In 2009 the movie adaptation of one of the most influential comic books of all time was released in cinemas. Though set up to be the Citizen Kane of comic book movies, the film opened to a resounding "Meh".
Anybody who knows anything about Watchmen author Alan Moore knows three things;
1) He has written some of the most outstanding comic book series of all time
2) He looks like a cannibalistic serial killer
3) He hates movie adaptations of his work
And why shouldn't he? The Watchmen graphic novel never courted Hollywood the same way that many modern comics do. In fact, with its complex narrative, tricky moral issues and disregard for convention, it was described as unfilmable (most notably by Moore himself.)
In a way, being unfilmable was a good thing. Alan Moore realized that graphic novels didn't have to be the bastard son of the picture book, or the neanderthal precursor of the movie. He showed us that a graphic novel could present a story in a way that books and film couldn't, and that was one of the reasons Watchmen was so special.
The other reason is giant, sculpted buttocks
But where there is a successful story, there is a hungry producer. It may have been called unfilmable, but dammit, somebody was going to film that fucker and make a lot of money doing it. To its credit, Watchmen fought back, residing in the lower circles of development hell for decades before being committed to celluloid.
Finally, with Zack Snyder directing, the Watchmen movie was set for release.
For a while comic book nerds of the world did their strange, tribal dances of glee. Surely, with the man who made such a successful silver screen adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic Novel 300 at the helm, and with big budget backing, the Watchmen movie would be the same cerebral, exciting, and witty epic that the comic was?
After a hugely successful opening weekend, profits dipped sharply. The film was a commercial success, but fans and critics were divided on its merits.
How did a film that was lauded as the potential Citizen Kane of comic book movies end up being the Citizen Kane of meh?
In many ways, Zach Snyder's adaptation was completely successful. The characters were well realized and casted, the environments lifted straight from the pages of the comic, and the dialogue very rarely infringed on. Sure he cut a subtextual mise en abyme and changed the ending to something a little more pedestrian than a faked alien invasion, but he did so with care and respect. Sure, he sexed-up the costumes and the action, but to be fair, very few people complained that the action was too awesome or that Carla Gugino gave them too much of a boner.
I feel a complaint coming on...
Basically, in every technical aspect, Watchmen was a giant blue penis of perfection. It received many perfect reviews. That's perfect, as in 10/10 (IGN).
And yet its standing on many general review sites marks it as appallingly average, such as its 5.2/10 rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Perhaps Devin Gordon of newsweek said it best when he said, "That's the trouble with loyalty. Too little and you alienate your core fans. Too much and you lose everyone- and everything- else."
And there's the rub. Maybe Watchmen was just too much like the graphic novel to be an effective translation to film. Think about it; the most successful of comic book films give the director a bit of creative leeway in their handling of the material, whether it be for narrative convenience (think Spider-man's organic webbing) or to add new depth to the character (think Bruce Wayne's near shooting of his parent's killer in Batman Begins.) In trying to prove Alan Moore's contesting that Watchmen was unfilmable wrong, Zach Synder, in a sincere and heartfelt duplication of the work, unwittingly proved him right.
Foolish human. You could never hope to beat me.
To the eyes and ears, Watchmen is a great film. It is beautifully shot, it has a great soundtrack, it even has good pace considering its length. But it failed to attain the reverence of its graphic novel counterpart for one reason: a photograph of the venus de milo, no matter how well taken, is still only a photograph.
I like to think Alan Moore was right when he said that a comic book can achieve things a book or a film cannot. But I also like to put on my Watchmen DVD and see Rorschach beat the living shit out of everyone.
The true test of a film isn't its box office taking or how many awards it wins. The true test of a film isn't how much it appeases rabid, merciless fanboys. The true test of a film is time.
It would be nice to think that history will be kinder to Watchmen than current audiences have been. It would be nice to think that, no longer surrounded by hype and expectation, people will see the film for what it is- a slick looking superhero film, nearly epic, but not quite.
In the here and now, however, Watchmen won't be able to escape the harsh formulae comic book movies are subjected to. Watchmen and its comic movie buddies will always be judged far more critically than their non-comic-book-movie counterparts, because they are based on established media that, for better or worse (often worse), people care deeply about. If they get everything right (spider-man) the world is glowing it its veneration. Get it wrong (spider-man 3) and the nerds will bury you with vitriol.
I will bury you!
The same standards aren't applied to, say, movies based on factual things like World War II; which is why Hollywood can get away with Ben Affleck destroying Japan, but has to run for the hills when Peter Parker breaks character. In an age where internet hype can make or break a promotional movement, comic-book movies will live and die by the support of comic book fans. And maybe that's as it should be.
Who watches the watchmen? Nerds. Vigilant, easily disappointed nerds.
God speed, you warriors of nothing.