The James Clayton Column: Which Watchmen are we watching?

With multiple editions being drip-fed, is Watchmen a movie at all or a series of edits and remixes?

sally jupiter watchmen

After much hand-wringing on behalf of the die-hard comic book community and the legal teams of Hollywood, the eagerly anticipated Watchmen movie will finally hit cinema screens next week. If reports are right, though, it’ll find itself flashing out at multiplexes again come June: this time in a longer format to fit in extra bits and pieces, a dash more sexiness and amp up the violence – according to director Zack Snyder – “considerably”.

Already apprehensive about such an astounding graphic novel being the subject of blockbuster adaptation, I don’t want to feel like I’m taking in a diluted, disembowelled movie. The proper geeks who want gratuitous Watchmen detail (because fitting in every minute element of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons masterpiece is nigh-on impossible) thus get a film fleshed-out with the facets that aren’t pressing on the minds of casual viewers. Concomitantly, the studio stands to pull in more box-office receipts and look ever so respectful and reverential to the sacred text that they’ve mined for cinematic riches.

Whereas I’m very wary about the Watchmen movie, I’m more at ease and stoked up about the direct-to-DVD animated film Tales Of The Black Freighter. Acting in the graphic novel as a story-within-a-story that parallels the emotions and episodes encountered by several of the main characters in the graphic novel, the Tales Of The Black Freighter strand is a bloody inspired imaginative device. To see the chronicle of a desperate mariner craft a makeshift-raft from his shipmates’ corpses to warn his hometown of coming pirates in technicolour motion is going to be sweet.

The fact that Gerard Butler is providing the vocals, employing the hell-damned dramatic delivery he used for Leonidas in 300 just adds to my excitement, as does the fact that the DVD will also contain the Beneath The Hood documentary. Those who’ve read the novel will know that that is the title of the original Nite Owl Hollis Mason’s  autobiography, and so will undoubtedly offer up an array of extra material to expand on the base book and bring up more tantalising treasures from the Watchmen multiverse as a bonus for fans.

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Not enough? Still feeling an urge to totally submerge yourself under the waves of Watchmen-related paraphernalia? If, unlike Alan Moore, you’re not content with the original comic book, you can surf the web and seek out all the trailers and viral promo videos. Drift past YouTube and you can find a whole range of fan-made ads for Veidt products such as Nostalgia perfume, the Ozymandias action-figure and the Veidt Music Network TV Channel: all über-tacky and ultra-eighties in their style. It’s true nostalgia: both for the original book and the decade that spawned it.

There’s also the Minutemen arcade game on the official movie website for some procrastinatory, retro platformer pleasure, though it’s not that great, to be honest: after kicking a few hoods I got bored and couldn’t work out how to beat the boss Moloch at the end. There is, of course, unsurprisingly, a spin-off video game for more contemporary consoles (Watchmen: The End Is Nigh) and, aside from visual media, the usual merchandise of action-figures and t-shirts. Alan Moore, infamous for his antagonistic attitude towards movie adaptations of his writing (he demanded his name be cut from the credits of V For Vendetta), must be bristling with brazen disgust behind his beard at the commercial colossus his bold vision has become.

Despite Moore’s misgivings, Dave Gibbons has offered his full blessing and seems enthused about the whole thing, which as a fan of the graphic novel is hugely comforting. To get the thumbs up from Gibbons validates the endeavour and gives Watchmen aficionados additional relief in addition to the existence of an alternate, extended edition of the film. Knowing that there’s a substantive three-hours and ten-minutes treatment in store alongside the shorter edit vastly diminishes the chances of being let down by a hackjob Hollywood-ified husk of a flick that hauls out the original material’s essence to try and cater for a mass market.

However Watchmen fares in theatres, the arrival of the “Crazy Ultimate Freaky Edition” DVD (as it has been so dubbed by Snyder) will be monumental in itself. Snyder has promised the inclusion of a plethora of precious parts from the novel’s plot that couldn’t be crammed into the movie (including a great deal more of Dr. Manhattan’s existential excursion on Mars) and the disc will no doubt be backed by more bonus goodies for true geeks.

Such special disc-spinning follows in the footsteps of other huge blockbusters blessed (or should that be cursed?) with an impassioned fanbase. The Lord Of The Rings extended editions appealed to true Tolkien acolytes and special effects nerds by offering a flood of documentary featurettes and extra scenes. It’s also true that trying to take in the 252-minute version of The Return Of The King is too much for one cinema sitting, no matter how enraptured by Tolkien-lore you are or how comfy your arse is. Because interludes are all too rare these days and because backside sores shouldn’t be a side effect of cinemagoing, such DVD releases are welcome.

In this world, one size does not fit all, so it makes sense to extend this idea on to DVDs. Through the Blade Runner special edition DVD boxset, for example, viewers can select their favourite version of Ridley Scott’s dystopian thriller, depending on whether or not they like film noir voiceovers and whether or not they believe Deckard is replicant. Likewise, should you not wish to see Hayden Christensen at the end of Return Of The Jedi, you can opt for the totally original Star Wars trilogy DVD or, if you don’t care about Greedo shooting first, go for a boxset that collects later edits of George Lucas’s space saga. Personally, I’m hoping that Lucas will employ Industrial Light and Magic to erase every scene featuring Jar Jar Binks for the 15th Anniversary Blu-ray box of the Star Wars prequels…

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The way Watchmen is being prepped and put out appears to point to a future full of alternative versions and perhaps even the death of the absolute article in the face of such a diverse marketplace. Is this democracy, or is this indecision on a grand scale? Is it actually all just commercial overkill and corporate cash-hunger dressed up as a benevolent bent towards film buffs? It’s a question worth pondering, but first: which version of Watchmen will you be watching?

James’ previous column can be found here.