Movie Battles: Avengers vs. Watchmen

Who wins? Marvel's action blockbuster or DC's epic thriller?

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Two of the most ambitious comic-to-film adaptations square up in The Movie Sleuth cage match. One, the easily beloved Marvel fan's wet dream, Avengers, versus the more challenging DC adaptation of what many consider the greatest comic series ever written, Watchmen. Both films feature an ensemble cast of misfit heroes with a faithful respect for the characters. While Avengers is a light action blockbuster of the highest caliber, Watchmen is significantly darker and more challenging material despite its far smaller box office profits. We decide who wins. You tell us how wrong we are. Round 1. Fight!

Avengers (2012) - directed by Joss Whedon*

was a dream come true. This was a film I was waiting for my whole life.  A film that I fantasized of one day being real, but doubted the possibility. We live in a world now where not only is that possible, but it's coming at us in full, unrelenting force whether we like it or not. Marvel timed Avengers' insertion into the MCU just right, reintroducing us to Mark Ruffalo's incredible Hulk in a big, crowd-pleasing way, and tying each hero's powers and personality to the plot momentum and character development. It worked really well and these elements continue to please after multiple viewings.


Where Avengers falters was in the opening few scenes that were awkward, disengaging, and did very little to excite the possibilities we were in store for. Loki steals the thing. They chase after Loki with the thing. Then the title splashes across the screen. It was a flat uncomplimentary introduction to what is a major event in comic-to-film adaptations. I thought that Joss Whedon had let me down. Things quickly take an upswing when Black Widow contacts Bruce Banner for the first time and the subtleties in their conversation is intoxicating. Black Widow, the cold, bloodless hit woman with a dark, ambiguous past who has undoubtedly seen some shit, is for the first time in the MCU in a position where she has no power over the person across from her. Through her eyes you can see how deeply she's suppressing the fear for her own life while her professional side carries on a conversation that must be had. It was then that I knew that Joss Whedon understood these comic book characters in a way that I've rarely ever seen before. This character dynamic energizes each following scene even after the credits.

Beyond the action, this is the best reason why Avengers is worth watching again. In retrospect, after my initial fanboy excitement wore off, you realize Avengers is what it is. There's nothing much else to it. Does it need to be much else? No, not necessarily, as evidenced by its massive box office return, but I'd like it to be. Perhaps we'll see that in Civil War when these characters are finally looked at from a real world perspective. The insane amount of cliche destruction spun from faceless robo-goons from outer space, with their redundantly designed cavalry can not only get nauseating, but it almost feels like you're watching the same series of things happen on a loop. It begs the question, how does the everyday citizen feel about all of this? What kind of repercussions are there for this? How is this at all interesting beyond our heroes smashing things and stopping the bad guy from taking over the world? Watchmen asks these questions, but we'll cover that later. And why doesn't ILM design a few different space Sea Doo's or a variety of giant flying mechanical slugs? It's just a blur of grey metal to be blown up or crushed.

Did the script have to resort to another city in peril under the mercy of endless waves of useless cannon fodder? You'd think Loki, the prankster god, would come up with something a little more clever than that, but he didn't. I have a feeling Marvel told Joss, "Look, man, you can have your character development, but we get to have a city destroyed by a bunch of indiscernible metal things... because Transformers and money." Avengers is huge stupid fun, but that's all it is, and that's fine, but it's certainly possible to have your cake and eat it, too, even if the common theater-goer wasn't ready for it three years prior when Watchmen had already done just that.


Watchmen (2009) - directed by Zack Snyder**

Alan Moore’s Watchmen is considered by most to be one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. Written in the Cold War era of the mid-eighties, it encapsulated all the fear of nuclear oblivion and mistrust of the powers-that-be that permeated the time. While it wasn’t the first comic to subvert the heroic superhero trope (that honor goes to Moore’s earlier work Miracleman) it was a more fleshed-out and realized version of that exact idea. The line “Who watches the Watchmen?” is still relevant in today’s society of shady government activities and strained international relations.

When word got out that a Watchmen film was being produced, comic fans lost their collective minds. The comic is pretty much revered as a holy work, one that is so complex and intricate that no director should dare try to adapt it least they taint its perfection. So when Zack Snyder decided to take it on (fresh from his other comic book film adaptation 300) most people were highly skeptical that it could be done. The finished film did end up getting mixed-reviews, mostly from people who either weren’t familiar with the source material or who weren’t fond of Snyder’s stylized directorial approach. 

Full disclosure: Watchmen is my all-time favorite graphic novel and I have read it numerous times. I am also of the opinion that Snyder did an excellent job adapting the multifaceted and difficult non-linear narrative to film. It’s definitely not perfect, but it was ahead of its time as far as superhero films are concerned. Superhero films have been firmly delegated to the mindless, blockbuster section of cinema as of late, with none of the thought-provoking subversive comic stories getting a chance to shine. If you compare Watchmen to Avengers, the differences really stand out. Watchmen is basically a deconstruction of the notion of having a valiant, jingoistic, red-blooded American superhero team who knows better than us mere mortals. Absolute power in any form can be detrimental, even if it’s a group of super-powered humans/aliens fighting for us. Where are the checks and balances? Who decides what is right and wrong? Who watches the Watchmen?

Does Snyder’s Watchmen film completely work as a comic book adaptation? Yes and no. I believe that Snyder stuck a little too much to the original comic which makes some parts of the film confusing to people who haven’t read the original work. One scene that does work—and is one of my favorite film sequences ever—is the Dr. Manhattan origin scene. Dr. Manhattan is an omnipotent being that, because of an accident, lives outside of our concept of space and time. Snyder handled his transformation scene perfectly, switching between all the different time periods and character viewpoints seamlessly. His choice of Philip Glass’ melodic music from Koyaanisqatsi for the background score is flawless as well. 

Watchmen is definitely the antithesis of a film like Avengers. It’s a contemplative film that dives under the shiny surface of heroism to search the murky depths underneath. We as an audience should demand more films like this, to provide a different perspective of what it really means to be a champion and whether we actually want to be saved by such people. “Once a man has seen society's black underbelly, he can never turn his back on it. Never pretend, like you do, that it doesn't exist.”


The Winner

Watchmen is indisputably the better of the two films, self-aware, smart, and subversive while showcasing brutal action sequences, a style reflecting the grim, thought-provoking tone and wild color palette of the comic, spectacular visuals, and stunningly clever sequences. Sure, Avengers is no doubt a fun movie, but you'd be kidding yourselves if you think it holds a candle to Watchmen in terms of core film making aptitude.

There remains an equally frictional debate regarding the ending to Watchmen which was fundamentally altered for the film. True, Watchmen is otherwise nearly a carbon copy of the graphic novel. Some think this ending overhaul was unnecessary, others like myself believe it's for the better. If any drastic change to a comic film has ever been as brilliant, though, I'll eat my hat. Without spoiling the film for those who are missing out, it could not have been done any better. Not only did it positively surprise me as a fan of the comic, but it was tied with staggering cleverness directly to the established universe while remaining wholly respectful of Moore's intended message. If you've seen the film before reading the book, you'll wonder how it could have gone any other way. In a parallel reality, I could see Alan Moore writing the very same thing had he scrapped his first idea.

Zack Snyder's Watchmen is the obvious winner for us. Let us know what you think in the comments. By the way, I don't own a hat.

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* J.G. Barnes
** Michelle Kisner