All of the discussion about next March's Watchmen movie has focused on whether it'll be faithful to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal graphic novel. But really, they're missing the point - Watchmen shouldn't be a movie at all. It only makes narrative sense as a comic book, because so much of its strengths are tied to the comics format and it's all about the history of comics. A movie version, no matter how faithful, will be empty and pointless.
This really hit me while I was watching an interview with Watchmen director Zack Snyder the other day, and he was talking about trying to do justice to the graphic novel. Judging from his Spartan war movie 300 and the early Watchmen images, Snyder's a graphic-novel fetishist who will do everything in his power to do a perfect "cover version" of Moore and Gibbons' comic. And I don't really doubt that we'll end up with a note-for-note mimicking of the graphic novel, transplanted to the screen. But will it be worth watching?
Here are some reasons I don't think Watchmen will be that great of a movie:
It's about the history of comics. Originally, Moore was writing a comics series about the old Charlton comics heroes, like The Question, the Atom, Blue Beetle, and so on. At the time, DC had just acquired these properties, and Moore was going to have free reign to fuck them up. But then someone at DC decided to play it safe, and Moore had to come up with all new characters: Nite Owl instead of Blue Beetle, Rohrschach instead of the Question, Dr. Manhattan instead of Captain Atom. In the process of developing all these new characters, Moore came up with a whole detailed history of their Minutemen superteam, including a ton of backup documentation, including Hollis Mason's book Under The Hood. The result is like a history of superhero comics, going back to the Golden Age and showing how the superhero in comics had matured and darkened. It influenced the generation of superhero comics that followed.
Why couldn't we have had a Watchmen movie that commented on the history of superhero movies in the same way that the graphic novel commented on comics history? With sly references to the 1966 Batman movie and Tim Burton's 1989 version, and the weird history of Supergirl/Elektra girl spinoff movies? And the Corman Fantastic Four versus the superslick recent ones? Wouldn't that have been more interesting than a slavish Alan Moore tribute?
It's about experimenting with the comics format. Moore, of course, doesn't want there to be a Watchmen movie because of his struggles with Hollywood in general. But he also makes an important point, in an interview:
The problem with taking Watchmen to another medium is that we deliberately set out to establish-hard-some territory for comics. We tried to exploit the things in comics that cannot be done in any other medium... In a perfect world I'd rather see it as a comic. This insistence that if something is a success in one medium then it can automatically be translated to another and still be a success…
The most famous format experiment in Watchmen, of course, is the Black Freighter comic that we see a kid reading. It's a weirdly meta moment: not just a comic within a comic, but also a comic portraying the experience of reading a comic book and being caught up in it. The Black Freighter won't be in the theatrical release of Watchmen at all, of course - it'll be a separate animated DVD, and included in a DVD version at some point. But either way, it won't represent the same kind of experiment with the comics format that the graphic novel was.
Also, Moore explained in another interview:
What I'd like to explore is the areas that comics succeed in where no other media is capable of operating. Like in Watchmen, all that subliminal shit we were getting into the backgrounds. You are trapped in the running time of a film – you go in, you sit down, they've got two hours and you're dragged through at their pace. With a comic you can stare at the page for as long as you want and check back to see if this line of dialogue really does echo something four pages earlier, whether this picture is really the same as that one, and wonder if there is some connection there... Watchmen was designed to be read four or five times.
According to Moore, Terry Gilliam was looking at directing Watchmen, but he got stymied thinking about all the texture and narrative complexity he was going to have to cut out to make it work. Gilliam ended up coming around to Moore's point of view.
Watchmen is of its time. Just look at this set photo from Snyder's movie. It's trying very, very hard to look like New York, circa 1985 - and it's mostly succeeding, way more than the American version of Life On Mars manages to capture 1972 Los Angeles. But it's also missing the point: Watchmen is supposed to take place in the present day, an alternate present where Richard Nixon is still president, superheroes are real, and the Cold War is even more fucked up than it really was. The storyline loses a lot of its impact if you put it 24 years into the past, no matter how lovingly you construct that past. And it's going to take a lot more than gorgeous sets and obsessive attention to detail to conjure the long-gone Cold War mindset for moviegoers, many of whom were in diapers when the Berlin Wall fell.
Without being too spoilery for an old comic book, the story's climax depends heavily on understanding Reagan-era concepts like Mutually Assured Destruction and the winnable nuclear war. Even people who were grown-ups back then can barely wrap their minds around those things now.
The movie will pander to fans. That's the thing that will probably doom Watchmen, actually - it's aimed at the ultra-obsessive fans of the graphic novel. Not just the people who read it and enjoyed it once or twice - the people whose original copies are dog-eared and sweat-stained, and who then went out and bought the Absolute edition for $100.
Not just because of the obsessive copying of every facet of Moore and Gibbons' accomplishment - even down to using newsreels to copy the text portions of the story - but also because of the story's insularity, and the way it comments on superhero narratives. Snyder's 300 worked because it was a fairly simple story that really was from history, as opposed to Watchmen's byzantine wheels-within-wheels story.
In short: the Watchmen movie won't be able to duplicate the things that were awesome and juicy about the original graphic novel. And in its attempt to grasp at something that can't be captured, it may wind up being kind of boring.
Additional research by Lauren Davis.