Watchmen vs The Dark Knight Returns
I decided this week that I’d take a break from countdowns to talk about a couple of films and put them against one another to see which one I thought was best, and the reason I chose to compare these two requires a little mini history lesson.
See, in the 1980s, the comic industry was about to hit two of its biggest releases. Watchmen, produced by Virgo comics, written by Alan Moore with illustrations by Dave Gibbons, and The Dark Knight Returns, produced by DC comics and written and illustrated by Frank Miller. Now, both of these graphic novels were incredibly significant in several ways. At this point we’d gone beyond the rather colourful and wacky days of the Silver Age of comics by this point, but the public’s perception of Superheroes was still kind of in the ballpark. Both graphic novels took to the idea of Superheroes and kind of brought them to a rather dark, gritty and realistic place; it practically changed the comic industry overnight and both of them are some of the most influential works of fiction ever created.
Now, its effect on the creative board wasn’t all completely great because it definitely led to some terrible choices in creative direction for both Marvel and DC since they both kind of went down the route of trying to recreate it within their main comic series, not understanding the reason why the ultraviolence in both of these books stood out is because they were the exception, not the rule. And it’s this kind of creative bankruptcy that practically led to Marvel’s own financial bankruptcy in the 90s, something which I’m amazed they ever recovered from given that their answer to it was Spiderman Clone Saga storyline. Trust me, that’s a whole can of worms in of itself.
With work as influential as these, you’d think that an adaptation of both works would have not only been plausible but almost inevitable. Well, in Watchmen’s case, it certainly was the case, but it went through development hell. Monty Python actor Terry Gilliam famously tried to get one off the ground, but he ultimately couldn’t find a way of doing it within budget and even declared the book was unadaptable outside of making a television miniseries. And the reins were handed over to a few other directors. Paul Greengrass, director of the Bourne Identity was brought on to do an adaptation of it which would set the story in a modern setting as opposed to the 1985 setting that the graphic novel is set in, and would comment on the Iraq war as opposed to the Vietnam war that’s referenced in the actual Watchmen comic. The film rights were eventually given back to Warner Bros along with virtually every other DC property and Zack Snyder, just fresh off his success with 300, was given the director’s job.
The Dark Knight Returns, however, was a rather different beast. It came about because of DC’s home video animated films that had been going to DVD for quite some time up to that point. But Batman storylines were very hard to convince the Higher ups to do since they didn’t want to clash with Christopher Nolan’s then ongoing Dark Knight trilogy. The Dark Knight Returns was released in two parts, the first of which came out at the end of 2012 and the last part coming out at the beginning of 2013, both running at 72 minutes long as a way to get the whole story out. And then the director’s chair, we had longtime DC alumni Jay Oliva. While he has a few weaker entries in his directing jobs, he has also made some excellent films including Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, and Batman: Assault on Arkham, and his work in the art departments of several big blockbusters is not to be understated.
So here we have two films that are based on very seminal work that has greatly affected superhero fiction going forwards, and a fanbase that has particularly high standards for adaptations of said work and almost doesn’t want anything changed, and writers and directors who are determined to give it to them, the major difference being that one of these films is entirely animated and the other one is mostly live action with a small animated section. I’ll get into the details of that. For the record, I have read the graphic novels of both of these works as well as seen the films.
With Watchmen’s first season of its TV series now having wrapped up, I think it’s time to really dive into both of these films and discover which one I thought did a better job. I’ve divided them into a few small categories to determine which film I thought was better. Whoever wins the most categories wins this battle. Oh, and for the record, the cuts I’ll be comparing are the single film cuts which merges both Dark Knight Returns part 1 and 2 together and the ultimate cut of Watchmen, which is incidentally the longest cut. Watchmen only lasts an hour longer than Dark Knight Returns as a result and, fair warning, there are major spoilers ahead for both so don’t blame me when I give away half of what’s in these films. Let’s begin!
So, the production of both of these films is obviously going to be very different, mainly because one film is live action and the other film is animated but with both of these two I’ve decided to compare them with how well they created the environment of their comic, where they took some liberties and how well the changes turned out. Both films do an excellent job of recreating their comic’s world. Watchmen has clearly been made by someone who’s read the comic. In fact, the team was actively using panels from the comics as storyboards during the film’s production. The major changes here have been some of the costumes of the heroes have received redesigns. Owl Man’s for example probably has a slightly thinner costume than he does in the comic – more on that later – and it makes him look way more like Batman than he does in the original graphic novel. And Ozymandias’ costume feels like it’s a direct dig at Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. That’s not to say the live action did rather badly, far from it. The lighting and cinematography in these scenes really do a good job recreating certain scenes from the comic, even some of the harder ones to adapt. As a whole, it’s genuinely astounding to see how well they did.
The Dark Knight Returns is animated so it has a few more advantages in recreating the graphic novel’s world. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that the DC movies that went straight to home video regularly tried to recreate the art style of the artist that created the graphic novel, so in this case they wanted to recreate Frank Miller’s art, which they both did and didn’t. It’s definitely got a lot of the style that Frank Miller gave the book but they definitely cleaned up a few areas – Frank Miller has a rather scratchy style of art which doesn’t translate very well to animation. This I think was one of the smartest decisions of the team; Frank Miller’s art was definitely not going to translate well in a one-on-one situation so they took the best they could with it and altered it where necessary. Most of the characters though reflect their comic counterparts, so I think the biggest change was that Carrie Kelly is a bit taller in the film than she’s implied to be in the graphic novel.
So it’s very hard to compare these two since they both did a very good job of taking the world of their graphic novel and bringing it to life in a visual and audio medium. There’s also nice touches like Rorschach’s mask having the everchanging inkblots in Watchmen to the slight Easter eggs in The Dark Knight Returns, but if I go by which one did a better job recreating the world of their graphic novel, and despite the fact it had the advantages, I’m going to have to go for The Dark Knight Returns. Nothing against Watchmen in this regard but I think Watchmen’s cinematography and lighting at times is a little bright and I think it got rid of at times the colour schemes that really made the graphic novel pop out. But the big clinch for me is that when The Dark Knight Returns does make changes, it feels like what they bring in in terms of design and production is for the better. In Watchmen, it almost feels kind of soulless and almost like they just wanted to homage something else like the scene with the US cabinet in an underground bunker which resembles scene of Dr. Strangelove. It’s very commendable how much Watchmen strived to produce the comic but it didn’t quite succeed. The Dark Knight Returns almost succeeded on every level in this regard.
Winner: Dark Knight Returns
So, I have to talk about the choice of actors they got for theses films. Well, for the most part, the performances were great in both regards. On The Dark Knight Returns end, we got Peter Weller as Batman, Ariel Winter as Carrie Kelly, David Shelby as Commissioner Gordon and, probably my favourite choice, Michael Emerson as Joker. Seriously, Michael Emerson is one of the most underrated Jokers ever. He really nails the character, especially in the role he was given in The Dark Knight Returns. So overall everyone gives excellent performances in this film and I genuinely am astounded how well some of the actors came into their roles. One of the ones who really surprised me the most was Mark Valley as Superman; I genuinely thought it was Tim Daly for quite a while. He actually inhabits the role very well.
Now, as for the casting in Watchmen, you’ve got some interesting choices – Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan, Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian, Patrick Wilson as Night Owl, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre but the standout for me from this one was Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. Granted, I think there are problems with Rorschach’s character but I get a sense that it was the direction that Haley was given. I just think Rorschach seems a bit too over the top in his voice, almost like he’s trying to sound as badass as possible at all moments, certainly something that includes the character but in the comic, you get a sense of a twinge of self-doubt that doesn’t quite exist in this version.
So, my thought process is, which one of these films did a better job capturing those characters through the performances? Well, whether I’m judging the performances on their own or in bringing to life those characters, I’ve gotta go with The Dark Knight Returns again. Watchmen’s actors feel like they genuinely are trying to be those characters but they also suffer again from the direction Snyder gave them. Snyder’s direction is one of the biggest issues with Watchmen as a film. So, while these characters do feel like they’re straight out of the comic, at times, there are moments that drag you out of it, almost like that’s not how you’d imagine them sounding if you read the graphic novel or that’s not how you’d imagine that scene played out when you read it in the graphic novel. Now normally I would try and separate the two and just compare the adaptation to itself for a talk about performances in the film, but Watchmen constantly tries to be such a loyal adaptation that so rarely strays from its graphic novel that it invites comparison almost entirely.
Winner: Dark Knight Returns
Okay, so we’re down to the final category and Watchmen is playing for pride at this point. So, how do these films compare out of adapting their graphic novels? I won’t be comparing these films as their own thing since they are both so loyal in many ways to their graphic novel, they don’t really invite being taken as their own things. A little recap: Watchmen is a story about America in an alternative 1980s where the Cold War has gotten out of control, Superheroes after a golden age of crimefighting have been outlawed or are just straight up agents of the government, Richard Nixon has used constitutional reform to make himself president for five terms and the story begins with the murder of former government superhero, the Comedian, and the subsequent investigation into his dead of a former heroes of a group known as the Minute Men such as Owl Man, the Silk Spectre, Rorschach and Dr Manhattan. That’s a basic grasp of the story but it’s really more about a psychological dive into the feeling of being lost and almost insignificant in a world that seems to no longer need you, told through the perspective of four clearly psychologically damaged people.
Watchmen is really been described very well as not really being a Superhero story. It’s a story of a psychological breakdown and the collapse of a broken society where some of the people just happen to be Superheroes. There isn’t really much of a villain plot for most of the film. The Dark Knight Returns is a story set decades after Batman retires where a near 50-year-old Batman comes out of retirement that was brought on by the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. Yeah, comic history is really big and confusing when you try to unpack it. And he comes out of retirement after Gotham has been overrun by a street gang known as The Mutants, afterwards training a young street vigilante named Carrie Kelly to become the next Robin.
Now, as I mentioned, both of these films that I’ve mentioned on several occasions do not deviate from their source material very often, the most major ones really being that we get a bit more insight into Carrie Kelly’s home life in The Dark Knight Returns. There are some changes to certain events during the midpoint of Watchmen etc etc. But of course there is one obvious change to Watchmen which I’ll get into later, but with these films, The Dark Knight Returns tells its story a lot more calmly because it’s got two hours and twenty minutes to tell its story, and of course it was a much shorter graphic novel, being only the equivalent of four extra-long comics. Watchmen was a lot longer – it’s equivalent of twelve extra-long comics so its original theatrical run only ran for two hours and forty-five minutes, being extended to three hours in the director’s cut and the ultimate cut that I saw also mixed in the random pirate comic which received a small animation short. It was a DVD extra on the director’s cut, but the ultimate cut merged it into the film and it feels rather out of place in the film. Now, that doesn’t reflect my thoughts on the comic within a comic that was in the graphic novel but that one had some actual reasoning behind it. It just feels like it’s there in the ultimate cut, but granted this was cut for a reason and if I’d actually reviewed the theatrical version I would have probably said I didn’t mourn its absence. Although, that being said, I’m pretty sure the animators that worked on this one would’ve been really pissed that it didn’t make the theatrical release.
Now, in the case of The Dark Knight Returns it really does match the themes of its book – coping with old age, seeing the world changing around you and how crime comes in several forms with both street level crime and crime from big, corrupt organizations, and at the end of the day The Dark Knight Returns is a story that’s essentially about Batman being unable to simply let go even when the deck is stacked against him. There’s some real genuine tragedy with the fight between him and Superman at the end after the US government has deemed that Batman is too much of a risk to them, and you get a sense that Batman and Superman don’t want to fight each other. Their roles mean they don’t really have a choice and the fact that Batman just can’t give this life up. It’s one of the reasons why Zack Snyder kind of missed the point when he brought in the imagery of that fight into Batman vs Superman but missed the point of why we should really care. The fight scene in this film is excellent; the fight scene in Batman vs Superman has excellent choreography but it doesn’t have the weight behind it.
Now, this does tie into some of my thoughts on Watchmen as well. I think my thoughts on Zack Snyder really are very similar to what Mark Kermode put, which is that he really struggles to see beyond a surface level. That’s why his version of Watchmen is kind of the opposite to Alan Moore’s comic in terms of its tone. The character don’t show as much weakness in this film as they did in the comic and this is a serious change that affects the whole thing. For example, Patrick Wilson was an excellent casting choice for Owl Man but they refused to make him like his comic counterpart which was a bit out of shape and impotent. The main difference is, whereas the comic Watchmen is about psychological trauma and societal failure that just happens to have Superheroes in it, Watchmen the movie is a Superhero movie that just happens to have psychological trauma and themes of a societal collapse in it. The action scenes are way more overwrought and there’s way too much pompous self-importance brought into the film. This is something that’s really akin to Zack Snyder; he would use so much similar direction in his movie Man of Steel and especially in the godawful Suckerpunch. Yeah, I’m being somewhat kind with Watchmen in this thing; I will not be kind to Suckerpunch. That movie is flaming rubbish. And that’s really been my biggest problem with Watchmen – it’s been adapted in a way that makes it feel like its up its own arse, and of course, the biggest criticism at the time and to this day has been the change in ending. (Major spoilers!)
See, in both the graphic novel and the film, Dr Manhattan leaves Earth for contemplation on Mars after it becomes apparent that him being the only superpowered being through nuclear fusion might by actually giving people who come into close proximity to him cancer and he’s receiving several dissenting comments from the press, not to mention he’s going through a bad breakup with Silk Spectre. With that US’ big weapon that helped them win the Vietnam war now off the planet Earth, the Soviet Union sees this as an opportunity to ramp up their forces and prepare for an all-out war with America, something that is almost inevitable. We later discover as the story plays out that Ozymandias has been planning a way to unite the countries in fear. In the comic, he tricks a bunch of scientists and comic artists to create him giant alien squid that he teleports into New York to give out a psychic scream to kill most of the population of the city, and then subsequently dies, giving off the impression that it’s the harbinger of an alien invasion. The Soviets, out of respect, call off their attack and offer aid. In the film, Ozymandias uses a bunch of generators to solve an energy crisis that Dr Manhattan’s been working on through several cities to call several nuclear explosions giving off the impression that Dr Manhattan had gone completely rogue and was destroying cities. In both instances, everyone except Rorschach believes the lie is better than the truth even though essentially it requires genocide, but in the long run, less people will probably die than a full out war with the Soviet Union, except Rorschach who has to be subsequently killed to keep him silent.
Okay, you won’t be surprised to hear that I personally prefer the squid in the graphic novel as a threat mainly because it invites less questions that Dr Manhattan being the villain, and more to the point, the squid actually dies. To echo Lynn Cara’s thoughts on this ending change, if Manhattan is that powerful, why the hell are people actively planning to take him on? They can’t beat him. The squid actually dies. Ergo, if this is the coming of an alien invasion, it can be stopped with a united front. Now, Ozymandias’ plan is really dumb in the long run, but it does work in the short run in both cases, but it really stands to reason why one of these plotlines actively works and the other one doesn’t and it feels really weird that this was the one thing they decided to make a massive change about when they were straying so close to virtually all the other plot points.
Now, there were several supplementary bits in Watchmen and several scene transitions in Dark Knight Returns that were being questioned in regard to how they were going to be brought into their adaptations. They don’t translate too well into The Dark Knight Returns. A lot of talk shows and news coverage by pundits commenting on Batman’s return and the effect it’s having on Gotham don’t translate too well to a film medium and they kind of really stick out in this version, but Watchmen didn’t even really attempt it which is probably one of the big reasons why the change had to be made; there’s no supplementary material to give the audience a hint of what’s going on. Remember, Watchmen is partly a mystery story and since the filmmakers can’t lay the groundwork or don’t want to be bothered to lay the groundworks, they don’t bother to. So the win in all of this goes to The Dark Knight Returns.
Winner: The Dark Knight Returns
So, The Dark Knight Returns wins 3:0, but there was a reason I really wanted to bring these up – last week I talked about adaptations that strayed away from their source material but turned out the better for it and great works in their own right. Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns are two examples of how loyal adaptations can go. In The Dark Knight Returns’ case, it did an excellent job translating a story to screen in a way that was probably very powerful to a large audience to really get them into this story. In the case of Watchmen, its loyalty to its graphic novel actually kind of harmed it. Because it was so close to its graphic novel, the tonal changes and any changes at all, slight or massive, were more highlighted than ever. It’s almost undone by its loyalty and it has a changed ending that really fails it, especially considering that it has all the components for the original ending but now has a new ending that it hasn’t quite built up to.
Yes, there’s more wrong with Watchmen than its ending but my point stands: Watchmen’s biggest fault is the fact that it’s so loyal to its graphic novel, but at the same time doesn’t quite get its graphic novel, that you might as well be reading the graphic novel. Maybe HBO’s TV series which I haven’t watched yet will be an excellent sequel and that would be really great because if this was the only time we’d be seeing any of the characters from Watchmen, I really wouldn’t feel satisfied.
Have you got two films that you want to see me compare? Leave something in the comment section and I’ll definitely take them under consideration.
Share This Post: