7 Things the Uninitiated Should Know Before Seeing ‘Watchmen’

We tow the line between spoiling everything (we don’t spoil anything) and educating (just some slight preparation) in order to give a decent look at what to expect from a film based on a book that you might not have read yet.
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By  · Published on March 5th, 2009

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So far, there have been exactly 238,928 articles regarding Watchmen running around the internet. I counted. Yet exactly none of them are aimed at the large population of people that haven’t actually read the graphic novel. As mentioned before, the project is an odd cultural icon that is loved by many and unknown to more. Still, there are going to be a ton of viewers (maybe even one or two this weekend) that check out the movie without having read or without knowing much of anything about the story, the characters or the cheesy costumes they wear.

Having already seen the film, I can say that it stands alone as a movie, that a viewer doesn’t necessarily need to read the graphic novel beforehand to “get it” or even to enjoy it. There are a few things that might be handy to know before heading into the theater, though, so to that end, we present to you Seven Things You Should Know Before Visually Acquiring Watchmen.

It’s A Satire

Underneath the slick-as-hell veneer of a Zack Snyder joint and the cheesy technicolor of superheroes with capes, the story is a biting satire about the genre. This means two things – it stands outside of the superhero world in order to comment on it, and it sometimes has to firmly plant itself in that world. Don’t be surprised when one scene that effectively mocks the concept of a man putting on spandex in order to patrol the crime-filled night is followed by one that seems to celebrate it. The result is that there are a few groan-worthy moments, a few pieces of dialog that seem ripped from the serials of the 1940s and don’t quite fit in the deathly serious world of nuclear destruction and gang violence. Sometimes the satire is done well, sometimes it’s done poorly, and sometimes it’s done too well.

It’s the 1980s

Thankfully opting to keep the story in the 1980s (albeit in the alternate universe of a 1985 where Richard Nixon is on his fourth term after winning the Vietnam War through use of the American Superhero Dr. Manhattan – the only character that has any real super powers), Zack Snyder and company have done a great service to viewers by placing the story firmly within the auspices of the Cold War era paranoia. Arguably, it could be set today under similar paranoia, but so far our culture isn’t far enough removed from that reality for that to work well in art. Unfortunately, the 1980s comes with the albatross of being the worst decade in American history when it comes to style. The design team does an extraordinary job of side-stepping those problems, but the things that slip through – a few dresses that Laurie Jupiter wears and a few architectural details – are absurd enough to draw negative attention. Most obviously, you’ll recognize it in the soundtrack, though. The positives far outweigh the negatives, but without knowing this going in, the flaming awful that is 1980s sensibilities might burn your eyeballs from time to time.

It’s Long, but It Isn’t

Some people are turned off by the run time – a whopping two hours and forty minutes – but the pacing is so fast and tight that the film feels like it’s only two hours long. There’s a lot of story going on in that span, but walking out of the theater, you may feel like it’s an hour earlier than it actually is. If that’s the only factor keeping you from checking out the latest film phenomenon, don’t let it.

It’s Not X-Men

There’s been a long, winding road of comics influencing film influencing comics, and the success of X-Men in 2000 kicked off what has been a near-decade long success streak of comic book films. Watchmen, the film, is certainly benefiting from that, not least of all because it was another comic film – 300 – that gave producers the confidence in a director to finally film the damned thing after more than twenty years in development hell. However, you shouldn’t go into it expecting to see anything similar to X-Men. In a way, the film is a look at what might happen if characters like those in X-Men and The Dark Knight were put on the couch and given an hour-long session with Sigmund Freud. It’s a look at what would happen to society if a major cultural movement of people putting on costumes and fighting crime came to pass. It’s a look at what would happen if the United States had created a walking God instead of creating the Atomic Bomb during their WWII tests in the desert. All of this is reflected in intimate detail.

It’s Not Going to Hold Your Hand

Zack Snyder and company do a great job of giving a solid alternate history lesson within the opening credits. It’s beautifully stylized and informative in the best way possible. It displays the world after World War II in this alternate universe where a group of vigilantes band together in the positive spotlight of the public, where a young scientist gets turned into a walking weapon, where the war in Vietnam is won with ease, and where the public sentiment toward masked avengers grows violently negative. It lands the audience squarely into the outset of the story where one of those masked vigilantes has been murdered and another searches for answers. When it comes to the rest of the story, and a few elements that are in the movie, there’s little in the way of exposition – opting instead to assume that you’ll figure things out on your own. Sometimes, things get blurry. Here’s a few unspoilery notes:

It’s Going to Show Superheroes Doing Things You Won’t Like

Along the lines of its satirical nature and complexity, Watchmen displays the lives of men and women who are crazy enough to wear capes and fight crime. They are superheroes with no other super powers than the insanity needed to do so. In a way, they are superheroes that aren’t superheroes – but in a very real, recognizable way, they are masked heroes in elaborate costumes that sometimes take those costumes off in order to display their erectile dysfunction, commit acts of rape, and murder innocents in the name of the greater good. It’s a world of ethical gray areas, a world of characters that all display a resoluteness about their ethics – ethics that are as widely varied and colorful as their costumes. Don’t go into this film without expecting to see the good name of the superhero sullied and left bleeding in the gutter.

It’s Going to Make You Want to Read the Novel

And it should. Whether or not you’re into comics seems irrelevant at this point. Our culture is awash in superheroes and comic book adaptations. Broad groups of the public have seen comic book movies without having ever picked up a comic book in their lives, and maybe you find yourself part of that group. But this movie more than most will make you want to pick up a copy of “Watchmen,” and you definitely should to get the rest of the story. There’s only so much the movie can achieve, and it does most of it incredibly well, but the book itself is still head and shoulders above the film version in depth, symbolic parallelisms, and impact.

Ultimately, I would hope that the large number of people heading over to see Watchmen based on advertising, curiosity or over-zealous fanboy friends alone would prepare themselves. No information is needed, but these few tidbits might aid the uninitiated in being a bit more comfortable in their theater seats. The last one is the most important. For those who have never read the novel, I would hope that they would be moved by the film enough to check out what the piece of art that started the movement in the first place is really all about.

For more fantastic Watchmen features, check out our Watching the Watchmen page.

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