Watchmen (2009)

Before I spoil the ending of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, a movie you probably care about and will probably watch, let me spoil the ending of something you don’t care about and probably won’t watch. It will make sense momentarily.

In The Second Coming (2002), a two-part TV movie that Russell T. Davies made before reviving Doctor Who, Jesus Christ is reborn in the person of David Baxter, a nondescript English man approaching middle age. Baxter, suddenly given access to the mind of God, knows only that his job will be done when he finds a Third Testament that will be written by some living man or woman. He sets a deadline; the deadline passes. He realizes that his job is finished, and the Third Testament is meant to be written by Man, never finished, in perpetuity. His job on Earth is not to save mankind but to “close down the family business” by killing himself, his father, and Lucifer. So he ingests rat poison and dies. Mankind, knowing that he was created by God but is no longer governed and watched by him, ascends to its next stage.

I know, it doesn’t sound very good. And it wasn’t! But Davies had tapped an interesting vein. This is the same vein tapped by David Gibbons, the Watchmen artist who participated in Zack Snyder’s film as writer Alan Moore pulled out.

SPOILER ALERT

In Moore’s and Gibbons’s original story, the existence of Dr. Manhattan – a demigod who can create or destroy matter at well – ramps up the Cold War, as the terrified Soviet Union builds a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying a United States protected by him. Dr. Manhattan is tricked into leaving Earth by Adrian Veidt, who sets into motion a plan to drop an artificial, psychic “alien” into New York City, murder millions, and scare the world into accord by uniting it in the knowledge that We Are Not Alone. The plot is ripped right out of “The Architects of Fear,” an episode of The Outer Limits, and Moore acknowledges this in the novel.

In the film adaptation, Veidt’s plan has changed. He tricks Dr. Manhattan into providing him with technology that can simulate the demigod’s powers. Veidt uses this technology to set off explosions in world capitals that world leaders blame on Dr. Manhattan. As in the novel, Dr. Manhattan and the rest of the extant superheroes either go along with this plan or are murdered. But the movie plan is far more philosophically interesting than the novel’s plan. Veidt turns Dr. Manhattan from an American superhero to an angry God. Mankind is united and pacified not because they fear aliens, but because they fear the wrath of Dr. Manhattan – that he “might be watching,” as Silk Spectre II says in the closing scenes.

For me, this elevates “Watchmen” from an unexpectedly successful adaptation of an unfilmable story into a skillful, one-upping reimagining of same.

Now: is the film better than the book? No. It is as good as a feature length adaptation could be. It surgically removes plotlines that were entertaining and absorbing on the page. It adds violence where violence wasn’t needed. In a needless faux pas, a product of the era the film was made it, it removes all trace of cigarette smoking, which leads to two strange events – Silk Spectre II hitting a button with a picture of a flame for no apparent reason, and the young Walter Kovacs biting a child instead of stabbing the child in the eye with his own lit cigarette.

UPDATE: All right. It is no longer 3 a.m., and I have more, but first I’d recommend everyone read Spencer Ackerman’s smart, needling take on the movie—positive while critical of the way Snyder changed the manner and meaning of three characters.

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