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Watchmen: Reviewing the Unfilmable (Or a Primer)

by Mel Valentin

Named to "Time" magazine’s “100 Best Novels” of the 20th-century, "Watchmen," the 12-part mini-series/graphic novel written by Alan Moore ("Lost Girls," "From Hell," "V for Vendetta," "Swamp Thing") and illustrated by David Gibbons. In more than one interview, Moore has referred to "Watchmen" as “unfilmable.” Apparently Zack Snyder, the director on the upcoming big screen adaptation, didn’t think so. Neither did Warner Bros., DC Comics sister company (both owned by Time-Warner): they greenlighted production on the big-screen adaptation almost two years ago after "300’s" unexpected box office success. Having read "Watchmen" more than twenty years ago as it was released and then, years later, collected in the graphic novel format, there's no better time to revisit "Watchmen."

Watchmen follows several superheroes (or, to borrow Moore’s phrasing, "costumed vigilantes" or "masked avengers") in an alternate past (1985, the year Moore and Gibbons began working on Watchmen for DC). In Watchmen, rising crime rates and the increasing popularity of superhero comic books in the 1930s led to the "real world" emergence of costumed heroes, first in New York City and then, presumably, in other major cities in the United States. These unsanctioned, unregulated heroes, however, didn't have the superpowers of their comic book counterparts, just the willingness to slip into a homemade costume and mask and sacrifice limbs, bodies, and often their sanity for the greater good, with or without the implicit or explicit approval of the legal authorities. Costumed heroes also helped with the war effort on the battlefield and as symbols of ultra-nationalistic, über-patriotic Americanism.

After Jon Osterman, a research scientist, dematerializes in a research accident involving an “intrinsic field subtractor,” he returns as the glowing, blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan, the world's first (and only) super-powered superhero. As an American working for the U.S. government, Dr. Manhattan's presence has far-reaching effects: the U.S. wins the Vietnam War; President Richard M. Nixon wins reelection (the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up go undiscovered). In 1977, the U.S. Congress passes the Keene Act, banning masked avengers, except those that work directly for the government. As Dr. Manhattan's allegiance to the U.S. government falls into doubt, the Soviet Union threatens to invade Afghanistan. Other costumed heroes retire, while new heroes take on the names of their predecessors.

In the alternate universe 1985, an unknown assailant murders Edward Blake, a government agent/costumed hero known as the Comedian. Walter Kovacs/Rorschach, a mask-wearing vigilante, sets out to find out the identity of Blake's murderer. Working alone since the Keene Act's passage outlawed costumed heroes, Rorschach turns to an old associate and former costumed hero, Dan Dreiberg, a.k.a. Nite Owl II. Dreiberg turns to Laurie Jupiter, Dr. Manhattan's current lover and the former Silk Spectre II, for help in uncovering the Comedian’s murderer. As Dr. Manhattan becomes increasingly detached from humanity, the Soviet Union’s boldly attempts to reassert its superpower status leads the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. When an assassin attempts to kill Adrian Veidt, a wealthy inventor, industrialist, philanthropist, and a costumed hero Ozymandias, Rorschach's suspicions and fears of a wide-ranging conspiracy to kill costumed heroes seems increasingly likely.

Watchmen interweaves the larger, overarching murder mystery with the origin stories of each costumed hero via flashbacks. We meet Dr. Manhattan as an ordinary mortal, Jon Osterman, a research scientist working on a super-secret government project. Seemingly killed in an experiment, he reappears days later as an apparition. Almost immediately, he manifests the ability to reconstitute and shape matter according to his will. His near god-like power eventually alienates him from his aging lover, Janey Slater, but several years later he meets and falls in love with the younger Laurie Jupiter. The U.S. government drafts him as a weapon of mass destruction. Dr. Manhattan helps the United States decisively win the Vietnam War, but with each passing year, his connection to humanity decreases, symbolized by the clothes Dr. Manhattan gradually sheds until, inevitably, he stops wearing anything at all.

Each character represents a superhero archetype or an aspect of that archetype. Laurie, the daughter of Sally Jupiter, a.k.a., Silk Spectre I, reluctantly followed in her mother’s footsteps. Using his family fortune, Dreiberg took on the Nite Owl persona once Hollis Mason decided to retire. The Nite Owl borrows the avian-themed costume, underground lair, inherited wealth, and gadget fetish from Batman and personal traits from the Ted Kord iteration of the Blue Beetle, another Charlton character with a similar background (e.g., he’s a legacy character, an inventor, travels in a bug-like, flying vehicle).

Rorschach represents the costumed vigilante driven by a binary morality and his costume resembles the Question, a Charlton character created by Steve Ditko (the co-creator, with Stan Lee, of Spider-Man). The Comedian grounded his amoral behavior on allegiance to a right-wing, authoritarian faction within the federal government. Adrian Veidt, the "smartest man in the world" uses his wealth for global philanthropy. Moore and Gibbons developed Dr. Manhattan as a cross between Captain Atom, one of several superhero characters DC purchased from Charlton Comics in 1983 (Charlton shuttered its comics imprint three years later) and Superman.

Almost every review or discussion of Watchmen over the last two decades has used the word “deconstruction” as a catch-all phrase to discuss what Moore’s goal: “deconstructing superheroes.” It’s become a shortcut to describe Moore’s ambitious project, to explore the “what if” possibilities and ramifications of superheroes (or in the parlance of Watchmen masked vigilantes or costumed adventurers). The word “deconstruction” has precise literary/academic meaning that makes its use in non-academic settings problematic at best and confusing at worst. In any case, a better word already exists to describe what Alan Moore tried to do (and succeeded at doing): “critique.”

In Moore’s formulation and subsequent critique, superheroes, specifically a super-powered superhero like Dr. Manhattan, in the Watchmen universe created a “reality distortion effect,” short-term positives (e.g., scientific advances, a “win” in Vietnam, Cold War stalemate) that are eventually negated by long-term negatives (e.g., geopolitical instability, over-reliance on Dr. Manhattan to curb Russian expansionism). These convergences and divergences are closely tied to the presence of superheroes in the Watchmen universe, function as “reality hooks” for readers. The similarities and divergences to our own reality function as part of the “elseworlds” or “what if?” premise, but on a deeper level, as the entry points to Moore’s critique of the superhero genre and its conventions.

Story and critique aside, Watchmen took long-form comic books into an entirely new direction. Moore and Gibbons blended sequential art with lengthy text pieces ranging from excerpts from Hollis Mason’s memoirs of his crime-fighting career as the first Nite Owl, “Under the Hood, ads for Adrian Veidt’s newest toyline, background news reports on costumed heroes from the 1930s through the present, and other related material. Moore also included a running commentary in the form of the Tales of the Black Freighter, a serialized comic book read by one character as the events in Watchmen unfold. Thematically, the Tales of the Black Freighter story comments on the villain’s ill-fated journey: in the process of trying to save his family, the lead character in Tales of the Black Freighter loses his soul.

Despite almost universally positive reviews from critics and fans (comic book or otherwise) and its status as “literature,” Watchmen isn’t perfect. As a bestselling graphic novel that deserves to be called a “novel” for its multi-layered complexities, Watchmen has deeply committed fans that might take object to any criticism, no matter how legitimate or valid. As a writer working in the comic book medium, Moore’s talent has been matched only by his ambition. Even talented, ambitious writers, however can overreach at times. For example, Rorschach’s voice, as expressed primarily through his journal entries, often read like second-hand, inauthentic faux-noir rantings.

Moore’s attempts at humor, black or otherwise, also tend to fall flat. Granted, the appreciation of humor is definitely in the eye of the beholder (and the ear of the listener too), but few Watchmen fans would argue with the assertion that humor isn’t one of Moore’s strengths as a writer. The noir-inflected “voice” Moore uses for Rorschach also feels strained and second-hand, less the ravings of an authentic sociopath than Moore attempting, and not quite succeeding, at imitating Frank Miller, Moore’s contemporary as a comic book writer.

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originally posted: 03/13/09 19:12:27
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