The View From Here

First Look -- Watchmen footage

Michael Bonner

Gentle readers of UNCUT, you can rest easy. While large chunks of the Internet seem obsessed with quite how slavishly close to the original Zack Snyder’s treatment of Watchmen, the Holy Grail of modern comics, will be, I think we can permit ourselves a small smile. Bob Dylan, it seems, is a fan.

Dylan’s music is one of the many tangential influences on Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ superhero graphic novel. Readers of the series may recall one key sequence, where we do indeed see two riders approaching while a wild cat howls. Perhaps a less obvious reference point would be “Desolation Row”’; according to Gibbons in a Q+A session following this screening, the lines “Now at midnight all the agents/And the superhuman crew/Come out and round up everyone/That knows more than they do” were one of the starting points for the comic. More conspicuously, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” plays over the opening credits of Snyder’s film, a move that’s apparently been met with approval by Dylan himself.

That we’re talking about a superhero movie that uses Dylan as a prominent touchstone should give you some indication that Watchmen isn’t your generic blokes in tights beating up other blokes in tights property. Watchmen, the series, is credited as a pivotal moment when the medium “grew up”, introducing shade and depth to the four-colour world of the comic book. Set in a parallel 1985, where Nixon is President and the Cold War is going strong, Watchmen is still men in tights fighting other men in tights, but among other things, there’s a greater psychological complexity behind the characters and their motivation. One of Moore and Gibbons’ key aims was to deconstruct the superhero genre. So with the character of Rorschach we got the costumed crime fighter as sociopathic vigilante; the question of what would really happen if a character developed total super powers was answered in the blue-skinned, Godlike form of Dr Manhattan; while with the self-made, hyper-intelligent Ozymandias, they explored the idea of how a character’s philanthropic desire to do good could be morally and tragically compromised. And with The Comedian, whose murder opens both the comic and the film, Moore and Gibbons created arguably their most fascinating character: a cynical vigilante turned government agent, whose activities included political assassination and running Black Ops in Vietnam.

Of course, there’s more to the comic than that. The incredible detail and layering of the story, the subtle repetition of images and references (clocks, particularly) is extraordinary. The use of a rigid, 9 panel per page grid, echoing film frames, gave the book a broadly cinematic feel. I remember buying issue 1 from Forbidden Planet on Denmark Street in late 1986 and being completely flawed by it. I’d grown up on both Moore and Gibbons’ work in 2000AD – Moore’s The Ballad Of Halo Jones is still one of the greatest comic stories I’ve ever read – but I honestly don’t think I was prepared for how incredibly complex and rigorously intelligent Watchmen was. Which brings me to Zack Snyder’s film.

As someone who has no real love for zombie movies, I couldn’t really care much about his “reimagining” (awful word) of Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. 300 was fine enough, as a literal page-to-screen adaptation. In this morning’s Q&A, Snyder made clear he wanted to do Watchmen justice – if only to stop another film maker from cocking it up. It seems that mostly involves another pretty close frame-for-shot adaptation. One of the three, 10-minute sequences screened corresponds with Watchmen Chapter IV, called Watchmaker, which finds Dr Manhattan alone on Mars contemplating his life. It’s one of the highlights in the comic, displaying Moore’s adroit story-telling skills as he jumps around through time periods – from Jon Osterman being shown the inner workings of a watch by his father shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima, cutting to Osterman’s accident that facilitates his transformation into Dr Manhattan; his relationships; the attempts by the military to turn him into a superhuman weapon.

Speaking to UNCUT in 2000, Moore admitted that that issue was “still one of the best things I’ve done.” And Snyder pretty much adapts it, if not shot-for-shot, then as close as to make no difference. But I can’t help wondering why, and exactly who this benefits. Ahead of the Hughes brothers’ film of his graphic novel, From Hell, Moore made an important distinction: “It’s not my book. It’s their film.” Perhaps there’s something of the geek about Snyder, the comic book lover who became a film-maker and wanted to protect the integrity of one of his favourite reads, rather like Peter Jackson and The Lord Of The Rings. But, outside the legions of comic book readers, will anyone particularly care, or notice?

As a movie fan, I’m excited about seeing the rest of Watchmen on the strength of the 30 minutes of footage I saw today. As a comic book fan, I’m perhaps oddly less interested in seeing the finished movie. If Snyder had set out to broadly capture the spirit and tone of the series, but brought his own interpretation of the story, it perhaps would be a fascinating exercise in book to movie evolution. As it is, just to transfer the same images from one visually sequential medium to another seems a fairly strange way of going about your business.

All the same, good stuff.

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Watchmen opens in the UK in March 2009. You can see the trailer here.


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