Keeping Time on the "Watchmen"

Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 20th Century classic “Watchmen” is, depending on who you ask, visionary, uncompromising, confusing or nihilistic. Reviews thus far tend to rate this film as a classic (Roger Ebert’s four out of four stars) or a complete waste of almost three hours of your life (The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane). As a fan of the original graphic novel, I was interested mostly in how director Snyder would adapt certain portions of the text, what he would change and the potential justification in doing so. Although some purists may disagree, most of Snyder’s decisions enhance the overall “Watchmen” experience for those who have read the novel as well as delivering powerful cinematic entertainment for those who have not. Warning! The following contains spoilers! If you do not want to know that Dr. Manhattan has intense, philosophical discussions with Shrek, the outcome of a fight to the death between the Comedian and Chris Brown and why an exploding giant squid was left out entirely, please put this down and resume once you have viewed the film or just feel the need to spoil plot developments for someone else.

One of the major challenges facing Zack Snyder was to show the Watchmen in action. The novel itself is very talkie, with intermittent action scenes but the abilities of Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Rorschach, Comedian, Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan are left up to the imagination of the reader. Much of this may have had to do with the comics code, which was still enforced by DC Comics in 1987. The comics code placed limits on how much sex and violence could be shown in comic books. Artist Dave Gibbons mostly succeeded in implying the violent nature of the Watchmen, but the limitations of his era left some readers wondering how characters such as Nite Owl fought crime without getting their butts kicked. Snyder draws inspiration mostly from Batman, a hero with no real powers but physically gifted and possessing unreal combat skills. This is shown superbly in the fight sequence between Nite Owl, Silk Spectre and a group of thugs. Considered the two most relatable characters, the duo decimates the street gang with violent precision with little regard for the physical welfare of their opponents. Limbs are shattered with careless ease while our “heroes” are shown enjoying this combat. One of the few gaps in the novel left by Moore is how exactly the Watchmen become so hated and eventually outlawed. The alley action scene fills this in, albeit courting fanboy controversy in doing so. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are shown to be more amoral than Batman. Imagine a few vigilante Bruce Lee’s patrolling the street. Not a pretty result.

The sadism in the behavior of Rorschach and Comedian is amplified to the tenth power as well. Snyder interprets Comedian as completely amoral, an anti-hero with the hero completely removed. Comedian Eddie Blake saves exactly zero people and kills hundreds, some just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. He justifies his behavior by his belief that the world we live in is a complete joke, our sense of right and wrong is just a fallacy, the world is completely corrupt and he’s just enjoying the ride. Eddie Blake has no friends except his guns, his fists and desire to satisfy his unending appetite for violence. His murder is the framework around “Watchmen” is designed. Are we supposed to care that he was murdered or is his killing justification for all those he harmed in the name of justice?

Comedian’s trademark is the “smiley face” button affixed to his costume. The button is meant to symbolize the destruction and contradiction of the liberal lifestyle of the 1970’s. Smiley face buttons sold by the millions in that decade, yet the debauchery and free-spirited attitude brought on a revolt by the conservative population in the United States and Great Britain, with the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Zack Snyder wisely fought to keep Moore’s novel set in 1984, when much of the world was just recovering from a recession as severe as the one we are experiencing in 2009. Much of the world was in fear of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia, which was used by Moore as the background for the conflicts which develop in “Watchmen.” The use of the “smiley-face” in both novel and film, implies that the world could never really achieve any kind of utopia and those who believe in it’s possibility are as crazy as the Comedian, just on the opposite spectrum. Allusions to Thomas More’s classic “Utopia” are implied later, as the Watchmen are faced with a fateful decision, which will alter not only their lives but also all of humanity.

Rorschach (excellently played by Jackie Earl Haley) is the most realized character in the film. Almost Shakespearian in nature, Rorschach is the ill-fated hero, obsessed with justice no matter the cost. Haley’s interpretation of the character evokes more sympathy than Rorschach is given in the novel. Snyder sets up Comedian as the amoral hero and Rorschach as the heroic “Dirty Harry,” who blames liberal society for the proliferation of criminal activities. Rorschach only kills “bad guys” while Comedian kills just because he can. His past is similar to that of Bruce Wayne with his hatred for those who abuse others consuming his obsession for total justice without compromise. Snyder makes the viewer empathize with Rorschach’s behavior and abhor that of the Comedian. These lines are much more blurry in Moore’s novel but Snyder must have thought film needed a character to represent justice in a more overt way. Nite Owl is far too much a wuss for the audience to identify with, in more ways than one. Much credit should be given to Jackie Earl Haley, whose few scenes of facial expression are easily the most moving in the film. Haley’s final scene is more powerful than the one in Moore’s novel. Those with knowledge of the original novel must have felt they were experiencing the demise of Hamlet. Although the end is certain, the portrayal by the actor makes the scene new and jolting.

Possibly the biggest disappointment in “Watchmen” are the characters of Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias. Although proficiently acted, we are left wanting more from these intertwined characters. Admittedly, these characters are hard to crack in the novel. How do you really get inside someone who knows all realities, past, present and future like Dr. Manhattan or the world’s smartest person, Ozymandias? Both characters have a parallel staleness about them, a detachment that must be perceived as a lack of connection to humanity. Dr. Manhattan no longer understands it, while Ozymandias believes he is above it. Zack Snyder takes liberties with both characters, making Manhattan more human and Ozymandias more despicable. Similar to emphasizing Rorschach as a fated hero, Ozymandias is the flawed villain. This decision must have been made to give audiences a more emotional climax as Moore’s novel ends on an almost emotionless note. Granted, these characters and their motivations were probably the hardest to realize on film, but marginalizing their complexities results in a different emotional climax. Snyder’s biggest error may have been including Ozymandias’ mutant cat. All plot points revolving around it were omitted from the film, so why include the cat except to avoid fanboy scrutiny?

The biggest change Zack Snyder made to the source material of “Watchmen” and the one most likely to be debated, is the altering of Ozymandias’ utopia. Admittedly, a giant exploding squid would not be very believable for 2009 audiences, but his amplification of Ozymandias’ plan. In 1987, Alan Moore theorized one tragic event of human destruction would be enough to unite the world in peace. September 11th, 2001 and the subsequent political events following it changed this idea. Moore believed the world would unite after a significant part of New York was destroyed, forging a peace between all industrial super-powers. The fallout of 9/11 showed this theory was not feasible. Although the United States initially received outpourings of empathy and aid, this worldwide goodwill was squandered by excessive nationalism, suppression and over-reaching military activity by the George W. Bush administration. Snyder realized the catastrophic event which culminates “Watchmen” had to be farther reaching and affect each world power in the same fashion. Our world is far different than the one Alan Moore inhabited in 1987. We are more connected yet farther apart. There are several more powerful, influential countries in 2009. In his one time jump, the fallout of Ozymandias’ plan affects all the nations in play today, not those in 1984 where we were just worrying about the Russians. Snyder repeatedly shows the World Trade Center in his film, inviting the viewer to draw comparisons between 9/11 and the events in “Watchmen.” If all the world’s most powerful nations are attacked equally, will they unite, as Ozymandias theorizes, or we still doomed to the comedy of our humanity?

The film and novel of “Watchmen” end on the same note. Can we pretend to live in a peace that really doesn’t exist or will the knowledge of its fallacy consume our thoughts? Is an orchestrated peace better than a world filled with war? Is there a universal utopia or will it always be just a modern extension of Thomas More’s theory? Is the diary of a lunatic the voice of truth and justice? Are we doomed to repeat our errors regardless of intention? The question “Who watches the Watchmen?” permeates both works with little explanation on its inclusion. The answer (at least my interpretation of it) can be found in a subtle difference between novel and film. In his novel, Alan Moore never calls the group of crime fighters that succeed the minutemen “Watchmen.” In fact, it is implied the group never really formed at all, their one meeting turned into disarray by ideological differences between Ozymandias and Comedian. I spent a long time wondering why Alan Moore would remove his name from association with the film, but I think I’ve figured it out. “Who watches the Watchmen” is not a reference to a group of costumed avengers, but a question put forth to us. Who are our Watchmen? Do we trust them? Do we put our faith in their ability to right wrongs and look out for us? Who watches them, those we believe will lead us into a better world? Do we not put them on a pedestal when they are actually just like us: good, bad, lonely and lovelorn, simultaneously chaos and order, intelligent and ignorant, confident yet contradictive? If we are the Watchmen, then who watches us?
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