Having just seen the new trailer for the forthcoming Watchmen movie (see link in the side bar), legal disputes between Fox and Warner Bros notwithstanding, I have to say I’m looking forward to this movie with a simultaneous sense of excitement and dread. Excitement, because it looks so, so very well done, and dread because I can’t help worrying it won’t deliver what it’s promising.
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, this is the latest Hollywood blockbuster treatment of a comic book series. What makes people so excited about it is that it’s based on a comic series that redefined the genre back in the day. Alan Moore essentially created a whole universe from scratch for a 12-issue limited run, and populated it with characters of astonishing depth and history. The whole storyline is an alternative history of the United States, a history where because of one individual, the war in Vietnam was won, and Nixon went on to a third term. While the story is set in the mid-1980s, Moore has developed the histories of the characters prior to the opening, sometimes 50 years or more back. The ramifications of events in the world generally are also alluded to; in a world where costumed vigilantes are commonplace, superhero comics died in their infancy – In the Watchmen Universe, comics about buccaneers and pirates are the current fad.
The artwork by Dave Gibbons was also groundbreaking. As well as being of his usual excellent quality, he and Moore deliberately set out to try and make the comic work like a movie; the vast majority of pages contain 9 equally sized panels, more often than not ‘seen’ from the exact same angle, as if the comic were being shot by a camera rather than drawn. The book (and I always think of it as a book, having owned only the graphic novel) uses several other techniques reminiscent of movies; rapid cross-cuts between scenes and dialogue, metaphorical imagery, flashbacks… The comic is also notable for what it doesn’t contain; no ‘thought bubbles’, and none of the the POW! and ZAP! style sound effects lampooned in the old Batman TV series. This isn’t so remarkable nowadays, but at the time Watchmen was published, their absence was practically unique.
And this is perhaps where my misgivings come in, at least partly. We’re talking about a movie adaptation of a comic book which subverted common techniques in movie making, and I’m not sure how well this recursiveness will translate on the big screen. It’s already evident from the trailers that the director is fond of Matrix style ‘bullet time’ pauses in the action, which are clearly meant to mimic the static nature of a comic frame, but there are many scenes in the book which it’s hard to imagine running as a film scene. Not only that, but as I mentioned earlier, there’s a hell of a lot of story to cover, and certain elements of it benefit from a quick flip back and forth between earlier parts of the story. This again works fine for the reader, who sets the pace of how quickly he reads, but movies set their own pace, and a complex story could so easily become confusing.
There is a bright side, however. From what I’ve seen of the trailers and production stills, the crew seem to be going out of their way to be faithful to the comic, to a degree I’ve never really seen in any superhero movie. The characters for the most part look like the drawings have sprung to life, and the sets and props are incredibly faithful to the look of the story. Nothing that’s been shown so far shows any kind of deviation from the established story, and this in itself makes me hopeful. If they’re going to spend this amount of time and meticulous attention to making the movie look right, hopefully they’ll be devoting as much attention to making it feel right.
Who’ll be watching the Watchmen? I for one will be first in the queue, regardless of the reviews. Even if I’m disappointed with it as an adaptation, I suspect it’ll be spectacular to watch. Hopefully I won’t be disappointed at all.