THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
I’ve been a lifelong fan of comics. When I was growing up one of my favorite things to do was go to the comic shop and carefully flip through all of the old issues wrapped neatly in their Mylar bags while I wondered what it would be like to work in a place where you were surrounded on all sides by the collective imaginations of Marvel, DC, and their ilk. Most of my life was spent just barely above the poverty line, so my mother wasn’t able to afford anything for us beyond the necessities. I got my fix by reading my friends’ comics. I always enjoyed Marvel comics a lot more than DC because they had the “real” superheroes. Then one day in 1988, my friend’s older brother was reading an issue of Watchmen. I had never seen that one before and even though it was DC, I asked if I could read it. He handed me issue number 1 and told me to be careful with it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that flimsy little book would seal my love of the graphic novel for the rest of my life. When I heard that Watchmen was being made into a movie, my first thought was that another director was coming along to take a steaming dump on a beloved part of my childhood (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay). I’m happy to say that I could not have been more wrong.
The story of the Watchmen takes place in an alternate reality 1985 and it asks “What if superheroes were not only real, but they were real people with real problems?” Nixon is still the president of the U.S. and not only do superheroes exist, but they assisted American troops in winning the Vietnam War.
For someone that has read the novel numerous times, it is clear from the beginning how much Zack Snyder loves the story that he is bringing to life on the screen. Tiny details from the books are in every shot. He takes great pains to recreate nearly every panel as accurately as possible. The signs on the streets, the costumes that the extras are wearing, and even the window decorations in storefronts are meticulously modeled in such a way that this isn’t simply a movie adaptation. The only way to accurately describe it is “bringing the books to life.”
The cast of the movie follows this as well. Each of the actors looks exactly like the characters they are playing. Malin Ackerman is Laurie Juspeczyk. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is Eddie Blake. Jackie Earle Haley is Walter Kovacs. The entire cast is so talented that as you are watching Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Comedian, and Rorschach struggle with balancing life as a superhero and a regular person you never once think “The acting is incredible” because they don’t feel like characters. These are real people, with real problems.
When Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore created the original serial, they placed in its pages another comic book with a story that paralleled that of Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt. The comic-within-a-comic was called Marooned. Moore and Gibbons decided to use a pirate theme to tell the story because in their thinking, superhero comics probably wouldn’t have been all that interesting in a world where real superheroes were all around you. In order to fully tell the story the way that it was told in the original books, Zack Snyder had Marooned animated and hired Gerard Butler to provide the voice for The Sea Captain. The only way to see this part of the story inside the movie is to watch the Ultimate Edition, as the Tales of the Black Freighter segments were inserted into the movie at the appropriate times only in that version due to time constraints. This is, in the humble writer’s opinion, the only way to watch the movie. If you are looking for the most authentic Watchmen experience, the Ultimate Edition is the way to go. The animation itself has the dark serial comic feel, and the voice acting by Gerard Butler is perfect for the tone. It is definitely good enough to stand on its own, so if you want to see Black Freighter but you don’t want to sit through another 3 hour Watchmen session you can do so. But if you do that, isn’t it a bit like eating the ketchup without the burger?
As close as Snyder kept the movie to the original books, there are some mild differences between the comics and the movie. There is a scene where Laurie sets Dan’s equipment table on fire using Archie’s flame thrower. In the books, Laurie was searching for a lighter for her cigarette. In this situation it makes sense for her to push the red button with a flame on it. In the movie, however, she presses the button just because she’s in the ship messing with things that she doesn’t understand. I understand why she presses the button in the comic. She needs some fire for the cancer stick, and that button has a flame on it. In the movie she’s just jerking around inside the ship. Why, of all of the buttons to press, would she choose the one with the big flame on it? The biggest difference is in the ending. Near the end of the comic series, Veidt uses a giant octopus to make people believe that they are being attacked by aliens so that he can unite the warring countries against a common enemy. In the movie, there are explosions all over the world, made to look as though Dr. Manhattan had caused the devastation. While I didn’t much agree with blaming Dr. Manhattan for the mass murder of millions of innocents, the movie ending makes a lot more sense than the comic book ending. Detonating the energy reactors and blaming it all on Dr. Manhattan, who has already decided to exile himself on Mars, is infinitely more feasible as a devious plot than a giant octopus materializing and eating the city. The common enemy is a known entity, not just an abstract “aliens did it”. The detonations had Dr. Manhattan’s energy signature all over them, and after that he mysteriously (to people other than the Watchmen) vanished. I never liked the ending of the books and I thought that it was a cheap Deus Ex Machina that didn’t fit properly with the rest of the series. Of all the changes I have ever seen between a book and its movie adaptation, that is one of the few that I believe actually was for the better.
Watchmen. A movie that is just as much a love story to an amazing piece of literature as it is a wonderful bit of cinema. If you have the time, sit down with some friends and watch this one. If you’ve already seen it (and I hope you’ve seen it by this point because I kind of ruined the ending for you) sit down and watch it again. If you have seen it and you didn’t like it, you should tell me who you are right now because I’m taking you off of my Christmas card list.