Alan Moore’s epic Watchmen comic book is arguably the best comic book ever written. A gritty superhero story that shows the corruption of a not-so-distant dystopian future, Watchmen is a metaphor for a heroless future filled with heroes. The story has become an instant classic, so it really isn’t surprising that the big studios wanted to adapt the comic book in a cinematic format. This, of course, happened when Zack Snyder directed his adaptation of the comic book, which was a very controversial (but in our opinion great) adaptation, but that was not the end of it. Recently, Damon Lindelof created a television adaptation for HBO which served as a sequel of sorts and although it was critically acclaimed because of its themes, it had little to do with Moore’s comic.
In today’s article, we are going to introduce you to the Watchmen universe. You’re going to find out about the comic book, the movie adaptation and the television series, after which we intend on explaining the chief differences between these three versions of the story to you. We’ve prepared a great article for you so keep reading to find out everything you need to know!
What is Watchmen about?
Before we do a precise analysis, we’d like to introduce you to the plot of the Watchmen comic book so that you – if you haven’t really seen everything – have a rough outline of what happened and why it has become such a cult work. This is how it goes:
In October 1985, the NYPD is investigating the murder of Edward Blake. As the police do not have good results, the masked vigilante Rorschach decides to investigate further. Discovering that Blake is actually the Comedian, a costumed hero and government agent, Rorschach believes he has uncovered a plot to finish off the costumed vigilantes and decides to warn his four retired companions: Dan Dreiberg (formerly the second Nite Owl), the super powerful and emotionally distant Dr. Manhattan (formerly the human Jon Osterman) and his lover Laurie Juspeczyk (second Silk Spectre), and Adrian Veidt (once the hero Ozymandias, the world’s smartest man and owner of a commercial empire).
After Blake’s funeral, Dr. Manhattan is accused on national television of being the cause of cancer that struck his friends and former colleagues. When the US government takes the allegations seriously, Manhattan exiles himself to Mars, and in doing so he throws humanity into political chaos, with the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan to capitalize on America’s perceived weakness. Rorschach’s paranoid beliefs appear justified when Adrian Veidt survives an assassination attempt and Rorschach is the victim of a set up to charge him for the murder of Moloch, a former supervillain. Unsatisfied in her relationship with Manhattan, Juspeczyk moves in with Dreiberg, with whom she begins an affair; they don their old suits and resume their work as vigilantes, becoming more and more involved. When Dreiberg begins to believe in some aspects of Rorschach’s conspiracy theory, the pair are tasked with getting him out of jail.
Dr. Manhattan, after looking back at his own personal history, places the fate of his involvement in human affairs in the hands of Juspeczyk, whom he teleports to Mars to justify the concept of inversion. During the course of the discussion, Juspeczyk is forced to accept the fact that Blake, who once tried to rape her mother, was actually her biological father after a second, consensual relationship. This discovery, reflecting the complexity of human emotions and relationships, re-awakens Dr. Manhattan’s interest in humanity. On Earth, Nite Owl and Rorschach continue to investigate the conspiracy surrounding the Comedian’s death and the accusations that led to Dr. Manhattan in exile. They then discover evidence that Adrian Veidt may be behind the plan.
Rorschach writes his suspicions about Veidt in his diary, and sends it to New Frontiersman, a small right-wing New York-based newspaper. The pair confront Veidt at his Antarctic refuge. Veidt explains that his fundamental plan is to save humanity from the impending atomic war between the United States and the Soviet Union by faking an alien invasion in New York City, which will wipe out half of the city’s population. He hopes the two nations will unite against a supposed common enemy. He also reveals that he was to blame for the Comedian’s death, Dr. Manhattan’s friends contracting cancer, and Rorschach’s incarceration for the murder of Moloch. All this in order to prevent his plan from being exposed.
Finding his logic cruel and disgusting, Nite Owl and Rorschach try to stop him, but discover that Veidt had already activated his plan thirty-five minutes earlier. When Dr. Manhattan and Juspeczyk arrive back on Earth, they face destruction and massive deaths in New York. Dr. Manhattan advises that their capabilities are limited by the tachyons emanating from Antarctica, and the pair teleport there. They discover Veidt’s involvement and confront him. Veidt shows news broadcasts from around the world confirming the cessation of hostilities and global cooperation against a new threat, prompting almost everyone present to agree to hide Veidt’s truth to hold the world together. Rorschach refuses to budge and leaves, intending to reveal the truth.
Dr. Manhattan stops him on his way back, and Rorschach tells him that he would have to kill him to prevent him from revealing Veidt’s actions, to which Manhattan responds by vaporizing him. Manhattan enters the base and meets Veidt, who asks Manhattan if he did the right thing in the end. In response, Manhattan says that “nothing ends”, before leaving Earth for a different galaxy. Dreiberg and Juspeczyk hide under new identities and continue their romance. Back in New York, the New Frontiersman editor complains about having to pull a two-page column on Russia due to the new political climate. He asks his assistant to find some filler material from the crank file, a collection of rejected proposals on paper, many of which hadn’t even been reviewed. The series ends with the young man reaching the pile of discarded proposals, where the Rorschach Diary is located.
The comic book
Watchmen is a comic book limited series created by writer Alan Moore, cartoonist Dave Gibbons, and inker John Higgins. The series was published by the American company DC Comics during 1986 and 1987 as a limited series of 12 issues. It has been reissued several times and translated into different languages, in addition to obtaining prestigious awards, such as the Hugo Award.
Watchmen originated from a proposal draft of a story Moore submitted to to DC featuring the superhero characters that the company had acquired from Charlton Comics. As the story proposed by Moore would have rendered many characters useless for future stories, editor-in-chief Dick Giordano convinced the writer to create original characters instead. Moore used the story as a means to reflect contemporary anxieties and critique the concept of the superhero.
Watchmen presents an alternate history where superheroes emerged in the 1940s and 1960s, helping the United States establish world hegemony through Operation Condor and the Vietnam War. The country is moving toward a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, costumed vigilantes have been outlawed, and most of the former superheroes are in retirement or working for the government. The story focuses on the personal development and struggles of the protagonists as an investigation into the murder of a government-sponsored superhero that brings them out of retirement and ultimately leads them to face a plot that prevents a nuclear war by killing millions of people.
Creatively, Watchmen’s focus is on its own structure. Gibbons uses a nine-panel grid design throughout the series and adds recurring symbols, such as a bloodstained face. All the chapters, except the last one, present fictitious documents that add to the background of the series, and the story is intertwined with that of the other story, a comic about pirates titled Tales of the Black Freighter, which one of the characters reads. Structured as a non-linear narrative, the story jumps through space, time, and plot. Watchmen has received critical acclaim both from the critics and the fans and is regarded by critics as a seminal comic book work.
Watchmen is a 2009 American neo-noir science fiction action film directed by Zack Snyder, a film adaptation of the Hugo Award-winning comic book limited series of the same name, written and drawn by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, respectively. It stars Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode, Stephen McHattie, and Carla Gugino. Its story takes place in an alternate 1985 and follows a group of former vigilantes as the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union increases dramatically.
Filming began in Vancouver in September 2007 and the film was released on March 6, 2009. As with his previous film, 300, Snyder relied on the comic to create the storyboards; however, this time he decided not to use green screens to shoot the entire movie. Following the series’ publication in 1986, the development of the big-screen adaptation was in developmental hell for several years. Producer Lawrence Gordon began the project at 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. studios with producer Joel Silver and director Terry Gilliam, although Gilliam later deemed the comic impossible to adapt to the screen because of its complexity. During the 2000s, Gordon and Lloyd Levin worked with Universal Studios and Paramount Pictures to produce a screenplay written by David Hayter (according to which the story was set today). Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass were linked to the Paramount project before it was cancelled due to budget disputes. He returned to Warner Bros., and Snyder was hired to fill the position of director in 2006; meanwhile, Paramount maintained the rights internationally.
A director’s cut with 24 minutes of additional footage was released in July 2009. The “Ultimate Cut” edition incorporated the animated comic Tales of the Black Freighter into the narrative as it was in the original graphic novel, lengthening the runtime to 3 hours and 35 minutes, and was released on November 3, 2009. The director’s cut was received better than the theatrical release. The film polarized fans and critics; the style was praised, but Snyder was accused of making an action film that lacked the subtlety and wit of the comic.
The TV show
Watchmen is an American drama television series based on the limited comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons published by DC Comics. The television series was created by Damon Lindelof for HBO, with Lindelof serving as an executive producer and writer, and premiered on October 20, 2019. Its cast includes Regina King, Don Johnson, Tim Blake Nelson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Andrew Howard, Jacob Ming-Trent, Tom Mison, Sara Vickers, Dylan Schombing, Louis Gossett Jr., and Jeremy Irons, with Jean Smart and Hong Chau joining the cast in later episodes.
Lindelof likened this television series as a “mix” of the DC limited series. While this sequel takes place 34 years after the comic book and within the same alternate reality, Lindelof wanted to introduce new characters and conflicts that would create a new story within the Watchmen continuity, rather than creating a reboot. It focuses on events related to racial tensions in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2019. The white supremacist group the Seventh Cavalry has confronted police for racial justice. The police in this region conceal their identities with masks and allow masked vigilantes to join their ranks. Detective Angela Abar (King), a vigilante known as Sister Night, investigates the murder of her friend and superior Judd Crawford (Johnson) and uncovers many more secrets about the situations surrounding vigilantism.
In addition to new characters, the series features characters from the limited series, including Hooded Justice, Doctor Manhattan, Silk Spectre, and Ozymandias. The series, initially promoted by HBO as a nine-episode drama series, aired between October 20 and December 15, 2019. Lindelof left the show after the first season, stating that he had completed the story that he had foreseen. HBO subsequently confirmed that there are no further plans for the show to continue without Lindelof, and reclassified the series as a miniseries with possible future instalments. The series received critical praise on its broadcast, as well as praise for highlighting the forgotten 1921 Tulsa racial massacre, which became poignant in the wake of protests over George Floyd’s death in 2020. Watchmen has received several awards, including 26 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, the most by any show in the 2019 television season.
The differences explained
In this section, we are going to compare the three iterations of Moore’s story from the perspective of five different categories we thought are essential in completely perceiving the differences between the materials. We’re going to start of with the setting, then analyse the differences between the characters and the plot, before moving on to the ideas presented in each adaptation and the style of each work.
Alan Moore’s story is set in 1985, but in an alternative iteration of the year. Many real-life historical events have happened in this alternative reality and the world is facing another rise in Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States have established a dominant position thanks to Dr. Manhattan’s intervention in the Vietnam War, but the Soviets are opting to challenge that domination. When Dr. Manhattan is exiled as part of Ozymandias’s plot, the Soviets attack Afghanistan and the two powers prepare for an all-out nuclear war.
Zack Snyder’s movie keeps the same setting as the original comic book. In that aspect, we can only copy what we’ve said above. Zack Snyder has a very “mimicking” approach when it comes to comic book adaptations so his adaptations are always true adaptations of the comic books he uses as a starting point. In that aspect, he changed absolutely nothing when the setting is concerned and whether or not his “hyperrealistic” approach is good or not, it’s how it is and there is no going around that.
Damon Lindelof’s television series is set in 2019, 34 years after Moore’s original comic book. The series is set within the same alternative reality and continues on the actual ending of Moore’s comic book, but in a modern setting. The circumstances are rather different, with the racial tensions being the most important ideological source for the story. The television series is also set in a modern United States that is not as gritty or dark as Moore’s alternative Cold War era. In that aspect, despite being a sequel, Lindelof’s story doesn’t really have to do much with Moore’s beside the name, when the setting is concerned.
Alan Moore’s comic book is focused on the titular group of superheroes known as the Watchmen (actually the Crimebusters), although superheroes had already been outlawed when the story started. The main characters are the vigilante Rorschach, the godly Dr. Manhattan, the scheming Ozymandias (now Adrian Veidt), and the superheroes Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II. The Comedian is also involved, as his death is the main trigger for the whole plot. The Minutemen – especially Sally Jupiter – also have a very important place in the plot, as well as the supervillain Moloch the Mystic, despite only appearing in recurring roles. The comic book also has a large(r) number of secondary characters who we are not going to list.
As it was with the setting, Zack Snyder kept the main framework of the comic in his movie, so the main characters are the same; the movie, likewise, focuses on Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Nite Owl II and Slik Spectre II, with the Comedian being a plot trigger. Other characters also do appear, but in a reduced capacity, as Snyder had to cut a portion of the comic book material to make a relatively self-contained comic book story, without stretching it too much, although the “Ultimate Cut” is quite long nevertheless.
Damon Lindelof’s television show is a combination of the canon material and some original elements. This resulted in some original characters returning – like Dr. Manhattan, Laurie Jupiter (Slik Spectre II) and Ozymandias – while the majority of the cast was new. Angela Abar (Sister Night) is the main character whose heroism is somewhat akin to Nite Owl’s, although it’s not directly comparable, as is in the case of Wade Tillman (Looking Glass), who is a new version of Rorschach. Hooded Justice of the Minutemen also plays a very important role in this show, much bigger than in the original story, as well as the original character of police commissioner Judd Crawford, whose role in the story is somewhat akin to that of the Comedian in the original comic book. The show also features a large cast of supporting characters.
The story of the Watchmen is set in 1985, in an alternative reality where superheroes who have ceased their vigilante activity seem to disappear one by one, as World War III threatens to break out at any time with the Eastern bloc. The 1959 appearance of Dr. Manhattan, a superhuman with almost equal powers as a god, changed the story we know: the United States won the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal was smothered, oil is no longer a major source of energy, and Richard Nixon is still president in 1985. The story is interspersed with several pages of written material from the Watchmen universe – newspaper articles, long passages from the diary of one of the characters, these documents do not directly serve the plot of the story but allow to give depth to the world described.
The Minutemen are a group of men and women in disguise who fight crime, a group formed in 1938 in response to an increase in gangs and criminals, also in disguise, and the Watchmen (Crimebusters) are similarly formed decades later. When scientist Jon Osterman is turned into Dr. Manhattan, the latter’s existence in the US has dramatically affected world events: Dr. Manhattan’s superpowers help America win the Vietnam War, resulting in President Richard Nixon being repeatedly reelected in the 1980s. The existence of Dr. Manhattan gives the West a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union, which in that decade threatens to turn the Cold War into a nuclear war. During that time, growing anti-vigilante sentiment in the country has pushed masked crime fighters out of the law. Although many of the heroes are retired, Doctor Manhattan and The Comedian operate as government-sanctioned agents, and Rorschach continues to operate outside the law. Investigating the murder of government agent Edward Blake, Rorschach discovers that Blake was the Comedian, and develops the theory that someone may be trying to eliminate the vigilantes. He tries to convince his fellow retirees – his former partner Daniel Dreiberg / Night Owl II, Dr. Manhattan, and his latest lover, Laurie Jupiter / Silk Specter II. Dreiberg is skeptical, yet he still comments on his hypothesis to the Watchman-turned-billionaire Adrian Veidt / Ozimandias.
Watchmen takes place in an alternate reality, 34 years after the events of the comic series from which it is inspired. The vigilantes, once seen as heroes, have been banned due to their violent methods, and their plot “embraces the nostalgia for the groundbreaking original graphic novel while trying to break new ground.” The series takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during 2019. A group of white supremacists, the Seventh Cavalry, has appropriated the writings of Rorschach and his masked figure to wage a violent war against minorities and police who impose special historical reparations for the victims of racial injustice. On Christmas Eve 2016, during an event known as the “White Night,” the Seventh Cavalry attacked the homes of 40 Tulsa police officers. Of those who survived, only two remained within the police force: Detective Angela Abar and Chief Judd Crawford. As the police force was rebuilt, laws were passed requiring police not to disclose their profession and protect their identities while working wearing masks, allowing masked vigilantes to work alongside officers in the fight against the Cavalry.
MESSAGES AND IDEAS
Alan Moore’s Watchmen are certainly one of the most subversive and provocative comic books ever written. In a representation of the Angst associated with the Cold War, Moore tackled several sociopolitical, as well as artistic and cultural ideas, twisting them and demanding that the reader questioned them. This was not done to pervert these ideas, but to challenge the reader to challenge some typical perceptions and reaffirm true ideals. Moore tackles question associated with totalitarianism, dictatorship and political corruption, the role of (super)heroes in a society, as well as the definition of a superhero in modern culture. He also tackles the question of a dystopian society, conspiracy theories, capitalist ethics, but also the question of idealism vs. pragmatism, as well as the question of humanity and humanism. The message is that people need to be better and that things are not always black-and-white as the Cold War politics tried to portray them.
Zack Snyder did not make many interventions into Moore’s original concept; in fact, one could say that he copied it way too much. Namely, Snyder wanted to bring the comic book to the big screen, which was a good thing if you ask us, but while he did mimic almost everything that Moore tackled (see above), there was a visible lack of authenticity in the movie. Why? Not because Snyder did a bad job, but because the movie was created in a period of history (2009) when most of the sociopolitical topics that Moore used in the 1980s were old news: the Cold War was over and with it the threat of a direct nuclear war, Richard Nixon was not perceived as a major internal threat, the Vietnam War was already perceived as America’s failure, etc. This made Snyder’s work true to the original, but at the same time removed the authenticity that Moore’s comic book had, as the viewers couldn’t really relate to all these issues, especially the younger generation. The other ideas that Moore expressed were a bit lost on the movie, as it had more action and thriller elements, which ultimately made the movie a mediocre copy idea-wise.
Unlike Snyder, Lindelof went with a completely original approach when it comes to his television show and he managed to be more authentic with it, despite that approach being completely different from Moore’s. Lindelof did borrow some of Moore’s sociopolitical ideas and questions (corruption, idealism, humanism, vigilantism), but he added a twist of his own in digging deeper into the analysis of right-wing extremism and racial tensions. Lindelof used Moore’s approach, but he changed his goals and was quite successful in that aspect. He also tackled the issue of superheroism and pragmatism with Ozymandias’ grand return. All in all, Lindelof’s Watchmen used the same formula as Moore and they did borrow some of the ideas, but were ultimately a completely original take with its own issues that felt authentic (as they reflected the sociopolitical climate of the time), but had little to do with Moore’s ideas and we are not certain that the great writer would agree with such changes, as some of them were far from his dilemmas from the 1980s.
STYLE AND AESTHETICS
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was a revolutionary work that changed both how comic books were perceived, as well as written. Building on Miller’s dark, gritty and disturbingly real style, Moore wrote his Watchmen as a story that was not a humourous piece of entertainment for the masses, but a slice-of-(alternative)-life story that reflected all the issues our society had, but in a comic book format. The story and the style were quite dark and Watchmen was a comic book that was aimed at older readers.
Seeing how he mimicked Moore’s comic book, Zack Snyder tried to recreate the aesthetic approach Moore and Gibbons had. Although a fan of the green screen (CGI), Snyder intervened into the aesthetics during post-production to make the whole world of his Watchmen movie seem as dark and gritty as it was in the comic books. While he was filming, he wanted to use real environments as much as possible as Watchmen was a comic book that allowed and even wanted such realism, compared to his earlier adaptation of the comic book 300, for which he used the green screen.
The television series was completely different in this aspect too. Namely, although it was darker than a lot of mainstream television, it was not nearly as dark as Moore’s comic or Snyder’s film and it wasn’t even the darkest show airing at the time. Still, Lindelof’s modern approach made sense (the show was set in 2019) and the production standards were on the highest level. Still, we can’t shake the feeling that HBO could’ve been a bit bolder with the show, especially since they went full dark in True Detective, but the end result was quite satisfactory, despite the fact that we still miss the visual subversion of the original work.
Now, before we conclude our text, here are the major differences in table form for a better overview:
|Comic book||Film||TV Show|
|Setting||Alternative version of 1985 and the Cold War era (flashbacks from the 1940s and earlier)||Alternative version of 1985 and the Cold War era (flashbacks from the 1940s and earlier)||Alternative version of 2019, modern setting (flashbacks from the 1920s, 1940s and 1980s)|
|Plot||A group of former superheroes discovers a ghastly plot to save the world from a nuclear explosion by sacrificing millions of lives||A group of former superheroes discovers a ghastly plot to save the world from a nuclear explosion by sacrificing millions of lives; changes the ending of the comic book||Racial tensions between the masked police and a group of masked, right-wing extremists evolve into a sinister plot to use a superhero’s powers to cleanse the world|
|Characters||Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, Nite Owl II, Silk Spectre II, Ozymandias, the Comedian||Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, Nite Owl II, Silk Spectre II, Ozymandias, the Comedian||Angela Abar, Looking Glass, Dr. Manhattan, Judd Crawford, Will Reeves, Ozymandias, Slik Spectre II|
|Messages and ideas||Angst caused by rising Cold War tensions, reflections on totalitarianism and dictatorship, the definition of a superhero||Reflections on totalitarianism and dictatorship, reflections on comic books and comic book characters, conspiracy theories||Racial tensions, reflection on current political events and social tensions, right-wing politics, conspiracy theories, reflections on law and order|
|Style and aesthetics||Dark, gritty, characteristic for 1980s darker comic books, exceptionally subversive and provoking||Dark, gritty, imitating the comic book aesthetic and Snyder’s characteristic style, less subversive with more action and thriller elements||Very modern, politically provoking, somewhat dark, realistic (as possible for a superhero show), strong social and political commentary|
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