(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation is a best case scenario situation.)

I will be the first to admit that Zack Snyder’s interpretation of Watchmen isn’t perfect. In fact, in some respects it’s a very strangely paced and plotted film, very long with meandering diversions into the psyches of its large and often disconnected cast to the point that it’s a turn-off for casual viewers looking for just another superhero movie. However, it’s one of the few comic book films that attempts a faithful adaptation of a specific and limited comic run, rather than just of the characters or brands that usually inspire the films of the Marvel and DC cinematic universes. Because of this, the film is often maligned as either being too faithful to its source material, not faithful enough, or even decried for its very existence, as comic author Alan Moore has in no uncertain terms.

10 years on (Watchmen opened on March 6, 2009), it’s easy to look back on Watchmen and recognize what the film was attempting and the ways it succeeded rather than failed, and while Moore’s comic is still the gold standard for telling this story, Snyder’s commitment to making a cinematic parallel made for probably the best version of this film we could possibly have hoped for.

Slow Motion, Comic Panels, and the Sound of Silence

A common criticism of Watchmen is that Snyder’s then-famous use of the slow motion techniques made famous in 300 undercuts one of the central theses of Moore’s work, namely that being a vigilante superhero is in no way glamorous or cool and the reality is that people who would willingly choose such a life are sad, toxic, and mentally ill. To a certain extent, I can’t really argue with this point. Particularly in the fight scene where Nite Owl and Laurie Jupiter help break Rorschach out of prison, the film goes out of its way to slow things down and highlight practiced fight choreography in a way that feels disingenuous to the themes of the film around it.

And yet, thinking back to 2009, when a superhero film of this scale and scope would have been considered risky – it performed alright at the box office, but not as well as Warner Brothers had hoped – it makes sense that producers would push Snyder to make a bigger deal of the action scenes in a story that is largely devoid of action. It’s an unfortunate reality of the business, but without that action emphasis, this film might not even exist in the form it does.

And the shame of that would be that Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong use those same slow motion techniques to emphasize the feeling of watching a moving comic book. The opening credits of Watchmen is one of my favorite examples of economy in storytelling, using the length of a four minute Bob Dylan song to recap the alternate history of this world though sepia snapshots that spell in broad strokes the foundation and collapse of the Minutemen while giving us the necessary piece that younger versions of our protagonists once formed a successor group called the Watchmen. Slow motion is used here to convey moments frozen in time, memories in the collective consciousness of this world that are gorgeous in their composition and revelatory in the amount of meaning they convey at a mere glance.

And this carries on to the rest of the film, from the haunting shots of the Comedian’s funeral to Dr. Manhattan’s emotionally desolate sojourn on Mars to the flashes of trauma that informed Rorschach’s deteriorating psychological state. Many of these shots are either inspired by or painstakingly copied from the panels of Moore’s comic, reflective of the infamous care Moore took in recreating the work of artists Dave Gibbons and John Higgins. In other words, the film looks fantastic and entirely faithful to the visual meaning Moore, Gibbons, and Higgins conveyed in their own visual medium.

It’s also worth noting, though, that Snyder’s choice of needle drops is an excellent enhancement to the material, rarely obvious but always significant. The aforementioned “The Times They Are A-Changin” is perhaps a little on the nose if appropriate, but “The Sound of Silence” makes for a perfect accompaniment to putting the Comedian and his secrets to rest. “99 Luftballons” and its poppy beats introduces us to Dan and Laurie attempting to recapture their vigilante youth with each other’s company, and Lenard Cohen’s rendition of “Hallelujah” is an aptly disturbing culmination of their sexual excitement from violence. The music selections are not only evocative of the time the film portrays, but memorably suggestive of the emotion we’re meant to feel as the familiar tunes are twisted to new purposes.

Twelve Issues, Three Hours, One Chance

The thing that’s easy to forget about what makes Watchmen such a beast to adapt to film is that the medium of comics is not kind to direct adaptation. Novels, memoirs, and even non-fiction histories are usually presented as one coherent narrative, not always with a three-act structure but with enough semblance of a beginning, middle, and end that it usually isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel in bring a story from print to film. Comics are a different matter entirely, which is why direct adaptations are so rare.

Watchmen was a limited run series that was eventually collected into an omnibus volume, but it is structurally twelve separate issues in a serialized story, each issue acting as a miniature story arc in the broader narrative of the series that can be read at the reader’s natural pace. The danger of bringing that sort of pacing to the screen is that it confuses the natural flow of story beats, heightening and lowering tension in a twelve act structure that feels unnatural and unwieldy in a single theatrical sitting.

Snyder’s solution to this was to cut as much extraneous material as possible, bringing the film down to a manageable two hours and forty-two minutes, which is still a long film but one that keeps a reasonable pace for how much information it needs to convey within that time. The film retains the lengthy diversions into the characters’ backstories, but they’re kept as concise as possible and sometimes come in the form of exposition rather than flashbacks. There are some shortcomings to this compression: Laurie’s character arc in particular is so compressed as to be almost non-existent, acting primarily as an impetus for Dan’s and Dr. Manhattan’s growth. (Granted, Alan Moore’s complicated relationship with female characters already makes adapting Laurie and her mother Sally a difficult task.) But the alternative here would be to add more scenes and a longer runtime that don’t necessarily add anything to the story as a whole.

The Director’s Cut of Watchmen feels plodding in its length, with the additional twenty minutes spent focusing on tertiary characters who were important in the comic but have little direct impact on the protagonists. The Director’s Cut even overexposes unmasked Rorschach wandering around with his The End Is Nigh sign, dulling the impact of an apparent featured extra secretly being the gruff antihero. The Ultimate Cut is even worse, as it inserts the animated Tales of the Black Freighter sequences that make little contextual sense in the film version. This is all to say that the theatrical cut is perfect as is because it communicates the spirit of Moore’s narrative without cramming in aspects of the story that don’t translate to the cinematic format.

That’s why I don’t take issue with how screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse changed the ending. For the purposes of Alan Moore’s series, it was intriguing to follow the comic within the comic, recognizing the parallels between the Black Freighter and the emotional arcs of the Watchmen before it culminates in a comic book world imploding under the comic book logic of alien invasion as drawn from the mind of Moore’s in-continuity stand-in as the author of Black Freighter. Now, imagine how many more concepts a cinematic adaptation of this would need to unpack: the existence of the comic, the narrative contents of the comic, the existence of the author as a character, and the parallels between the stories, all while keeping the pace and tone consistent across a limited timeframe, only to then miss the vital ingredient that Moore was making commentary on comics through the medium of comics.

No, the simpler solution is to reframe Dr. Manhattan as Ozymandias’ scapegoat. It preserves the economy of characters without undercutting the part of the original narrative that could translate as cinematic climax: the ironic success of Ozymandias’ plan to create world peace through calculated genocide. The filmmakers behind Watchmen found a way to preserve the dramatic stakes of the source material while recognizing what parts of Moore’s commentary could only work in the medium upon which it was commentating. That’s no small feat, and while it may not make for the deepest possible interpretation of the story, but it does accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of transposing Watchmen into cinema.

The Skeleton Under The Blue Skin

What’s missing in the above analysis is one very simple thing: Watchmen is just a very entertaining film. Fidelity to source material is not the core metric to any adaptation’s success, but the fidelity in Watchmen’s choices can sometimes make it easy to focus on its divergences rather than the things it gets right on its own terms. The casting in particular is pitch perfect, with Patrick Wilson acting as an appropriately shlubby Nite Owl, Jackie Earle Haley affecting the unhinged duality of Rorschach, Jeffrey Dean Morgan embodying the sociopathy of the Comedian, and Matthew Goode reflecting the cold calculation of Ozymandias. The real MVP, though, is Billy Crudup’s take on Dr. Manhattan, his disaffected, almost tragic performance complemented by a perfect digital rendering of the inhuman superman.

Yes, Watchman is an accomplishment of adaptation, and the very nature of adaptation means that it will have detractors from purists. Those personal preferences are perfectly valid; I myself still prefer the relatively complexity of the comic. And even those unfamiliar with the comic may not be entirely on board for the pure operatic scope of superheroic subversion the film is trying to convey. But in my humble opinion, Watchmen might be the best thing Zack Snyder has ever done, or at the very least it’s the most successfully ambitious work of his career. The real shame here is that as Snyder’s ambitions grew his ability to execute upon them diminished with Suckerpunch and Batman v. Superman, so if this is the heights to which he could reach as a filmmaker, I’m very happy that Watchmen was the canvas upon which he proved himself, and I wouldn’t have anybody else behind the camera.

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