I’ve been on this adventure through DC’s continuity for over a year now, but I only just read Watchmen last week. The reasoning being that Watchmen is sort of its own self-contained little story, it doesn’t really have a specific place on “the shelf”. Mistah J had me read it right after Flashpoint, and while it was technically published decades prior, it felt like a natural spot for it. True, it could really be read at any point in the continuity, and perhaps makes sense to read it closer to its date of publication in the 80s. I liked reading this one particular story retroactively though. I was already aware that this is considered a “must read” by many, and liked being able to absorb the story, knowing full-well that it would be having a lasting impact on future comics.
Now of course, being me I had to watch the film adaptation right after I read the comic. I had never seen it, but was curious to see how it compared. Also to clarify, I watched the lengthy 3 1/2 hour version, because if you’re going to watch an adaptation, you have to do it right.
I’m not going to bother writing a lengthy summary of either the movie or the film. Far better writers have already taken care of that for me, as a quick Google search will tell you. Plus, if you’re reading this there’s a very good chance you’re at least somewhat familiar with the story already, so I’ll just right over all of the summarizing and focus instead on my opinions, first on the comic and then on the film interpretation.
Tales of the Black Freighter
Comic – At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this. It felt like an odd sort of interlude sprinkled throughout the comic, that didn’t appear to have too much bearing on the overall story. As it progressed though I began to appreciate it’s role in the story being told. It never ties in directly to the main storyline, but it adds a depth and allegorical nature that greatly enhances the story as a whole.
Film – Mistah J informed me that in the theatrical version, this subplot was cut out entirely. While I can certainly see how these scenes could be cut and not missed (at least as long as the viewer hasn’t read the comic), I’m glad I watched the version that kept them. The animation style was rugged enough to fit the tone of the story, and it just worked on-screen. I worried it would break up the pacing of the film, but I found myself enjoying these sections and looking forward to the continuation of the story. All in all, they stayed true to the comic in this respect, and it worked really well.
Laurie (And her role in the story)
Comic – In the comic, Laurie, a.k.a. The Silk Spectre, holds the distinction of being one of the only women featured in any sort of way within the story, and is certainly the only woman with a more-than-passing role. I’m not a stranger to writers creating roles for a “token female character” in a story, so this didn’t surprise me all that much. What bothered me though was the fact that her sole purpose in the story seems to be to moon over John, a.k.a. Dr. Manhattan, after leaving him. She mentions him repeatedly, often wondering what he would do in a situation or voicing her concerns for him. Okay fine, they were together for two decades and literally just broke up, so I’ll give that a pass. Did she really have to go and immediately start a relationship with Dan, a.k.a. Nite-Owl, practically two seconds after ending her last relationship?? A large chunk of her story focuses on her relationships and little else, to the point that I found her a bit annoying. There were some serious issues going on in the story, and all she’s focused on is her relationship. True, she has the deep conversation with John on Mars about his returning to help save the world, but even that is filled with discussions of her romantic entanglements. It rubbed me the wrong way, and left me feeling as though there were no relatable characters in the story for me.
Film – For the most part the film stays pretty true to the comic, so Laurie’s character wasn’t really changed all that much. I will say that I liked her character a bit more in the film, perhaps because a few of her “mooning over John” lines were omitted. We get a couple, but that’s it. It’s a minor change, but for me it was a big deal and did actually have an impact on how I viewed Laurie. I still don’t think there’s enough redeeming qualities to make her a memorable heroine, but at least the film didn’t make her seem like as much of a whiny schoolgirl.
The Grand Finale
Comics – The story crescendos with the Watchmen confronting Ozmandias, who reveals his terrible plan: In order to bring about world peace, he has crafted an alien-like being who will crash in New York City, killing millions. The world will join together in solidarity against this enemy attack, thus creating lasting peace on Earth. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but somehow this plot point works in the comic. Ozmandias’s plan is crazy, but at the same time there’s a part that seems almost logical, like it would actually work. I especially enjoyed the “alien being” touch, helping remind me that this comic takes place in the superhero world where such events could be plausible, lending an air of otherworldliness to the story that so many comics share. The ending was open-ended, with the Watchmen agreeing to stay silent about what they know to help bring about peace, yet the story implies that the truth will get out, one way or another. It was a fitting end to a lengthy story, and open enough for interpretation that it left me pondering what I had read for some time after.
Film – I can’t get over the one major change the film made to the story: instead of an alien being, Ozmandias recreates John’s own atomic powers to kill millions of people all over the world. On the surface I can understand the reasoning: it’s a less fantastical, more scientific-based plot point, and could certainly fit in with the more “modern” comics of the time moreso than a giant alien falling from the sky. That being said, I take major issue with the decision to use John’s powers as the main catalyst. Earlier in the film (and the comic) a character is quoted as saying, “The superman exists, and he’s American.” Later in the film, that same character says that he was misquoted, and that he actually said, “God exists, and he’s American.” That’s two separate occasions of Dr. Manhattan being labeled as an American. Add onto that the fact that he was used to end the Vietnam War, and serves as a nuclear deterrent, and it seems pretty damn clear where he stands. If an attack were to come from him then, wouldn’t the entire world point their fingers at America for harboring, and even encouraging, such a man? Being the “world’s smartest man”, I’m sure Ozmandias would have considered this, but I can’t get past the fact that this could have gone either way. Using an external threat just makes more sense. There will be no one standing up to defend the alien attack, nor will there be anyone pointing fingers of blame at other countries. The comic’s explanation just made so much more sense, and ended up leaving me feel unfulfilled with how the film was wrapped up.
It’s difficult to separate out my general opinions of the comic from the film. The film stays true to the comic in so many ways that to write about one is to write about the other. Granted, there are some differences, and in general I tend to prefer the comic version simply because it’s the original. With the exception of the Laurie example mentioned above, I favor the comic’s overall storyline. That being said, the film is decent in its interpretation of the source material. It’s not always easy to capture a story’s tone on-screen, but Watchmen does a pretty decent job of it. I’m a purist of course, and have to view the comic as superior; the movie is an interpretation, the comic is the original. I take some issue with the comic, particularly its handling of female characters. I can’t say I’m overly surprised; Alan Moore doesn’t have the best track record with writing women (The Killing Joke, anyone?). I wish there had been more female characters, and that they hadn’t been so constantly preoccupied with men. Looking past this, Watcchmen really is a well-written comic. Had it been any longer I might have considered it a bit too dark and gritty for my tastes, but as it stands it’s a well-crafted story. The implications are far subtler than in some other comics of its time, diving into a more non-linear manner of storytelling, alluding to its point without having to constantly spell it out for the reader. It’s not perfect, but I can see why it’s regarded as a classic.
Scratch one off the bucket list. I don’t think it would have been a complete DC experience if I read my way through the continuity and skipped over this one. There were only a few titles I was aware of before delving into the comics world, and this was definitely one of them. I’m glad to finally be able to say I’ve read it.