Thoughts on the Watchmen movie

Twenty-two years ago, in the last half of 1986, I was an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley, and probably spent more time thinking about comic books than I did thinking about my computer science classes.

A guy named Frank Miller was working on Batman Year One and Elektra Assassin. A guy named John Byrne had just restarted Superman at #1. The most popular comic book was X-Men, then written by Chris Claremont. And a guy named Alan Moore started a twelve-part series called The Watchmen, with art by Dave Gibbons.

We had the Internet back then, but this was before the Web and Twitter and Facebook. When we wanted to talk about something, there were discussion groups called Usenet, and the newsgroup for discussing comic books was called net.comics at the time.

Well, when The Watchmen started, we talked about little else. Thousands of posts, with speculations and discussions and arguments. Waiting up to a month for each new issue to arrive was torture, and we filled the gap with micro-analysis of every panel. (I see the same kind of scrutiny applied to Lost today.)

A few half-complete archives of that old newsgroup still exist (like this one), and it’s strange to read my earnest twenty-two year old arguments after issue 5 came out where I tried to refute speculation about who the evil mastermind was behind the murder mystery. I was dead wrong.

At the time, a popular topic was who should play each character in the movie. Fan discussions of movie casting are always unrealistic, pitting box office draws against each other, and piling up dozens of famous actors in even the most minor roles. But even back then we thought it would be a great movie. Never mind that Alan Moore hated movies and didn’t want his series to be filmed. Never mind that it was impossible to capture the twists and turns of those twelve issues in a reasonable movie length. Never mind that the central difference between the world of The Watchmen versus our world — the existence of the omnipotent blue naked guy called Dr. Manhattan — could never be convincingly portrayed on-screen.

Back in 1997, I remember a friend of mine, Dan, an editor at Sybex books, gave me a copy of the early Sam Hamm script, which I thought was largely a travesty. After hearing about the endless reboots and changes in director, I was convinced no one would ever make this film.

Well, I saw it this evening. Zack Snyder did many things right. The casting choices for Nite Owl, Rorschach, Silk Spectre and Ozymandias are superb. I think Richard Roeper has a rule of thumb that says in an ensemble cast of unknowns, the one actor with a recognizable name is probably the weakest link — and that’s the case here. Billy Crudup is a good actor, but even he can’t make Dr. Manhattan believable, and his soft delivery is the biggest distraction in the film.

I didn’t think I’d ever see a Watchmen movie. I didn’t expect even half of critics to get it. The comic remains one of my favorite things ever written, a dense and thoughtful work. So how can any movie deliver on the expectations? How can any movie succeed in translating this work from page to screen? No movie can. Nothing can do it justice.

The tiny details, like the muzak version of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” during a key scene, the dense set dressing of historical objects such as newspapers and photos, the recap montage at the beginning set to Dylan, the changed but still fitting ending — all of these things show that the creators wanted to create a faithful movie version of the comic.

I have to say that I enjoyed myself a great deal, and the parts that work in this movie are far more memorable than the elements that don’t work.

Twenty-two years ago I thought more, wrote more, read more about this comic than practically any other work of fiction of any kind, before or since. Ultimately I have to say I loved this movie, for coming so close. Close enough.

If it had been up to me, I’d have released it in parts, so that modern audiences would have to squirm and wait for the story to be finished, just like we did twenty-two years ago.

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