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01.16.09

How to Watch Watchmen

Watchmen, which hits theaters on Friday, is poised to be this year's biggest superhero blockbuster. Based on a legendary comic book series and starring some of Hollywood's hottest leading men (Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson), the film version almost didn't take flight. Douglas Wolk breaks down everything you need to know about it.

Sometimes a film comes along that is so highly anticipated that everyone wants to get their hands on it— Watchmen is one of those films. Comic obsessives everywhere have been waiting for the adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' landmark 1987 graphic novel for over two decades, and until January, it seemed they would have to keep waiting. Warner Brothers and Fox engaged in a dirty public battle over distribution rights to the film, a tooth-and-nail court brawl that was finally settled at the last minute. Warner will get to release the film solo, but had to pay Fox between $5-10 million in development fees (FOX originally optioned the book in the late '80s). Still, fans got a real release date—March 6—and have already started sleeping outside box offices to nab tickets.

The conventional wisdom, for many years, was that Watchmen was unfilmable.

If you’re not one of those people who spent hours in the comic book store as a child (or even now), the fervor may not make much sense…yet. So here is a brief guide to everything you need to know about one of 2009’s biggest films—it’s at least enough to get you through a nerdy cocktail party unscathed.

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SO WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL WITH WATCHMEN?

When Watchmen was initially serialized as a comic book in 1986-87, it turned the clichés of mainstream comics inside out, and irrevocably changed the landscape for superhero stories that came after it. Dark, gripping and immaculately constructed, it's been a fixture on the graphic-novel bestseller list ever since, and it was the sole graphic novel on Time magazine's list of the 100 greatest modern novels. New comics allude to it all the time; fans can quote its dialogue by heart, and still debate its characters' morality and hash out its tiniest subtleties. Its dramatization of the clash between utopianism and geopolitical catastrophe becomes more potent with every passing year. And it made the British writer Alan Moore arguably the biggest name in English-language comics.

WAIT—WHO IS THIS ALAN MOORE GUY?

Moore wrote (and Dave Gibbons drew) the graphic novel on which Watchmen is based; several of his other graphic novels, including V for Vendetta and From Hell, have also been adapted into movies. But Moore's name appears nowhere in Watchmen-the-movie's publicity materials: following a lawsuit over the atrocious 2003 adaptation of his and Kevin O'Neill's terrific graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he has famously refused to have anything to do with Hollywood, and says he'd " rather not know" about the Watchmen movie. He isn't even accepting royalties from it.

SO WHAT EXACTLY IS WATCHMEN ABOUT?

On a pure plot level, it's pretty straightforward: as the world teeters on the precipice of an apocalyptic war, an amoral superhero known as the Comedian has been murdered, and his old associates come out of retirement to find out who killed him. Thematically, though, there's a lot of other stuff going on. Watchmen-the-book is a story about nuclear terror: one of its recurring images, a clock's hands set at a few minutes to midnight, alludes to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock. Moore's story is also an elaborate extended metaphor for the history of the comics medium and the bizarrely limited but powerfully resonant genre, superhero adventures, that's come to dominate it. And it's about the intricate clockwork of human existence, and the interconnectedness of the systems that make up the world. The more you think about Watchmen, in fact, the tougher it is to summarize.

WHO ARE THE WATCHMEN?

Despite the line of dialogue from the movie's trailer that declares "the Watchmen are finished!," there is no group called "the Watchmen" in the book; the title of Watchmen refers to a quotation from the Roman satirist Juvenal, "who watches the watchmen?" But the main characters are the same in both:

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Rorschach (played by Jackie Earle Haley in the movie), a hero whose absolute commitment to his ideals and refusal to compromise his morality have twisted him into a nearly subhuman pariah.

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Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), a geeky, flabby ex-superhero with a Batman-like arsenal of high-tech gear that's been gathering dust for decades.

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The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the embittered government assassin whose murder kicks off the plot.

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Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), "the smartest man in the world," who gave up his career of costumed adventuring to become a corporate magnate.

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Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), who got pushed into crimefighting by her ex-superhero mother, and realizes as her life falls apart that her only friends are "goddamned superheroes."

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Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), transformed by an atomic accident into a nearly omnipotent naked blue being who can barely relate to ordinary humans' concerns.

IF WATCHMEN IS SO GREAT, HOW DID IT TAKE 20 YEARS TO BECOME A MOVIE?

It wasn't for lack of trying. Over the past two decades, Joel Silver, Terry Gilliam, David Hayter, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass have all been attached to various incarnations of a Watchmen movie. But the conventional wisdom, for many years, was that Watchmen was unfilmable. The problem isn't that it lacks visual appeal: the story involves riots in the streets of New York, a prison-escape sequence, a gigantic crystalline ship flying over Mars, blazing combat in Vietnam, a smoldering sex scene, and some awesome kung-fu moves. It's that, as Moore once put it, Watchmen "was designed to show off the things that comics could do that cinema and literature couldn't."

The book is a masterpiece of formalism: every image and every line of dialogue serves a narrative and structural function, like the watch components that are one of the story's chief symbols. Its natural form is stylized, drawn images on a printed page. And the inexorable narrative flow of film betrays one of the coolest aspects of Watchmen-the-book. The godlike Dr. Manhattan perceives time from outside its stream, freely moving between the past and the future. In reading Watchmen, we become like him, flipping backward and forward at will to see how all of its frozen moments of time fit together.

SO IS THIS GOING TO RULE, OR SUCK? ARE WE TALKING THE AMAZING DARK KNIGHT HERE, OR THE LACKLUSTER SPIRIT?

Advance word is pretty enthusiastic, and Snyder's movie reportedly works overtime to preserve the look and feel of the book--even the movie's promotional posters are re-creations of Moore and Gibbons' mid-'80s ads for the original comics. The book has a story-within-the-story about a doomed sailor, seen in a comic book that one of its characters is reading; Snyder's gone so far as to adapt it into a direct-to-DVD animated feature, Tales of the Black Freighter, which will be released a few days after Watchmen itself.

Still, there's a cautionary tale within the pages of the graphic novel. In the '40s, the Betty Grable-ish superheroine Sally Jupiter (played by Carla Gugino in Snyder's film) agrees to star in a biopic, to be called Silk Spectre: the Sally Jupiter Story. Of course, after the director and the studio have their way with it, its working title becomes Sally Jupiter: Law In Its Lingerie, then She-Devils in Silk, and it eventually appears as a bondage-heavy exploitation flick called Silk Swingers of Suburbia. What goes into the Hollywood machine is never what comes out. Snyder's Watchmen may be a terrific movie—but if it is, what's great about it won't be what's great about Moore and Gibbons' book.

Douglas Wolk is the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean and Live at the Apollo. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and blogs at www.lacunae.com.