Watchmen was adapted to film in 2009, directed by Zack Snyder and starring Malin Åkerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson. It is an adaptation of the comic book of the same name by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The film is set in an alternate history 1985 at the height of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, as a group of mostly retired vigilantes investigate an apparent conspiracy against them and uncovers something even more grandiose and sinister.
The ‘Minutemen’, a collection of costumed crime fighters, form in 1938 in response to a rise in costumed gangs and criminals, and the ‘Watchmen’ similarly form decades later. Their existence in America has dramatically affected world events: the super powers of Dr. Manhattan help the United States win the Vietnam War, resulting in President Richard Nixon being repeatedly reelected into the 1980s. The existence of Dr. Manhattan gives the West a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union, which by the 1980s threatens to escalate the Cold War into nuclear war. During that time, growing anti-vigilante sentiment in the country leads to masked crime fighters being outlawed. While many of the heroes retire, Doctor Manhattan and the Comedian operate as government-sanctioned agents, and Rorschach continues to operate outside the law.
Investigating the murder of government agent Edward Blake, Rorschach discovers that Blake was the Comedian, and theorizes that someone may be trying to eliminate the Watchmen. He attempts to warn his retired comrades—his former partner Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl II, Dr. Manhattan, and the latter’s lover Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II. Dreiberg is skeptical, but nonetheless relates the hypothesis to vigilante-turned-billionaire Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, who dismisses it.
After Blake’s funeral, Dr. Manhattan is accused of causing the cancers afflicting his former girlfriend and others who spent time with him after the scientific accident that gave him superpowers. Dr. Manhattan exiles himself to Mars, giving the Soviet Union the confidence to invade Afghanistan in his absence. Later, Rorschach’s conspiracy theory appears to be justified when Veidt, who had long since made his identity as Ozymandias public before retiring, narrowly avoids an ostensible assassination attempt, and Rorschach finds himself framed for the murder of a former villain, Moloch. Meanwhile, Jupiter, after breaking up with Manhattan, goes to stay with Dreiberg, and the two former superheroes come out of retirement, eventually becoming lovers. After breaking Rorschach out of prison, Silk Spectre is confronted by Dr. Manhattan. He takes her to Mars and, after she asks him to save the world, explains he is no longer interested in humanity. As he probes her memories, she discovers she is the product of an affair between her mother, the original Silk Spectre, and the Comedian. His interest in humanity renewed by this improbable sequence of events, Manhattan returns to Earth with the Silk Spectre.
Investigating the conspiracy, Rorschach and Nite Owl discover that Veidt is behind everything. Rorschach records his suspicions in his journal, which he drops off at the publication office of New Frontiersman, a right-wing tabloid. Rorschach and Nite Owl confront Veidt at his Antarctic retreat. Ozymandias confirms he is the mastermind behind the Comedian’s murder, Manhattan’s exile, and the framing of Rorschach; he also staged his own assassination attempt to place himself above suspicion. He explains that his plan is to unify the United States and the Soviet Union, preventing a nuclear war, by destroying the world’s main cities with exploding energy reactors he helped Dr. Manhattan create under the pretense of providing free energy for the world. Rorschach and Nite Owl attempt to stop him, but Ozymandias subdues them, and then reveals that his plan has already been set into motion: the reactors have been detonated, and the energy signatures are recognized as Manhattan’s.
Silk Spectre and Dr. Manhattan arrive at the ruins of New York City and determine that it must be Veidt’s work. They teleport to his Antarctic base just after he has beaten Rorschach and Nite Owl, causing Veidt to retreat and attempt to kill Manhattan. Unsuccessful, he shows them a televised news report in which Nixon states that the US and Soviets have allied against their new “common enemy”, Dr. Manhattan. The heroes eventually realize that revealing the truth would only disrupt this peace. Rorschach is unwilling to remain silent, however, and goads a reluctant Manhattan into vaporizing him. Dr. Manhattan then shares a final kiss with Silk Spectre and departs for another galaxy while an enraged Nite Owl assaults Veidt, who nevertheless defends his actions. Rather than concede with Veidt’s ideals, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre leave him to atone for what he has done. Silk Spectre and Nite Owl return to New York City, which is being rebuilt, and plan to continue fighting crime. Silk Spectre reveals to her mother that she has learned the Comedian was her father, and the two reconcile. The editor of the New Frontiersman complains of having nothing worthwhile to print because of the new worldwide peace. He tells a young employee that he may print whatever he likes from a collection of crank mailings, among which lies Rorschach’s journal.
Here is the Intro sequence from the film:
The intro shows a version of important events in American history, as they have happened in the Watchmen universe as well as some of the backstories of the characters. The song is titled “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and is written and performed by Bob Dylan.
In 1986, producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver acquired film rights to Watchmen for 20th Century Fox. After author Alan Moore declined to write a screenplay based on his story, Fox enlisted screenwriter Sam Hamm. Hamm took the liberty of re-writing Watchmen’s complicated ending into a “more manageable” conclusion involving an assassination and a time paradox. Fox put the project into turnaround in 1991, and the project was moved to Warner Bros., where Terry Gilliam was attached to direct and Charles McKeown to rewrite it. Due to lack of funding — Gilliam and Silver were only able to raise $25 million for the film (a quarter of the necessary budget) because their previous films had gone overbudget — and Gilliam’s belief that the comic would have been unfilmable, Gilliam eventually left Watchmen, and Warner Bros. dropped the project.
In October 2001, Gordon partnered with Lloyd Levin and Universal Studios, hiring David Hayter to write and direct. Hayter and the producers left Universal due to creative differences, and Gordon and Levin expressed interest in setting up Watchmen at Revolution Studios. The project did not hold together at Revolution Studios and subsequently fell apart. In July 2004, it was announced Paramount Pictures would produce Watchmen, and they attached Darren Aronofsky to direct Hayter’s script. Producers Gordon and Levin remained attached, collaborating with Aronofsky’s producing partner, Eric Watson. Paul Greengrass replaced Aronofsky when he left to focus on The Fountain. Ultimately, Paramount placed Watchmen in turnaround.
In October 2005, Gordon and Levin met with Warner Bros. to develop the film there again. Impressed with Zack Snyder’s work on 300, Warner Bros. approached him to direct an adaptation of Watchmen. Screenwriter Alex Tse drew from his favorite elements of Hayter’s script, but also returned it to the original Cold War setting of the Watchmen comic. Similar to his approach to 300, Snyder used the comic book as a storyboard. Following negotiations, Paramount, which had already spent $7 million in their failed project, earned the rights for international distribution of Watchmen and 25% of the film’s ownership.
The fight scenes were extended, and a subplot about energy resources was added to make the film more topical. Although he intended to stay faithful to the look of the characters in the comic, Snyder intended Nite Owl to look scarier, and made Ozymandias’ armor into a parody of the rubber muscle suits from 1997’s Batman & Robin. Production took place in Vancouver, where a New York City back lot was built. Sound stages were used for apartments and offices, while sequences on Mars and Antarctica were shot against green screens. Filming started on September 17, 2007, and ended on February 19, 2008, on an estimated $120 million budget. To handle the 1,100 shots featuring visual effects, a quarter of them being computer-generated imagery, ten different effects companies were involved with Watchmen. While 20th Century Fox filed a lawsuit to block the film’s release, the studios eventually settled, and Fox received an upfront payment and a percentage of the worldwide gross from the film and all sequels and spin-offs in return.
Dave Gibbons became an adviser on Snyder’s film, but Moore has refused to have his name attached to any film adaptations of his work. Moore has stated he has no interest in seeing Snyder’s adaptation; he told Entertainment Weekly in 2008, “There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can’t”. While Moore believes that David Hayter’s screenplay was “as close as I could imagine anyone getting to Watchmen,” he asserted he did not intend to see the film if it were made.