Since I recently taught Watchmen for the first time, I’ve been having a lot of fevered and frantic thoughts about traveling back in time to make an adaptation in 1997, thus rendering the dull and misguided Zack Snyder effort moot. So if that plan works, you will have never seen something called “Malin Akerman” as Silk Spectre. There’s no footage of a dandy, prim Lord Autumnbottom glowering his way through playing Ozymandius, the world’s smartest and strongest superhero. Snyder was good at recreating images that looked exactly like Dave Gibbons’ phenomenal artwork yet, predictably, he mimicked the style while missing the spirit. Instead, my version of Watchmen would stand to become the greatest comic book/superhero/movie-in-general movie of all time. Better call those dudes from Primer.
Why 1997? In ’97, the infamous Batman and Robin came out, and the movie-going public were not warmed by lines like “Watch the numbers, Batman, for they are the harbingers of your doom.” But my version of Watchmen actually plays off the mediocre and overblown spectacle of the Joel Schumacher Batmans; lazy and weird failed franchises like The Shadow, Judge Dredd, Spawn, and The Phantom; and the epic failed production of the Tim Burton/Kevin Smith/Nic Cage Superman Lives. In other words, it exists in a world where the genre is flailing commercially (1997) rather than one in which it was and would be the defining setting of commercial blockbusters (2009).
A few weirdly specific rules to protect the integrity of my dream-casting endeavors: you can’t cast A-listers in every role; you have to be budget conscious. If it’s 1952, you can’t have Humphrey Bogart as the newspaper vendor who only has a few lines. One of the failures of the 2009 film was that they cast a lot of union equivalents, minor or seemingly emerging stars who had never shown that they would be remotely acceptable in roles like these. For instance, nothing about Patrick Wilson’s strong performance in Little Children suggested he could play the impotent awesomeness of Dan Drieberg. So as you’ll see: I have a few mid-level A-listers who would make the film marketable, followed by a lot of folks who for whatever reason never made it off the B-list, or were situated there in 1997. FWIW, the top 5 stars in 1996 were Cruise, Gibson, Travolta, Schwarzenegger, and Bullock. Still, this would have been an event movie, so I’m casting folks who would have had their names above the credits.
Rorschach – Michael J. Fox
The career trajectory of MJF is intriguing: after the stupendous success of Back to the Future and Teen Wolf, Fox insisted on darker roles – which led to the following IMDB entry. Of course, it didn’t take, leading him back to the Back to the Future franchise and toward romantic comedies such as Doc Hollywood and eventually a return to the safe realm of forgettable TV sitcoms. But in ’96, he made Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners, playing a shady ghostbusting con artist who gets in over his head. This is my favorite Fox darkness: playing off his boyishness and emphasizing the sociopathic qualities of the lurking, pretty-boy arrogance that made Alex Keaton such an immensely watchable dolt.
In Dave Gibbons’ tableaus, Rorschach is diminutive in the face of bigger villains whose asses he ends up kicking. Against the more traditional superhero physiques of Ozymandius and Nite Owl, he stands in telling contrast. Fox could have played this well, especially in the scenes when Rorschach becomes Walter Kovacs. At best, he could channel the surprising toughness of someone like Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet. Also, we could have told Fox to avoid the unfortunate Clint Eastwood garble that Jackie Earle Haley (in an otherwise strong performance) mimicked from Christian Bale’s Batman movies. Fox, the fading 80s boy wonder, could have shown that dark side here in a role that would have allowed him to reinvent himself for mainstream audiences.
My backup? William H. Macy. Macy had just come off Fargo, so this would have been a lateral move for him.
Nite Owl II – Nicolas Cage
Again, 1997 is pivotal here. Over the course of ’96 and ’97, Cage made The Rock, Con Air, and Face Off, which took him away from the moody method-acting that won him an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas. I want that historical intersection: Nite Owl II is all repressed energy and male loathing: something Cage would master in his last two great performances (Adaptation and The Weather Man). Yet he’s also an action hero who lives on adrenaline and can’t be comfortable without it. Unlike Patrick Wilson, who looked like he was pledging Sig Ep ten years ago, Cage would capture Moore’s image of the masked crime fighter gone to seed; Cage’s receding hairline would help him here. Like Matthew Goode, Wilson comes off as playing dress-up, rather than someone who enjoys playing dress up. By forcing Cage to inhibit his instinctive penance for shouting and scenery-chewing, Nite Owl wouldn’t be (as he is in Snyder’s version) the most boring character on screen.
If we wanted to mix it up a bit, we might go with Atom Egoyan favorite Elias Koteas. Koteas brought the noise as Casey Jones in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I could see him making this his defining role. That said, I’m going with Cage: it fits his talents too well. I also thought of two Irish actors – Gabriel Byrne and Stephen Rea – but both seemed a bit too old for the role.
Ozymandius – Val Kilmer
Of course, this would be tricky, but I think I could make it work. Kilmer was a mess in Batman Forever; apparently Joel Schumacher said he’d never work with him again, and John Frankenheimer would share the sentiment after The Island of Dr. Moreau. But in 1997, Kilmer still looked like a superhero and he was still a big enough star to headline a movie that would attempt to be a franchise (The Saint). Unlike today. As Iceman in Top Gun, Kilmer postured as the alpha male of which Ozymandius fashions himself as the glowing representation. And even in his unfortunate performance as Bruce Wayne, he managed to capture the “captain of industry” part, even if that’s the least interesting aspect of the character. Despite his eccentricities, Kilmer is clearly a smart guy, and he’s great with dialogue. Unlike the bland version of Bruce Wayne in Schumacher’s film, Kilmer could settle into a guy who has a clear and uncomplicated public image and a much more sinister private one.
But mostly this would work because it would play off of the excess of Batman Forever and the silly comic book movies it encouraged. Kilmer’s appearance would immediately set off the aura of revisionism, just as the graphic novel once Adrian Veidt appears. In Snyder’s version, Matthew Goode’s performance, and his hair, is epically dumb in its conception. Goode forecasts his motives from the opening scenes, which the comic doesn’t. His presence suggests that any of the rich dandies he played bankrolled the movie and insisted on being miscast. On the other hand, Val had and would play a believable badass – which would make his later scenes when he beats up Rorschach less laughable.
I’m tempted to say Arnold Schwarzenegger for this role, as apparently he was often talked about at the height of his stardom. But as good as he was in Twins, it would be a stretch to see the star of Eraser as the smartest man alive.
Silk Spectre II – Laura Dern or Diane Lane
I’m torn on this one. Both Dern and Lane were teenage ingénues who were very comfortable with their sexuality. They shared the screen in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. By the mid-90s both had aged into uncommonly beautiful young women. If Dern displayed better acting chops, it’s because Lane didn’t get to work with David Lynch and Steven Speilberg. The second act of Lane’s career was pretty dismal; it only revived in the early 00s. Dern avoided the A list mainly because she stayed away from frivolous romantic comedies and crowd pleasers – unless you count Wild as Heart as a crowd pleaser. I think David Lynch did. Even though she emitted that beautiful, quirky earth mother hue, she often subverted it in roles like Citizen Ruth.
Like Dern and Lane, Laurie Juspeczyk was a teenager who grew up too soon. Like both actresses, Silk Spectre II has a glamour-girl edge and carnal instincts. Either would provide the complexity that the 2009 flick rejected when it decided untested comedienne Malin Akerman would look good in a jumpsuit. Also, if Dern played the part, we could have potentially cast her moms – Diane Ladd – as Silk Spectre I.
(Admittedly, Dern’s blonde locks might not translate well to the image of Laurie in the comic. But I feel like Snyder’s desire to make the characters look just like their counterparts triumphed over anyone’s good sense.)
The Comedian – Mickey Rourke
In 1997, Mickey Rourke didn’t look like this, but he also didn’t look like this. Rourke was used to putting on makeup to hide his once-beatific face that he let get beat up in an unfortunate boxing career. Because Rourke was only in his forties in the 90s, he could play Edward Blake in both flashbacks and the contemporary world of the novel. In his best performances and his worst, Rourke also suggested danger, violence, and chaos – all prominent features of the Comedian.
Dr. Manhattan – Ralph Fiennes
As a young guy who stayed young forever, Billy Crudup gives a fine performance as Dr. Manhattan. He’s probably the best thing about the Snyder film. But in ’97, Ralph Fiennes was on fire. So good in a similar role in Quiz Show, Fiennes could capture the 1950s intellectual nerdiness that made Jon Osterman a Clark Kent-type. Yet he would also turn that into the detached and stoic reserve that makes Dr. Manhattan such a vexing character; in Coriolanus, he was at home as a great man contemptuous of lower humanity. In those early days of CGI, I don’t know how they would have made the big blue man live on screen, but I would have wanted Fiennes to play it.
Who would direct? Terry Gilliam often gets mentioned, but he wasn’t exactly the master of dealing with complicated productions. Tim Burton was probably pretty burned out on superhero flicks, but he still tried to revive Superman with an awful Kevin Smith script. I’ll leave that up to you.