When Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons began work on Watchmen, the twelve-issue DC Comics maxiseries (yup, that’s what we called them in 1986) that would come to bear the literary aspirations of superhero comics fandom on its shoulders, they chose to restrict themselves by declaring certain established techniques off-limits. Watchmen contains no thought balloons, the cloud-shaped bubbles used for expository interjections or angsty soliloquies. It has no narrator to say “Meanwhile....” Perhaps most tellingly, Watchmen—cited in a hundred newspaper articles with the headline “Pow! Zap! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!”—contains none of the onomatopoeic sound effects that Roy Lichtenstein and the Batman TV show made a symbol of the medium. When characters in Watchmen throw punches or fire guns, the bangs and crashes are entirely implied by the images. The only sound that’s explicit in Watchmen is the characters’ speech, of which there’s a lot. For all its sudden eruptions of violence and magic, Watchmen consists largely of people talking to each other.
Starting in the early 1960s, superhero artists had begun to explode the rigid borders of the comic-strip panel into vivid, kinetic layouts. With Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons moved ostentatiously to the opposite extreme: every page of the series is a variation on a rigid nine-panel grid. (If Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four is a Beethoven symphony, Watchmen is the Goldberg Variations.) This metronomic regularity is part of Watchmen’s intricate fitting of form to content: the scenes of high adventure and everyday life are accompanied by a constant reminder, as if from the omniscient perspective of some objective overseer, of time’s steady passage.
The soundtrack to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie, which I saw last night, is crammed from start to finish with pop songs, melodramatic synthesizer fanfares, and digital effects. Every punch is accompanied by a whoosh of air and a percussive crack. When characters in Snyder’s movie fight, they alternate between Matrix-style “bullet time” and the sped-up style of kung-fu movies. Whereas Snyder has gone to great and sometimes absurd lengths to transliterate the story from comics to film—taking dialogue verbatim from Moore, recreating Gibbons’s images down to the smallest details—he steadfastly refuses to restrict his options as they did. Sweeping strings? Graphic dismemberment? Superspeed gymastics on the part of characters without superpowers—characters whose whole narrative purpose centers on the fact that they’re ordinary human beings? Sure, man, it looks cool!
I enjoyed every minute of the movie, although everything I got from it was derived from having read the comic a dozen times more than a decade ago. The casting is mostly very good: I genuinely believed I was watching Rorshach and Nite Owl and the Comedian. (The glaring exception is Ozymandias, who should be a Tom Cruise type, great-looking and super-likeable, rather than a skinny, sinister Euro.) And Snyder’s self-indulgence is fun to watch, in a way. Moore’s goal was to present a superhero story as seriously as possible, and he sometimes ran into that limit and kept going. Cranking up the volume, as Snyder does, highlights the lurid pulp elements, the ultraviolence and fetish costumes, that Watchmen insists are guilty pleasures.
But beyond formal rigidity, something central is missing. Watchmen isn’t great literature, but at least it’s about something. It’s a critique of the ideas of power and morality that are fundamental to the superhero genre; it’s about what it means to wish for godlike abilities, or to imagine that you’re fighting for justice, or to appoint yourself the protector of others. If you read superhero comics you’re probably invested in these ideas, at least unconsciously, which is why Watchmen was a meaningful experience for me at the age of thirteen: it makes you think. It’s hard to imagine Snyder’s movie making anyone think.