventurers, who bemoan what Moore did in Watchmen, mainly because of its implications for the comics industry; but it, and Moore, can’t be blamed for that. It’s a bit like blaming Coldplay for Scouting for Girls. Watchmen is, like it or not, a deep, important work, and deserves its place in the list of the hundred best novels of all time.

But I didn’t always think this. When I first decided to read it, a couple of years ago (yes, I am to the party late, blush blush), I borrowed it off a mate, sat down with a cup of tea, and gave up when I got to the first text bit (Under the Hood Chapter 1). What the hell is going on, and why should I care about these characters? I thought. Bloody superheroes, boring boring boring.

It languished unread for months until the summer of 2007 when I sat down one Sunday afternoon in the garden with a beer and decided to give it another go. And lo, I managed to get into it… wow. Alan Moore is right that it takes more than one reading to appreciate, I went through it three times that summer, by the end of which I was a fan.  So when I heard about the film, I thought – hmm! League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta (which I enjoyed but for obscure personal reasons), now Watchmen. The ultimate unfilmable.

Except that Zack Snyder has succeeded – in one sense. No way at all has he transferred the whole of Watchmen to the screen. It’s impossible. What he has done, however, is to make a nice visual companion for lovers of the original comic. I look at it the same way I regard David Lynch’s Dune. I absolutely love the look of that film, can watch it over and over again; but you have to know the source material well in order to appreciate it.

So the film of Watchmen is just that – a film, a two-dimensional thing that misses out the most important part of the (also two-dimensional) comic book: the reader’s mind. In that sense the book transcends the two dimensions of the physical and enters a new dimension, a dimension not of sight or of sound but of mind. Er… sorry. Reading Watchmen, you can stop, put it down, go back, re-read. Immerse yourself. But in the cinema, you have no choice but to watch what the director has chosen to present to you in the order they have determined. It’s a passive experience.

Alan Moore himself pointed this out in a recent interview [which I’ll link when I get time], adding the important point that the violence in the comic is distanced from the reader so you can get away with it, but you can’t in the cinema where you are “dragged through it at 24 frames per second.” Indeed, the violence in the film is markedly more graphic than the comic, which I disapproved of on first viewing, but on second viewing it sort-of makes sense, it makes you realise what these characters have become, how putting on the costumes turns them into dangerous killers. These aren’t heroes you are meant to like, and ironically the most honest of them is the Comedian who embraces all the death and destruction around him.

The film gets a lot of things right: the casting is absolutely spot-on, especially the Comedian and Rorschach; the effects are spell-binding, and the plot of the comic is intact (with a rather neat new twist on the ending which makes sense in filmic terms). Ironically the LEAST important thing about Watchmen the comic is the plot, which is elevated to greater importance in the movie due to the kinetic nature of film. It therefore makes sense to leave out the Tales of the Black Freighter, the island, and Alien Squiddy, for the film. It would be hopelessly bogged down otherwise. Of course, the perfect film version of Watchmen would be 6 hours long and retain all of these things, but then it wouldn’t make any money – a primary concern in the film industry (and with Watchmen not making a big splash at the box office in its present form you can imagine how a longer more detailed version would have tanked). And there’s always the director’s cut DVD release which will include extra scenes including Black Freighter stuff.

So, Watchmen the movie is more like Watchmen the visual companion than a film in its own right. I loved it, and will get the DVD, but if you haven’t read it, you might not like it even a quarter as much as I did.

To end with, two rumours things I have heard about this film:

1. There will be a sequel where the Nite Owl and second Silk Spectre team up to fight crime.

2. There will be a novelisation of the movie.

As Rorschach would say… “ridiculous!”



  1. Actually a lot of my response to Watchman was exactly the same as yours. I found myself really liking it as a film, but was dreadfully fearful going into the cinema watching it. I felt they had got a lot right, left out what was unnecessary to the core story, and fixed up some of the problems with the story i.e. the original’s naive ending.

    Visually it was a treat, and I though the cast of relatively unknowns were very convincing. The music was good and I loved the opening framing sequence which imparted a lot of the back story with some visual panache.

    I thought there were some pacing problems with the film – it did drag occasionally, but then when I thought about it I think that is a problem with the source material not the film as such. Watchmen is dialogue and word heavy, and in getting the story across the film had to be too. When I realised that I felt that there wasn’t really a lot you could do to get around that problem.

    I can’t wait for the Director’s Cut DVD too – I want to see the Black Freighter stuff. I too enjoyed V for Vendetta – I’m actually lost a bit of sympathy for Moore, that is two co-creators who have had no problems with their work being adapted for film and are happy with the results. It makes me think what is going on there?

    Batman v Superman. I’d actually say that Batman is more SF than Superman. Why? A man that uses gadgets and science to fight crime seems far more plausible and contains more SF ideas than someone who inexplicably gets powers from being under a different coloured sun. Superman (and all those other superheroes with equally dodgy origins I should add) are just the stuff of fantasy daydreams rather than proper science fiction. A lot of this goes back to the SF v Sci-Fi debate.

    Too the casual tele-fantasy viewer or reader of an occasional SF book this seems like hair-splitting and pedantry but I think there is an important distinction to be made. Sci-fi has rockets aliens and gee-whiz effects galore, but is all surface no real depth of ideas – Star Wars is the perfect example. While SF can get buy on as much of the outer trappings as you want but is about the ideas behind it. This is why my favourite SF films largely come from the 60s/70s stuff like Stalker, Solyent Green, A Boy and His Dog, etc.

    I don’t really see many superhero comics being proper SF. Certainly not the Legion of Superheroes that I latched onto as a kid and still follow to this day. It has approached something like proper SF a couple of times during its 50 year life but not often. Despite it being set in the 31st Century and being chock full of aliens, etc most of the time it is harmless sci-fi knock-about fun, with big explosions!

  2. Thanks for that interesting addition Doug. I too prefer SF to Sci-Fi (though nothing wrong with knockabout pulp fun, which is all Star Wars really is).

    It’s SyFy I have a real problem with (the new name for the SciFi Channel). What. The. FUCK?!

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