Watchmen first appeared as a DC Comics series from 1986 to 1987, before being republished some time later as the mega-selling graphic novel which took the creations to a global audience. The blood-stained smiley icon on the cover, the image of a clock face advancing one minute closer to midnight, and the twelve-chapter structure were all elements that were credited with elevating the graphic novel to a new art form. Watchmen became the only graphic novel to appear on Time magazine’s 2005 list of The 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the Present. A mystery adventure, Watchmen is set in an alternate America in which costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society, and the Doomsday Clock – which charts the USA’s tension with the old Soviet Union – moves closer to midnight. In New York, 1985, the world has become a place darkened by fear and paranoia where regular human beings who once donned masks to fight crime now hide from their identities. A place where the ultimate weapon, an all-powerful superbeing, has tilted the global balance of power, pushing the world implacably closer to nuclear midnight. When one of his former colleagues is murdered, the outlawed, masked vigilante Rorschach sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. As he reconnects with his former crime fighting legion – a disbanded group of retired superheroes – Rorschach discovers a wide-ranging conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future.
When it was first released, the graphic novel quickly gained a cult following and resonated deeply with a generation raised on the prospect of nuclear war as a palpable reality, praised for giving voice to the anxiety and unease of the times. The original team of heroes, the Minutemen, was later replaced by a new generation – Silk Spectre II, Nite Owl II, Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias. The Comedian is the only holdover from the original creations – each character a symbol of a different kind of power. Languishing on Hollywood shelves for over 20 years, Watchmen was considered unfilmable, until director Zach Snyder got interested, the man who made 300 a global hit, and the green light was finally given. Faced with the problem staying faithful to the original material while tweaking parts of the structure – mostly the ending – to make it a more user-friendly experience, he largely succeeds where other directors had taken a puzzled pass. As the man who put the muscle and gore into 300, Snyder plays up the action at the expense of the more philosophical aspects of the novel – subtlety is not his strong suit in a movie where bone-snapping fights and churning explosions dominate the proceedings. In terms of the cast, Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl and Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach are as close as it gets to their graphic counterparts, but Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre, while gorgeous, is weak, and Matthew Goode as the power obsessed Ozymandias doesn’t come close to the original for die-hard fans of the book. Other roles include a vibrant Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian and Carla Guigno as Sally Jupiter. With the same gusto he brought to the battle sequences in 300, Snyder plays up the conflict in Watchmen, as well as the terrific sets – this is one eye-popping Big Apple as you’ve never imagined it. Opting to gloss quickly over the themes of power and corruption so vividly painted in the source material, the director goes for big bang action sequences at the expense of character development and political commentary. For those who loved the book, Watchmen will be cause for much debate, but for a new generation of cinemagoers unfamiliar with the original it will be a pleasant thrill-ride laden with blunt, but effective, action pitched at the younger audience.