ADRIAN VEIDT: I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.
DR. MANHATTAN: “In the end”? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.
– Watchmen #12 (27)
A few months before the theatrical debut of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009), which was to be the latest in Hollywood’s fleet of adaptations of Alan Moore’s original comics that included From Hell (2001), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Constantine (2005), and V for Vendetta (2005), Moore was asked why filmmakers consistently struggle to translate his comics to the screen. With characteristic rancor, he explained, “…it’s simply because they weren’t ever designed to be films. This is what I’ve been trying to explain to the stupid bastards for the past 20 years. They were designed to exploit all the things that comic books can do and that no other medium can” (Dent). “With a comic,” Moore added on another occasion, “you can take as much time as you want in absorbing that background detail, noticing little things that we might have planted there … You can also flip back a few pages relatively easily to see where a certain image connects with a line of dialogue from a few pages ago. But in a film, by the nature of the medium, you’re being dragged through it at 24 frames per second” (Hiatt).
After two decades of fitful development in Hollywood, an expansive production in Vancouver, and a worldwide theatrical run, Watchmen became more than just a Zack Snyder film: it quickly became a film with three official versions (the original theatrical cut, the “Director’s Cut”, and the so-called “Ultimate Cut”), and since then it has become a film with three official versions and at least a dozen more unofficial, feature-length, fan-edited permutations. Perhaps Moore, an avowed occultist, had cursed the film through all its notorious development and persistent revisions to never reach a satisfactory end.
Moore’s declared interest in the affordances and limits of media provides a useful frame for understanding the ethos of the emergent fan editing subculture. Fan edits are transformative works created by media fans using various consumer video editing software to revise entire works of film and television for critical and experimental purposes. Whether working alone or in coordination with online discussion forums, fan editors leverage their creative resources to refine existing narratives, recombine multiple works, and remarkably alter the aesthetics of any film within their purview. By deconstructing and reassembling films, fan editors test the perceived limits of a narrative, its genre, its author, and its mode of consumption. Whereas Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen invites us to read nonlinearly, as Moore suggested, by revisiting earlier pages and observing motifs and thematic parallels, fan edits are the products of nonlinear film viewing; many in this proactive audience repeatedly watch films with a roving eye for where to cut and how to recombine the digital material. In practice, fan edits are works of applied criticism and experimentation that reveal films as malleable, open-ended forms rather than immutable constructs determined solely by auteurs:
The trend of adding alternate endings, different versions and director's cuts on DVDs has further demolished the idea of a film as a single, finished product in the minds of the movie-viewing public. Instead we are headed towards a new conceptualization of a film as a permanent work-in-progress, which exists in multiple permutations, and can always be tinkered with in the future, whether by the director or by anybody else. (Rojas)
Unlike sanctioned alternative versions that are made under the auspices of the film director, such as Apocalypse Now Redux (2001), Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006), and Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), fan edits are distinguished by their outsider origins. In general, fan edits are not created with original camera negatives and raw sound recordings like the aforementioned film versions; they are reverse-engineered from previously published consumer-grade video products like Blu-ray Discs and occasionally pieced together from a variety of out-of-print media, such as DVDs and laserdiscs.
In the following passages, I examine how the vicissitudes of Snyder’s Watchmen, a film that has been critically perceived as an uncommonly faithful adaptation, inspired persistent revision in the hands of fan editors. In a survey of those transformative works, I categorize them according to a custom set of observable editorial strategies—abridgments, character concentrations, book cuts, and serializations—and review some of their distinguishing characteristics (Wille 2017: 161-74). Among the works surveyed, I also consider some of the key modifications I enacted in my own fan edit, Watchmen: Midnight, which was intended to more closely retrace the narrative structure, aesthetics, and characterizations of the original comics and, through that articulation, to challenge the prevailing opinion that the apparent authenticity of Snyder’s adaptation, rather than his embellishments, was the cause of its shortfall.
Watchmen is a sterling example of a film submerged in development hell. For over two decades, the project bounced between 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Universal Pictures, Revolution Studios, and Paramount Pictures, as well as a cadre of inevitably frustrated filmmakers, including Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass, and David Hayter. As Dave Itzkoff remarked, “Almost from the moment that the first issue of ‘Watchmen’ was published in America as a limited series by DC Comics in 1986, Hollywood has tried and failed to film it.”
Eventually, Zack Snyder was hired to direct the production, and he was committed to rendering on screen as much of Gibbons’s illustrations as he thought he could, even using the comic book panels as his personal storyboard for the camera compositions as he had done for his 2007 adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 (Leitch). Unlike Miller, who shares director credit with filmmaker Robert Rodriguez for the strikingly reverential comics-to-screen adaptation Sin City (2005), Alan Moore spurned Hollywood filmmaking and would not consent to his name appearing on screen as a co-creator of the Watchmen comics (Dent). “I find film in its modern form to be quite bullying,” Moore said. “It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination. It is as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms. The ‘Watchmen ’ film sounds like more regurgitated worms. I for one am sick of worms” (Boucher).
When Watchmen finally reached cinemas in March 2009, a consensus among film critics swiftly determined that the film was reverent to a fault; “slavish” being the term often bandied about (Gordon; Jagernauth; Breihan). The film was reportedly “undone by its own reverence” (Chang) and Watchmen fans were “doomed to a disappointment that results from trying to stay this faithful to a comic book” (Gleiberman; emphasis in original). Moreover, Snyder was criticized for making an adaptation “that fundamentally misunderstands the entire point of the book,” and was “too beholden to Moore’s vision to puzzle out what Moore is really trying to say” (Breihan). Ironically, rather than a paean to Moore’s work, Snyder’s memetic approach to adapting Watchmen epitomized Moore’s complaints that some companies, like the Warner Bros. subsidiary DC Comics, “exist for the sole purpose of creating not comics, but storyboards for films” (Boucher).
In his ambitious production, Snyder reportedly had clashed with Warner Bros. executives, who at one time suggested to cut key scenes, such as the Comedian/Edward Blake’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) funeral and Dr. Manhattan’s (Billy Crudup) sweeping requiem on Mars (Wired). Certainly, the most notorious change agreed upon by Snyder and company was that of the catastrophic hoax orchestrated by former crime fighter Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), which was changed from an elaborate plot to teleport a psychically eruptive squid-like monster to New York City in the comics to Veidt framing Dr. Manhattan as a rogue agent of destruction by replicating his explosive energy blasts in several cities across the world. Considering that Watchmen was a vehicle for Moore to satirize popular culture, to deconstruct the superhero myth, and to exploit the distinguishing aesthetics and narratological characteristics of the comics medium, Veidt’s original masterstroke was fittingly outrageous. “The reason that the squid got taken out of the movie was so there’d be more Rorschach and a little bit more Manhattan,” Snyder however explained. “Because we did the math, and we figured it took about 15 minutes to explain [the squid's appearance] correctly; otherwise, it's pretty crazy” (Carroll). As exemplification of the dysfunctional relationship between comics arcana and pragmatic filmmaking, the perfunctory version of Veidt’s scheme depicted in the film dutifully streamlined the plot and recovered precious minutes of runtime, but it did so at the expense of the unparalleled chaos that defined the climax in the original comics.
In addition to the pivotal monster, there are significant differences between the comics and the film that its critics tend to overlook. For example, the film provides no explanation for Walter Kovacs/Rorschach’s (Jackie Earle Haley) morphing inkblot mask, which Rorschach poignantly reveals in the Watchmen comics to be the remnant of an unclaimed prototype dress belonging to a woman who had been brutally murdered near her home while none of her neighbors bothered to call for help. Besides referring to each other as “the Watchmen,” which has no basis in the comics, the principal characters in the film exhibit superhuman agility and strength during intense combat sequences; Dr. Manhattan is the only character in the comics with extraordinary abilities, and the fight scenes are comparatively subdued. Additionally, Veidt’s genetically engineered lynx, Bubastis, appears on screen inexplicably due to the film omitting scenes from the comics associated with the creation of the climactic monster. Also, during a formative flashback in the film, Rorschach pummels the skull of a child predator with a meat cleaver instead of experiencing catharsis after trapping the man in a house fire. Moreover, police in the film do not raid the home of Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) after he and Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II (Malin Åkerman) break Rorschach out of jail, and thus Dan and Laurie do not live on as fugitives under false identities as they do at the conclusion in the comics. In Antarctica, Dan’s feverish attack on Veidt after learning of his global attack campaign, witnessing Rorschach’s death, and glimpsing Dr. Manhattan kissing Laurie before departing for unknown space were all fabricated for the film. In the comics, Dan and Laurie are overcome with emotion after learning of Veidt’s devastation of New York and seek solace in each other’s intimate embrace; later, Dr. Manhattan quietly observes them asleep together and visits with Veidt briefly before teleporting away.
The Runtimes They Are a-Changin’
For the most part, the body of contemporary film critical writing about Watchmen refers to its cursory 162-minute theatrical cut that was released in conventional cinemas and IMAX theaters in March 2009. What is now perceived as the relatively brisk runtime of that initial version was likely constrained by the IMAX projection, which has a technical limit of 170 minutes (Block). Two additional versions of the film were produced for home video releases in 2009. First, a 186-minute “Director’s Cut” extended several scenes, often to reveal more dialogue and to portray more violence. In particular, the Director’s Cut restored a previously deleted scene depicting the murder of Hollis Mason/Nite Owl (Stephen McHattie), an erstwhile crime fighter and Dan’s mentor.
Later, the 215-minute “Ultimate Cut” of Watchmen further extended the Director’s Cut by inserting segments from Tales of the Black Freighter (Daniel DelPurgatorio and Mike Smith, 2009), the 26-minute animated adaptation of a macabre pirate comic book which serves as an embedded narrative in the Watchmen comics that thematically parallels the main story. To provide context for the animated segments, the Ultimate Cut also inserted several live-action scenes adapted from the Watchmen comics that feature a teenager (Jesse Reid) reading the Black Freighter comic book and interacting with the proprietor of a newspaper stand (Jay Brazeau). However, because the narrative structure in Snyder’s film does not precisely conform to the sequence of events in the Watchmen comics, the positions of the Black Freighter segments in the Ultimate Cut do not fit neatly into place. This incongruity produces discordance between the intentionally dialogical images and narration in the correspondent stories.
Every Watchmen fan edit is both the product of a critical viewing of Watchmen and a creative impulse. Though their compositions and qualities vary, all Watchmen fan edits wrestle with the same material set under the long shadow of Moore’s original writing. For the sake of comparison, Watchmen fan edits may be grouped as: “Abridgments,” which pare down the sprawling narrative to streamline story elements or accelerate pacing; “Character Concentrations,” which distill the narrative in order to represent the perspectives of particular characters; “Book Cuts,” which reconfigure material from the film to approximate the narrative structure and aesthetics of the comics in a single feature format; and a “Serializations” subgroup, which divides the narrative into episodes, typically to reproduce the 12-issue composition of the original Watchmen comics. In the next sections, I compare the editorial strategies and effects of several of these unofficial and heretofore unacknowledged versions of Watchmen in order to unmask a more comprehensive and transformative record of the film adaptation.
Fan edits may be classified as Abridgments when fan editors cut and rearrange scenes in order to reduce the runtime of a film; they typically remove material that they determine to be inessential or distracting from the core plot and characters. Gekko’s 133-minute Watchmen Legacy, which was released in July 20091 and derived from the Director’s Cut DVD, is an exemplary abridgment and likely the first published Watchmen fan edit. “I know a lot of fanboys will be upset that this edit doesn’t replicate the comic, but my goal was to make a shorter cut, not a longer one,” Gekko explained, adding that Watchmen Legacy was meant to present a less indulgent experience for “those who are not hardcore Watchmen fans and just want to be entertained by a faster-paced cut of this epic movie.” Despite streamlining the narrative by paring down subplots and exposition, Watchmen Legacy preserves all of the graphic violence. This has a disproportional effect on the fan edit by making it seem like a more violent film overall (cinedream).
Although Mikedrew87’s 150-minute Watchmen: Death of a Comedian (April 2018) is derived from the Ultimate Cut DVD, it essentially represents an abridged version of the Director’s Cut. Death of a Comedian omits the expository slow-motion opening title sequence and all Black Freighter segments, as well as scenes related to Laurie’s parentage and the murder of Hollis Mason. Despite its departures from the narrative of the Watchmen comics, Death of a Comedian includes comic book-inspired inter-titles and applies a visual filter on the entire film that gives it a more comic-illustration feel. It also incorporates some alternate music selections, such as tracks by The Clash and replaces Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” during Blake’s funeral with a cover version performed by the band Disturbed.
Another abridgment was Watchmen: The WCM Cut by AYBGerrardo (December 2010). With a runtime of 199 minutes, The WCM Cut is a relatively conservative treatment of the Ultimate Cut DVD that was developed in cooperation with participants in the discussion forums at WatchmenComicMovie.com, an unofficial fan web site that sprung up in anticipation of Snyder’s film. In addition to making minor trims in a handful of scenes and adding two intermissions, AYBGerrardo removed the animated Tales of the Black Freighter sequences but retained their framing scenes at the newspaper stand. As AYBGerrardo explains, this reconfiguration consequently forms alternate relationships between the newly combined material. For example, by removing an interstitial animated segment, when the teenager raises his head in surprise while reading the Black Freighter comic book at the newspaper stand, he seemingly reacts to the new subsequent scene of Dr. Manhattan caressing Laurie in bed. Further, the fan editor suggests that by reframing the teenager at the newspaper stand as an audience surrogate, his eventual death during the energy blast in New York provides the viewers with a metafictional climax: “The audience essentially witnesses its own death” (AYBGerrardo).2
Tykjen’s 163-minute Watchmen Ultimate Fan Edition (October 2020) is a recent abridgment and the first Watchmen fan edit released in high-definition video rather than DVD-quality. As with The WCM Cut, it omits the Black Freighter segments and maintains the framing scenes at the newspaper stand. It also removes the lovemaking scenes between Dan and Laurie, which unfortunately eliminates their motivation for springing Rorschach from captivity, thereby rendering their eventual arrival at the city jail inexplicable. Tykjen’s fan edit incorporates music from the Watchmen HBO series (2019) composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; and in keeping with its televisual affinities, it also recalibrates, like Watchmen Legacy, the typically cinematic aspect ratio of 2:39:1 to meet the 16:9 television standard.
Fan edits with an expressed intent to refocus a narrative on a particular character can be considered Character Concentrations. In practice, this editorial strategy often involves eliminating many or all scenes that either do not include the target character; the resulting work typically presents the limited perspective of that character. For example, Mark Moore’s Silk Spectre (November 2014) condenses the original narrative to represent the singular perspective of Laurie. At 72 minutes runtime, it was at the time of release Mark Moore’s fourth female character-driven fan edit, preceded by similarly conceived versions of the film Teen Wolf (1985), and the animated series Transformers (1984-1990) and Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (1995-1996). For Silk Spectre, Mark Moore created a new opening title sequence based around the character and added music from Devo based on her references to the band in the Watchmen comics.
Before creating Death of a Comedian, Mikedrew87’s first fan edit was Rorschach: The End is Nigh (December 2014), a 76-minute version that eliminates most of the scenes in Watchmen that do not follow Rorschach’s path in the story. Another fan editor, stomachworm, completed a similarly structured fan edit, Rorschach’s Journal (February 2016), which runs 79 minutes. Rorschach’s Journal consists of scenes in which Rorschach appears and scenes which he might envision from his interactions with others, such as the Comedian’s private confession to Moloch (Matt Frewer). Obviously, a dissonant effect of watching these character-centric projects is that events can unfold inexplicably. For example, in Rorschach’s Journal, Veidt is barely glimpsed at Blake’s funeral and does not receive an introduction until he is eventually revealed to be the mastermind of the devastating plot.
For Book Cuts, fan editors refer to source texts for guidance in reshaping the narrative structure, the characterization, and the aesthetic tone of page-to-screen adaptations through excision, addition, and rearrangement of available material. In October 2011, I released the first edition of Watchmen: Midnight, an extensive fan edit designed to more closely represent the original Watchmen comics. However, re-editing the film in this mode confronted me with incompatibilities between the simultaneous layout of sequential comic panels, exemplified by Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen, versus composition and editing in a time-based medium like Snyder’s film. Thus, I consider my work on Watchmen: Midnight as a search for balance between a more authentic adaptation and a functional film. In practical terms, I repositioned and re-edited numerous scenes in order to replicate the sequence of events from the individual issues of Watchmen comics and superimposed their respective titles on screen (Figure 1).
From Watchmen: The Motion Comic (2008-2009), I appropriated the animated clock motif and non-diegetic on-screen quotations that close each chapter of the story. I trimmed away numerous instances of unfounded superhuman feats, such as Laurie propelling a Knot Top gang member into a dumpster with a gingery kick, and other inconsistencies with the original comics (e.g. characters referring to the vigilantes as “the Watchmen”). In accordance with the comics, I completely removed the prison fight sequence and significantly recut the lovemaking scene aboard the Owl Ship to be shorter and suggestive rather than explicit. I also replaced some of the music cues, such as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” and Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” with music from the Watchmen original score by Tyler Bates and the Naqoyqatsi (2002) film score by Philip Glass, whose complementary works, “Pruit Igoe” and “Prophecies,” both originally composed for Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982), were excerpted during Dr. Manhattan’s reflections on Mars for the official film versions of Watchmen. Additionally, I saw a need to color correct the film, which was previously bathed in a dreary blue tint (Figure 2). Fixing the color scheme normalized skin tones and revealed more of the unconventional colors present in the production design of the film, which took inspiration from the original comics.
For Watchmen: Midnight, I also incorporated re-edited segments from Under the Hood (Eric Matthies, 2009), a 38-minute pseudo-documentary based on a fictional memoir attributed to Hollis Mason. As one of the false documents that Alan Moore created for the end of each issue of Watchmen, excerpts of the prose from Mason’s Under the Hood memoir provided historical context for the events of the main story and developed the reader’s knowledge of Mason’s character. As Matthies explains, his Under the Hood adaptation was produced in the style of a retrospective television program with Watchmen character interviews, staged photographs, and fake newsreel footage:
To realize [the memoir] cinematically in a direct translation would amount to a book on tape. The trick was to come up with a vehicle that could carry the information in a dynamic way. I discussed the idea with [Watchmen producers] Wes Coller and Debbie and Zack Snyder that we should consider treating it as a popular book’s author would be treated in the media. The author would appear on talk shows and the book would be discussed in the mainstream media. (Thill)
In order to diegetically situate Under the Hood in the main feature, I created new sequences in which video from the fictional documentary appear to be integrated within a repurposed shot of Mason’s television set from the Watchmen film, and I added audiovisual effects to simulate weathered videocassette playback (Figure 3). On the premise that Mason is nostalgically rewatching his old recording of the television profile on his life and work, the amalgamated sequences followed the quotations at the end of each reconfigured “chapter” of the film until Mason’s death.
During the making of Watchmen: Midnight, I was unaware that Matthies was once asked about the potential for combining his Under the Hood production with Snyder’s Watchmen feature film. “While it’s definitely an interesting idea, the plan all along was to create a standalone piece to co-exist with Tales of the Black Freighter on its own DVD,” Matthies replied. “Had there been a plan to intercut Under the Hood with the Watchmen film, we’d have approached it differently” (Thill). Perhaps Matthies did not know yet about plans to produce the Ultimate Cut, which haphazardly inserts the Tales of the Black Freighter animated short throughout the Watchmen feature film, but he explains that all three productions (Watchmen, Tales of the Black Freighter, and Under the Hood), when consumed independently of each other, provide an intentionally nonlinear, composite viewing experience. Further, it is evident that the incorporation of the Black Freighter segments in the Ultimate Cut was an afterthought not only because of their unharmonious positions in the film, but because a close examination of an edit point in the Ultimate Cut between an animated segment (in which the sea captain clings to shipwreck debris) and the main feature reveals lingering frames from a dissolve to the subsequent scene in the standalone Black Freighter production.4 This fleeting moment in the Ultimate Cut proves that rather than working with uncut production materials from the Black Freighter animation, the professional editors responsible for assembling the Ultimate Cut merely chopped up the previously released version of the Black Freighter short film. Given the transformative trajectory of the Watchmen film, it is remarkable that the incorporation of the Black Freighter in the Ultimate Cut was willfully achieved by authorized editors reverse-engineering existing material, which is also a vital technique used by fan editors. Therefore, the Ultimate Cut is both Watchmen’s last official version and its prototypical fan edit.
Meanwhile, another fan editor was interested in testing the boundaries between the Watchmen comics and film. In January 2013, Gargamel released Watchmen Comic-Cut: At Midnight, All the Agents..., which blended shots from the feature film with scans of individual panels from the comics in a continuous sequence. As Gargamel explained the concept, “I thought that the film could be used to organically fill in the gaps between each panel, creating a sort of hybrid motion-comic using video and sound clips from the movie,” adding that “This is part 1 of 12” (Gargamel). Regrettably, Gargamel published no subsequent episodes of that experimental project.
In 2014, for the second edition of Watchmen: Midnight 5, I made several changes and increased the runtime of the fan edit from 192 minutes to 215 minutes. For example, I incorporated Black Freighter into the film, which I had omitted from the initial edition of the project because I was unconvinced that its animated style was an adequate adaptation of the stylized art Gibbons had embedded in the pages of the original Watchmen comics; I would have preferred Snyder’s originally intended surreal rendering of Black Freighter with live actors, in the style of his previous film 300 (Barnes 2). However, I recognized that the Black Freighter was essential to a more complete reading of Watchmen, and as a consequence of restructuring the main story to match its order in the original comics, I was able to effectively insert my recut Black Freighter segments into the film, which restored some of the dialogical harmony between the two parallel stories.
In addition to several smaller adjustments throughout the narrative for the second edition of Watchmen: Midnight, I decided to reposition the opening title sequence to the end of the film. For official versions of Watchmen, this sequence was set to an extended remix of “The Times They Are a-Changin’” by Bob Dylan6, and it establishes an alternate history by depicting several slow-motion vignettes that chronicle the major events that precede the main narrative of the film. However, by repositioning the sequence and setting it to “The Beginning is the End is the Beginning” by The Smashing Pumpkins, the song that accompanied the first promotional trailer for Watchmen, I found that it forms what seems to be an appropriate elegiac arrangement. Rather than merely glimpsing a dozen characters out of context at the opening of Watchmen, this alternative end-credits sequence provides viewers with a retrospective on the rise and fall of the first Minutemen as well as the formation of the second generation of crime fighters with greater familiarity, including knowledge of their fates.
Historically, most fan edits are original projects directly forged from the material of their source films, but with a proliferation of fan edits based on common film texts, we can observe intersections of editorial ideas among several fan editors as well as fan edits derived from other fan edits. Such projects may either form a composite of video elements directly sampled from existing fan edits or intentionally replicate changes enacted in them (Wille 2017: 173).7 In 2021, shortly before I published the third edition of Watchmen: Midnight, I learned about two fan edits based on my earlier work. The first was Timothy Nyquist’s 250-minute Who Watches the Watchmen? (2017), for which he re-edited a copy of the second edition of Watchmen: Midnight in order to experiment with conforming more strictly to the main narrative, Black Freighter segments, and Under the Hood as the original comics. The results are interesting but uneven. Who Watches the Watchmen? treats some material, such as the placement of the Black Freighter segments, similarly to my work in the third edition of Watchmen: Midnight. However, Nyquist extended the Under the Hood sequences and distributed them, as well other supplemental video material, among the narrative chapters that follow Hollis Mason’s murder. In general, the material Nyquist restored includes portions of Under the Hood that I omitted for seeming too contrived, as well as other fake TV content such as fictional advertisements and cartoons. Further, Nyquist abandons the premise that Mason alone was rewatching Under the Hood at home and renders the post-chapter supplemental segments within different TV frames supposedly placed in a local bar, in Sally Jupiter’s retirement home, and on Veidt’s array of video screens at his Antarctic base.
A more recent development in Book Cuts of Watchmen involves splitting the film into a serialized narrative according to the twelve issues of the original comics. For example, Curtis Leon Fee’s Watchmen Zero (March 2021) is a 280-minute fan edit derived from the Ultimate Cut Blu-ray and inspired by Watchmen: Midnight. Fee’s Watchmen Zero broadly retraces some of the work in the second edition of Watchmen: Midnight, but it splits the narrative into twelve episodes, each with a custom opening montage and a large superimposition of “Watchmen” scrolling horizontally across the frame, set to music from Bob Dylan and other artists that are referenced in the comics. Moreover, Watchmen Zero keeps Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during a comparatively longer version of the lovemaking scene between Dan and Laurie; quotations that appear at the end of each chapter are recreations, rather than sampled material from The Motion Comic; and each episode concludes with longer stretches of Under the Hood arranged in a split-screen with vertically scrolling end-credits from the film, set to the song “Desolation Row” covered by the band My Chemical Romance as in the official film versions.
The 2019 Watchmen HBO series, which was devised by Damon Lindelof as a quasi-sequel to the comics and not the film, notably depicts Veidt’s monster in a flashback scene. Some fan edits, including Fee’s Watchmen Zero and an earlier short project by Tykjen (2019), subsequently incorporate Lindelof’s monster into Snyder’s film. However, absent Veidt’s original plan and its narrative underpinning as authored by Alan Moore, the baffling sight of the ungainly computer-generated monster produces only another incorrigible reminder of the many fundamental aesthetic and narratological differences between the page and screen.
Completed in October 2021, my third version of Watchmen: Midnight began in 2016 as a high-definition reconstruction of the existing DVD-sourced project, but gradually I experimented with more modifications, including a twelve-episode structure that I had been planning since 2014. To begin each installment, I adapted the cover design of the original Watchmen comics, in which differently colored “Watchmen” text is juxtaposed with an illustrated detail from the issue. Accordingly, the serialized third edition of Watchmen: Midnight presents distinctively colored animated “Watchmen” titles that glide toward the edges of the screen and transform into a cut-out pattern that draws the viewer into the first shot of each episode (Figure 4).
Scene-by-scene and page-by-page, as I performed finer cutting on Watchmen: Midnight than in previous editions, the film crept relatively closer to the composition of the original comics. In violent scenes, like the Comedian’s assault of Sally Jupiter and Hooded Justice’s retribution, as well as during Dan Dreiberg’s futile physical attack on Adrian Veidt at the denouement, I found that reducing the number of punches that characters leveled against each other increased their perceivable impacts and verisimilitude. Moreover, I recut and adjusted the positions of Black Freighter segments; I made Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” and other pop songs less audible; I recut the flashbacks during the funeral and repositioned a shot of the Comedian using a flamethrower to fit within Dr. Manhattan’s later recollections on Mars; I removed Dr. Manhattan’s unfounded ability to induce visions in Laurie’s mind, as well as revised her parental revelation to be triggered by her own memories; and I managed to get Dan to simply park the Owl Ship outside the window of the burning tenement building, rather than brazenly machine-gunning and collapsing a giant water tower onto a fiery rooftop, all so Laurie would no longer recklessly jump through the burning structure in slow-motion to rescue the trapped residents. Ten years on from the first edition of Watchmen: Midnight, I realized that I eventually removed several of Snyder’s characteristic slow-motion shots from the film which had featured prominently in its earliest promotional trailer: Rorschach running uncannily up the side of a metal tower in a rainstorm, Dan executing a high-flying kick on a rioting prisoner, and Laurie spinning away from an explosion inside the burning tenement, among other embellishments, including an ironic voice-over from Dan declaring “The Watchmen are over.”
Coda: Battle Not With Monsters
As this brief history has hopefully made clear, there is an obvious and ongoing restlessness that attends the work of Watchmen fan editors; each new project and version yields fascinating variations on the same frustrating text. For all their provocative metamorphoses, fan edits inevitably reaffirm that comics and films of the genus Watchmen remain inextricably different species. As David Chen notes regarding Snyder’s Sisyphean efforts:
…understand how daunting a task this adaptation must have been, and why any attempt to craft a film out of the book will result in a filmmaker being torn in two diametrically opposite directions: On the one hand, Snyder was confronted with the task of adhering to the book’s vision, yet on the other, he had to make a good movie out of it. I submit that fidelity to one side of this equation is compromise on the other. In other words, to preserve elements of the book … is to make concessions that might hurt the film’s storytelling; likewise, to make the film one that general audiences could enjoy and follow is to sacrifice certain elements of the book. (Chen, emphasis in original)
I am haunted by this fact in my own work: each new edition of Watchmen: Midnight, however successful it may be in curtailing Snyder’s embellishments and in demonstrating the merits of a closer adaptation of the Watchmen comics, remains a compromise between an impression of authenticity and the constraints of the film medium. Perhaps that is the curse that Moore, overfed on a diet of worms, effectively conjured when he designed his comics to never become films—a formidable trap he set on filmmakers like Snyder and his precursors, and fan editors like myself and the others mentioned in this survey of transformative work.
In the spirit of heretical film theory, which would defy a sacrosanct concept of film as an inviolable construct in the dominion of auteurs: what makes fan edits compelling, whether in our persistence to articulate a critical perspective or to satisfy an experimental curiosity, is that they transgress an artistic threshold that has historically separated author and audience. However, by that transgression, like the sea captain who desperately fled from the cursed Black Freighter, and like Snyder and company who vainly adapted the unadaptable, by atomizing and reassembling the adulterated body of Watchmen, we may have just opened a writhing can of regurgitated worms that will crawl upon our minds, and our screens, without end.
1 Fan edits are shared freely among other media fans across the Internet, usually with an expectation that potential viewers own official copies of the source films. In order to discuss their work and learn about new developments in the field, fan editors and their audience often congregate in dedicated online forums such as FanEdit.org and OriginalTrilogy.com, or on social media platforms like Reddit and Discord. Risk of takedown has driven many fan editors away from sharing their unauthorized works on mainstream video platforms like Youtube; instead, they presently rely on free file-hosting websites, like Google Drive and Mega, as well as clandestine peer-to-peer file-sharing.
2 The metafictional perspective of the teenager reading the Black Freighter comic book in The WCM Cut is reminiscent of his depiction in the startling finale of Sam Hamm’s unproduced Watchmen screenplay from 1988: a time paradox teleports Dan, Laurie, and Rorschach from their alternate timeline onto a street in a version New York City that resembles reality, where they are recognized by the teenager at the newspaper stand as characters from his Watchmen comic book.
3 Character Concentration is also a popular fan editing mode for serial screen narratives with ensemble casts, such as the 2019 Watchmen HBO series, from which several character-centric films may be feasibly distilled from various plot threads. For example, Tykjen’s 60-minute Life on Europa (2019) chronologically recombines all of Adrian Veidt’s (Jeremy Irons) scenes during his extraterrestrial exile, and TriggeredPuppy’s Watchmen: The Bass Reeves Cut (2021) is a 135-minute fan edit that focuses on Angela Abar (Regina King) and Will Reeves (Louis Gossett Jr.).
4 On the Watchmen Ultimate Cut Blu-ray Disc, this edit point occurs at the 26-minute mark.
5 Some fan editors revisit their projects and release successive editions, occasionally adopting software versioning terminology (e.g. Harmy’s Star Wars: Despecialized Edition v2.7).
6 In Vaux (2009), Snyder explains “Dylan had to approve that because we needed to remix it. I guess he's a Watchmen fan because he knew about the book and he knew his work was referenced in it. When I said that we needed all the stems from ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ because we were going to make a six-minute song from a three-minute song, he was happy to do it.”
7 See Wille (2015, 1.7) on how methods of intentional fan edit replication inevitably lead to creative variations in subsequent projects. From an evolutionary perspective, the sustained production of numerous fan edits based on a particular film may permit us to trace accumulative editorial decisions (or traits) which they inherit either directly (through replication) or indirectly (through multiple discovery), as the collective incrementally yet ceaselessly advances toward a Consensus Cut.
AYBGerrardo. “The WCM Cut.” WatchmenComicMovie.com, 24 Aug. 2010, www.watchmencomicmovie.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=129487#p129487. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Barnes, Brooks. “Warner Tries a New Tactic to Revive Its DVD Sales.” The New York Times, 26 May 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/05/26/business/media/26retail.html. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Block, Alex Ben. “‘Avatar ’ Running Time Set at 2.5 Hours.” The Hollywood Reporter, 20 Nov. 2009, www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/avatar-running-time-set-at-91626/. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Boucher, Geoff. “Alan Moore on ‘Watchmen ’ Movie: ‘I Will Be Spitting Venom All over It.” Hero Complex, Los Angeles Times, 18 Sept. 2008. Wayback Machine, web.archive.org/web/20090301220703/http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/herocomplex/2008/09/alan-moore-on-w.html. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Breihan, Tom. “The Watchmen Movie Proves You Can Be Faithful to a Comic and Still Miss Its Whole Damn Point.” AV Club, 16 Nov. 2018, www.avclub.com/the-watchmen-movie-proves-you-can-be-faithful-to-a-comi-1830312684. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Carroll, Larry. “Zack Snyder Explains His Key ‘Watchmen’ Changes on ‘Spoilers’.” MTV.com, 20 Feb. 2009, www.mtv.com/news/1605542/zack-snyder-explains-his-key-watchmen-changes-on-spoilers/. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Chang, Justin. “Watchmen.” Variety, 26 Feb. 2009, variety.com/2009/film/features/watchmen-1200473457/. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Chen, David. “Watchmen - A Cinematic Achievement in Adaptation.” /Film, 6 Mar. 2009, www.slashfilm.com/movie-review-watchmen-a-cinematic-achievement-in-adaptation/ . Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
cinedream. Internet Fanedit Database, FanEdit.org, 28 Jul. 2009, ifdb.fanedit.org/watchmen-legacy/discussions/1702/. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Day, Patrick Kevin. “Zack Snyder on ‘Watchmen ’ Legacy as ‘the Anti-Avengers Movie.” Hero Complex, Los Angeles Times, 12 Nov. 2012. Wayback Machine, web.archive.org/web/20121116005200/http://herocomplex.latimes.com/2012/11/12/zack-snyder-on-watchmen-legacy-as-the-anti-avengers-movie/. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Dent, Nick. “Alan Moore - Writer of Watchmen.” Time Out Sydney, 21 Jan. 2009. Wayback Machine, web.archive.org/web/20101103064245/http://www.timeoutsydney.com.au/film/reviews/watchmen.aspx. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Gargamel. “Watchmen Comic-Cut: At Midnight, All the Agents...” Internet Fanedit Database, FanEdit.org, 19 Jan. 2013, ifdb.fanedit.org/watchmen-comic-cut-at-midnight-all-the-agents/. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Gekko. “Watchmen Legacy.” Internet Fanedit Database, FanEdit.org, 15 Aug. 2012, ifdb.fanedit.org/watchmen-legacy/. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Gleiberman, Owen. “Watchmen.” Entertainment Weekly, 4 Mar. 2009, ew.com/article/2009/03/04/watchmen-2/. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Gordon, Devin. “Till Death Do Us Part: The Long-Awaited 'Watchmen' Movie Takes Loyalty to New Limits. And That's Exactly What's Wrong with It.” Newsweek, 1 Mar. 2009. Wayback Machine, web.archive.org/web/20090304143847/https://www.newsweek.com/id/186958/page/1. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Hiatt, Brian. “Watching the Detectives.” Entertainment Weekly, 10 Dec. 2001. Wayback Machine, web.archive.org/web/20110717061911/http://www.au.timeout.com/sydney/film/features/4187/alan-moore. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Itzkoff, Dave. “Watchmen Skulk to the Screen.” The New York Times, 30 Jan. 2009, nytimes.com/2009/02/01/movies/01itzk.html. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Jagernauth, Kevin. “Watch: Patton Oswalt & Patrick Wilson Talk Zack Snyder's ‘Slavish ’ Adaptation Of 'Watchmen'.” The Playlist, 14 Jan. 2015. Wayback Machine, web.archive.org/web/20110717061911/http://www.au.timeout.com/sydney/film/features/4187/alan-moore. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Leitch, Will. “This Week in Genre History: Watchmen Was Perhaps Too Faithful to the ‘Unfilmable’ Comic.” SyFy Wire, 3 Mar. 2021, syfy.com/syfywire/watchmen-movie-anniversary-zack-snyder-comic-graphic-novel. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Moore, Alan. Watchmen. No. 12, DC Comics, 1987.
Rojas, Peter. “Hollywood: The People’s Cut.” The Guardian, 25 Jul. 2002, guardian.co.uk/film/2002/jul/25/internet.technology/. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Thill, Scott. “Watchmen Back Story Unspools in Under the Hood DVD.” Wired, 23 Mar. 2009, wired.com/2009/03/watchmen-backst/. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Tykjen. “Watchmen (2009) Ending Changed Using Scenes from the HBO Series.” Reddit, 10 Dec. 2019, reddit.com/r/Watchmen/comments/e8muny/watchmen_2009_ending_changed_using_scenes_from/. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Vaux, Rob. “He Watches the Watchmen.” Mania, 6 Mar. 2009. Wayback Machine, web.archive.org/web/20090307114232/http://www.mania.com:80/watches-watchmen_article_113476.html. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.
Wille, Joshua. Beyond the Phantom Edit: A Critical History and Practical Analysis of Fan Edits. 2017. University of Kansas, PhD dissertation.
Wille, Joshua. “Dead Links, Vaporcuts, and Creativity in Fan Edit Replication.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 20, 15 Sept. 2015, doi:10.3983/twc.2015.0663.
Wired. “Filming the Unfilmable: Behind the Scenes of the Watchmen Movie.” Wired, 23 Feb. 2009, wired.com/2009/02/ff-watchman/. Accessed 6 Jun. 2021.