This Film is NOT a Future Release.
The Following Preview has been Archived.
November 10th, 2008:
A complex, multi-layered mystery adventure, "Watchmen" is set in an alternate 1985 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 Soviet Union - is permanently set at five minutes to midnight. When one of his former colleagues is murdered, the washed-up but no less determined 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 ragtag group of retired superheroes, only one of whom has true powers - Rorschach glimpses a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future. Their mission is to watch over humanity...but who is watching the watchmen?What to Expect:
Okay. Watchmen. Strap in. And please be advised that this preview contains spoilers. They all do, of course, but I thought that was worth reiterating.
Since I've been writing previews for this site, I've been simultaneously anticipating and dreading this one. There's so much to write about and consider, but on the other hand...there's so much to write about and consider.
First, the graphic novel itself.
Given the importance of "Watchmen" in the pantheon of graphic novels, it's surprisingly unfamiliar to the general public. Ask anyone on the street to name a comic book and they'll probably get down to "Josie and the Pussycats" before they got down to "Watchmen," if they are aware of it at all. And yet this limited twelve-issue series is considered the seminal work of the genre. "Watchmen" goes beyond comic books and superheroes, which was the intent behind it. In 2005, Time magazine placed "Watchmen" on its list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923, the only graphic work on the list. We're not talking about cops and robbers here, bad guys and caped crusaders. "Watchmen" transcends comics and steps across that line into literature. Article continues below
Needless to say, the title has a devoted following among comic aficionados. Although commercially successful at the time of its release, "Watchmen" never became part of the pop-culture lexicon in the way that Batman and Superman did, possibly due to its limited twelve-issue release. The title is also credited with shifting the idea of comic books away from cheap, disposable paper novelties into the graphic-novel format we see today, and for elevating the expectation of what was possible for this genre.
Published in 1986, "Watchmen" takes place in a gritty, realistic alternate version of the society at that time in which superheroes existed, although the superheroes of "Watchmen" are cousins of Batman in that none of them, with one exception, are superhuman. These crime fighters have changed historical events, although they were banned by an act of Congress in 1977, such that the reality of the novel has diverged from ours in some respects. Two of the crime fighters remain active as agents of the government, and one remains active as an outlaw. When one of the two governmentally-employed agents, the Comedian, is found murdered, the outlaw vigilante Rorschach fears that his comrades may be targeted for assassination. The plot twists into deepening political intrigue as the United States and the Soviet Union edge toward war, and uncovers a plan by one of the heroes to avoid this war at a terrible cost of innocent lives.
"Watchmen" is the brainchild of graphic-novel god Alan Moore, the author of "From Hell," another example of the graphic novel as literature, and "V for Vendetta." Moore, a notoriously eccentric British recluse, imagined his creation as a deconstruction of the superhero genre, and wanted to examine these so-called heroic characters as three-dimensional human beings.
So there you have it. A groundbreaking work that proved the ability of graphic novels to be sophisticated examinations of the human condition, rather than just pretty pictures of guys going "Pow!" An influence on decades of pop culture from Buffy to "Lost." A comic to which a debt is owed by every comic that came afterwards.
Hey, let's make it a movie!
That was the thinking soon after its publication, when producer Lawrence Gordon snapped up the film rights. He approached Alan Moore to adapt his own work for the screen. I amuse myself by imagining Moore's reaction. He is viciously anti-Hollywood, and I'd sooner expect him to shave his entire body, paint himself pink and prance through the streets of Northampton singing "I'm Henry VIII, I Am" before he'd agree to write a script. So Gordon turned to "Batman" (1989) scribe Sam Hamm. The task of adapting this 400 page behemoth of a complex, multilayered graphic novel isn't a task I'd wish on anyone, but Hamm turned in a script that took quite a few liberties with the story, most notoriously simplifying the book's complex ending. Fox was ready to move on the film, but no director was ever attached, and this attempt to film "Watchmen" might best be described as premature.
Cut to 1991, and the production has moved to Warner Brothers; get comfy, because it would stay here in various stages of development hell for ten years. Gordon had snared a truly interesting director for the project: Terry Gilliam
. Gilliam didn't like Hamm's script, so brought in frequent collaborator Charles McKeown to help rework the script to hew more closely to the original source material. Enter what one blogger called "the good-director paradox." The more a director understands the book, the more they seem to believe it unfilmable. Producer Joel Silver was also attached by this time, and he and Gilliam were both coming off expensive movies ("Die Hard 2" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," respectively), and so were unable to get the budget they wanted for "Watchmen." The project fizzled.
In 2001, Gordon shopped the project to Universal, who in a rather daring move, chose "X-Men" scribe David Hayter to write AND direct, despite his lack of directorial experience. Of the many people who've been involved in this project over the years, Hayter seems to be the one who felt the most personally invested in it. He wrote what is widely considered one of the most faithful scripts and the one that still forms the basis for the current script, with the caveat that he moved the setting from the mid-eighties to present day, and transmuted the Cold War conflicts of the original to a war-on-terror backdrop. Hayter claims to have Alan Moore's blessing on his script. I'm dizzy with all the ways I think that's not remotely true, but those who have firsthand knowledge of his treatment pronounce it to be excellent. Sadly, it was not to be, but Hayter's original script would continue to be attached to the project through the next couple of iterations.
The next attempt came in 2004 at Paramount, with Darren Aronofsky directing from Hayter's script. Aronofsky soon departed to direct "The Fountain" and was replaced with "Bourne Supremacy" director Paul Greengrass, still working from Hayter's script. Executive reorganizations at Paramount and yet more budget problems put this version on the shelf, which brings us to our final team, the one that has finally brought this film to fruition.
After rocketing to relevance with his much-ballyhooed version of Frank Miller's graphic novel "300," Zack Snyder
was finally tapped to direct this version that we are all, the universe willing, going to see in March of 2009. The script is reportedly some version of Hayter's script, but Snyder brought in Alex Tse to rework it and return the time period of the film to the original mid-eighties Cold War period. Snyder's facility with the graphic-novel format was evident in "300," and he has tried to bring that sensibility to "Watchmen," framing shots and sequences to closely resemble their comic counterparts and using the novel as storyboard inspiration and visual guide.
But as the fanboys and geeks watched and waited for this movie to be made, it wasn't the choice of screenwriter they were gossiping about. As always, it was all about the casting.
The core cast is a group of former costumed superheroes, several of whom still work in that capacity for the government, one of whom only appears in flashback, as it is his murder that kicks off the story. Casting rumors had followed each of the film's previous iterations, this one was no different. The most prominent one was that Keanu Reeves would be playing Dr. Manhattan, the only one of the cast with actual superhuman abilities. Dr. Manhattan is the most recognizable character, as he is bald, glowing blue and totally nude. Reeves was said to be interested at one point, but ultimately the role went to Billy Crudup, who performed the part in a motion-capture suit covered in blue LED lights to impart Manhattan's pale blue glow onto his surroundings. Crudup has said that he really had to work hard to keep the comic character in his mind, because he looked so ridiculous.
The Comedian, the government-sanctioned hero whose murder opens the story, is played by "Grey's Anatomy" and "Supernatural" star Jeffrey Dean Morgan
in flashbacks, and in age prosthetics in the timeline of the film. Vigilante superhero Rorschach, who always appears in a full-face white mask with black blotches that shift to reflect his mood, is played by resurrected child actor Jackie Earle Haley
, Oscar-nominated for "Little Children
," who actively campaigned for the role, recruiting friends to help him shoot video of himself performing scenes from the comic. He isn't the only alum of Todd Haynes' multiple Oscar-nominated film; Patrick Wilson
has been cast as Nite Owl, a second-generation hero with an owl-shaped flying vehicle. The key character of Ozymandias, who became the world's richest man after hanging up his superhero clothes, is played by British up-and-comer Matthew Goode
(Brideshead Revisited) while the Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan's girlfriend and another second-generation hero, is played by Malin Ackerman
. Now, other names had been ballied about. Jude Law was a longtime favorite to play Ozymandias, and Terry Gilliam reportedly favored Gary Busey to play the Comedian. These casting decisions were met with puzzlement in some quarters, but I think they're very smart choices. Snyder is clearly mindful of budget constraints and didn't want to pay top dollar for someone like Jude Law, but I don't think that was the only concern. Superhero movies have long been dogged by the problem of actor personality taking over the substance of the film. At one point, Joel Silver wanted to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dr. Manhattan, at which point the film ceases to be what it is and starts being a Schwarzenegger film. Low-profile actors bring an aura of realism and believability. You cast Tom Cruise in a role like this, when you see him onscreen, all you see is Tom Cruise. For this film, you need to see not the actor but the role.
Wait a minute, I hear you saying. Wasn't there something about a lawsuit?
You bet your giant squid, there was. Remember that long, involved series of development deals and studios I painstakingly guided you through above? This involves the first studio, Fox, and the final one, Warner Brothers. Last February, just as principal photography for "Watchmen" had been completed, Fox filed a complaint that basically said they still had the distribution rights, that Lawrence Gordon had never officially had the rights transferred to him. Their position is that they were supposed to have been paid for those rights and they never were. Why this issue never came up with the other two studios who were at one time poised to make this film, I have no idea. One might ask why they waited until the film was made before filing their complaint, but according to information I have, they attempted to open negotiations on this issue throughout the film's production and got nowhere. Fans might panic over the fact that a judge refused Warner's motion to dismiss the case, meaning it's going forward, and that Fox has filed an injunction to stop the film's release.
Don't panic. The film's going to be released. Fox has no interest in the film sitting unfinished and unreleased on a shelf, which would benefit nobody. Their assertions that they hold distribution rights to this property basically means that they want a percentage, or a settlement. The injunction is a negotiating tactic, and either Warner will win in court (they seem confident that Fox has not a leg to stand on) or they'll pay off Fox and the film will be released as planned. Many suspect that Fox is just smarting at Warner's "Dark Knight"-conferred status as the big man on campus in the realm of superhero movies, and they want a piece of the "Watchmen" pie, which might turn out to be a big juicy pie, indeed. There may be something to that, but it's hard to say what's motivating this lawsuit and especially its timing.
So what will this film look like? The more pressing question on the minds of fans is: how will it end?
The graphic novel ends in a labyrinthine series of plot machinations which are revealed to be the brainchild of Ozymandias, who has decided that the only way to keep humanity from warring with each other is to unite them against a common enemy. To accomplish this, he fakes an alien invasion by teleporting a giant tentacled beast (referred to by fans as the "giant squid") into New York, which immediately dies, releasing psychic waves that kill millions. The other Watchmen try to stop this plan but fail. Rorschach is determined to tell the truth but is stopped, he asks Dr. Manhattan to kill him because he can't live with it. But Ozymandias's plan works.
Giant squid, huh? That could pose a problem for the filmmakers. It's hard to imagine filming such a scene at the end of what is reportedly a gritty and realistic film and not have it be jarring. It'd be like suddenly changing channels to "Hellboy." Long has the speculation flown about whether Snyder was keeping the graphic novel's ending, and now that various parties have seen and reported on test screenings, the definitive answer seems to be "no." The squid has been replaced, as has been reported, with some kind of giant bomb-type device that lays waste to New York instead. It's unclear how this fits into the story thematically, or if it can be true to the novel's ending with different trappings. Many fans are perfectly happy to lose the squid, aware of the difficulties inherent in that ending, but others are (of course) outraged. Only a viewing of the entire film will reveal if Snyder's ending is internally consistent with the rest of the story. The film has been reported to run nearly three hours in length. That's quite an investment in storytelling only to ruin it with a hack job of an ending. Not that such a thing has never happened in film before, of course.
Over the past month or so, Snyder has been taking a package of footage from the finished film to show to select groups of journalists. Most fans have only seen the teaser trailer, which was released before "The Dark Knight," and which induced in most a euphoric relief at its look, feel and tone. The clip Snyder is showing around is the first twelve minutes of the film, which is said to include a long narrated prologue, a la "Lord of the Rings," to introduce audiences to the "Watchmen" universe, and a few selected scenes from other points in the film. Reactions to this footage have been near-uniformly positive, some damn close to orgasmic. One blogger called what he saw "phenomenal." As always, I am leery of advance-screening reviews. But the buzz is building in a big way for this film. I think the choice of final release date is actually a smart one. March is the post-Oscar, pre-summer dumping ground, and there won't be much competition, plus the film will have plenty of screen time before the big summer tentpoles start marching through. If the film is this good, it will draw in all kinds of fans who have no clue what the novel is about. Is the moviegoing audience ready for a non-action superhero film? Will Snyder try to pump up the testosterone factor and give audiences what they expect by inserting a bunch of car chases and fights? If he does, expect outrage from some quarters, but I doubt that he has. This is a superhero story where the action is personal and dramatic, not literal. David Hayter understood that, and his is the vision that Snyder is realizing. One aspect of the film that hasn't gotten much press is that it is rated R. I can't think of another superhero film to earn that rating (even "Dark Knight" is PG-13), and I would have thought the studio would fight hard against it, given that teenagers are such a key part of their target audience. The fact that they, and Snyder, allowed that rating tells me that they're concerned about making this film the way it ought to be made.
So what are the downsides? Well, there are many difficult elements to this film that might make it a challenge for the audience. Frequent flashbacks, unfamiliar characters, an alternate-history timeline that might be hard to set up so it's comprehensible. Personally, I don't think these elements are enough to sink the film if Snyder has delivered what it's starting to look, more and more, like he delivered.In Conclusion:
I have a very good feeling about this film. I think it will be great. I think it might even be past great and into cinema-history great, zeitgeist-shifting great like "The Matrix," the kind of film that changes how films after it will be made. The superhero genre has been in flux for awhile, and Christopher Nolan's "Batman" films have started this process, but "Watchmen" could represent a sea change in how we regard what's possible for a superhero story. That was Moore's intent in writing his novel, and if the film can do the same, that'll be its greatest success.Similar Titles: 300
, The Lord of the Rings
, The Dark Knight