SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the "Watchmen" film adaptation.
CBR News attended Wednesday evening an invitation-only screening of select scenes from “Watchmen,” the new Zack Snyder film based on the DC Comics graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons — or, as is stated in the film’s opening credits sequence, the graphic novel “co-created and illustrated by Dave Gibbons.” A capitulation, no doubt, to the wishes of comics writer Alan Moore’s desire to have no association with films based on his work.
The film opens with a tight close-up of the Comedian’s smiley face badge and pans back to reveal the iconic anti-hero at age 67, at home, dressed in a bathrobe and smoking a cigar while watching a television news program detailing the tense political situation of “Watchmen’s” 1985, wherein the United States is constantly on the brink of nuclear aggression with Russia. On the TV, real-life talk show pundits Pat Buchanan, Eleanor Clift and John McLaughlin exposit the nature of America’s military superiority in the world: Dr. Manhattan.
The Comedian, obviously bored with the tedious discussion, flips channels before settling on a commercial for the fragrance Nostalgia, which includes extended shots of a beautiful woman. Suddenly, an intruder smashes through the door and -- in an extended sequence quite different than that depicted in the graphic novel -- proceeds to brutalize the Comedian in a number of memorably painful ways for what seems like several minutes before the famous defenestration that comics readers know so well. There is an extraordinary amount of blood.
The history of superheroes in the “Watchmen” universe unfolds in a stylish credit sequence underscored by “The Times They Are A-Changin'” by Bob Dylan that depicts in a kind of still yet also moving photographic fashion the debut of Nite Owl I; the forming of the original Minutemen; Sally Jupiter’s rise to pop culture prominence; the deaths of Dollar Bill, Silhouette; the committing of Mothman to a mental institution; the retirement of the pregnant Sally Jupiter; the meeting between Dr. Manhattan and President Kennedy; the Comedian present at the assassination of President Kennedy, rifle in hand; Laurie Juspeczyk witnessing her parents in a bitter argument (complete with snow globe cameo); Andy Warhol unveiling a piece based on Nite Owl II; the moon landing as witnessed by Dr. Manhattan — on the moon; Ozymandias partying at Studio 54 with the Village People; the formation of the Crimebusters; and other assorted moments of U.S. history filtered through the lens of “Watchmen.”
Also screened was Snyder’s adaptation of the memorable fourth chapter of “Watchmen,” in which Dr. Manhattan relates his origin in his uniquely non-linear fashion. Save for Mars being not bright pink but rather a dull brown, the sequence of events plays out and is depicted more or less precisely as it is in Moore & Gibbons’ graphic novel, although certainly more graphically in moments where Osterman is moved to explode people. Also intact is Osterman’s stoic narration, although, interestingly, Dr. Manhattan speaks with no vocal processing whatsoever, despite his memorably blue word balloons. Snyder later explained that actor Billy Crudup has a “very calming” voice, and that he interprets Dr. Manhattan as trying to make everyone around him feel as at ease as possible, and would thusly not modify his voice. However, Snyder did note that careful listeners will hear recurring ambient sound effects in scenes featuring Dr. Manhattan, such as modified whale song in close camera shots.
The final segment to be screened was Nite Owl II and Laurie Juspeczyk’s daring rescue of Rorshach from prison. Though events play out as they do in the graphic novel — including a decidedly R-rated moment in which a naked Dreiberg and Juspeczyk formulate their plan, following what was obviously some exhaustive superhero sexing-- and Snyder and his team amplify the jail break with intense, stylized fighting as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre make their way through the prison to find their comrade. The film diverges from the novel upon finding Rorshach, who is in full costume when he dispatches the Big Figure in the men’s room.
The presentation concluded with a montage of mostly action footage cut to “Take A Bow” by Muse, including Dr. Manhattan’s giant hand smashing through the ceiling of Adrian Veidt’s Antarctic headquarters and Nite Owl and Silk Sprectre kissing while an atomic bomb explodes in the distance.
In addition to the screening of footage from the film, DC Comics Senior VP — Creative Affairs Gregory Noveck delivered some passionate remarks about “Watchmen’s” role in superhero comics history for the uninitiated in attendance, and also enumerated some subsequent works that betray a heavy “Watchmen” influence, most notably the hugely popular “The Incredibles,” the plot of which is predicated upon a government ban on superheroes, and in which a retired, overweight hero returns to save the day.
Noveck suggested that “Watchmen” is more relevant today than it was in the 1980s, something Snyder agreed with. The director, along with production designer Alex McDowell and costume designer Michael Wilkinson, said the film is strengthened by the intervening twenty-plus years since the graphic novel’s release, allowing audiences to interpret references and allusions in their own ways, a valuable predicament given America’s War on Terror and other conflicts in the Middle East. Had “Watchmen” been re-set in the present day — as was the case in the David Hayter-penned screenpaly from which Snyder began his work — the director feels much of the story’s impact would be lost, saying that to comment on the War on Terror with superheroes “didn’t sit well." The team also said the 1980s period setting gives the story the appropriate pop cultural distance for its numerous metaphors to ring out cleanly and in a more sophisticated fashion.
Paradoxically, had the “Watchmen” film been produced in the 1980s, Snyder and company feel it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well, either. Snyder was keen to note that in 1985, ‘They never would have put [Nena’s] ’99 Luftballoons’ in the movie. But we certainly will!”
Snyder and his collaborators fielded numerous questions from the journalists and other guests in attendance, revealing many facts and views about the “Watchmen” film, its story and its production:
- Snyder did not set out to adapt “Watchmen” as a purist, and thusly did not endeavor to include absolutely everything in the movie, rather just what struck him personally as “cool.” Nevertheless, he said he was naturally inclined to include everything he could.
- Production designer Alex McDowell said those in his profession are typically obsessed with details, but that Zack Snyder’s obsession with detail dwarfs even that.
- “Watchmen” will feature an ambitious sound design, full of “big sounds.” “I’m not naturalistic, clearly,” said Snyder.
- Snyder said most of the film is densely intellectual, and he used extended, stylized fight sequences as “a break” for the audience. “I’m also just an action geek,” he said.
- In response to some fans’ desire to see “Watchmen” realized as a 12-part HBO television series, Snyder said that Dr. Manhattan alone prohibits such an adaptation, as nearly every shot of the character costs more than the budget for an entire episode of an HBO program.
- All the scenes of the kid and the newsvendor have been filmed, with an eye toward integrating the animated “Tales of the Black Freighter” film into an extended DVD cut of “Watchmen.” Additionally, the 20-minute “Black Freighter” animated film will be packaged with a mock documentary called “Under The Hood,” which looks back on the 1970s of the “Watchmen” universe with interviews with Hollis Mason and other characters, including some who do not wish to participate in the film.
- The “Watchmen” movie does not shy away from the fetishistic themes explored in the novel, with Snyder stating plainly that Dan Dreiberg simply cannot achieve an erection without wearing a costume and/or beating up bad guys, and that having sex on a flying owl ship is “pretty cool if you’re a comic book fan.”
- The production team wrestled constantly with the balance between reality and stylization, and what elements of which to bring to the screen. McDowell stated he’d never built more sets in his career, and said the film’s “Taxi Driver”-esque world contrasted well with Wilkinson’s stylized costumes, as in the graphic novel. Additionally, Wilkinson noted that Alan Moore’s copious back-stories and psychological profiles of each character were invaluable in designing the film’s costumes, and that in each case, he endeavored to create an outfit the characters could conceivably create themselves. He specifically cited Laurie Juspeczyk’s costume as being intentionally audacious; something an overzealous “pageant mother” would force her daughter to wear in order to stand out.
- The film will not include the quotations that conclude each chapter of the “Watchmen” graphic novel. “I thought about it,” Snyder explained. “I tried to use as much of the music they referenced.” Ultimately, the director decided using the quotes would break up the narrative unnaturally, and remind audiences they were sitting in a cinema and watching a movie. Snyder said the situation betrays a limitation of the film medium, one that comics does not have.
- Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created in “Watchmen,” intentionally or not, what is widely accepted to be the first postmodern superhero comic book. Snyder said he and his team were not motivated by the idea of creating the first postmodern superhero movie, but said “You can’t watch the movie and not see that. It’s deconstructionist, there’s no way around it.” Along similar lines, Snyder confirmed the “Watchmen” film is well placed in that it follows decades of superhero films, allowing it to implicitly comment on the genre just as the graphic novel commented on the decades of superhero comic books that preceded it.
- The Smashing Pumpkins song, “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning,” that is featured in the first “Watchmen” trailer was chosen because Snyder and his team found it appropriate, not because it originally appeared on the soundtrack to a 1990s Batman film. However, Snyder remarked, “When we found out it was in [‘Batman & Robin,’] that was awesome.”
- Snyder would not divulge in what ways the ending of “Watchmen” has been changed from the graphic novel, but stressed the “checkmate” nature of the climax is intact.
- Snyder “doesn’t care” whether the ending — that Veidt is behind everything in an attempt to insure world peace — gets out into the general consciousness, saying it doesn’t affect the quality of the story or “the intellectual exercise.” The director also suspects “the mass culture” won't be bothered to read a book as thick as “Watchmen” just in anticipation of a movie.
- “Watchmen” is rated R.
- Rorschach’s origin story is entirely intact. “Everything.”
- The film is presently two hours and forty-three minutes long. Warner Bros. had seen a three-hour version, and were pleased Snyder was able to get it down even that much. The director said the studio has been “really cool” so far, but that further research and discussion will be had with respect to running time. “I keep fighting the good fight,” he said.
- There is “no chance” of a sequel. It is “impossible.” "No chance of a sequel or prequel or 'Watchmen Babies' or anything like that."
- Winners of the YouTube contest for fans to submit their own commercials for Veidt Enterprises products will be gratified to know their work will be see in the film, on Ozymandius’ bank of television screens, among other places.
- Dr. Manhattan was Snyder’s favorite “Watchmen” character to bring to the screen. Wilkinson and McDowell chose Rorschach. “He’s old school,” Wilkinson said.
Following the Q&A, attendees were invited to a nearby gallery to inspect the costumes, designs and other production material from "Watchmen," including a life-size owl ship -- also known as Archie.