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Watchmen Puts the "Graphic" in Graphic-Novel Adaptation

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jul 24, 2009
<i>Watchmen</i> Puts the "Graphic" in Graphic-Novel Adaptation

DVD Release Date:  July 21, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  March 6, 2009
Rating:  R (for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language)
Genre:  Action
Run Time:  163 min.
Director:  Zack Snyder
Cast:  Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Stephen McHattie, Edward Blake, Robert Wisden

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The following review contains discussion of adult subject matter that is not appropriate for young readers.  Parents, please exercise caution.

Comic-book heroes aren’t what they used to be. The Batman films have grown darker and more nihilistic. The X-Men are serious examinations of what it means to be societal outcasts. The trend is toward serious themes—very serious—and away from the fun action-adventure stories that many of us grew up with.

Watchmen is one of the most disturbing adaptations yet. Dark and violent, it one-ups last year’s blockbuster, The Dark Knight, in explicit imagery, and it cannot be recommended. However, the story has potent themes that will resonate with Christian viewers and which demand discussion.

Based on a highly touted graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen takes place in an alternate, late twentieth-century America. The year is 1985. Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden) is president. The United States has won the Vietnam War, but the Cold War continues and tensions are on the rise.

The Watchmen—a group of outlawed crime fighters—reconstitute after one of their number, the Comedian (Edward Blake), ends up dead. Is there a campaign to rid the world of Watchmen?

Only one of these masked crusaders has superhuman abilities. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) was once a physicist named Jon Osterman, but after dying in a lab accident, he was reconstituted as a nearly omniscient being with blue skin—and often no underwear. (Yes, another cultural taboo—male frontal nudity—has fallen. The male member has made fleeting appearances in movies like Eastern Promises from 2007, but this year such appearances bridge the lower-grossing art-house fare, such as The Reader, with assumed blockbusters like Watchmen.)

The other Watchmen are damaged people who have channeled life’s disappointments and abuses into something that they believe benefits their fellow man. Yet vestiges of those earlier disappointments linger. Laurie Juspeczyk, also known as Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), finds fulfillment in the arms of other Watchmen—first Dr. Manhattan, then Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), also known as Nite Owl II. Laurie leaves Dr. Manhattan when, during a lovemaking session, she discovers that he’s not giving her his undivided attention; burdened with the ability to see into the future (although he’s not omniscient, by his own admission), he’s preoccupied by a nuclear conflict that appears to be imminent.

Arguably the most interesting of the Watchmen is Walter Kovacs, or Rorschach, an intensely frustrated man who dons a mask that displays ever-shifting inkblots. He metes out his own brand of justice on those who, he claims, make the world a worse place. Having once shown mercy to criminals, Rorschach now has no patience for moral perpetrators. He despises politicians and prostitutes, among others, and he shows his enemies no mercy.

Rorschach is the most memorable character in this highly memorable, if messy, film. His diagnosis of human failing resonates with a biblical understanding of the Fall and its consequences, but divorced from any moral grounding, it leads to an absence of hope or belief in personal and spiritual transformation. In his thirst for justice, he reveals his own disordered personality, shaped by humiliation and persecution. A crippled figure driven by rage and bitterness, he’s tragic. He finds rest not in forgiveness, but in retribution.

The other Watchmen aren’t nearly as intriguing. Dr. Manhattan towers above the others in the group in knowledge and power, but he’s a distant, cold creature. Dan is an unassuming geek who longs for Laurie, and eventually wins her.The Comedian, whose death sets the story in motion, is a loathsome character who, in one particularly vicious scene, beats and tries to rape Laurie's mother (Carla Gugino). 

The violence in the film is extreme, but it’s just one of the film’s problems. Laurie is treated more as a troubled sex object, with director Zack Snyder focusing on her responsiveness during extended scenes of sexual intercourse. This may be a way of showing Laurie’s sexual fulfillment in light of revelations about her past, and that of her mother, but the scenes play as merely exploitative. The film’s plot, which centers on Adrian Veidt, also known as Ozymandius (Matthew Goode), and an energy crisis, is so packed with characters and historical references that it’s easy to lose sight of where it’s all going.

To the film’s credit, it keeps you watching, even when the narrative bogs down. Some of the imagery is extraordinary, and the story is rich enough to be analyzed for years to come. Watchmen will surely spawn sequels, which may flesh out the buried themes that this film, even at running time approaching three hours, barely touches. But that doesn’t mean you need to see it.

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Correction: In the original piece we mistakenly stated the character Silk Spectre II was the victim of an attempted rape. It was actually that character's mother. We apologize for the error; it has been corrected in the text.


  • Smoking/Drinking:  Several scenes of both, and discussion of drunkenness.
  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; loads of foul language.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Two women kiss; attempted rape; extended scenes of sexual intercourse; male and female nudity; sexual threats in prison.
  • Violence:  High body count with loads of realistic gunfire; bleeding bodies; men who are thrown out of windows and fall to their death; a man savagely beats a woman and tries to rape her; vigilantism; vomiting; man thrown down elevator shaft; dead couple in bed; a man commits suicide; soldiers’ deaths; limb snapping; prison riot; limbs from a corpse are devoured by dogs; a man’s arms are severed with a saw; a man is electrocuted; constant threat of war; bombs detonate.
  • Religion:  A character can see the future but says he is not omniscient, and rejects being called a god; a character thinks of a time when people will say to him, “Save us,” and he will reply, “No”; reference to a “Tijuana Bible”; someone says it rains on the just and the unjust; a character rejects a notion of heaven filled with weaponry; a man says life is in the hands of a higher authority, “and I hope He’s on our side.”