In the world of graphic novels, no work is held to higher acclaim than Watchmen. It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of this story. The entire comic book world was shook by Alan Moore’s inventive character’s and in depth symbolism. He proved to everyone, that comic books can be high art.
Watchmen was the definitive comic book. It is a comic that doesn’t hide under false glitz and glamor. Originally sold as twelve separate issues the collection still separates the chapters with the comics cover art. Unlike Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, Watchmen feels cartoony and doesn’t hide from the silliness of the Silver Age of comics. Joss Whedon once described Watchmen as, “Proof of everything a comic could do, but also an affirmation of everything comics had done.” It is a masterpiece of the medium with not a single panel out of place. And like all popular comic books, it ventured to the wild world of film.
It’s difficult to adapt any beloved story. But when a story is so intermixed with its original medium it makes the job near impossible. The story was meant to be told through comic book panels. The story was designed to last twelve issues. A film has to cram all of this in three hours and is told through a camera. Its entire visual appeal is simple and easy to read. The panels, with little exception, all form a basic 3×3 grid on the page. There are no elaborate panels or misshapen images. Every panel is either rectangular or a perfect square. The characters are bland and not nearly as attractive as a modern comic’s heroes. The main characters are all regular people, who just so happen to wear a funny costume now and again.
Contrast this with the highly stylized vision of Zac Snyder. Still riding high on the success of 300, Snyder was dragged by DC into another dark gritty comic book adaptation. But above all this Snyder was, and is, the king of cool. In 300 the over the top action accented this over the top tale of historic manhood, it fit. The entirety of 300 was about praising battle, and they did this by making battle look cool. But Watchmen is an anti-war movie. Making war look cool destroys the entire point of existence.
Watchmen isn’t about being cool. It is about normal people doing extraordinary things. The appeal of Rorschach doesn’t come from his ability to beat up an entire squad of police officers. It comes from his ability to fight against un-winnable odds. The entire film straddles the line between making these heroes human, and making their fight scenes really cool to watch. Although the fights are well done, they seem out of place for these characters. The more production value they added to Watchmen the more they took away from its basic roots.
But there is one thing that the film has that the books could never recreate, the setting. Where film shines is in its ability to transport an audience to a new world. Comics can only do so much with a piece of paper. Although the book feels like a period piece, it could never compete with the actual songs of the era. And the film uses its soundtrack to varying degrees of success. The opening credits alone is one of the best uses of a Bob Dylan song ever. The song choices are almost always perfect and even if they don’t fit the mood of the scene, they fit the mood of the era.
Ultimately Watchmen has plenty of good things, and plenty of bad things that could be said about it. But when all is said and done it could never have lived up to the hype created by the source material. As a film it ends in the middle ground of comic book movies. It didn’t change the world like its predecessor. But it doesn’t insult it either. It’s a smart well-acted film that does many interesting things but it didn’t change the world.