Watchmen fans were thrown into a tailspin over the weekend when fans reporting in from the film’s first test screening in Portland carried out with them shocking news. In the version they saw, Zack Snyder had changed the ending of the comic. If you don’t want that ending spoiled for you, then read no further because this entire page will be devoted to nothing but an in depth discussion of what it might mean for the future of Watchmen, if the ending really does play out as reported.
It had been eating away at me all weekend. Word on the street was that Zack Snyder had removed the Watchmen ending in which Ozymandias fakes an alien attack, replacing it with one in which Ozymandias tricks Dr. Manhattan into nuking the planet. Assuming that everyone shared my shock and disdain for the possible removal of Watchmen’s New York destroying, alien squid-thing finale, I messaged CB’s Katey Rich, ranting and raving my disdain in her general direction. She’d only recently finished reading Watchmen for the first time, and I felt certain that as a newly convert to Alan Moore’s genius, she’d join me in calling down the wrath of Hades on Zack Snyder and all who would call him friend. Boy was I wrong. Before I knew it, we’d taken the gloves off and decided to throw down, in this, our latest Great Debate.
JOSH DROPS A GIANT SQUID ON KATEY’S GOD DELUSION.
-- Josh Tyler
There are those like Katey who will tell you that the ending of “Watchmen”, almost unarguably the greatest comic book ever written, is kind of lame. After all, it ends with New York City being destroyed by a giant squid. And of course, when you call it a giant squid, it does sound pretty stupid. But it’s not stupid in context, perhaps because it’s not a giant squid, but a horrific alien creature straight out of the pits of hell. The way “Watchmen” ends is intentionally shocking and insane, because that’s what’s necessary to pull humanity’s head out of its ass. That over the top ending, massive in scope, is something the entire comic book is devoted to building towards, in the pursuit of making a much larger, even more frightening point about humanity and where we’re all headed.
Now rumor has it that Zack Snyder has ripped that ending out of his film adaptation of the comic, and replaced it with one in which it’s Dr. Manhattan who is tricked into blowing up the world in a clean, neat, pedantic explosions. We’ve seen that before. It’s not shocking. It might be shocking to live it, but seeing it on screen… been there. Done that. It’s easy to see why Snyder might choose that path, after all doing so will allow him to focus more on the characters of his story, rather than on this big, grandiose plot. Unfortunately, Watchmen isn’t character driven.
Granted, the comic is filled with amazing, gripping, well-fleshed out characters, but it’s not a character drama. Katey will probably attempt to make the case that those characters are what we care about and our connection to the story. Yes, that’s true. But they’re still stand-ins for a much bigger picture. They’re our window into a bigger world than the little one built up around Nite Owl and Rorshach. “Watchmen” as a story, exists in the service of that massive, horrific, alien creature from the pits of hell knocks some sense into the soul of mankind ending. “Watchmen” is a story with something to say, not characterizations to build. You may fall in love with the story’s characters along the way, and that’s part of its genius, but “Watchmen” is supposed to be bigger, scarier, and riskier than yet another tale about superheroes and villains making tough choices. That’s already been done, and done well. Perhaps you’ve seen The Dark Knight? The comic’s over the top ending is, more than anything else within it, emblematic of what it is that sets Watchmen apart from all others in its art form.
Maybe this new ending will make some new point. Maybe it’ll reinforce the idea of Manhattan as a God… because yeah that went over so well in Superman Returns. No Katey, I don’t think we need more of that. I’ll pass on having Manhattan floating above the Earth in Jesus pose, dispensing life and death like Yahweh made glowing, blue flesh.
Maybe Snyder has found a way to keep all of that, while changing the ending to suit the very different demands of a cinematic medium. It’s possible. As it’s been described so far though, I’m worried and frightened. Having the world wiped out by a brilliant flash of Dr. Manhattan light can not compare with the horror and ichor of that bizarre finale originally devised by Ozymandias. Now Ozymandias, instead of being a master tactician, is reduced to a parlor trick manipulator, a man incapable of achieving his goals himself, and forced to cajole others into doing his dirty work for him. Without the threat of alien invasion, will Ozymandias’s plans to unite the world atop the ashes of destruction even work? I don’t see how. Now when the world of the Watchmen ends, it ends not with shock, disgust, and horror; but in the most conventional, easy way possible. That’s not Watchmen.
KATEY TRICKS DOCTOR MANHATTAN INTO NUKING JOSH’S FANBOY DREAMS.
-- Katey Rich
I'm just gonna say it: the giant squid ending of Watchmen was kind of lame. It's bizarre, shocking, harrowing even, but as Josh points out, the squid ending takes a huge amount of buildup. There's no way all that plot, including the whole story about the geniuses on the island, could have made it into the movie. If Snyder had kept the original ending, he would almost certainly have gotten unintentional laughs from the audience.
So instead we have a brilliant change, a series of global explosions inadvertently caused by Dr. Manhattan, with Ozymandias pulling the strings. Josh can argue all he wants that Watchmen isn't character-driven, but he's wrong; it's the richly detailed characters that make the story so poignant, rather than some alarmist screed about nuclear proliferation that would feel outdated today anyway, 20 years after the Cold War. The characters, not the fate of this theoretical humanity in a theoretical 1985, are who we will care about in the film. Now we have Ozymandias outright betraying Dr. Manhattan, in addition to destroying half of humanity; we have the masked adventurers directly deciding to end their careers, not just because world peace makes them irrelevant, but because one of their own is to blame for the carnage. And the most poignant elements of the book are still intact-- Dr. Manhattan agreeing that Ozymandias is right, Laurie being horrified by the carnage when Manhattan is not, and Manhattan having to kill Rorschach when he refuses to surrender.
Josh ignores the fact that Ozymandias had other people doing the dirty work for him originally-- he had to kidnap all those geniuses to build the monster because he couldn't do it himself. Now the only genius he needs is Dr. Manhattan. The new ending reinforces the God allusions that follow him throughout the story; he's up there, watching, making sure you behave, and one of these days he might come back and make you own up for everything you've done wrong. Plus, Manhattan didn't just fail to prevent the chaos in this version, something he couldn't even stop in the book because of the way the squid interfered with his mind. In the movie, he’ll help create the awful destruction, a nice callback to the Manhattan Project that gave him his name.
In the end, we will still see global annihilation; what Josh describes as "a neat, clean series of nuclear explosions" will still claim millions of lives, and we've all seen the ravaging effect a nuclear bomb can have on a human. The idea that the ending won't be as shocking or disturbing when it's a character we know causing the explosions is insane. If anything, we will feel the same betrayal and confusion that Laurie does at the end, when she realizes how far from human Dr. Manhattan really is.
Yeah, yeah, this is all speculation-- for all I know Snyder has turned the ending into a Michael Bay explosion-fest, and we'll see Nite Owl and Rorschach running away from fireballs and gunning down Russians. But I don't think so. From what we can tell Snyder has come up with a new ending that both fits the constraints of film and keeps the original meaning intact, while adding new depth to characters we thought we knew so well. Don't cling so desperately to the novel, purists. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created such a rich, fascinating world that there's plenty of room for Snyder to wiggle around in it.