It will come as no surprise to most that the on-again, off-again history of the Watchmen film adaptation has been the subject of contentious geekery, spurring surely thousands of conversations about how the whole thing won’t work without the Black Freighter (it does), how the story is too long for a movie (it isn’t, though the pacing is odd), and how they’d surely, for heaven’s sake, have to cover up Dr. Manhattan’s wang.
By the time Darren Aronofsky’s interest in the product put it back on the table, however, the dialogue had focused in on a more serious consideration: How do you make a big-budget Watchmen in the wake of Sept. 11? [Here be serious spoilers, folks.] The book’s genocidal squiddy interloper is the stuff of pure sci-fi, of course, but Alan Moore’s dark visions of a New York on its knees and a world on its feet found uncomfortable purchase in reality 15 years later, and the chances of making a mainstream entertainment that retained the ending’s cynical clarity became entirely remote.
That the film finally went into production under the director of 2007’s despicably (if intriguingly) hawkish 300 seemed to seal its fate, especially once word got out that there was no Giant Squid on the menu. But here now, in the nearly three-hour pudding, is the proof: Watchmen has lost surprisingly little of its philosophical punch. Any loss in translation from Moore’s heavy elegance is atoned for by a worthy reimagining of his final act, which subtly carries the ideas from their Cold War setting into a subversive look at the Global War on Terror. Rather than an unknown intergalactic threat, Adrian Veidt places the blame on Dr. Manhattan, a figure explicitly aligned with, if—crucially—not controlled by, the United States government. This implication of our nation’s role in sowing the seeds of our own tragedy may not sit well with some (it certainly strains the credulity of the climactic world peace more than the Giant Squid did) but it’s as good an evidence as any that Watchmen was adapted with gravity and thought, which should have been our only concern all along.