Watching 'Watchmen'

From the explosive '80s comics to the namesake movie opening after years of battling, the superheroes are ready to roll. Here's a guide to making sense of the mayhem.

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By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / March 1, 2009
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How did "The Dark Knight" become such a phenomenon? Through circumstance and timing, maybe, but also by delivering a superhero landscape marked by vigilantism, a government that abuses its power (sound like anything in the real world lately?), and a protagonist whose role is far more ambiguous than just valiantly saving the day.

But as any diehard comics fan will tell you, the territory can get a whole lot darker.

"Watchmen," a comic book story published serially back in 1986-87, punches all of those hot buttons and more - and in doing so, has come to be regarded as the seminal exercise in superhero deconstruction. It's a work that has been endlessly reprinted in graphic novel format, and that was even included on a Time magazine list of the 100 best English-language novels of the past 80-odd years.

Warner Brothers' $100 million-plus, R-rated movie version arrives in multiplexes on Friday, after years of dead-end attempts that had left many observers convinced the complex, violent saga was simply not filmable.

Created by a pair of fan-favorite British comics pros, writer Alan Moore ("V for Vendetta," "From Hell") and artist Dave Gibbons, "Watchmen" is a murder mystery on its face, as well as a wicked genre subversion positing that anyone who goes around fighting crime in tights - and there are a number of the costumed crusaders in this alternative world - would have to have some serious is sues. But it's also a snapshot of Cold War nuclear fears and, most enduringly, a heart-of-darkness meditation on human nature.

The action in the comic (and in the movie) is set in an alt-reality 1985 where Richard Nixon is still president and a legislative crackdown has all but put superheroes out of business. The costumes come out again following the brutal killing of the Comedian, an amoral, government-sanctioned hero beloved by none. Rorschach, a scowling, hard-line vigilante with an ink-blot disguise as black-and-white as his worldview, smells a "mask killer," then a conspiracy. His investigation contentiously reunites him with figures like Nite Owl (read: Batman), a crusader gone soft in every sense after hanging up his cape, and blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan, whose limitless atomic powers (think Superman) have left him with a god-like detachment from humanity and its trials.

The story has had a ripple effect on pop culture that's still being felt. Thanks to "Watchmen" and Frank Miller's contemporaneously published "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns," superhero comics in general grew tougher, more grounded - "grim and gritty" was the numbingly overused buzzphrase - and this approach, in turn, has clearly informed the work of filmmakers like Bryan Singer ("X-Men") and Christopher Nolan ("The Dark Knight"). Like Moore and Gibbons, they've started with a provocative initial thesis question - What would the world be like if superheroes really existed? - and concluded that it probably wouldn't be a place ringing with joyful cries of "Look! Up in the sky!"

One of the more intriguing question marks about the "Watchmen" movie, actually, is to what degree the story's literary richness could be overshadowed by its edgy tone. An SRO teaser presentation for the film was the main event at last summer's teeming Comic-Con International in San Diego, with director Zack Snyder and his ensemble cast holding court for an auditorium of 5,000.

It was a scene short on lofty discourse about the story's references to Lacan or Brecht, and long on "WOO-HOO!"s from the crowd - particularly for the fan who stepped up to the Q&A mike in a homemade Rorschach mask. Actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan ("Grey's Anatomy"), who plays the Comedian, also drew appreciative laughs for his smirking take on his character's wardrobe - an S&M getup accessorized with a yellow smiley face button, the story's iconic, ironic central visual motif. "Getting into the costume," Morgan said, "helped a great deal to kind of get you in the mood to kill people."

"There were certain areas of the comic-book world where 'Watchmen' did cast a black, bleak shadow," said writer Moore (who declined to be interviewed for this story) in a 2005 Entertainment Weekly interview. "An awful lot of comics readers felt [Rorschach's] remorseless, frightening, psychotic toughness was his most appealing characteristic - not quite what I was going for."

Moore has conspicuously kept his name off the film because of longstanding disputes with 'Watchmen" publisher, DC Comics, and a general aversion to adaptations of his work. Unlike Moore, artist Gibbons has embraced a creative ambassadorship for the movie.

"I'm not surprised by Rorschach's popularity," says Gibbons, speaking by phone during a promotional stop in Los Angeles. "There's something undeniably fascinating about people who stand for something very clear, no matter how deranged they may be - even Hitler. But I think we show that that's not a healthy attitude."

Director Snyder, also speaking from LA, says, "It's funny, you endeavor to make this kind of super-dark intellectual piece, and then there's a good chance people just think, Yeah, that's violent and sexy! But if you plug into the movie all the way, it can do a number on you. It's not like 'Iron Man,' where my son and I walked out of the theater and said, 'Robert Downey Jr. is awesome' - and that was all. This movie's not a passive experience."

Snyder landed the "Watchmen" job largely because of his experience with managing and meeting fan expectations of his 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead" and, more recently, "300," which was also adapted from comics. Sometimes his approach to "Watchmen" ran counter to studio thinking: He pushed for a screenplay that kept the story's Cold War backdrop rather than pursuing an inherited script's war-on-terror update. When it was determined that the movie's 160-minute running time couldn't accommodate an allegorical pirate yarn that Moore and Gibbons had interwoven throughout "Watchmen," Snyder led an effort to tackle "Tales of the Black Freighter" as an animated DVD tie-in.

The director also hired actors who wouldn't loom larger than the story. In addition to Morgan, the movie features Jackie Earle Haley and Patrick Wilson of "Little Children" as Rorschach and Nite Owl; Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan; Malin Akerman ("27 Dresses") as ambivalent second-generation adventurer the Silk Spectre; and Matthew Goode ("Match Point") as Ozymandias, a retired hero turned enigmatic global-stage power broker.

One of the odder sights at Comic-Con was seeing the cast and its sprawling entourage strolling down a convention center hallway en route to their appearance - essentially unnoticed. Crudup might have once played a golden god in "Almost Famous," and he might be playing a blue one in the most fan-scrutinized movie in recent memory, but there and then, he was utterly anonymous.

Presumably there's something to be said for a low profile, though, judging by the way Gibbons laughs at the memory of "Predator" producer Joel Silver floating Arnold Schwarzenegger's name as a candidate for the "Watchman" character Dr. Manhattan years back. It was around this same time that director Terry Gilliam flirted with taking up the project. Other filmmakers who couldn't get an adaptation to jell included Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler") and Paul Greengrass ("The Bourne Ultimatum"). The various false starts made for a developmental trail so twisty, Warner Brothers faced a virtually unheard-of mid-production lawsuit from Fox alleging that it still held rights to the project. (The case was settled out of court in January.)

Not that Gibbons was on the edge of his drafting-table seat about any of this over the years. "I used to get development updates from my dear old mum, who'd read them in the entertainment section," he says. "I remember her phoning me up and saying, 'Oh, David, that Monty Python man [Gilliam] is going to be making a film out of your comic. That'll be funny.' "

Echoing a little of Moore's view, Gibbons adds, "I'm a comic book guy, and I don't think that comic books need to be made into movies to be legitimized. I'm just glad that it's been made at a time that seems right, with a director who was able to get it done with the least compromise."

Snyder, for his part, isn't getting too hung up on just how much of his effort to capture the comic's cerebral quality will ultimately prove successful, and register as intended.

"There are big philosophical ideas in this, no two ways about it," says Snyder. "But at the same time, it's nice to let yourself off the hook a little with the fan-fetishy aspect of it. Just when it feels like we're getting too intellectual for our own good, you see a fan dressed up like Rorschach, and you feel more relaxed."

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