The comic and movie versions of Watchmen end in drastically different ways, but both are effective in their own context. Created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen changed the comic book landscape when its first issue was published in 1986, offering a mature and politically-aware cautionary tale of corrupted superheroes and vigilantism turned bad. After spending over 20 years as a cult classic in the DC canon, 300's Zack Snyder was tasked with bringing the Watchmen story to the big screen - a feat many thought impossible.
2009's Watchmen movie was a trailblazer in terms of family-unfriendly superhero flicks and established the gritty, dark Snyder style that would later give rise to Man of Steel and the DCEU. Not for the last time in Snyder's career, Watchmen proved to be a highly divisive adaptation, receiving widespread praise but simultaneously irking comic book purists. Nevertheless, the Watchmen movie has become a cult favorite in its own right, serving as inspiration for the likes of Logan and The Boys and meriting a TV series follow-up on HBO.
Despite featuring rapist superheroes and glowing blue penises, by far the most controversial element of Snyder's Watchmen was the ending. In what was more or less a faithful adaptation of the source material, the Watchmen movie went in a completely different direction for its final act and this has been a point of contention among fans ever since. While the strength of Snyder's finale is often debated, however, both versions work well in their own way.
Watchmen's Comic Book Ending
Set in an alternate 1985 U.S.A, where the emergence of masked vigilantes and the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan has altered the course of history, the original Watchmen story is set against the real-life background of the Cold War, with tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States leaving the world on the brink of nuclear devastation. The events of Watchmen are triggered by the emergence of a murderer seemingly targeting former superheroes. The case is picked up by still-active vigilante, Rorschach, who gets the band back together in order to investigate the conspiracy.
Eventually, Rorschach, Nite Owl, Silk Specter and Dr. Manhattan trace the killings back to their former colleague, Adrian Veidt, formerly known as Ozymandias. Now the CEO of his own corporation, Veidt has opted to take decisive action against the looming World War 3, and hopes to unite the world in peace and harmony by staging an alien attack, forcing Earth's global superpowers to settle their differences and come together. While this plan might look promising on paper, the main sticking point is that Veidt insists millions must die in the "attack" for the faked threat to be taken seriously.
Ultimately, the Watchmen fail to, or in some cases simply decide not to, stop Veidt's scheme and the final act of the comics sees a giant squid created by the businessman's secret laboratories unleashed upon New York in the guise of an alien invasion.
Watchmen's 2009 Movie Ending
Zack Snyder's take on Watchmen essentially follows the same structure outlined above but deviates when it comes to the details of Ozymandias' plan. Instead of biologically engineering a giant squid to pass off as an alien invader, the live-action Ozymandias triggers a series of nuclear explosions in major cities around the world and frames Dr. Manhattan as the culprit by mimicking the signature of his natural radiation. The effect of this is mostly identical to the comics - the U.S. and Soviet Union turn their hostilities away from each other and towards Dr. Manhattan, albeit at the expense of many lives. As in the comic books, Manhattan eventually sees the logic in Veidt's plan and accepts his new role, leaving Earth, supposedly, for good.
For some, altering the source of Ozymandias' destruction was merely a superficial change that didn't impact the overall tone and direction of Watchmen's original ending and, considering how much movie studios love happy endings, it's a small miracle that Watchmen's bleak conclusion was retained at all. However, this didn't prevent a deluge of criticism from the comic book fans who felt the squid angle was an integral element to Watchmen's finale.
Conversely, critics in recent years have begun to swing in the opposite direction, claiming that the squid ending was always a little ridiculous and that Snyder's changes actually improve upon Moore's original design.
Why Both Watchmen Endings Are Great
Rather than one Watchmen ending being better than the other, it's perhaps more accurate to say that both the comic and movie versions are ideal for their respective mediums. Alan Moore's psychic squid may sound unintentionally hilarious to those unfamiliar with the Watchmen comics, but as a world-conquering threat created by a former superhero, it's a near perfect addition. The Watchmen comics contain far more dark humor compared to Snyder's movie and this plays into Ozymandias' plan. In gloriously self-referential fashion, the villain hires a team of artists to design the squid-like alien and then uses his wealth to make it a reality. In terms of being a cautionary tale about superheroes (and the comics were far less flattering than the movie in this regard), this ending allows Watchmen to comment on both the inflated egos of the heroes, and the fickle nature of the world's political powerhouses.
Furthermore, an alien creature is far more effective on the page than a series of explosions would be. After building gradually over the course of 12 issues, Watchmen deserved a suitably dramatic climax, and a string of explosion panels wouldn't have carried the same weight in print as on the big screen, where the added dimensions of sound and movement are available. A bright, freakishly striking creature, however, provides a far more visual threat, drawing both surprise and disgust from the reader.
As great as Watchmen's ending is in the comics, it simply wouldn't have worked on the big screen. Zack Snyder's gritty depiction of the Watchmen world would've been irreparably harmed by the appearance of an otherworldly monster in the final act and caused a jarring shift in tone, especially for those not knowing what to expect. The squid would've also needed to be a CGI creation and, even a decade later, superhero movies still struggle to find success with final villains borne from a mass of special effects.
By shifting the blame onto Dr. Manhattan, however, the Watchmen movie takes the sort of character-based approach feature films are better suited to and harks back to Manhattan's insecurities and fading humanity - a theme explored in both versions of the story. Framing the naked, blue superhero for a crime he didn't commit not only adds to his already-tragic arc, but also ensures that Ozymandias' plan is more personal in nature, specifically taking advantage of a former friend's abilities and the fear that surrounds his very existence.
It could perhaps be argued that the live-action version of Ozymandias' conspiracy makes more logical sense than in the comic books. In a comic book format, it's far easier to test the boundaries of realism and logic and readers are willing to suspend their disbelief more readily. Plots need to be more tightly structure on screen, however, and there's a natural sense to Veidt using Manhattan's own power to set him up as a global threat that requires less setup and explanation than the comics' ending would have.
With the upcoming HBO Watchmen TV series, it'll be fascinating to see whether the movie's ending is cast in a different light, or even whether Ozymandias returns to his giant squid concept. There's certainly potential for the new project to enhance the events of the original Watchmen but, equally, there's certainly a risk of negating the famously bleak tone of both the comic and movie cataclysms.
Watchmen season 1 premieres October 2019 on HBO.