On one hand, it’s hard to believe that Zack Snyder‘s Watchmen came out ten years ago. But on the other, you look at the transformation of superhero cinema over the last decade, and the distance feels pretty clear. After all, in the time since, Marvel’s cinematic universe of superheroes has become the highest-grossing franchise of all time, Snyder launched and directed three films in Warner Bros. DC film universe, and HBO is about to launch their new take on the material with Damon Lindelof‘s Watchmen series.
With all that mind, let’s take a look back at Snyder’s divisive adaptation, which has a passionate base of supporters (including yours truly), but has also faced some very valid criticisms over the years. And the passions around the film have only slightly cooled in the decade since — heck, Snyder himself was still defending the film in the press as recently as 2014. Why? Well, there are two rather popular criticisms of Snyder’s Watchmen: The most common refrain is that the film is too loyal to the source material, slavish to the point of lacking originality. It’s a fair if subjective assessment, though amusing in contrast to the other major criticism — that, working from David Hayter and Alex Tse‘s script, Snyder swung too far with his changes to the ending and changed too much by removing one of the comics boldest and weirdest element. But when it comes to what holds up and what doesn’t (some of that dialogue, man…), ten years later, the film’s changes to Alan Moore‘s iconic ending stand as one of the strongest creative choices in the adapatation.
In case you need a refresher, the comic ends not with a bang but with a bigass squid. Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt’s, plot to save the world remains largely the same: he stages and executes a tragic assault on New York City in order to unite the world in a false peace against a common enemy, ending the escalating Cold War and subverting Doomsday in the process. Kill million to save billions. However, in the comic, Veidt’s grand plan is a bit more complicated. Under the guise of a Hollywood film, Veidt assembles a team of writers, artists, and scientists and tricks them into designing a gigantic squid-like monster before funneling his resources into bringing the creature to life and setting it loose on the city. When confronted with a monstrous cosmic entity, humanity rallies together against their cosmic foe. Boom, peace.
By contrast, the film takes a simpler yet more dramatic approach. Instead of manufacturing a creature creation, Veidt turns to a known threat — his former friend and teammate Doctor Manhattan. While Sally and Manhattan are having their heart-to-heart in space, Rorschach and Night Owl deduce Veidt’s plan and head to Antartica to confront him at his fortress (with a quick stop to the post office, where Rorschach drops off his journal detailing their suspicions, sending it to a newspaper.) When they arrive, Veidt details his plan to destroy Earth’s major cities with explosions that leave behind the same energy signature produced by Doctor Manhattan, framing him for the massacre. When Rorschach and Night Owl try to stop him, he reveals it’s too late. The fuse, so to speak, is already lit.
Sally and Manhattan return to Earth, landing in a devastated New York City. Manhattan immediately knows Veidt is behind it and transports them to the Antarctic fortress, where Manhattan stops short of killing Veidt when they see Nixon on TV, declaring peace. Veidt’s heinous plan worked. The U.S. and Russia are united in the face of common tragedy and Doomsday is deterred, or at least postponed.
Realizing that the truth would only rob the world of its newfound peace, Manhattan decides to leave this galaxy behind and the rest of the Watchmen go back to life as normal as they can — except Rorschach. The anti-hero’s stark black-and-white morality won’t allow him to comply with the lie, “never compromise.” He knows he’ll have to tell the truth, so he demands that Manhattan kill him to save the world. Manhattan complies, Rorschach explodes, Night Owl screams, and the world lives in harmony… or that’s the note we would leave on, but for the stinger. With the world at peace, the newspapers have run out of stories to cover and so they turn to their stack of submissions, including Rorschach’s journal, waiting to expose the truth despite the world’s sacrifice.