Alan Moore’s Watchmen is inarguably one of the greatest achievements in comic-book history. It’s a tale of murder, grand conspiracies, paranoia, hope, and betrayal at the height of the Cold War in an alternate-timeline America. It is where superheroes are real, McCarthyism never ended, and Nixon is serving his third term. It is both a love letter to and a parody of the superhero concept as well as the arrogant and overbearing aspects of American Exceptionalism. It has won praise and awards for its engrossing story and for Dave Gibbons’ exceptional artwork.
Over the years, several of Moore’s works have been adapted to film with varying degrees of success – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Constantine, and V for Vendetta – but Watchmen was always considered unfilmable.
Aside from the fact that Moore characteristically hates any films based on his work (regardless of whether he even sees them), Watchmen is flushed with multiple interweaving plotlines, a myriad of secondary and tertiary characters, and many historical references. It was believed by many to be impossible to condense all that material into a coherent feature-length film. Even Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Time Bandits) had proposed a film treatment and was declined.
Along Came a Snyder
Zack Snyder was riding high on a wave of two consecutive hit films, his better-than-pretty-good remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and his excellent adaptation of Frank Miller’s epic sword-and-sandals graphic novel, 300, as Watchmen went into pre-production. Somehow, Snyder had done the unthinkable by securing not only the film rights to Watchmen but also Gibbons’ blessing. All eyes were on this young director. Expectations – and concerns – were running high.
When the film was released, it was met with equal parts adoration and scorn. As was to be expected, storylines were cut, side characters were relegated to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it walk-bys, and costumes were modernised. But nothing is more controversial with purists than the ending, which is a shame, as Snyder’s ending is actually much less convoluted and more logical than Moore’s original ending in the graphic novel.
I can hear you hissing as you read these words but please hear me out. I swear it’ll all make sense soon. Oh, by the way, spoilers incoming!
The World’s Smartest Man, The World’s Dumbest Plan
So, let’s start with the biggest issue I have with Moore’s original ending: the ridiculous, gobsmackingly impractical rubber alien.
In the graphic novel, there is a large subplot in which several artists, writers, and special effects artists go missing, including the artist responsible for the Tales of the Black Freighter story that intercuts with the main narrative. In the third act, it’s revealed that they’ve been sequestered on an island by an anonymous wealthy client to work collaboratively on a secret project: a giant rubber hentai sex toy. Rorschach’s investigation reveals that Adrian Veidt (a.k.a. the retired superhero Ozymandias) is behind the whole thing. Ozy tells Rorschach and Nite Owl that his plan is already in motion when suddenly, a giant sentient rubber alien teleports into Times Square and, in a fit of panic, erupts a psychic shockwave that kills itself and millions of people simultaneously.
In the film, Veidt takes a different tack. He duplicates Doctor Manhattan’s energy signature and creates an explosion in Times Square that would frame Manhattan for the crime.
In both versions, the end goal is to unite hostile nations against a common enemy, united in a cynical peace motivated by fear.
Doctor Manhattan’s Glowing Blue Penis is Chekhov’s Gun
“Chekhov’s Gun” is a dramatic principle stating that every memorable element in a fictional story must be necessary and irreplaceable, and any that are not should be removed.
Doctor Manhattan, a former mortal but now a godlike quantum being who exists in nonlinear space-time, is such a plot device in and of himself. He is the only character who is beyond mortal limitations. This is significant for several reasons. The most notable is that he could destroy the Earth on a whim if he wished and is just detached enough from humanity due to his advanced sense of space-time that the consequences would have no real emotional impact. In his words: “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally there’s no discernible difference.”
Early in both the graphic novel and film, we learn that Doctor Manhattan and Veidt are collaborating on a free energy project. Their intention is to harness Doctor Manhattan’s energy signature in order to generate free, infinite energy to benefit mankind. This seems like a throwaway plot point, which is indeed the case in Moore’s novel, as it serves no purpose other than to illustrate the genius of both men and cast Veidt as a benevolent character. Snyder, however, used this as a means to take Veidt in a different direction by giving him access to Manhattan’s energy signature. This refocused plot point pays off much later in the film, turning a small piece of backstory into a driving component of the narrative.
During Rorschach’s investigation into the death of the Comedian in the opening act, he discovers that the Comedian had been recently in contact with Edgar Jacobi, a former super-villian also known as Moloch the Mystic, who most of the other characters had gone up against during their glory days years ago. Before his demise, the Comedian mentions that he saw Jacobi’s name on a list, along with a woman named Janie Slater who had been the girlfriend of Manhattan years ago, both before and after the accident which gave him his powers.
Later, Manhattan goes on a live chat show on television where a reporter in the audience ambushes him by bringing Slater out to confront Manhattan with news that she has terminal cancer and that his radioactive energy signature is the cause. His friend Wally Weaver had died of a similar type of cancer and Jacobi is also afflicted. Manhattan is bombarded with aggressive questions and, unable to deal with the ambush and crushing demand for answers by the press, teleports to Mars in a fit of rage. And this is the moment where Checkhov’s Gun is fired.
The End is the Beginning of the (Better) End
For the most part, the rest of the film follows a similar trajectory to the graphic novel from that point on. On Mars, Doctor Manhattan waxes poetic about the nonlinear way he perceives time and his overall inability to remain involved in the affairs of a species he’s too far removed from to feel any kinship toward. Rorschach and Nite Owl snoop on Pyramid Transnational and discover that Veidt is the guy bankrolling it. Veidt congratulates his team and poisons them with the ceremonial toast, stroking his genetically-altered Lynx, Baubastis, like a Bond villain in a purple bodysock.
But this is where things change; The film completely ignores the original ending and takes a sharper turn, one that should be obvious from the moment you see Pat Buchanan in the opening scene verbally fellating Manhattan. The attack goes off as planned but, instead of a giant rubber alien, it’s Manhattan’s signature disintegration blast, wiping out everyone within miles of the Ground Zero. It essentially turns most of the organic life in the five boroughs into subatomic vapor. It’s disturbing to watch but is much more plausible than the convoluted ending of the original novel.
After all, when you have a being who is capable of turning the entire planet into little more than a bad memory, why go to all the extra trouble of creating such an elaborate hoax? You have the perfect patsy at your fingertips. And that’s what happens here. All the plot elements in Moore’s work which are meant to distract Manhattan so he couldn’t interfere are, in Snyder’s adaptation, a means to make Manhattan appear as though he is unhinged and attacks Earth in a vengeful rage. It is a master stroke, both for Snyder and for the film’s version of Veidt.
The remainder of the film rejoins the novel’s story arc. Everyone confronts Veidt and he talks them down and convinces them that his way is the only way. Rorschach martyrs himself to preserve Veidt’s secret but Rorschach’s journal is found at the New Frontirersman office, which ensures that Veidt’s plan, in all likelihood, will be for naught. Manhattan decides to roam the galaxy. Silk Spectre and Nite Owl go into hiding to start a life together. Veidt is left to bear the weight of his actions and try to convince himself that he did the wrong thing for the right reasons. It is chilling in both forms but I find the film’s ending so much more satisfying and, from a storytelling standpoint, structurally well-built. It takes all of the cues and builds them to a logical climax that does not feel like Snyder is trying to get one over on us by throwing a curveball like Moore’s ending.
Even if you still hate the ending, one has to at least appreciate Snyder’s attempt to adapt and condense the original work for the screen without changing or deleting the majority of important story beats. Given these considerations, I think it’s worth taking a closer look to compare and contrast Snyder’s film with the original work.