Years ago, I argued that any eventual Watchmen movie would be full of suck, because I didn’t imagine that a major studio would be willing to finance it as a period piece, and the story only makes sense during the cold war.
Obviously, I was wrong: the upcoming Watchmen movie is going to be a period piece, as it should be. And from what I’ve seen, the production design is beautiful.
Nonetheless, it’s not going to be as good as the comic. And it’s not going to be faithful, no matter how slavishly it reproduces the original comic book’s plot.1
First of all, judging from the preview, the movie is flashy. Look at how beautiful the lighting is! Oh, cool, she fell down through the flaming roof and glared at the camera! And another shot I’ve seen (I don’t think it’s in this preview) uses that neat-looking effect from Matrix, where time is slowed down and then suddenly speeds up during action scenes. How dated will that look 10 years from now?
Watchmen the comic was deliberately drawn in an old-fashioned, nine-panel grid with flat coloring. No elements jumped out of panels, and although the comic is full of striking visuals, the drawing style is extremely sedate for a superhero comic. Stylistically, Watchmen the comic rejected most of the then-current trends of superhero drawing. The movie, on the other hand, looks like every other superhero movie that’s come out in the last few years.
Watchmen, the comic, was effectively a meta-comic. It was a comic about comics.
Moore and Gibbons designed Watchmen to showcase the unique qualities of the comics medium and to highlight its particular strengths. In a 1986 interview, Moore said, “What I’d like to explore is the areas that comics succeed in where no other media is capable of operating”, and emphasized this by stressing the differences between comics and film. Moore said that Watchmen was designed to be read “four or five times,” with some links and allusions only becoming apparent to the reader after several readings. Gibbons described the series as “a comic about comics”.
So what is the movie about? It’s not a movie about comics, because it can’t be; it has no panels, no word balloons. But it’s not about movies, either. Mainly, from what I’ve seen, it’s about a bunch of fans who loved the comic and want to make a Watchmen movie.
The story of Watchmen is a melodramatic plot with better-than-average plotting and characterization for a superhero comic; what made it outstanding was how it was told. The statico rhythm of the nine-panel grid, held to so rigorously that even a single double-sized panel felt momentous. The ever-growing pile of repeating visuals and background details, possible to appreciate because in comics, the reader can take all the time they want to examine a panel. The layout effects that simply could never be done in another medium (most famously, the entire chapter in which the layouts were mirror images of each other — so the last page of the chapter was the first page reversed, the second-to-last was the second page reversed, and so on). The comic book that a character in Watchmen was reading — and which the readers eventually saw all of, a few panels or pages at a time, spread out over the entire comic.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ll see, discuss (obviously) and probably enjoy the movie. But I’ll probably enjoy it because it’s effectively a well-done, high-budget piece of fan art. I’ll “ooh” and “ah” all the pretty sets they’ve built, and the scenes they’ve recreated. But Watchmen can’t work as well as movie as it did as comics, because Watchmen is comics. A Watchmen movie is a self-contradiction. And if there is, someday, a superhero movie which does for the form what Watchmen did for superhero comics, it won’t be an adaptation of anything.
Hearing fans enthuse about the Watchmen movie, I suspect they’re hoping for legitimization. This’ll show the world that comics are a real art form! And that superheroes can be real art! Well, I say: screw that. Comics are an art form. Superhero comics can be good.2 And we can move past this tedious desire to have our tastes given a gold star by Entertainment Weekly. Can’t we?
- Which can’t be all that slavish because, let’s face it, they don’t have 10 hours to work with. [↩]
- Although usually, not. [↩]