"Who watches the Watchmen?" Again and again, that question is posed in the seminal comic book. In the 23 years since "Watchmen" was first published, thousands of astute readers have mulled over the catchphrase and its underlying theme, pondering what it means to be a hero in a very complex world that teeters on the brink of destruction. Naturally, there's more than one answer to that question—and on March 6, when the long-anticipated film adaptation hits movie screens, a new, meta-answer will emerge. Who watches the "Watchmen"? We do.
But will moviegoers—many of whom have never read the source material, from writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons—have any idea what they're getting into? The protagonists are onetime members of a disbanded crime-fighting group, spurred back into action by the brutal murder of a former colleague—a crime that slowly points toward a much more savage plot. But the moral ambiguity of several so-called heroes in this layered epic makes "The Dark Knight" seem sunny.
Combining elements of murder mystery, Cold War political thriller, dystopian science fiction and even soap opera, "Watchmen" vexed a number of Hollywood screenwriters, directors and studios for two decades. It finally found its cinematic champion in Zack Snyder, whose quest to adapt the densely packed graphic novel now crosses the finish line as an even more densely packed 162-minute film. (Some die-hard fans will surely cry foul over missing story beats, but there's already a 190-minute director's cut planned for release later this year.) "We tried to make each frame pretty rich, as far as [visual] details," Snyder says. "I think it'll be a Blu-Ray freak-out when it finally hits on DVD."
Like their comic-book progenitors, these celluloid heroes inhabit a meticulously realized world brimming with violence, sex and bleak humor atop real-life historic, artistic and political references. We get you started with a primer designed to help you more fully appreciate the experience when you're watching "Watchmen."
Those crazy names: As heroic alter egos go, Nite Owl fits easily into comic books' four-color world, as does Silk Spectre. But what about the others? Dr. Manhattan—a blue-skinned atomic god, the only character in the story with superpowers—takes his moniker not from the island where much of the story is set, but from the U.S. military project that birthed the nuclear arms race. An even odder name is Rorschach; it belongs to a dogged vigilante who sees the world through a strictly black-and-white moral code. His mask, a constantly shifting series of abstract black designs on a white background, recalls the ink-blot tests established by early-20th Century psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach.
Most peculiar is Ozymandias, the code name of an Olympic-level athlete, intellectual genius and business titan. Another name for the pharaoh better known as Ramses II, it's remembered today as the title of a famous sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley. First published in 1818, the poem tells of a broken monument to the ruler; its inscription, explicitly quoted in "Watchmen," reads: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" In the film, the hero even displays the Ramses statue in his Antarctic fortress. (In our world, the statue said to have inspired Shelley resides within the British Museum.)
The poem tells us something about the hero, just as its themes tie into those of "Watchmen," according to Stephen Burt, a Harvard associate professor of English who specializes in poetry and science fiction. "The sonnet is both a warning to tyrants and dictators," Burt explains, and "a reminder that all things decay. The best of us and the worst of us will die, and eventually the traces of us will die. ... So the sonnet is political and apolitical, revolutionary and nihilist, all at once. That double-ness is very much part of 'Watchmen.' "
The smiley-face imagery: "Watchmen" is chock-full of visual motifs—first and foremost that of the smiley face. It's a badge worn with chilling irony by the Comedian, the mercenary whose murder sparks the plot. During his fatal assault, a drop of the Comedian's blood splashes across the smiley's right eye. Throughout the book, various combinations of objects graphically echo that same pattern—particularly the Doomsday Clock, which ticks ever closer to midnight and nuclear Armageddon. "Usually the smiley faces have something to do with death," notes "Watchmen" co-creator Gibbons.
Usually, but not always: Capping the climax of one of the story's most inspirational passages, there's a can't-miss-it smiley on the face of Mars. Mirroring the graphic novel, the camera pulls back to a very long shot of the planet, revealing an enormous smiley face carved into the terrain. Astonishingly, this actually exists: Named the Galle Crater, "it's pretty large—about 143 miles across, in diameter," says Adler astronomer Mark Hammergren. The left eye, he further explains, is a much tinier crater inside the circumference; mountain peaks make the right eye; and the mouth is formed by a semi-circular range of mountains. It was first observed in the late 20th Century, and scientists have recently been able to study more detailed photos of Galle taken from a number of 21st Century Mars orbiters.
The geographical phenomenon's inclusion in "Watchmen" came after Gibbons began researching visual references to help him draw Earth's next-door neighbor. When he first saw the picture, he recalls thinking, "It was almost too good to be true. I worried that if we put it in, people would never believe it." Hammergren agrees that the idea still seems outlandish to many laypeople: "How ridiculous," the astronomer chuckles, "to have a smiley-face crater!"
Name that tune: In the graphic novel, writer Alan Moore displays a penchant for quoting song lyrics—a flourish that director Snyder amplifies by including those songs in the soundtrack, from Billie Holiday's seductive "You're My Thrill" to Jimi Hendrix's blaring "All Along the Watchtower." And new songs not cited in the book make slyly appropriate cameos, such as the German '80s pop surprise of "99 Luftballons," a Cold War cautionary tale heard just after the first mention of the possibility of nuclear war.
Though some pieces of the source material inevitably had to be trimmed, Snyder manages to include—and sometimes magnify—some tangential elements during the masterful title sequence. And the song that accompanies the entire sequence? Quite appropriately, it's Bob Dylan's "The Times, They Are A-Changin'."