I spent a few weeks exploring the general rules that seem to permeate comic book movies. From there, I explored all of them at once – as they all show up during the X-Men franchise. But as the phrase goes – the exception that proves the rule? How about a little Watchmen, then?
Generally regarded as the greatest of graphic novels, this twelve-comic series is a commentary on the entire comic genre, while itself being in the form of a comic. This meta-commentary is a large part of the success of the story, and it’s a similar situation as you see in other great comics commentaries – The Dark Knight Returns, The Incredibles, and eventually in this vein, Marvel’s Civil War.
The heroes get too big, work outside the law for too long, things go too far, and they have to hang up the cape. And then things get too big, and the world needs its heroes to save it once more. That’s the story in an extremely short nutshell. In the end, it’s not the story that’s my point here. The point is in the comics themselves, and the movie that eventually came from them.
Because by and large, these break my rules, while also containing the rules — as you might expect in a meta-commentary. And then, when you finally get to the present day, some of the rules start to fit again, in an obvious way.
The Origin Story
For one thing, Watchmen as a comic does not open with an origin story. It dives right into the action – well, right after the action. The Comedian is dead, and it’s being investigated. We start with Rorschach narrating — ever the unreliable narrator. We aren’t given insight into this world, as much as disinformation. And it’s a mystery from the start.
Rorschach’s opening-page monologue also works really well as the main dialog in the amazing trailer:
Sure, origin stories are explored throughout, but they are weaved throughout the plot and serve the purposes of the plot. They serve as part of the larger exploration and revelations of the mystery.
I had three rules about origin stories. For one, start at the beginning. Watchmen does nothing of the sort. Well, the movie does a bit – giving us some history in the opening sequence. These set the scene of this as an alternate reality to our own, while placing the story in its place in history. The comic takes its time doing this.
For another, pick one origin story and run with it. That doesn’t quite apply to a one-off story like this – it’s the only option to choose. It’s also full of the origin story of two teams of superheroes, and many of the members of these teams. It’s not focused, but instead explores the whole idea and existence of superheroes.
And for a third, stick with a writer – generally the one from your origin story. Again, it might be cheating to say that this applies – of course they stuck with Alan Moore. However, Alan Moore was not supportive of the movie, as opposed to someone like Frank Miller who has been involved in a number of movies based on his comics. It’s just not the same.
Sequels, Villains and Changes
My second set of rules had to do with a larger franchise — with the comics leading to a larger universe that keeps going, that has a life of its own, and in the movies they keep going with sequels, full of more and more villains, and increasing changes from the comics.
These things just aren’t true of Watchmen. The story hits its end, is finished, and doesn’t need to go anywhere else. The comics didn’t go anywhere else, and the movie can’t really either. It will stand alone as a single thing.
And while it’s normally the sequels that have lots of extra villains, if we only have Watchmen to look at, it only has one villain. There is Molloch, who serves the purpose in the mystery of the Red Herring. In terms of my rules, he also serves the purpose of the “second villain,” there to distract our heroes. However, he is actively framed and used this way by the actual villain, so this is more of a meta-commentary on this type.
In the comics, it’s not a world full of villains that needs a hero. It’s a world at war, ready to explode. It doesn’t need a hero – it needs a miracle. Or a massacre.
Which leads to the last point — to changes. By and large, the movie is considered to actually be pretty close to the comics. Sure, some of the secondary story that the comics tell (like The Black Freighter) don’t make it onscreen, but most of the story does, mostly in comics order. It’s from Zack Snyder, who before this made the incredibly faithful 300. So maybe it’s no surprise.
The one main change that you see is in the ending, which bothered me at the time, but when you get down to it, it’s not much of a change. It exists more for time, and still keeps with the feeling and purpose of what happened in the comic. So I would say more that this should almost have seen more changes, as a movie, than it did. It looks and feels like it is a comic book turned into a movie, with occasionally some really awkward scenes because of that faithfulness.
Since the Movie
There are some things worth mentioning that have happened since the movie. For one thing, a bunch of new Watchmen comics have come out. For another thing, Alan Moore has happened.
Not both at the same time. Nope, the comics aren’t by Moore. And what types of stories are they? What could they possibly be? Why, prequels, of course – there’s nowhere to go with a sequel, as I said. And these are not just any prequels, but of course, origin stories. For, what it looks like, just about all of the characters.
This just seems like a ploy to make money, so someone had the rights to release more comics — I’m sure there were people who wanted to actually make the comics — and they fell back to what the default always seems to be. Origin stories.
But no, not by Alan Moore. He has some pretty choice things to say about the movie, superheroes, and comics in general. Oh, and Hollywood. Not favorable. I’ve been thinking about it, and it feels like he never really picked up on the joy of these stories, the speculation, the triumph, the escape, the wonder.
I wouldn’t call him a fan, a geek, or any part of that. He’s a critic. He’s outside looking in. So while he maybe gets it in some ways, he misses it completely in others. I am pretty much good with his story, his world here. I will happily disagree with him, and continue to enjoy comics, and the movies that they make from them. He made a story which does not fit that mold, which critiques it, and that’s good. It needs to exist. But I think I’ll stick with my comics full of joy and fun. Avengers: Age of Ultron, anyone?