Watching the Watchmen

Darren Taffinder

I read Watchmen when I was 16, during the summer my granny died. It was 1988, at the height of the Cold War, and I was convinced that the world was going to end at any moment. All I wanted was to lose my virginity first. Ironically, it wasn’t until after the fall of the Berlin Wall that I actually did lose it. Growing up in Britain in the ’80s was a grim experience, but that summer was particularly so. What I remember most is the whirling sound of my granny’s morphine machine and Watchmen.

Watchmen took the idea of superheroes, the whole history of comics themselves, and asked: What would the world really be like if people actually dressed up in costumes and fought crime? Not very pleasant apparently. The day after I finished it, I went out and got a proper official DC licensed bloodstained smiley button. I wore it for the rest of high school.

Yet I wanted more. You don’t just put down Watchmen and forget about it. Over the years, whenever I’d get together with my fellow Watchies there was one thing we would inevitably talk about. How do you turn the greatest comic (sorry, graphic novel) into a movie? What parts would you cut? What would you keep? Should it even be a movie, what about a mini-series? There’s something about Watchmen that makes you want to see it on the big screen.

Well, we finally have our movie. I’ve seen it twice, and I can say on second viewing that it’s even worse than on the first. Compared to Watchmen, Pearl Harbor is Citizen Cain, Tango and Cash is Casablanca, and Armageddon is The Godfather. Even The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is better.

Where did it all go so wrong? 

I could nitpick. I could say that I didn’t like this scene or that one. That you can show a pregnant woman being shot, a guy’s arms being shorn off with an electric power saw, and a meat cleaver to the hand (multiple times), but God-forbid Silk Spectre II actually smokes a cigarette. I could say that Malin Akerman wasn’t up for the job. Or that Doctor ‘Brainy Smurf’ Manhattan looked like a visual effect rather than an actual being. Or ‘visionary’ director Zack Snyder didn’t get it (if all it takes to be called a ‘visionary’ is to direct a remake and another panel-to-screen movie adaptation then I might start calling myself a ‘visionary’).

But all that misses the point.

Like Adrian Veidt trying to save the world from its own destruction, you know who the real villains are? Not the director or the actors or the effects. Not the stylised slow-mo violence or the overused rain machine. No the real villain are us. The fanboys. By demanding such a fanatical fidelity to the text, we are the ones who ruined Watchmen.

The movie is a failure not because there’s no squid or that it didn’t have electric cars or that The Tales of the Black Freighter is a DVD add-on, but that the filmmakers didn’t make enough changes. By sticking so closely to the narrative of who killed the Comedian, the least interesting aspect of the novel, they lost the essence of the story.

Maybe I read it wrong, but when I finished the graphic novel I didn’t see it as a story of nihilistic gore porn. Instead, the real heroes of Watchmen are not the ones in costumes, rather the ones without. The psychologist who can’t help getting involved despite the fact that his marriage is breaking down, the lesbian taxi driver trying to win back her lover, the two detectives, the newsstand man and the comic book reading boy. Even Nixon, in his few scenes, comes across sympathetically. The end of the graphic novel has a real emotional punch because all these minor characters with their hopes and weaknesses are all wiped out. These are the heroes. Everything bad that happens is the result of the costumes.

The movie just seemed so much more, well, comic book-ey. At the end, I didn’t care whether fifteen million had died or fifty. I couldn’t understand why Ozymandias was so keen on saving the world, anyway. Anyone who wasn’t in a costume was either a coward or a thug or a criminal. If I was him, I would’ve saved myself the bother, and just retreated to my artic lair with a few chosen disciples and waited for the nuclear fallout to clear itself out.

The fact is, Watchmen is dated. I’m 37. For anyone younger than me, the Cold War is an historical event you learn about in school like the American Civil War or the Second World War. Its themes are so much better expressed (and much more entertainingly) in last year’s The Dark Knight. The times have certainly changed. I would like to have seen it reimagined in a modern setting. Sort of like, I don’t know, what Ron Moore and David Eick did with Battlestar Galactica. Remember the howls of protest that greeted the news the new Starbuck being was going to be female? I don’t hear them anymore.

We can’t complain. We got the movie we deserved. The film was certainly faithful to the book. I’d loved to have seen what a really visionary director, such as Terry Gillam or Paul Greengrass, would have done with Watchmen. Someone with enough confidence to turn his back on the fan community and say ‘no’.