I prefer not to give away any plot elements in the comic or film, so I am approaching this from a distant point of view.
When I first read Watchmen around 1986, I was in sixth grade. I was immediately blown away by how it overturned my understanding of what being a superhero meant. The moral complexities in newer comics and comic book movies really only emerged in the eighties. Prior to that, there was relatively little deviation from perfection. When superheroes made mistakes, there were physical consequences, but I had never read any comic book that illustrated the protagonist’s deep and subtle psychological nuances and pains. What made Watchmen even more remarkable is that it brings the reader through a journey in which we first find the actions of the characters mostly despicable, but then we evolve to have an understanding of the reasoning behind each action. Not only do we understand, we come to realize that virtually every act had been performed with good intentions. It just happens that these acts were perpetrated under profoundly varied moral paradigms. The story really blatantly emphasizes that good and evil are merely perspectives, not color-coded truths. Alan Moore clearly chose Dr. Manhattan’s cold, detached realism as a narrative device guiding us firsthand through this experience.
I find it unlikely that any reader will find it plausible to categorically declare any of the heroes as good or evil, right or wrong, or strong or weak. With a few exceptions, I find it also unlikely that even individual actions could be characterized using these black and white filters. The subtlety and depth of the characters gives us insight into flawed existences, but these flaws merely make us empathetic, not critical. I could picture myself acting the way that each of the heroes acts and feeling each of the feelings they feel. There are streaks of mental instability and mental illness throughout. We explore varied manifestations thoroughly, ranging from egomania to compulsion to depression to numbness. The themes have been explored extensively since, but in 1986, this was all new territory for comic books. (Batman as we know him today would never be Batman without Watchmen.) These motifs are not only woven throughout the characterizations and the delicately simplistic plot, but also directly thrust upon us in the closing moments of the story. We are left in ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt regarding our own moral stances and our willingness to accept reality vs. ideality. The ending of Watchmen is the best ending I have ever experienced and reading Watchmen very frankly had a profound impact on my thinking for some time.
So, in 1988 (or so), I heard that a movie was in the works. I was very excited about this. The rumors of the film ebbed and flowed. Allegedly, many scripts were written and trashed. I believe Terry Gilliam even was in discussion to make it as a TV mini-series. So, when I found out that we were finally going to get a Watchmen movie, I was reluctantly excited. I still cannot figure out why I would be excited by this prospect. I had already developed such a personal relationship with the text that a film version would be unlikely to capture all that the comic does. Indeed, my fears were not unfounded.
When I had heard that Zack Snyder, famous for the bombastically craptacular 300 was helming this one, I nearly wept. I declared that I would not even go see it. Over the months that followed, Snyder declared his reverence for the original work and his commitment to maintaining every detail that he possibly could, given the durational limits. He repeated this so many times that he had me believing. I was sure that I would not have to experience the kind of absolute, egotistical disregard for the original work that pervaded my last great anticipation, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I decided to give Snyder a chance. While this is no LOTR, I should have stuck with my instinctual distrust, at least a little bit.
The changes are mostly subtle, except the horrifically stupid ending that should have included Snyder’s face popping out declaring that he was just making sure that everyone knew that he had absolutely no understanding of the delicate subtleties of the story nor any grasp of the many important themes that make up its foundation. Apart from the ending, the omissions and insertions were small, but insulting. I could make a detailed laundry list, but each change works to strip away the moral nuances and makes clearer the sides that the audience should be taking at each moment. The ending, apart from its alteration, leaves us with a completely different sensation than the comic. The characters, without their fine moral struggles, virtually all fall completely flat. We hate too easily, we like too easily, we trust too easily, and we distrust too easily. It is a clear mark of a studio declaring that the story is too complex and confusing for the audience, so it must be dumbed down. For example, why the need to take the inexplicit, subtle, creeping shadows of impending doom and transform them into actual Def Con 1 red-button pressing? I am insulted that the audience is not allowed to experience the film using their own memories of Cold-War tensions. I am insulted that we need to be told about good and evil. I am insulted that humor and absurdity are inserted where we had vehement and absolute existentialist meditations.
I generally found the casting to be inadequate. I had a really hard time with Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre II and Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan. In fact, the portrayal of Dr. Manhattan, particularly the manner in which the dialogue was delivered, was a severely serious flaw. Jackie Earle Haley does an exceptional Rorschach, and everyone else ranged from barely passable to pretty good. Also on the plus side, the film does successfully recreate the imagery beautifully. We see frame-perfect depictions with excellent effects, costumes, and composition. The story happens mostly as it does in the comic as Snyder promised, but he misses the point that the story is the carrier of the meaning, but does not contain or embody the meaning. The movie is attractive and grand, but it is all a crumbling façade. Without the depth, the plot is not terribly compelling or interesting. In fact, it is kind of a sub-par noir detective story.
The best way I can summarily describe Watchmen is that it is the film equivalent of a wedding band. There is usually a technical perfection in the performance, but it is absolutely devoid of soul. Still, many people enjoy wedding bands and many people will enjoy Watchmen. Like wedding bands, part of it may be the nostalgia and part of it may be the slickness. Those elements of the film will likely appeal to fans of the comic. I suspect that viewers that are new to Watchmen, particularly those craving the intellectual content, will not only find it dull, but will leave with absolutely no sense of what Watchmen is all about. For that alone, the film is a great disservice to us all.