I finished reading “Watchmen” last year, 2008. I became obsessed with comic books that year because “The Dark Knight” just blew me away. I wanted to know what else DC Comics has to offer and I after some research, I found out that the graphic novel “Watchmen” is a must-read.
“Watchmen” is a graphic novel, although the creators didn’t intend for it to be called that way. A graphic novel is a type of comic book that is usually very lengthy and has a complex, multi-layered storyline. Watchmen is composed of twelve comic books originally issued separately, and then combined later to form a graphic novel format.
The graphic novel was published between 1986 and 1987. As such, its concerns were about the Cold War, Vietnam, right-wing politics, and the degeneration of the simple ways of life through the advent of fast technology and pressing social issues. The comic book only amplified these issues through its revolutionary treatment of the concept of “superheroes.”
The Deconstruction of the Superhero Through Watchmen
Before “Watchmen,” superheroes mostly represented everything good about men. They were the symbols of righteousness, beauty, and power. Alan Moore, the famous British writer of works such as “V for Vendetta” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” tried to reinvent this familiar concept of the superhero into something closer to the actual human beings that created it; thus, “Watchmen” was born.
In the world of “Watchmen,” superheroes are real. They are not real as Superman is an alien from outer space who landed on Earth to fight crimes and defeat mad scientists — they are real because they are real ordinary people who make a career out of fighting crimes. They are flawed and ugly, not the embodiment of what’s good and beautiful. All of them, except one, have no superpowers.
The term “Watchmen” doesn’t even refer to any superhero group, like “X-Men” or “Fantastic Four.” The comic book was entitled in such a way based on the phrase, “Who watches the watchmen?” This is a translation of the Latin phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” which was accordingly originally asked by Plato in the “Republic.” Socrates envisioned the perfect society as composed of different classes all guarded by “watchmen” or “guards.” Plato then asks, “Who watches the watchmen?” or, “Who will protect us from our protectors?” Interestingly, Plato answered that the watchmen will have to protect themselves against themselves.
Thus, “Watchmen,” as a work of literature, is an investigation of power, who wields it, why, and the powerless man’s reaction to it. While Moore initially only wanted to tell an unfamiliar tale about superheroes, the final product is a beautiful epic that asks essential political and philosophical questions to readers.
The story revolves around the murder of Edward Blake, a crime fighter (superhero) who goes by the name of The Comedian, by an unknown assassin. Rorschach, a masked superhero who suspects that there’s a deeper reason to The Comedian’s murder, investigates on his own and warns the few existing superheroes of a possible plot to wipe them out. Before The Comedian’s murder, crime fighters have been dying, missing, or going mad for different reasons. Crime fighting itself has been outlawed by the government and the only superhero who still operates is Rorschach, the most brutal of all superheroes, deemed psychotic by authorities and many citizens. He has never been caught because of his extraordinary skill to hide himself.
Another superhero who exists is Dr.Manhattan, a superhero with real superpowers because he was transformed by a scientific process gone wrong. Dr.Manhattan has god-like powers, being able to create anything out of anything, and to see the past, present, and future at the same time. As Rorschach investigates The Comedian’s murder, the United States and Russia come ever closer to nuclear disaster because of the intensifying Cold War. Only Dr.Manhattan can change the course of events as he can supposedly stop nuclear warheads from destroying the planet and the human race — but why would he do so if he is losing touch with the concerns of humanity? He can teleport to a distant galaxy to start new life, better, more perfect, so why save creatures who seem intend on destroying each other?
Beneath these two major storylines run tiny story arcs that tell the stories of different people: superheroes and non-superheroes alike. The graphic novel touches on love, sexuality, ethics, religion, philosophy, and most importantly, power. At the end of the graphic novel, The Comedian’s murder and Dr.Manhattan’s dilemma are joined together, leading to a tough philosophical and moral question that is asked to all readers. It is this unusual and striking feature of the graphic novel that has made it a classic in literature and a pioneer in comic books.
Watchmen, the Film
The film version of “Watchmen” was directed by Zack Snyder, the director behind the box office hit, “300.” Since that film, Snyder has become popular with comic book fans for using comic book panels as actual storyboards for a movie. Snyder literally takes panels out of comic books and bases scenes on them, which comic book fans absolutely love. He is also famous for his trademark slow-mo shots that emphasize force through CGI effects.
Snyder’s “Watchmen” contains all of his trademark techniques. The graphic novel, which was deemed “unfilmable” by several people who have tried to work on it in the past, was put to life by Snyder as close as possible to the original source material. Indeed, if you’ve read the comic book, you’ll be amazed at how Snyder seemed to animate panels that were familiar to you. You can take frames of the film and put it side-by-side to the original comic book panels and you’ll be amazed by the literal similarities.
The special effects were excellent and the cinematography is brilliant. Rorschach’s ever-changing black-and-white mask is a delight to look at, and Dr.Manhattan’s giant, glowing blue figure is awe-inspiring. Costume and background props are also exceptional, with the tiniest details depicting comic book objects as close as possible. The film’s soundtrack is bold, although sometimes to the point of awkwardness (“Hallelujah” during a sex scene). These technical aspects though are negligible, and the movie works fine through them.
All the actors in the film are virtually unknown, but they nevertheless gave great performances. Jackie Earle Haley, the actor who played Rorschach, is a standout, nailing the nuances of his pained character who never compromises moral principles. Billy Crudup’s Dr.Manhattan is also great, and he transmits his humanity through the screen despite the complete CGI figure that acts as his puppet. Another notable actor is Jeffrey Dean Morgan who played The Comedian’s nihilistic tendencies accurately.
Watchmen: Amazing, But Not For Everyone
As of this writing, the film has a 65% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com. The rating site acknowledges that the movie is gritty and visually striking, but audiences not familiar with the story may find it hard to follow the plot.
Indeed, the discontent of many viewers, as I’ve reviewed on the Web, mostly comes from their unfulfilled expectations about the film. Most viewers went into the cinemas thinking that they were going to get another Spiderman, Iron Man, Superman, even Batman, but they got something else. “Watchmen” is not like all those superhero flicks. It is not filled with action sequences, feel-good dialogue, and a happy outlook on humanity. In contrast, it is more like a dark thriller/drama filled with gore, sex, violence, and layers upon layers of questions about society, power, and morality. Even the movie’s ending is as far away from a happy ending as one can imagine.
Most of the graphic novel’s fanbase is ecstatic with the movie. They are able to see that Snyder stuck to the original source material as much as possible, and even compromised to mainstream superhero-flick expectations a little bit (action sequences were made lengthy). “Outsiders” on the other hand, have a tougher time digesting all two hours and thirty minutes of “Watchmen” because of its complexity and bleakness. Some of them have even walked out of theaters feeling dispirted, bored, and robbed of their money.
The truth is, “Watchmen” is not for everyone. The story is unapologetic about the human condition and its dark potentials. If you’re looking for another popcorn superhero flick to dream about, do not even dare to watch this movie. However, if you want a fresh perspective at the concept of “superheroes” and what it means as a symbol of watchmen, guardians, protectors, authorities, governments or entities who wield power — then make sure to watch this film.
I give this film a five out of five rating. I’m also sure that if “Watchmen” fails in the box office, it is sure to be one huge cult movie that will have a classic appeal that will last for years and years.