It is bound to be the biggest issue debated come Friday. It will be far more contentious than how big the box office will be, Dr. Manhattan’s constant state of obvious “endowment”, or the removal of several subtexts. No, what fanboys and freshman to the entire Watchmen experience will surely be hair-splitting over the ending Zack Snyder and his screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have come up with for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel. It will definitely be the focus of more than one review, and will perhaps turn some potentially favorable notices in strangled, sour pans. One thing’s for sure - of all the things the filmmakers could fiddle with, the Squid is clearly a comic book - sorry, graphic novel - sacred cow.
For those who want to go into the entire Watchmen experience unaffected by spoilers, this may be your point of literary departure. It is impossible to discuss this element of the book and film without giving away the major plot points in both. Again, you have been warned. For its main story thread, Watchmen revolves around a group of masked vigilantes, once active, now banned by the US government. As tensions between America and the Soviets escalate, the world is pushed to the point of nuclear annihilation. Only the superhero Dr. Manhattan - the only member of the group with any true power - can stop the slaughter. But according to paranoid crimefighter Rorschach, there is a conspiracy to stop anyone from saving the day. One by one, the masked avengers are killed, compromised, and framed for crimes they did not commit.
In the end, it turns out that (SPOILER ALERT - LAST WARNING) Adrian Veidt (also known as Ozymandias), desperate to mimic his hero Alexander the Great, has orchestrated a massive hoax to “scare” the nations of the world into working together toward peace. In the case of Alan Moore’s novel, the event in question is the arrival of a huge alien squid who terrorizes and destroys most of New York City. The character known as the Comedian is killed because he stumbles upon the plan. Rorschach is set up as a murderer because he insists upon investigating the man’s death. Even Dr. Manhattan is condemned as being the cause of cancer in many of his former associates. The allegations make him leave Earth, thereby guaranteeing Adrian minimal interference with his plan. The mock invasion does occur, and he is proven right. America and the Soviets vow to help each other, while the remaining heroes decide to keep quite about what happened.
For Snyder’s take on the material, the entire finale has been reconfigured. Instead of a giant squid, Dr. Manhattan’s matter transforming power is harnessed by Adrian and turned into a nuclear-style weapon. He detonates several of these “devices” around the world - not just in New York but LA, Moscow, and Hong Kong (among others). Naturally, everyone understands that Manhattan is the only “source” of this immense force, and in true Dark Knight style, our muscular blue champion decides to play the threat and take the fall “for the better of mankind”. He will let the powers that be worry that he, not each other, will be the final destruction of mankind. Again, everyone agrees to keep Adrian’s secret, and toward the end, we see the philanthropic side of the man coming out once again as his mega-conglomerate is show redeveloping the huge crater in the middle of the Big Apple.
If you had never read the graphic novel, the change wouldn’t bother you at all. The entire subtext in Snyder’s Watchmen (and with Moore more or less, come to think of it), is nuclear annihilation. The comic came out during the chilliest part of the Cold War, right as Reagan was confronting the USSR about their unprecedented build up of arms. Everywhere, especially in Europe, proliferation was condemned, and the concept that we might actually end some disagreement with a barrage of A-bombs was part of our foreign policy. So Moore was taking a timely stance when he delivered Watchmen. The actual Doomsday Clock was actually pushing toward that ominous hour of Midnight. Snyder has simply stepped in and expanded upon it (to wonderful effect, one might add).
But what about those of you loyal to Moore’s original vision? What about the millions of devoted readers who see the squid as the ultimate “outside force”, a threat much greater because of its otherworldly - and unexplainable - nature. Why turn Dr. Manhattan into something malevolent when he’s more philosophical than evil? Well, it seems clear that Snyder was influenced by two factors - one editorial and one contemporaneous. Watchmen the movie could not possibly capture all the aspects of Moore’s dense and detailed narrative. Some elements had to be sacrificed. One of the key facets not found in Snyder’s version is the horror themed comic Tales of the Black Freighter. The story of a shipwrecked sailor and his blood-drenched journey home is important for two reasons. First, it parallels Adrian’s own insane ideas about sacrifice, and, two, it is drawn by a fictional artist, now gone missing, who is later tied to the squid attack.
Clearly, without any of the Black Freighter material in the film - even at two hours and forty minutes, Snyder still couldn’t work it in - the artist/squid material would seem unusual. One moment, the world is worried about mutually assured destruction. The next, a big sea creature is killing innocent New Yorkers. Even in the graphic novel, it takes several pages of exposition before we “get” Adrian’s idea. In the movie, this is not necessary. Nuclear war is so omnipresent and important to the narrative that when the Dr. Manhattan device goes off, producing the same result, the devastation draws an immediate and sheepish response from world leaders. Besides, with the limited effectiveness of such films as Godzilla and Cloverfield, would a visualized monster really work?
Watchmen is centered around humans and their obvious flaws and frailty that to offer up some kind of creature feature deus ex machina dilutes that idea. Not that Moore didn’t deliver a devastating finale for his book. Far from it. In fact, on the page, in simple static imagery, the squid works wonderfully. It has the effect and scope the story needs. But since the medium of film infers a great deal of ‘dimension’ to any story, making the squid real would mean offering it up for scrutiny - and that’s not necessarily the best thing for a complicated story’s denouement. Now, we get the destruction without dissecting the source. The payoff is still the same, and in many ways, the aftermath is more powerful, more realistic. As a result, it keeps Watchmen centered in a universe of people.
Still, there will be quibbling. Some will state that Snyder sucker punched Moore by sticking so closely to the source only to “jump ship” toward the end. They will then extrapolate still more fuel for the author’s “I hate adaptations” fire. Purists will simply balk out of allegiance, while those new to the film will wonder what all the hubbub is about. In the end, squid or no squid, Watchmen works because of its underlying themes and symbols. There is more to it than some alien entity. Still, many won’t be able to see the catastrophe for the calamari - and that’s sad indeed.