The story’s Superman figure doubts if humanity is worth saving. Its Batman is impotent. Its Wonder Woman has mommy issues. And its closest thing to a protagonist also is a murderous sociopath.

Welcome to the world of Watchmen, considered by many to be the greatest comic book ever written. Dalhousie University english professor Anthony Enns, who teaches the course “Cartoons and Comics,” appreciates why people feel that way. He remembers Alan Moore’s comic being a sensation from the moment it first hit shelves over 20 years ago.

“If you were into comics then, everyone was taking about it, all the time,” he says. “People would gather and have these endless debates about what would happen next issue.”

These days, most people read Watchmen’s twelve chapters as one single volume. And starting today, the story’s dark, deconstructionist take on the superhero genre can also be seen on the silver screen. After years of development, a feature film adaptation of Watchmen directed by Zack Snyder ("300") and starring Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup and Patrick Wilson has arrived in theatres.

For the uninitiated: Watchmen takes place in an alternate-reality 1985, one where Nixon is still president, the nuclear clock sits at minutes to midnight and the United States is on the brink of war with the Soviet Union. The story follows a group of vigilante superheroes, most of whom retired after their activities were outlawed by the government. When one of their ilk turns up dead under suspicious circumstances, they begin to uncover an insidious plot that threatens to change their relationship with humanity forever.

But that’s just the basics. What elevates Watchmen to the upper echelon of the comic canon is that it’s a double-coded text – a superhero story that also serves as a critique of the entire history of the genre, with a shocking ending that calls into question the very “heroism” of its characters.
Silk Spectre II Watchmen
Silk Spectre II.   ©Warner Bros.

“It was innovative not only because of its level of realism, but because it tackled more serious questions about how superheroes would affect our world,” says Dr. Enns. “In Moore’s universe, superheroes end up becoming as much a problem as a solution.”

Dr. Enns explains that the superhero genre has often struggled to address how such characters would interact in the real world. For example, in the late-1930s comic writers concocted a ridiculous plot to try and explain why Superman couldn’t stop World War II: his x-ray vision caused him to fail an eye exam and he was declared unfit for duty.

In contrast, Alan Moore, along with illustrator Dave Gibbons, not only created an entirely believable world for theirheroes, but they made them all deeply problematic characters, as flawed as the citizens they watched over. “There’s an ironic distance that the book creates between the characters and the reader. There’s a level of ambiguity that’s going to be hard to translate to film. On film, you need clear heroes and villains. There is no hero in Watchmen. There is no one to sympathize with.”

That’s not the only reason why adapting Watchmen for film proves an onerous task. To call the story “dense” is an understatement: it’s filled with complicated flashback narratives exploring both its main characters and their superhero predecessors, and even has an entire sub-comic – the macabre “Tales of the Black Freighter” – woven throughout.

“One of the most innovative aspects of the Watchmen lies in the fact that it tells a story that can't be told solely in the form of a comic book,” says Todd McCallum owith Dalhousie's Department of History. “Each issue ends with a document or series of documents that are key to developing the characters and their story, especially the relationship between the first and second generations of heroes.”

Dr. McCallum, who is about to start work on a book about Alan Moore and Scottish comic book author Grant Morrison, was able to see the film at an advanced screening. He feels that by excising much of this back story, the movie version of Watchmen loses something in translation.

“Much of the amazing work done by Moore and Gibbons to develop the characters, to show us their struggle with the personal and political issues of 1980s America, is lost,” he says, later adding, “The film lacks what is so effective about the original: the feelings and claustrophobia and inevitable doom brought on by Cold War tensions.”

Fans lined up in droves this weekend to form their own opinions on how the iconic text translates to film. It remains an open question, though, whether audiences unfamiliar with Watchmen will embrace its cynical vision of heroism. After a decade of comic book films dominating the box office, are moviegoers are ready for a story that turns the entire genre on its head?