You, Watching Watchmen: An Uninitiated Viewer's Guide

All right, so your comics-reading buddy has talked you, Non-Comics-Reading Lad, has talked you into to seeing Watchmen.

Or, your comics-reading spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend or pal or teammate or pet or artificial intelligence or whomever you hang with has convinced you, someone that’s never checked out Watchmen , to see the film. We’re not going to lie: if you haven’t read Watchmen, then you’ve missed out on a truly great reading experience. If you don’t have time before tomorrow night, and want the complex world to make a little bit of sense heading in, then we’ve got some Pre-Game notes for you.

And no, this in not an annotation or a complete dissection or a review or an index or an annex or a codex. It’s a field guide for the inexperienced hiker. So save the “You forgot . . .” for the next time you don’t read the intro to one of the “Replacement Heroes” columns. This is for your buddy, your significant other, your parents (though I couldn’t really see taking my Mom to see this), or whomever. These are the absolute gut-level basics. Let’s begin with . . .

What the Hell is Watchmen anyway?: Watchmen was a 12-issue series from DC Comics that ran from 1986 to 1987. It was written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons (with color by John Higgins). Even comics civilians may have heard of the much lauded Moore; he had a memorable run on Swamp Thing, and wrote V for Vendetta. He’s still writing installments of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. This proves that he never did see the LOEG movie; that would have surely killed him.

Why is the movie a big deal?: People have basically considered the text un-filmable since it appeared. Of course, people have wanted it to be a film for just as long. Many talents have tried (They tried and failed? They tried and died. Okay, not sure if Lynch ever thought about it; nonetheless . . .), but no one got it off the ground for years. Finally, Zack Snyder, director of the Dawn of the Dead remake and 300 (based on the Miller/Varley comic), managed to get the film together. And the whole journey at the studio was a breeze. (Pause for laughter and/or snarky remark from blogger with smaller audience). Actually, the fact that Snyder pulled this off after an intricate journey of rights through various hands and studios is a minor miracle in itself.

Okay, so why is Watchmen a big deal?: Well, it’s Important. In a lot of ways, Watchmen was the first truly “adult” super-hero story told at the major publishers. Sure, there had been smart and relevant stories before (O’Neil and Adams on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Moore and the gang on Swamp Thing, many others), but Watchmen raised the bar. Filled with post-modern thought, complex literary techniques, and a dense narrative that demanded re-reading, Watchmen wasn’t like anything before (or since, really). It won awards, got covered in Rolling Stone and Time, drew enormous attention to comics, and inspired a legion of creators. The collected edition of the series has sold in staggering numbers since the ‘80s; in fact, DC printed 900,000 copies in the past year to meet demand when it erupted back into Amazon’s Top Ten on the back of its trailer being show ahead of The Dark Knight.

Give Me the Story Basics: It’s an alternate 1985. Thanks to the intervention of super-powered Dr. Manhattan, the U.S. won the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon is still president, and America and Russia are sliding toward nuclear Armageddon. Against this backdrop, a masked “mystery man” is killed, spurring another to believe that someone is out there gunning for the heroes that were forced into retirement by the Keene Act of 1977.

So, Do I Know Any of the Characters?: I’d say no. If you’ve never read the thing itself and you’re not a regular follower of comics, then this will be fresh territory for you. You may be interested to know that the original pitch for the Watchmen was based on a group of characters that DC had acquired from Charlton comics. However, seeing how the project would render those characters essentially unusable, the idea was massaged into original characters with a similar story framework. We’ll give you the Charlton analogues as we discuss the six major characters. And they would be . . .

The Comedian

Charlton Analogue: The Peacemaker

What’s His Deal?: A costumed adventurer since the 1940s, Edward Blake, The Comedian, is the character that bridges “The Minutemen”, a loosely affiliated group of heroes from that time, and the heroes of the 1960s to 1980s. Note that the second generation of heroes never refer to themselves as “The Watchmen” in the book; they are only called this in graphite and newspaper articles. It’s based on a phrase from the writings of Juvenal, which translates as “Who Watches the Watchmen?”, meaning who looks over the ones that are “in charge” of us. A cynical, nihilistic wiseass, The Comedian has government connections and has committed some notably despicable acts in his life.

Portrayed By: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, best known as the Winchester Boys’ dad on Supernatural and the Denny That Wouldn’t Die on Grey’s Anatomy.

Rorschach

Charlton Analogue: The Question (though Moore has also cited Steve Ditko’s Mr. A)

What’s His Deal?: The hardcore vigilante with the shifting facemask serves as the narrator of the story. Raised from a harsh background and warped by what he’s seen, the Rorschach of 1985 is paranoid and dangerous. If he ever had a friend, it was Nite Owl II. He’s the one with the “mask-killer” conspiracy theory.

Portrayed By: Jackie Earle Haley. Haley had an active career as a young actor in the Bad News Bears franchise and Breaking Away. His acting “comeback” was in 2006’s Little Children, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The male lead in that film, Patrick Wilson, plays . . .

Nite Owl II

Charlton Analogue: Blue Beetle II (Ted Kord)

What’s His Deal?: Nite Owl is the gadgeteer-detective typified in modern popular culture by Batman. He dresses as a winged creature of the night, has an eponymous vehicle (The Owlship), and finds that he’s more effective (in many, many ways) in costume than in his daylight identity. He tries to be a good friend to Rorschach (though he knows the other adventurer to be losing his grip) and has a strong attraction to Laurie Jupiter. Nite Owl is a “legacy hero”, carrying on for the original Nite Owl (Hollis Mason) that was one of “The Minutemen.”

Portrayed By: Patrick Wilson, notably of Little Children and Angels in America.

Silk Spectre II

Charlton Analogue: Nightshade (though Moore has remarked on Black Canary and Phantom Lady in interviews)

What’s Her Deal?: Stage-mothered into heroics by her mom (Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre), Laurie Jupiter has a number of internal conflicts. She has contempt for Rorschach, but outright hates The Comedian for an incident in the past. When the story opens, she’s living with Dr. Manhattan, though she herself is looked upon unfavorably by Manhattan’s government handlers.

Portrayed By: Malin Akerman. Her biggest roles thus far have probably been in The Heartbreak Kid and 27 Dresses, but she had memorable turns in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and in an episode of Entourage (she was the girl that E fell in love with during the ménage with Sloane).

Ozymandias

Charlton Analogue: Thunderbolt

What’s His Deal?: He was the hero that cashed in. Early on, Adrian Veidt realized that he could take off his mask, turn to the corporate world, and use his superior intellect to change the world from behind a desk. He took his heroic image and marketed it, turning out everything from TV to toys based on his image, all the while marketing other products from the industrial on down to perfume. His social status is stratospherically above several of the other characters. His companion is Bubastis, a lynx that he genetically altered.

Portrayed By: Matthew Goode, who has had roles in pieces like Chasing Liberty and the recent remake of Brideshead Revisited.

Dr. Manhattan

Charlton Analogue: Captain Atom

What’s His Deal?: Dr. Manhattan is the sole super-powered character in the Watchmen narrative. Caught in an intrinsic field accident in the ‘50s, Doctor Jon Osterman managed to reform himself as the blue-skinned, incredibly powerful (and perpetually naked) Dr. Manhattan. His existence helps the U.S. easily win the Vietnam War, and his presence is a factor that is pushing possible war with the U.S.S.R. When the story begins, his is in a relationship with Laurie Jupiter, Silk Spectre II.

Portrayed By: Billy Cruddup, who will always be “Golden God” Russell from Almost Famous. The other work that you hear him do almost daily? He’s the voice of MasterCard commercials. Watchmen graphic novel? $20. Watchmen movie ticket? $10. Having your naked blue body mapped for the world to see in CG? Priceless.

All right, then. That’s it; the bare bones minimum that you’ll need to dive right into the story and have some basic familiarity with the plot and precepts. Hope you enjoy the movie, and it wouldn’t hurt to listen to a little Billie Holliday, Elvis Costello, Jimi Hendrix and Leonard Cohen on the way in. Oh, and Dylan. Can’t forget Dylan.

So that’s what we’ve got – what else to newbies need to know, or makes for good conversations starters while standing in line for Watchmen?

Related:

Movie Review: Watchmen

Watchmen's Watchman - Director Zack Snyder Interview

Comedian's Relief: Jeffrey Dean Morgan Eager for Watchmen

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