Superheroes usually conjure the image of a morally incorruptible savior to the innocent, weak and helpless, but in Alan Moore’s Watchmen the group of superheroes experience inherently human problems in extreme ways making them more flawed then the people they are trying to save. The graphic novel began the franchise and created the world in which the six main superheroes live, starting with The Comedian, Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan, Ozymandias, Night Owl, and Silk Spectre. The setting of the story only breaks from being parallel to the history of the United States after 1938 where the presence of superheroes begins to effect and change the outcome of wars such as the Vietnam War and the presidency of Nixon. The extremely close relationship between the fictional world which the Watchmen inhabit along with their lack of superpowers, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, allows the audience to identify with these six superheroes and becomes a cautionary tale that even the most powerful and well regarded people can lose themselves to extreme human emotions.
The plot originated in the graphic novel first published by DC Comics in a 12 issue mini series than ran from 1986 to 1987 and the creator, Moore, began with the premise that “if I wrote the substitute characters well enough, so that they seemed familiar in certain ways, certain aspects of them brought back a kind of generic super-hero resonance or familiarity to the reader, then it might work” as he said in an interview with Comic Book Artist in August 2000. This produced the six main superheroes who are all extreme versions of regular people who are motivated by their own flaws which normal people can have. Jamie A. Hughes addresses the implications of having an authentic real world setting for Watchmen in the essay “Who Watches the Watchmen?”: Ideology and “Real World” Superheroes,” published in the 2006 issue of The Journal of Popular Culture. Hughes speaks to the similarities between our world and the world of the Watchmen saying “In many ways, the world of Watchmen is terribly close to our own, and the superheroes who live in it ‘‘exist at the mercy of contingent factors, which limit their actions . . .. The superhero in Watchmen has become just another facet of society’’ which he cites form Reynolds and continues in his own words to say that “These superheroes, unlike those of fantastic worlds and abilities, are completely caught up in ideology…but the brood in Watchmen choose to do it for much more mundane reasons—money, power, fame, or to promote their own ideology” (548). Hughes then goes on to say each each character’s motivation, all which normal people in the audience can associate with, starting with Nite Owl who started from“his desire to correct the ‘‘ethical revulsion’’ that fills him when he is exposed to the underbelly of ‘‘pimps, pornographers, and protection artists’’ prompts him to take more drastic steps to maintain law and order in his city” (548). Hughes sums up this point in saying “Up until this point in the graphic novel, it is easy to see that Moore and Gibbons have created superheroes who are nothing more than individuals caught up in an ideology. (550).
In relation to the significance of the lack of super powers the six main characters have and their placement in a authentic world like the reader’s world Polley says “The human condition, our perpetual being-towards-death, would be less discomfiting if we knew the source of our historical materialism, if we knew exactly who was providing the official cultural narratives by which consciousness is determined” and this he says is the reason Watchmen is a significant graphic novel and literary work. Polley does criticize Watchmen and Moore saying “Watchmen, in other words, would ironically be a stronger, more loving, more human text if it incorporated the conventional closure that fictional representation tyrannically adopts – and that life, in spite of our insistent archetypal, apocalyptic self-positioning, never mirrors,” though other critics see the unfulfilling, lack of a full circle moment as a way to show that in life not everything will work out in the end completely. Polley also speaks about the narration of Rorschach as a way to include the audience in the story further, as many people keep a journal or diary of important moments of their lives. Polley says “The last two chapters feature Rorschach, The Nite Owl, The Silk Spectre, and Dr Manhattan’s combined efforts to quell the faux apocalyptic actions of their former superhero-associate Ozymandias, a retired Watchman renowned as “the world’s smartest man” which foreshadows the plot’s theme that the narrator of a story, which in the case of real life is each individual person who narrates their own life, can sometimes not be reliable.
Due to the acclaim and reception of the Watchmen graphic novel, a film version of the story was the next step in the growing franchise after several run of the comic were produced, an action figure line was released, and praise from Time Magazine and the Hugo award was received it was the obvious next step. A film version of Watchmen was attempted multiple times since 1986, but due to Moore declining to write the screenplay of his novel’s, it was delayed until Sam Hamm took the challenge up and wrote the screenplay. In the process he changed the original ending into one he believed the audience would find easier to understand involving an assassination and time paradox. The film was then moved from Fox studios to Warner Bros. and more changes were made involving the decision to restore clips from the novel to the film version and have Rorschach narrate the film with his diary. Again the film was dropped and declared un-filmable, and after even more controversy and the film being dropped or sold to other studios Terry Gilliam and Lloyd Levin pitched the film to Warner Bros. again and this time it was picked up in 2005 with the decision to use the comic as a storyboard for the making of the film. While the film was widely received there were many differences between the comic and the adaptation, including the most important exclusion was the subplot of Tales of The Black Freighter and as Moore publicly said in 2008 to Entertainment weekly “There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can’t.” This comment can be seen in effect as the director took over many aspects of the story line and due to the time constrictions of a movie needed to cut out certain details such as The Black Freighter plot and much of the backstories for each character. At one point in prison, Rorschach is shown to change his answer which reveals a lot about the plot and Rorschach himself. In the novel version of this scene Rorschach answers the question “We got a jail full of guys out here who hate your guts. What in hell do you got?” with “Your hands, my pleasure” instead of “Your hands, my perspective.” This new answer makes Rorschach seem more blood thirsty than he actually is and alters his character in a way that makes him seem less in line with the overarching themes of the plot such as different people can fall into different traps and weaknesses are all based on perception. This new answer transforms him into a crazed killer instead of a self-conscious man who has let his past and personal pain overtake him and his life. Another major aspect of the changes in plot is the director leaving out The Black Freighter plot, though the old white man and young black kid are seen at the end of the movie holding each other while the city is lit up in blue. This plot within a plot, not only added depth to the story, but allowed clarity for Ozymandias’ motives and his past regrets. In a dream he shows the similarities between his experiences and those in The Black Freighter which shows that he does have regrets about his past and his actions which makes him human and relatable to the audience. This ties into the exclusion of a lot of the characters backstory which makes it harder for the audience to relate to them and makes them seem a lot less complete shown in Rorschach’s history as he only tells the audience about it when he is talking to a prison psychologist instead of the story going into a flashback when Rorschach is introduced. While the film did leave out a lot of importance traits of the characters leaving them somewhat flat and unrealistic, it still accomplished its goal of remaining true to the novel’s themes of showing the audience how simple human problems can develop into extreme cases of a fatal flaw.
While many major parts of the graphic novel are left out or altered to the point that their essence is changes, the film and the movie both contain the same major theme that even those in power or with talents beyond compare can still fall to simple human emotions, problems, or faults. The most important parts of the Watchmen graphic novel are retained in the film version of the plot which Hughes sums up to be “There is no grand scheme, no great plot where the Minutemen thumb their collective nose at the repressive state. None become superheroes to avenge their dead parents, eradicate tyranny, or bestow justice on the world. These superheroes are perceived by their public much like comic book fans themselves are perceived in our society—as outcasts—albeit a sort that takes some sort of delight in running around with their underwear outside their pants. It is not until the second generation of superheroes (known as the Watchmen) emerge that the connection begins to get hazy and the role of ideology begins to shift” (550). The characters in the film show the same ideals in terms of crime fighting as Hughes states “Although he is of a mindset similar to that of the Comedian, Walter Joseph Kovacs (AKA Rorschach) also shares Ozymandias’ view that society has problems that desperately need correction; however, his vigilante methods are undeniably more stringent than the rest of his compatriots’ (551).” One very symbolic part of a speech by Rorschach is when he is working at a factory and sees a special order dress that was never picked up, because consumers believed the dress to be ugly. He says ‘‘Wrong. Not ugly at all. Black and white. Moving. Changing shape . . . but not mixing. No gray’’ in a volume of the watchmen comic, though this belief is transferred over to the film as Rorschach is shown to be very vulnerable as he sees himself as the same kind of outcast that the dress was shown as. This self-confidence issue and self-conscious though process that Rorschach shows is a very human trait that the audience can easily relate to. For Michael J. Prince this kind of human experience is exactly what Moore’s work is attempting to get at and through the film the novel’s ideas were able to reach more people and were expressed in a way that echoed the novel, while still having made changes. Prince states that “Moore’s work performs this task in two ways, firstly, by presenting a group of diverse ideologically contingent American figures in the individual characters, and secondly, by highlighting a sacrosanct element of America’s image of itself, the primacy of the ‘‘liberal individual’’ not just as an American type but as the naturalized core of the national ethos” (815).
Though the themes are left intact for the most part, the exclusion of The Black Freighter subplot deals a huge blow to the reception of the movie, not only in terms of fans who missed this plot, but also to the ability of the audience to realize that the events seen in Watchmen are parallel to their world and possible in their lives. This can be seen in Ozymandias’ backstory when he has a dream sequence that parallels The Black Freighter storyline which allows the audience to clearly identify the similarities between the two stories and see that Ozymandias also has the human emotions of regret.
While many important details were left out in the film version and the fight sequences were elongated giving them focus instead of the human characteristics of the superheroes the film was able to capture the overall theme of the graphic novel series in a way that Moore would be proud of, though he would still stand by his claim that only the graphic novel is able to give enough attention to the human emotions, backstories, and character development to give the storyline and characters the impact and relevance they deserve. The film and comic series coincided on many important aspects of the story, but most importantly they delivered the message that power does not always equal happiness or peace within oneself and the world they live in. This is what made Watchmen so successful and allowed it to resonate within American popular culture as much as it does to the point that it was the only graphic novel to place on Time Magazines list of 100 best novels. The characters and the themes enacted through them and the realistic setting gave the Watchmen series its critical acclaim and its importance and relevance in modern day America and modern day Americans lives.
HUGHES, J. A. (2006), “Who Watches the Watchmen?”: Ideology and “Real World” Superheroes. The Journal of Popular Culture, 39: 546–557. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5931.2006.00278.x
POLLEY, J. S. (2013), Watching the Watchmen, Mediating the Mediators. Literature Compass, 10: 593–604. doi: 10.1111/lic3.12076
PRINCE, M. J. (2011), Alan Moore’s America: The Liberal Individual and American Identities in Watchmen. The Journal of Popular Culture, 44: 815–830. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5931.2011.00864.x