Before the brooding, morally complex likes of “X-Men,” “Superman Returns” and “The Dark Knight” flickered across multiplex screens, there was “Watchmen,” a precursor of sorts to the current “golden age” of comic-based cinema.
Widely hailed as one of the most influential comic series of the last 25 years and a work that re-defined what comic books could achieve, artist Dave Gibbons and writer Alan Moore’s sweeping, cerebral and bracingly adult dismantling of the superhero mythology remains gripping, despite the innumerable, subsequent attempts by others to capture the precise blend of pop cultural, political and psychological depth that Gibbons and Moore brought to their dystopian tale.
Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Stephen McHattie, Matt Frewer, Carla Gugino
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 6 Mar 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 6 Mar 2009 (General release); 2009)
The limited-run series, spread over 12 issues released from 1986-1987, is set in an America populated by outlawed superheroes like blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan, the masked Rorschach and the grizzled Comedian, where Richard Nixon is enjoying his fifth term in office after successfully ending the Vietnam War and the country teeters on the edge of nuclear annihilation, thanks to an antagonistic relationship with Russia.
When the Comedian is mysteriously killed - his dramatic death provides the series’ iconic image of a bloodied smiley face button - the ruthless Rorschach works to reunite his fellow heroes and solve a sudden spate of hero deaths. Through it all, Moore and Gibbons weave several subplots, including the history of the Watchmen, a fictional pirate storyline (“Tales of the Black Freighter”) and faux clippings from the heroes’ storied pasts that flesh out back stories.
It’s a dizzying, dazzling mash-up of literary substance and multi-panel mayhem; Moore’s erudite concepts - not many comics can claim William S. Burroughs as an inspiration or casually dip into string theory - give weight to Gibbons’ evocative and, at the time, groundbreaking visuals. Like a densely plotted, vividly imagined novel, “Watchmen” demands multiple readings before all of its pleasures become apparent.
That narrative richness also explains why it has taken so long for “Watchmen” to make its way to the silver screen. According to the Internet Movie Database, no fewer than five directors - Terry Gilliam, Michael Bay, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass and Snyder - have been attached to the project over the last two decades.
Everyone from Tom Cruise and Jude Law to Jamie Lee Curtis and Jessica Biel have been batted around as potential cast members, with the script also undergoing numerous re-writes, before Snyder ultimately settled on a draft penned by David Hayter and Alex Tse. While it excises a lot of the series’ subplots, it comes as close as any feature film of manageable length can to encompassing the scope of the Watchmen universe.
Although Moore asked that his name be removed from the film (nothing against Snyder or Warner Bros. - Moore has done this with every cinematic adaptation of his work), the 59-year-old Gibbons has been involved with the production from its early stages. He’s even produced a book, with Chip Kidd and Mike Essl, of conceptual sketches and other Watchmen ephemera titled “Watching the Watchmen” in conjunction with the film’s release.
We caught up with the affable British artist in Los Angeles and picked his brain about the long-gestating project and the graphic novel’s impact on pop culture.
Q. What did you think of the finished film?
A. I saw it for the fourth time last night at the L.A. premiere and I must say, I like it better every time. As people used to say about the comic book, each time you read it, you see something different and certainly that’s been my experience. I really love the movie - I’m very, very happy with it. I don’t think any comic-book property has ever been treated with such respect.
Q. Was it important to you to be involved in the making of the film?
A. Once I’d actually met Zack Snyder and talked to him about it, I got a really strong, gut feeling that this was the guy who had the vision and had the understanding and the energy and also the clout to actually get it made. I hadn’t been involved at all with the previous attempts to make a movie, but there was just something about this that felt right to me. A lot of “Watchmen” has been about timing and serendipity and coincidence and this just felt to me like the stars were in the right place. Hopefully, my involvement has made it a slightly better movie than it would’ve been otherwise.
Q. Did you have a sense, when you were working with Alan creating the piece, of the impact it would have?
A. No, at the time, we didn’t even forsee that it would be a graphic novel. We thought that we’d do 12 issues of a comic book and it’d be going into the back-issue bins and having gone out of print, we’d get the rights back and that would be it. The fact that it’s a graphic novel that’s been in print for all that time is amazing in itself. The fact that more than 20 years later, there’s a big Hollywood movie - it’s beyond anything we imagined.
Q. As a reader of comics, why is “Watchmen” important to you?
A. Alan and I were both fans of comic books and to a degree, I think we both still are. We just wanted to look at them in a way that hadn’t been before, to maybe ask questions that hadn’t been asked, that would hopefully feel fresh or more interesting. Usually, in comics, a guy puts on a costume and fights crime just because he’s a good guy and he thinks that’s what he’ll do, there’s no great convincing psychological depth to that. So we tried to explore the reasons why, in reality, someone might put on a costume: It might be psychopathic, or they might be doing it to please their parents or they might be a bored rich kid who wanted some thrills.
Q. Does it feel like we’re in an age of comic-book films that are being taken as seriously as “Watchmen” and its ilk were 20 years ago?
A. I think there’s a huge audience out there that’s grown up on superhero comic books and they’re now old enough and wise enough in the way of superheroes that they maybe want those interesting questions asked. I think that the “Watchmen” movie stands in the same relationship to the recent raft of comic-book movies that our graphic novel did (to its contemporaries) back in the ‘80s.
Q. At 12 issues, there’s so much going in “Watchmen” that it’s obviously going to be incredibly difficult to adapt - is there anything missing you wish had been retained?
A. I think they have pretty much got the meat of it - the thrust of the movie is the same, I think the moral ambiguity is the same and the questions it asks, the emotion of it which I think came over very, very strongly in the movie. Actually, later today I’m going to go see the cut of it that has “(Tales of the) Black Freighter” in it, which not only has that animated portion, but also has much more of the two Bernies, the guys on the street corner, the news vendor and the kid, who, in some ways, were our everyman characters. I know there’s a plan to release that at some point in the future; I think, with that included as well, you really would have the exact cinematic equivalent of what Alan and I did in the comic.
Q. What are you hoping people get out of the film?
A. I’m hoping that they get a really, really good cinematic experience. I think it’s important that, flattering though it is that it’s so faithful to what Alan and I did, it has to stand as a good movie, and I think it does. I think it’s the kind of movie where you come out ... talking about it and thinking about it. Like the comic book, seeing it once isn’t going to be enough.