If you, like the rest of the world, saw The Dark Knight last summer, then you probably also caught the Watchmen trailer at the front of the movie. Fanboys got so dizzy with joy that they had a hard time adjusting back into Bat-mode, and even the uninformed couldn’t help but be intrigued. Indeed, Zack Snyder’s pet project has caught some reflected glows from all of the accolades that have surrounded The Dark Knight, making it 2009’s big superhero movie. Most of that attention stems from the gorgeously wrought trailer, which sets Snyder’s signature smoldering visuals against the Smashing Pumpkins’ “The End is the Beginning is the End”—which sounds like the soundtrack to the apocalypse. The hype is a little puzzling, however, because this is a superhero movie without any of the cultural icons that have powered the Spider-Man and Batman franchises to box office billions and it’s based on a one-shot graphic novel that few outside the comic book cult have ever read (although TIME magazine named it one of its greatest 100 novels written since 1923). With such obscure source material, it’s a marvel the film even got green lit. However, given the uncertainty of the times, a closer look at Watchmen reveals that the story may be needed now more than ever.
The graphic novel was released in 12 issues over 1986 and 1987. Dave Gibbons and John Higgins were the artist and colorist, respectively, and have received due praise for their brooding, detail-laden efforts. Gibbons’ eye for infusing the mundane with a compelling dullness remains matched by few contemporary artists, while his depiction of the spectacular is still enough to catch your breath.
Still, the novel’s great strength is its writer, the enigmatic Alan Moore. While his work has attained prestige, the man himself remains reclusive and eccentric, shying from fame and dealing gruffly with publishers and press. His Wikipedia bio describes him as a “vegetarian, an anarchist, a practicing magician and occultist, and he worships a Roman snake-deity named Glycon.” So, he’s certainly that kind of comic book writer.
His work has been turned into films before (2006’s V For Vendetta, 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and 2001’s From Hell, all of which he either publicly despised or ignored altogether) but Watchmen is Moore’s masterpiece: a superhero story in which the superheroes are primarily powerless eccentrics, “costumed adventurers” with little training, concrete motivation or visceral appeal. Their character profiles are fascinating. Moore may be off-putting, but that might be what has allowed him to see people with so clear a perspective.
The movement to transform superhero stories from juvenile escapism into actual literature had been gaining steam for some years prior to Watchmen. Stan Lee’s Peter Parker was certainly revolutionary in 1962, a scrawny nerd who accidentally came upon super powers and wrestled with great power and great responsibility and whatnot. The concept proved a hit, and graphic novels ever since have been utilizing superheroes as metaphors for the untold greatness that lies in the heart of every human.
Moore took things a very uncomfortable step further by calling out the elephant in the room: supposing the desire to dress up and fight crime was not altogether altruistic? In Moore’s novel, America is on the brink of war with the Soviet Union, and costumed heroes are getting involved in the fray, overstepping unspoken boundaries in their well-intentioned quest to protect their country. As these protagonists come to terms with their own collective sense of justice (or lack thereof) the question inevitably arises: What limits can be placed on those who protect us? Or, as Moore has it, “Who watches the Watchmen?”
As the Watchmen’s psychological flaws take center stage over their heroism, the narrative uncovers sobering truths in the readers’ own psyche, presuppositions and environment. His 1987 smacks of our 2009—eerily so. His America has trusted their fate to guardians who have disappointed them. His heroes set out to accomplish a mission that proved to be immensely more complex than they first imagined. And his world is a Doom Clock permanently set to midnight; uncertainty, a character in its own right.
It’s heady stuff for a comic book, and even headier for a film, which has doubters naysaying on blogs the world over, and Moore distancing himself from the movie, telling Entertainment Weekly that he found 300 “sublimely stupid.” Such fears may be well-founded, given the current state of Hollywood—the film has been mired in an ugly legal battle all year. Plenty of people are speculating that the novel’s eyebrow-raising spike in sales (it topped Amazon’s fiction sale list last summer) will prove to be the best thing to come out of the movie adaptation. The pressure is on Snyder, who will probably spend the rest of his career remembered as the director who either ruined or immortalized the sacred cow of comics.
“Who watches the Watchmen?” When the film opens on March 6, the answer will be, “Everyone.”