In 2009, far too soon in my view, Watchmen finally hit the big screen. The irony is the movie was far too late in other people’s eyes. The movie adaptation had some big names floating around it at various points, including Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, and Paul Greengrass. Like Akira, it was at one point a spectre that would emerge occasionally in headlines all the way from development hell… and then Zack Snyder happened.
Fans were excited; the internet hype machine began as Snyder took on the colossal task of directing one of the most beloved graphic novels of all time. For many, Watchmen stands as a milestone and one of the most acclaimed stories of its genre. Alan Moore’s work has been adapted multiple times with very mixed results; some would say even disastrous. Still, the superhero tale to end all superhero tales lumbered into cinemas.
I recall sitting in my session and gazing behind me to see a 12-year-old in an MA15+ movie and feeling a little uncomfortable. It did not get any better once that intense sex scene came on. The parents have failed this city. Regardless, I left the cinema bewildered. Days before, my friends had given a thumbs down to the movie. I recall clutching the graphic novel in my mind and pleading with them to understand; it was a profound piece of intellectual writing on superheroes.
That was not the problem.
Snyder is one of the best visual directors around, and he can create some of the most awe-inspiring slow-motion shots. Film is his canvas, and the man can work wonders. However, the pacing, violence, and atmosphere felt off from what Moore did in his work. Comparing to Alan Moore and David Gibbons (the artist) is unfair, but Snyder painstakingly recreates every element from the comic. All except for one; the ordinary people. Without the little people of this story of titans, the twisted and heart-breaking finish misses something really important… emotional stakes.
In an era where Man Of Steel, The Avengers, and every other hero story has a portal in the sky that rips apart a city, the human collateral is lost. The genius of the Watchmen story is the superheroes aren’t necessarily saviours, and there is some wonderful analysis about that in the theatrical cut. Even better, the Director’s Cut dives deeper into it. But the changes that were made (retired masked heroes, a psychiatrist’s deteriorating marriage, etc.) rob it of an instrumental trait that made Watchmen a must-have. In the end, as a movie audience, we just didn’t care for the city they (try to) save.
Since then, superhero movies have upped the ultra-destructive stakes even more. In Batman v. Superman where were the people of Gotham, let alone Metropolis? What would make me care for these vague cities that the two icons occupy? The identity of where they lived was lost. Why did I care about the nameless city in Suicide Squad? I know The Flash didn’t, he could have run in at any time (he has multiple TV’s according to the Justice League trailer!).
The shame is Watchmen could have skewered a genre that has lost the humanity. I not talking about the main characters; I am talking about the people of the city. In most superhero movies, the city has no personality. Snyder’s New York was grimy 80’s goodness, but it was all superficial. Snyder’s film can stand in its section of history, but a reapproach to Watchmen is needed. With a slower pace, a bit more noir, and toned-down violence (because the graphic novel was violent but not gruesome), a better story can be told. Even some more of the complex ideas from the comic can be explored.
It is not unprecedented for Watchmen to be adapted, despite being a comic book sacred cow. DC Comics created a prequel series looking at the Minutemen characters, handled by very popular writers and artists. And now there’s the news that HBO is developing a series with Damon Lindelof. This story told across 10 episodes could be the Game Of Thrones/Westworld companion they have been trying to create.
Lindelof has an interesting history in storytelling with some equally loved, and reviled works in his past. The Leftovers has given him an opportunity for a do-over with those still angry about Star Trek Into Darkness, Prometheus, or Lost. Lindelof, with the freedom of HBO, can do more than any director past could have hoped for with a theatrical release. Maybe he has the opportunity to bring back the humanity the genre has lost. In this new Golden Age Of Television, Watchmen could be a watershed moment.
Until then, all along the Watchtower, we will keep a view.