Friday, March 6, 2009

Watchmen, My Review

I doubt the perception of a film could be more loaded than the way most of us will see Watchmen. Few comic books command as devoted a following or as high a reputation, and few filmmakers have what it takes to bring Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's vision to life. Zack Snyder is not one of these filmmakers. Under no circumstances did I expect that Watchmen would be the cinematic equivalent of its source material.

But I didn't rule out the possibility, either. 

In retrospect, I wish I had. 

If I can say anything about Watchmen it's, "gosh, everyone sure did their best," which is about all anyone can hope for these days. Unfortunately, the best these people could do wasn't necessarily good enough to bring this story to its full potential. 

Sure, it's not bad, I'm not upset that I saw it, nor do I think anyone will find this movie to be terrible. The basic story and characters that populate this world are so utterly compelling that anyone who were to do even a cursory adaptation would have an okay film on their hands, which is just about what I think this is.

The inherent problem with doing a film like Watchmen is that the fierce demands of the fanboy audience cloud the priorities of the filmmakers and the result is a film that strives to appear to be the story it's supposed to be telling. 

Zack Snyder can talk a good game. Hell, after the countless clips I've seen of him talking about this movie I was convinced he was the right man for the job. After seeing the clumsy transitions, the poor performances, and countless moments of characters speaking their subtext, I was baffled as to why this man was allowed to direct anything more than the music video for My Chemical Romance's bastardization of "Desolation Row." 

The first thing that struck me about Watchmen was the questionable pacing and structure of the film. Moments that demand to be contemplative and poignant are briskly hurried along while fight sequences and sex scenes are expanded into gratuitous parodies of themselves. 

The flow of the story, while handled gracefully in the first act, dissolved into a clumsy mess entering the film's second hour, as Snyder and his team futilely tried to mash 12 separate and distinct chapters of a story into a single, streamlined narrative. 

Many of the performances were hallow and uninspired, making the characters limp from the vivid creations on Moore and Gibbons' pages into the one-note cardboard cut-outs that inhabit this film. It's not often that bringing literal life to a character makes them less real, but Snyder's cast found a way to do it. Only Jackie Earle Haley's performance as Rorschach approaches the promise of the character imagined in the comic's pages. 

But examining each of these criticisms reveals the true problem with Watchmen: the fanboy factor. 

Watchmen is a dense graphic novel populated by compelling characters in a richly textured world. The deceptively simple artwork by Gibbons demands repeated analysis so that every detail can be discovered. The story is woven beautifully by Alan Moore, who devotes almost entire issues to fleshing out the backstories of his most compelling characters, Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach, while also propelling his morally ambiguous and challenging deconstruction of super-hero mythology toward its conclusion. To include every layer and nuance of this story in a film of reasonable length would be folly, and rightly, the filmmakers don't attempt to.

Unfortunately, Zack Snyder and his writing team lack the vision and insight necessary to effectively adapt a beloved comic book into a film that works. Their feeling seems to be that the material content of the comic books is infallible, and that their audience will accept any word, idea or incident that is thrown at them, as long as these things find their origins in the pages of the comics. As a result, they lift and rearrange dialogue from the books, even when these words are unnecessary and redundant when combined with the performances of even the merely competent cast that Snyder assembled for his film. 

We don't need to hear three different characters telling us that Dr. Manhattan has "lost touch" with humanity when the behavior of the character overwhelmingly displays this idea. On the motionless, silent page of a comic book, the Comedian needs to say this, but not in a film. Not when there are other ways of communicating this idea. Comic books rely on the writer's words and the artist's illustrations to tell their stories, films use dialogue, performances, images, music, and editing to tell theirs. But Snyder assumes that fanboys are unwilling to hear anything but Alan Moore's dialogue, and are unwilling to see anything that isn't a frame from the book. This is not to say that Snyder shouldn't be concerned about remaining faithful to the material, but instead, that his definition of "faithful" is too literal for him to have any true confidence in his own creative sensibilities. 

When I first learned that Zack Snyder was directing Watchmen my first thought was one of terror. I wasn't terrified about the quality of the movie he was about to make, but instead about the pressure he had suddenly burdened himself with. In a climate where thousands upon thousands of parroting fanboy voices complain about Optimus Prime having "lips" or the omission of Tom Bombadil, I knew that this inexperienced director was about to be ripped to shreds before he conceived of a single frame. Or maybe, put another way, he would be ripped to shreds for conceiving of his own frames. 

Watchmen is a film overseen by a man without vision. Snyder's previous features are a remake and another comic book adaptation. The posters for Watchmen proclaim him a visionary for recreating the pages of Dave Gibbons and Frank Miller, but we have yet to see a film that is a true representation of his creative ability. Instead we find him slaving over the pages of Watchmen, cautiously trying to shape a single narrative out of twelve. 

Imagining myself on the set, I keep hearing people say, "the fans are gonna love this!" Why? Why are we going to love this? Because you added a gratuitous zoom out in the middle of a scene to show the "Gunga Diner" elephant flying above the city? Because you put Gibbon's signature as graffiti on a lamp post? Somewhere along the lines, Snyder and his team fell under the impression that constantly nodding at the comic book was enough to distract from a terrible, awkwardly paced script.

In Moore's original serial, the disjointed narrative and layered themes worked because the monthly installments allowed him and Gibbons to explore different ideas in different issues. When all of these things are compressed into a single experience their incongruities become apparent, the different ideas cloud each other out, and the story becomes a din of high-concept garbage left to rely on tricky motion effects, gratuitous blood, and the crappiest soundtrack ever compiled to tell its story. 

I doubt I have ever seen a movie more unsure of itself than Watchmen. It captures the material and content of the world portrayed by Gibbon's illustrations, but not the feel. It speaks the words of Alan Moore, but misses his point. It contains the same plot, but ignores the themes. It features the same characters and the same stories, but refuses to let them breathe. Snyder replaces subtlety with bones popping from flesh, blood spraying across rooms, and awkward sex scenes. He relies on high-tech special effects to create Dr. Manhattan where a dude in blue make-up surrounded by a light saber glow would have sufficed. He uses molded plastic muscles where flowing cloth would have been fine, and forgets that at its core, Watchmen is satire. 

As I feel this rant getting away from me, let me share a final story. Unsure of my feelings toward this film after Thursday/Friday's initial viewing, I took one of my most insightful and trusted movie companions to see it on Sunday night, knowing that she was completely unfamiliar with the comic book. With lowered expectations, I found myself enjoying the movie more than I originally did, but she hated it. She was appalled by the violence. She found the characters dull and uninteresting. She thought the plot was a trite and simple, and the ending uninspired. 

What did I learn by bringing my mother to see Watchmen? I learned that the movie only really holds up if you like the comic. It only even seems passible if you already know what's going on, and who these people are supposed to be. After explaining countless things to my mother over dinner she was open to the idea of reading the comic, and could see where this film was a wimpy excuse for it. 

Ultimately, Watchmen is a crippled film using its source material as a wheelchair. It fails in the sense that it will never, ever separate itself from the books on which it draws its story. It is different from other comic book films in the sense that, while Superman, Spider-Man and other heroes have established, iconic mythologies, these characters exist only within the context of this single, finite story. 

Basically, if you want my opinion, they should have made a mini-series. 



  1. Mike took his mommy to the movies. Ha ha!

  2. You said it before I could: Shoulda been a mini-series.

    I'll probably wind up seeing this film at some point, though I'll probably wait for Netflix. Seeing 300 was enough of a hint as to what to expect here. Your review confirmed just about every suspicion I had.

  3. Brilliant review. At least my cursory stab at it revealed that we both identified the same "best actor." I agree with nearly all your points. The fanboy factor is a catch-22: remain faithful to the comic, you lack artistic vision; blaze your own trail, you forsake the author and his canon. I tend to give anyone who takes on the mantle of adaptation the benefit of the doubt. And you should be able to tell from my mini-review that I've never read the comic.

    One good thing about the movie: it serves as an introduction to Alan Moore's characters for a much wider audience. Call it the Fight Club Effect: had it not been for Chuck Palahniuk and David Fincher, I'd never have discovered one of my favorite bands: the Pixies. I know I'm much more likely to seek out the comics now, after seeing the movie. That has to be worth something.

    Speaking of soundtracks, I laughed at your take. I did think many of the choices were trite, but I could see where they were going, and how they tried to place the film in the quasi-appropriate historic context. Somehow I feel that applying any Dylan or Cohen song in this day and age, to any film, would be considered ironic regardless of the director's intent.

    That said, you should _make a living_ as a film critic. You're better than most professionals.

  4. Some more thoughts: Gavin and I just had a brief conversation about this, and he added a few good insights.

    One subtle but major difference between watching a film and reading a comic book is that, while watching a film, the audience is passive, but a reading audience is active. While watching a film, an audience needs a guide to take them by the hand and escort them into the world. While reading a comic book, the audience is actively acquiring the content, and putting himself into the world.

    This doesn't mean that both forms don't need a point of reference, but that the roles of these reference points are different. In films, the protagonist must serve as "the guide," whereas this isn't always the case with novels or comics.

    In the Watchmen comic book, our point of relation to the world is in the characters of the comic-reader and the newstand man. Two characters who were essentially dropped from the film.

    Instead, the film positions the Dan and Laurie as "everymen" and hopes to use them as the audiences' point of entry.

    The more that I think about it, the more I lean towards the opinion that this should have been Rorschach's movie. His is the voice that begins and ends the comic, his is the twisted point of view that paints our world into a dystopian 1985 with a 5th-Term Nixon as President of a nation on the brink of nuclear war. His story should have been the backbone, everything else should have been secondary.... anyway....

  5. Now wait a minute. Isn't that what they did? Didn't the film start with Rorschach's voiceover? I seem to remember him doing a lot of the narration. Even the epilogue focused on his journal and the newspaper intern. Or were you thinking of watching over his shoulder for the entire film?

  6. Not necessarily being over his shoulder, but he should have been emphasized more than the other characters... or perhaps the other characters should have been diminished so that he stands out as the clear protagonist.

    I think that almost everyone who saw this film agrees that Laurie Jupiter was not only the worst-performed character in the movie, but also the worst-written. The question I've been mulling over is whether or not the movie would have been better without her. (Not completely, of course...)

    But I think what I basically mean is that the narrative would have worked better had the story been written with the intention of telling Rorschach's story, and not from the point of view of including (or nodding to) every single detail of the comic book.

  7. Aha! Excellent clarification. I think the only reason Laurie sticks in my head is her costume...and her seeming ability to make the worst of living with an ubermensch capable of self-replication and spooky action at a distance.

    I think you've won me over to the idea of a Rorschach-centric film. And your earlier point that cohesion of plot and clear dramatic progression is lost when too many characters are followed and too much is crammed into one narrative.

    I also now understand what you were saying about the use of Dan and Laurie as everyman entry-points into the world of the Watchmen. That dovetails with the dumbing-down of so many stories in today's USA.

    Thankfully today is the last day of the Fast. During the rest of the year I should be able to catch your drift the first time.

  8. Ah George, I doubt you had any trouble ascertaining my points. Instead, I feat that my habit of allowing my writing to descend into angry and frustrated rants prevents me from considering my word choices properly.

  9. At least you aren't as frustrated as Wolverine.

  10. Ok so I liked the film. And I have never read the comic. So..there's that. And while I agree with much of what you say, I have a slightly different take-as in, the actors were fine but the dialogue given them was not good enough. Either it was too repetitive (like you say) or over-simplified and it created a challenge of presenting real (believable) emotion and reaction. The sex and violence scenes WERE blown out of porportion but I liked the costumes as a reflection of the political crassness of the 60s, 70s and 80s. They gave a palpability to the overall American-ness of self-importance that seemed to be the backdrop of the film-the Bay of Pigs, Nixon's reign and even the crime and growing materialism of the nation itself throughout those time periods, especially the 80s and Wallstreet.

    Another thing I really really appreciated was that though this movie did utilize unneccessary sex, the way the scenes were shot, themselves, and the type of nudity that existed in the film was for ONCE not a gross objectification of women for the sake of the male viewer-you know-a long shot from the man's point of view that focused ONLY on the female body parts, and worse, included the female actor staring seductively in the direction of the camera. From a feminist perspective, this was the most 'equal' take on sex and sensuality that I have yet to see in a major motion picture. 300 was horrifying for this fact and really pissed me off as a movie.

    And for the record I was less upset about the omission of Tom Bombadil than I was by the gross addition of lines for Arwen-putting her in scenes that she was never in in the book. But I am glad they put in Eowyn's line when she was fighting the Witch King...

  11. Although, the film allowed men to fight crime in molded plastic, but still had the women in fishnets and skin-tight latex.

  12. that's true. but the fashion spin of each woman was still more in keeping with the times in which they thrived, which was cool.