In 1986, the face of American comic books was changed forever with the release of three graphic novels: Batman: The Dark Knight by Frank Miller; Maus by Art Spiegelman; and Watchmen by Alan Moore. These three works signalled a new maturity in the genre: the good guys were no longer easy to distinguish from the bad guys. The dystopian Watchmen stood out, and its place in the pantheon of comic book history was cemented when it was the only comic to make Time magazine's 2005 list of the 100 best English language novels from 1923 to the present.
Watchmen is set in an alternative 1985, a world in which President Nixon has won a third term in the White House on the strength of a victory in Vietnam. The cold war arms race has shown no sign of letting up despite the fact the US seems to have the ultimate nuclear weapon, a blue-skinned atomic man nicknamed Dr Manhattan. And, most importantly for this story, superheroes have been outlawed. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), an alienated, uncompromising fugitive vigilante, is convinced that someone is trying to kill anyone who belonged to the Minutemen, a group of costumed vigilantes who joined forces to fight crime in the post-war years. When The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is killed, Rorschach tries to warn his old comrades - Night Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman, badly cast), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) - that they are in danger.
This premise could be from any comic book, but what distinguished Watchmen was that it asked a fundamental question: what makes someone want to dress up in a costume and mete out justice? The answer seemed to be that these were people inspired by the writings of Nietzsche, people who believed they were above the law and able to do as they pleased. What Moore depicted in his comic books were not superheroes in the traditional sense, but people with problems.
The books also contained fictional source material that explained the world these characters inhabited. These scraps of biography, medical records and a journal were part of the reason that many people believed the comic could never successfully be adapted to the big screen. So was a strange pirate subplot that popped up randomly throughout the books. For 20 years, directors and writers such as Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass and Sam Hamm have tried and failed to come up with a way of bringing Watchmen to the big screen. So it's very much to the 300 director Zack Snyder's credit that he came up with a simple but effective way of making Watchmen: to pretty much film the comic book as it is written, even going so far as to shooting scenes from the same angles. This was something that Frank Miller, with whom Snyder worked on 300, did when adapting Sin City for the big screen with Robert Rodriguez.
This method does, however, have its problems. Although he has successfully managed to recreate the images from the book in a coherent and intriguing manner, Snyder has failed to find a way to effectively incorporate the backstory from the source material, so anyone who hasn't read the comic book will be left baffled by a movie that doesn't adequately explain why these people wanted to become vigilantes in the first place or why they were subsequently banned.
These problems are compounded by a failure to create moments in which an audience that isn't familiar with the comic can connect with these characters. They may be more emotionally complex than most superhero movie characters, but they're also cold and mean-spirited, which makes them hard to empathise with. The soundtrack also lets the film down. Snyder, as he proved with 300, is a great visual stylist but when it comes to music, his use of clichéd songs from Tears for Fears, Simon and Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen is extremely jarring. The failure of this very faithful adaptation highlights the fact that to capture the spirit of a comic book, a film must do more than bring a collection of still frames to life.