Watchmen is a good movie if you’ve read the book and a horrible movie if you haven’t. Which is strange, because the film’s ending deviates from the book pretty substantially and stuff like that typically irks fans of the original source material. I think Watchmen fans knew they were never going to get a perfect Watchmen movie that just encapsulated everything the comic book was about. Really, that’s what makes it the greatest graphic novel ever, because it utilized that format to the utmost creative level. Fans are appreciative for whatever Watchmen they could get, and while the ending didn’t need to be changed, the movie as a whole did a pretty decent job adapting the key themes and visual panache of the source material.
So why don’t Watchmen readers like it? Well, it’s a pretty odd story to tell, an anti-superhero, superhero story. There isn’t one central character to latch onto and the meat of the plot itself is pretty unrewarding from a movie going perspective, stuff, jumping between philosophical and social themes pretty haphazardly with no issue being focused in on more closely. It doesn’t really evoke portray the idealism, horrors and deep flaws of its characters. The only character who really speaks to us is Rorschach, an honest-to-god perfect adaptation from the book. But its a huge disappointment to see Dr. Manhattan end up like this. Instead of a god-like being, we get uber emo blue-dicked Billy Cruddup, walking around all mopey like on Mars with his junk in our face. I think Dr. Manhattan in the graphic novel would be embarrassed to see how he turned out in this flick, and would try to use his omnipotent powers to explode any footage of Cruddup portraying him.
The movie also feels like it has no real stakes. The graphic novel sets up just how much heroes and superheroes were part of the world back in the day, and just how terrifying a killer of heroes would be. It’s really interesting stuff in the book, the best depiction of what an actual hero and superhero culture would look like in the real world. In Watchmen though, that terror or the importance of heroes in this universe isn’t ever really stressed. Characters walk around without true motivation or purpose. Their deaths mean nothing to us, we feel nothing after The Comedian dies or when other characters meet their fate. It’s all just a big joke.
Again, this all comes back to the fact that Watchmen is the perfect, best-of-the-best use of the graphic novel medium, with everything else before it and everything else after it (so far) leagues behind. You’ll enjoy it if you read the book first, just for a “hey look its Dr. Manhattan on screen!” thrill of it, but if not, it’ll feel like most of the story was left on the comic book pages.