The Smell Of Nostalgia: Watchmen 10 Years On


The film adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ watershed graphic novel Watchmen was first mooted shortly after its publication in 1985.

Terry Gilliam was the first director to attempt it, before it became apparent the project was too technically ambitious and fell through, along with it some intriguing ideas. Paul Greengrass got closer almost twenty years later, with his version slated for release in 2006, but the studio backed out at the last minute.

With superheroes starting to become the next big box office draw, Warner Bros. then picked up the option and hired Zack Snyder, a self-confessed fan of the comic, to direct. Having been in limbo so long, the film finally started to materialise under Snyder and Warner Bros.’s stewardship, and $130 million later, they delivered what would be the first blockbuster of 2009.

“I am looking at the stars”

In retrospect, making Watchmen into an event film was strange decision – a story about a world on the brink of collapse, characters struggling with the truth about who they are, with references to sexuality, psychopathy, criminal underworlds and existentialism doesn’t really feel like the kind of thing audiences would naturally flock to.

The budget of the film, coupled with its rating (R in the US, 18 in the UK), ultimately meant that Warner Bros. had to make it the film everyone in its restrictive audience band had to see in order to make back money. The accompanying heavy marketing and slew of merchandise was a necessity.

As for the final product, Snyder’s film is technically impressive and confident in its presentation of a well-realised alternate reality, right from its opening title sequence.

This sequence sums up the best and worst of Watchmen – a film with undeniable visual flare and an eye for detail that can concisely tell a story, but at the same time is mostly skimming the surface, unsure of the context or the deeper meaning of what it’s portraying.

“We are all puppets”

You can not fault Watchmen for its ambition. It strives to create as definitive a film version of the original story as it can, but in trying to cram as much in from the graphic novel as possible, the film ultimately feels hurried. Everything moves along not because of natural progression, but because it needs to be kept at as reasonable running time as possible.

Gilliam and Greengrass both realised the source material had to be altered, being too dense to coherently be transferred to the big screen as it was. Snyder, however, was keen to make as close a reproduction of the comics as possible – to the point that panels were used as storyboards and artist Dave Gibbons served as consultant.

Borrowing heavily from the graphic novel leads to the most frustrating thing about Watchmen – that it thinks it means something more than it is, but clearly has little or no understanding of its own subtext. It’s like a school child that has handed in an essay taken from the internet as their own work, and then can’t further explain it when questioned.

“Roll on snare drum. Curtains.”

Watchmen wasn’t a flop, but it wasn’t the runaway success Warner Bros. were hoping for, either. Additionally, response was decidedly mixed – everyone seemed to have wildly differing opinions of the film, be they fans of the book or coming in cold. No one was entirely sure what to make of it. A subsequent DVD director’s cut was better praised for having “a coherent story” (which is like praising a plane for having wings).

However you feel about the original comics, without lucid plot progression and character development, Watchmen falls short as a film. Being in the tricky situation where it can’t fully divorce itself from the graphic novel, Snyder’s film just doesn’t feel able to stand on its own.

“Nothing Ever Ends”

Even so, studios still feel there is some promise to this property. Years after the film’s release, HBO began talks to make a spin-off series, which materialised in 2017, when a series was officially announced helmed by Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof (also a confessed devotee to the graphic novel).

There is clearly enough in Watchmen to keep exploring and expanding on, but it will take someone who is up to the task of grappling with its complexities. Maybe that will be Lindelof, but we won’t know until his version hits TV screens at some point in 2019. If not, the likelihood is someone else will try and the same mistakes will keep being made.

Jack first started reviewing films when he was four years old and went on to his mum about how the ending of Snow White was shit. He is now very pleased to be able to share his knowledge of film and culture here at BRWC.