By Walter Hickey
“Watchmen” may be among the most anticipated movies of 2009. It’s based on the most popular graphic novel of all time, its fan base has been amassing for nearly 20 years and it’s based on the only graphic novel to ever grace Time Magazine’s list of the top 100 English novels. So the question is, why is the “Watchmen” fan community still apprehensive about this project? Why can’t we have our cake and eat it too?
The comic book is only about heroes in the loosest sense of the word. It depicts an alternate 1980s in which costumed superheroes actually exist, and it’s not pretty. The heroes, quite often, are anything but heroic.
It’s safe to call at least two of them psychopathic. Another one of them spends the whole time trying to cope with retirement. One batman-esque retiree grapples not with villains but his own list of insecurities. And Dr. Manhattan, a physicist who attains god-like powers after a freak accident, can see how the universe begins and ends. All of this goes on against the backdrop of a looming nuclear apocalypse. “Watchmen” revolutionized the genre not because of the protagonist’s heroics but because of their humanity. Translating that to film is no easy feat. So that’s why we’re scared.
This anticipation of failure has happened before. Really, we’re just bracing ourselves for the possibility of disaster. This happens every time a film is adapted from a great work. We’ve been hurt before. We’ve seen fan communities get excited, then let down. We’re the ones who come out of the theater helpless, simply parroting “the book was better.” You’ve seen us — either in a corner, cursing under our breaths that “Lord of the Rings” was not four hours longer. Where was Tom Bombadil or the Battle for the Shire? Probably abandoned on some editor’s floor. Where did Peeves and Professor Binns disapparate off to in the Harry Potter films? Why, for the love of god, was “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” made? Some people would just call these edits, or write them off as necessary to the creation of a film, but that conveys a profound misunderstanding of what being a part of a fandom is.
We want to see our favorite stories play out scene-by-scene, not just provide inspiration for some ambitious hack. That’s why we spit on “I, Robot.”
That’s why “Eragon” left such a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. And that’s why “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” led to a flood of furious blogging. All we want is respect. And “Watchmen” has to follow through.
And the thing is, “Watchmen” is bigger than any of those other titles. Those were all good reads, but this one here is the foundation of a genre. If you liked “The Dark Knight,” it’s because of this graphic novel. “Watchmen” laid the groundwork for the idea that super heroes could have imperfections, that our beloved comic book stars are more than fists in colorful costumes. If director Zach Snyder drops the ball on this film, it’s a bigger deal than oh, say, when “Battlefield Earth” bombed. Our fear is that this film will profane something almost holy.
So, the fan community is just going to have to go through the motions on this one. We’ll just go on tempering our excitement with forced apathy; our involvement with apprehensive withdrawal; our blind enthusiasm with a thick layer of cynicism. We just don’t want this story compromised. Will we watch the movie? Absolutely. Probably more than once.
And will we enjoy it? That’s a question even Manhattan can’t answer.