Sometime last week, I finally got my hands on the original graphic novel of V for Vendetta. I figured that since I was going to review this movie at some point, I ought to read the source material and treat it like all the other adaptations I’ve covered so far with this blog. Interestingly enough, the creative force being the graphic novel was none other than Alan Moore, the same man who created The Watchmen! While I’ve never been much of a comic book guy – which I admit is both treasonous and weird given my obvious geekhood! – I can honestly say that this was one of the best graphic novels I have ever read. Hell, it was guys like Moore with such creations as Watchmen and V that helped to establish the very concept of the graphic novel. While the dividing line between them and comic books is pretty fine, one can’t deny that guy’s like Moore combine a great deal of thought and inspiration to come up with these things, certainly no less than what typically goes into a high-end novel.
Not only that, but with The Watchmen, we got a story that was equal parts satire on the traditional subject matter of comics (superheroes) and the history of the 20th century. This is done in true sci-fi form, employing an alternate reality to show how the existence of a certain phenomena altered history, and using the differences to illustrate what took place in the real world. Embracing such things as generational change, feminism, war, civil rights, the decline of America, politics, nuclear holocaust, paranoia, UFO hysteria, and the American Dream, the scope and depth of this book was virtually undeniable. And when it came time to adapt it to the big screen, the same spirit came through pretty clear. There were naturally some weaknesses that emerged out of the monumental task of adapting the voluminous text to the big screen, and some complained about the changes, but in the end, it felt like a pretty faithful adaptation, and one that was overdue!
Zack Snyder must have seemed like the natural choice to shoot this epic, having directed 300 – another graphic novel adaptation – just three years before. The end result was an official release that left out various parts of the plot in order to cut down on run time, but still managed to be two and a half hours long. As expected, a directors cut and an “Ultimate Cut” were also released on DVD that contained much of the missing elements, and they run for approx. three and three a half hours respectively! That’s what you get when you try to adapt a classic to the big screen, I guess. In either case, the box office draw and DVD sales were through the roof, another result of a classic meeting the big screen!
Naturally, there were those who complained about the cinematic release, citing the things that were left out, the new ending which did away with the whole UFO theme, and what not. However, the thing that divided audience the most, ironically enough, was Snyder’s commitment and reverence of the original source material. While some praised him for his faithful adaptation, his biggest critics saw this is as a drawback, claiming that his commitment to the source material made the movie feel “stuffy” and “boring”. Some even found themselves falling in the middle, saying that they were impressed with the faithfulness of the adaptation, but unsure as to whether or not this made for a good movie. One thing was certain though, for fans of the graphic novel, the biggest source of contention was the changed ending! Squiddy or Manhattan, which was better? For those of you who read the novel, you know what I mean 😉 For those of you who don’t, read on!
The story opens on the murder of a superhero by the name of The Comedian. Whereas the novel only shows the aftermath of this, the movie gives us the full fight scene in order to open with a bang and get our attention. In any case, we begin the movie knowing that The Comedian (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is dead, and his friend, fellow superhero Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), is on the case! This latter superhero, named for the mask he wears, is one of the few superheros in this day and age who’s not working for the government or gone into retirement. He believes The Comedians death is part of plot to eliminate the Watchmen, as superheroes have been turned on by popular opinion and outlawed by the state. We also learn quickly that due to the historical presence of superheroes, the world has unfolded quite differently. Due to their efforts, America won the Vietnam war, Richard Nixon remained president since, the Cold War escalated and nuclear war now seems inevitable. Society has also gone to hell in a hand basket, but at least there are electrical cars!
So, fearing a plot against his former superhero friends, Rorschach seeks them out and tries to warn them. These include Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), his wife and partner Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). Most of them are retired, except for Dr. Manhattan who is doing nuclear research for the government (fitting since he’s a nuclear-powered, godlike man!) and Ozymandias who’s supersmarts have led him into the world of inventing and big business. Most of them are skeptical, until an assassination attempt against Ozymandias is narrowly averted. The movie then gravitates between filling in the characters back stories and the progress of the murder investigation in the present.
On the one hand, we see how The Watchmen, an organization of crime-fighting superheroes, evolved from the Minutemen, a similar group that was formed in the 1930’s in response to the rising tide of organized crime and gangsters. In showing the history of the Watchmen, we are made aware of how history unfolded differently since their own stories are so very intertwined with history. What is palatable in all this is the feeling of loss and betrayal that accurately portrays America in the 20th century. Much like in the novel, there is the pervasive sense of the “end of innocence” as we go from a rought but optimistic past through a series of shocks and upheavals, landing finally in a dark and gloomy present where annihilation seems inevitable. Most of this told from the point of view of Rorschach, a man who’s own cynicism reflects the mood of his age. His thoughts and findings, all of which he puts down in his journal (which will come up later), provide the narration. And I dare say Haley did a very good job portraying this dark, brooding superhero! The way Rorschach always said “Hrrrmmmm”, that I thought was done pretty well too.
In any case, Rorschach’s investigation soon leads him to a former villain named Moloch (Matt Frewer) whom he suspects because of him being a former enemy of The Comedian. However, his suspicions are allayed when he learns Moloch is dying of cancer. Interestingly enough, Moloch tells him that the Comedian showed up at his apartment shortly before he died, drunk off his ass and muttering something about how it was all a joke. This makes Rorschach even more curious, as he now believes the man was onto something that could shake even him. It’s been well established at this point that The Comedian was a real SOB, and that his alias is sort of an ironic joke. Like the Joker, his humor comes in a brutal, sardonic form, albeit somewhat less evil (only somewhat).
In any case, Rorschach soon finds himself framed when he returns to Moloch’s apartment, finds him dead, and that the police are upon him. He puts up a brave struggle, but the police soon have him and rip off his mask. They are suprised to find that this ass-kicking vigilante is actually a pretty puny man who wears lifts, but is a grizzled due nonetheless (Haley looked the part pretty well too!). While in jail, we get to hear some of Rorschach’s story as a shrink examines him, and the reasons for his cynicism and dark world-view quickly become clear. Seems Rorschach was the child of a prostitute who routinely beat him, until he ran away from home and began beating the shit out of bullies. In time, became a vigilante and donned a mask that looks exactly like a Rorschach diagram, dolling out justice to those who violated the law and/or his rigid moral code (which he clearly uses to compensate for his lack of moral values growing up). At first, he had limits, beating criminals up but never killing anyone. But then came the encounter that forever changed him, which he relates with brutal detail to the shrink while looking at (you guessed it!) Rorschach diagrams! I shant go into too much detial, suffice it to say that it involved a pedophile/murdered who’s crime demanded swift and severe retribution!
Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan comes under fire during a televised interview. Seems some investigative reporter has turned up evidence that everyone he’s ever been in contact with is dead or dying of cancer. You see, Manhattan was created when a nuclear accident broke down ever cell in his body, only to later be recomposed out of pure energy. He can take whatever form he wishes, duplicate himself, teleport, vaporize his enemies, and so forth. However, it was assumed up until this point that his presence was benign and he was not a threat unless he wanted to be. When he learns this, he has a minor breakdown and teleports himself to Mars, wanting to break contact with humanity and spare anyone else the harm of being around him. His partner, Silk Specter II, has already moved out since his lack of humanity was driving a wedge between them. But when she hears of his departure, she is understandably upset. She has already moved in with former colleague and friend Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and the two begin a sort of affair.
With Manhattan gone, the Soviet Union, which has been at a strategic disadvantage since Manhattan first started working for the US government, decides to take advantage of his departure and invades Afghanistan. The Doomsday Clock gets closer to midnight! Similarly, Silk Specter and Night Owl decide to come out of retirement because of the impending crises and do what they can to help people in need. Their affair has been abortive up to this point because they feel afraid and impotent with all that’s happened, but after saving several people from a burning building, they feel on fire and do it right in Nite Owl’s hovercraft! To Halleluiah by Leonard Cohen no less! They then break Rorschach out of jail, knowing that he was right about their being conspiracy at work. With The Comedian dead, an attempt on Ozymandias and the confrontation that made Manhattan leave Earth, it now seems evident that someone wants The Watchmen out of the way. After all that is done, Silk Specter decides to confront Manhattan, which she does after he comes for her and brings her to Mars. In the course of a tense discussion, he reveals to her that The Comedian was her father. Seems her mother, Silk Specter the first (played by Carla Gugino) slept with him in spite of his violent behavior towards her, and she was the result. She is, again, understandably upset, but still manages to convince Manhattan to come back and help them.
Together, Rorschach and Nite Owl go to Ozymandias’ office and unlock his files. In them, they find compelling evidence that he has been behind everything. The smoking gun comes when they see that The Comedian was working for him in the last while, and that his death was obviously to prevent him from telling the others what he had found out. They also figure out that he staged his own assassination attempt and sent a false reporter to tell Manhattan the cancer story, thus getting him out of the picture. They then travel to his Antarctic retreat where they know he’s still working on whatever pet project The Comedian died to protect. And here we get another change just like at the beginning (aka. the addition of a fight scene). In the comics, Ozymandias reveals his full plot to them and only tangles with Rorschach briefly. In the movie, there is an extended fight scene between Owl, Rorschach and Specter before he shows them what he’s really up to. And that’s where the biggest change of all comes into play: the big finish! But first, his motive!
Basically, Ozymandias explains that his plan was to unify the US and USSR and prevent a nuclear war by exploding the world’s largest energy reactors which he and Dr. Manhattan created. This will level several of the world’s major cities. Naturally, they try to stop him, but he explains that its too late and the reactors are already set. The energy signatures of the explosions are consistent with Manhattan’s, in part because the technology is based on the same forces that created him. Ergo, it is believed HE attacked Earth, most likely out of some anger-fueled breakdown that happened as a result of his breakdown. As noted already, this is not what happened in the novel, but more on that later…
Silk Specter and Manhattan have already shown up, and Ozymandias tries to kill Manhattan by luring him into some kind of nuclear de-compiler that is similar to the one that altered him in the first place. However, Manhattan proves immune to it and manages to finally subdue Ozymandias. He, however, turns on his many TV’s and shows him the reports which tell how the US and Soviet Union are standing down in the face of this new attack. They both seem to think Dr. Manhattan is attacking them now and are combining forces to defend against him. The others are angry, but Manhattan cannot argue with the logic and agrees to take on the role of the bad guy and go back into exile, this time permanently. Rorschach refuses to play along, him being a no-compromises kind of guy, and Manhattan is forced to vaporize him to maintain their little secret. Manhattan then says good-bye for the last time and leaves them for good. Nite Owl and Silk Specter leave too, vowing to keep fighting crime as New York rebuilds and build a future together.
The movie then ends with people from a right wing tabloid named the New Frontiersmen talking about there’s no news now that the Cold War has ended. But it seems that in their incoming mail, there’s a strange journal… It’s Rorschach’s, which he happened to mail to them just before he and Nite Owl departed for Antarctica. Remember how he recorded everything in there? Well, it seems like the secret might get out after all! The movie and comic both end on this scene, offering the reader/viewer an uncertain and possibly open ending.
First off, the new ending. As I’ve said twice now, the part where Ozymandias blew up the world’s major cities and blamed Manhattan was not what had happened in the original graphic novel. There, Ozymandias was working on perfecting matter teleportation, and it was this technology which he also used to try and destroy Dr. Manhattan. In any case, what he was teleporting was the body of a massive, genetically engineered bio-organism that looked very much like a massive alien squiddy into the heart of New York. Sounds weird, I know, but the result was that New Yorkers became convinced that an alien attack was underway. The organism died in the teleportation sequence, and only a few people were killed, but the point is they believed that an invasion attempt had failed, but more could be coming. THIS is what united the US and USSR, the prospect of an external threat that came from another species, not Doc Manhattan.
To be fair, I saw the reason for the changeover. The Squiddy concept was weird, but it played into the whole UFO paranoia that also existed in the latter half of the 20th century, as seen with Roswell and Area 51. The idea of playing that against Cold War rivalry made sense, it was just the execution that seemed a little weird. By putting Dr. Manhattan at the center of the conspiracy, Snyder was able to rework the plot quite effectively, but he did away with an essential element as a result. In addition, the recurring side-story about the pirate comic Tales of the Black Freighter which a patron is reading at a newstand, was also missing. However, Snyder was sure to include an animated adaptation of this portion of the novel onto the DVD.
The concept of the Doomsday Clock was also something that was changed, albeit in a faithful way. In the novel, the clock is not an actual object but a device that tells the reader before each chapter how close they are to the climax. But in order to keep it, Snyder adapted it into the movie as a set piece a media personality used to capture people’s fears about the impending nuclear war. Other than that, the only real changes had to do with action sequences which were included for obvious reasons. And they’re actually quite entertaining, being at once over the top and brutal. In a way, it kind of adds to the satire, combining superhero-like antics with bloody realism, which is essentially what the comic book is all about.
So what else was bang on…? Well, the feel was almost exactly the same. The movie’s intro, done to “The Times They Are A-Changing” by Bob Dylan was quite masterful at establishing the tone and giving the audience a quick glimpse of the back story. In fact, the entire soundtrack is faithful to the time period being depicted, giving it all a sense of historicism. The only flaw I saw in any of this was the scene where Nite Owl and The Comedian (in a flashback sequence) are shown cracking down on protesters during the late 70’s before superheroes were officially outlawed. After dispersing the crowd, Nite Owl turns to The Comedian and says “What happened to this country? What happened to the American Dream?” This was a bit obvious, and it was never done in the comic. For the most part, the movie captured this theme very well so I didn’t see why any of the characters needed to come right out and say it.
But overall, I felt that the movie was a faithful adaptation. In fact, I was impressed with how closely the movie followed the novel until the end. However, this does not mean that it could ever hold a candle to the original. This is not an attempt at snobbery on my part, it’s actually just how I feel about all adaptations. They are fun and serve their purpose, but can never really be expected to provide the same meaning or enjoyment as the original. In addition, reading is always more enjoyable, in my humble opinion, because the reader is able to stop, think, and interpret what they are taking in. In a movie, the entire process is transmissive, no room for interpretation until its all over, and the key jobs of visualization and imagining are done for you.
So… yeah! Watchmen, people! Read it, see it, decide for yourself. And know that the second you do, you too will have an opinion on the subject and demand that it be heard. Hell, you might even shout at a person or two for not sharing your beliefs. See, that’s the thing about geeks. We’re passionate about interesting but inconsequential things!
Entertainment Value: 7/10 (run-time kind of brings it down)