I promised to give a fuller review of WATCHMEN, but it seems that my feelings are much like those of everyone who has already seen it. Those who liked it and those who didn’t seem to identify the same flaws and the same strengths. Both flow from director Zack Snyder’s devotion to making this a literal adaptation of the graphic novel, which, it turns out, is a beloved classic with a rabid fanbase. Who knew?
For the record, I enjoyed about 95 percent of it from the beginning to the end. Because it so closely followed the comic, the movie has only a disjointed plot without much narrative drive; it’s more of a period piece and a character study. In fact every time the movie paused to adapt one of the “origin issues,” I enjoyed delving deeper into the characters. I enjoyed the scenery, I enjoyed the special effects, I enjoyed Dr Manhattan with no pants. I enjoyed the Owlship bursting out of the Hudson, and Rorschach jumping on water towers, and the Comedian fighting for his life in his bathrobe.
What Snyder and his crew and actors did well was bring iconic, powerful moments to life in often visually stunning ways. I would have said imaginative, but with production design by Dave Gibbons, there wasn’t much to be imaginative about. There are times when even characters’ silhouettes look exactly like a Gibbons panel; with his pouchy eyes and downturned mouth, the actor who played the prison psychiatrist looked EXACTLY like a Dave Gibbons drawing. Rorschach was as tiny and savage as the drawings, Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl has the same hairline, the same paunch. At times, it’s uncanny.
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But it’s clear that Snyder has affection for this misbegotten cast of masked vigilantes, and so did I. Where things fall apart is what the actual movie is about. The dual plot threads of human weakness in the face of mass destruction and the singular fascism behind the idea of wearing a mask and fighting crime drift along like a pretty butterfly — there’s no buildup or tension to either of them, and the mystery of the “mask killer” is barely even a McGuffin.
The result is slack but — for me, anyway — fascinating. For this fangirl, it was a satisfying ride.
The reason for that is the elephant in the room. Because Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse stuck SO closely to Alan Moore’s original, the results manage to have a depth and meaning they could never have come up with themselves. The most subtextual and unselfconsciously clever of writers, Alan Moore doesn’t put down a single line without a meaning — or several — so everything taken directly from him has some resonance.
That’s very lucky, because on the occasions that Snyder decides to take things into his own hands the results are embarrassingly on the nose. The most frequently noted are the soundtrack songs — “The Sound of Silence” for a rainy funeral; “Everybody Wants to Rule The World” for Ozymandias. When “Ride of the Valkyries” accompanies a thrilling Vietnam war scene it’s totally cool, because it was already done, DUDE! Whereas Quentin Tarantino, another unselfconscious control freak, picks out obscure or once cool songs that become even cooler on the screen, Snyder just grabs the most literal thing on his iTunes list.
Then there’s all the sex and violence. Given his previous hyperviolent efforts, it’s no surprise that there’s blood and gristle and burst dog brains, people boiled alive in oil, and so on. Once again, taken on its own merits, it works, but as part of the actual vision of the story and the meaning behind, it’s pure overkill. For instance, WHY does one of Rorschach’s prison enemies have to get his arms sawed off when they could have just sawed through the bars anyway?
And then there’s the ending — I think this was a valid dramatic choice to make–although it happens to be the same ending as THE DARK KNIGHT — but with no actual moral or ethical vision driving the film, it has no impact, nor does the kicker — because the world at peace wasn’t really anything we were rooting for, putting it in jeopardy at the end is a big so what.
And then there’s Silk Spectre. Malin Ackerman wasn’t quite as bad as I had been warned but casting yet another willowy ex-model instead of a potential tough guy makes her character more a refugee from America’s Next Top Model than a crimefighter. I didn’t buy her as a superheroine for one moment. A lot of the character’s weakness was in the original — Moore created the whole second generation, teen superstar aspect of Silk Spectre, but he was also playing off the idea of ’50s superheroines who were cheesecake first, like Phantom Lady. The moviemakers again make this entirely on the nose, giving her a typical no-pants outfit just because it’s sexy. (The original character wore a tennis player’s modesty skirt, you’ll recall.) Suffice to say that the days of female badasses like Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton, and Lucy Lawless are long over in the movies.
I don’t wanna play too much woulda, coulda, shoulda, but as much as I enjoyed the visual splendor of WATCHMEN, I wish I had seen the Paul Greengrass version instead. Greengrass is just a much grittier filmmaker than Snyder, and in the preproduction interviews for his doomed version, he seemed to understand the political elements of the story and not just the money shots.
Also, I think Snyder was somewhat the victim of the Internet Era of Fanboy Mobs. It’s not easy to adapt a beloved classic, granted. When Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens did it with The Lord of the Rings — easily the most complex and yet satisfying beloved classic adaptation in recent history — they knew they had to make the fans happy, but they also had to make good movies, and so added all sorts of things, like the entire middle section of THE TWO TOWERS. And the fans loved it in the end (aside from a few truly anal people and relatives of JRR Tolkien). Jackson and Co. made changes from love and knowledge of the source material. But I think the Internet was a lot less fierce in its mob mentality and was a much smaller mob even ten years ago (when the LOTR films were made!!) then they are now, and Snyder knew he had to make all the bloggers happy with Easter eggs and in-jokes or else risk alienating with his pre-movie marketing campaign. I’m not sure that Snyder — who, at least at movie junkets, seems to be a decent, likable fellow, and is always described as affable — would have done that much better without the Internet, but it didn’t help.
In the end, the source material has triumphed. Even with a marketing campaign that’s been shoving them down everyone’s throat for six months or so, the Watchmen characters seem to have taken on an iconic status in the pop culture. The movie hasn’t even OPENED yet, and every still is already parodied and given multiple meanings. Most movie watchers think the “general public” won’t “get” WATCHMEN, and that’s probably true, but I’m not even sure it’s necessary anymore, given the way the Nerdocracy controls electronic literacy. The book will remain beloved. I think we’ll be seeing naked blue guys and guys in Rorschach masks walking around and being parodied for a long time. And, while I understand those who dismiss the film, it’s as far from a brainless “comic book action” picture as it could possibly be — from the way the story is structured to the way it plays out. In the end, I think that will prove to be a good thing.
A few final notes and links: I had no idea that Snyder is a tattooed freak, as W Magazine revealed. And, this will probably be our final go-round with the guy — after 300 and WATCHMEN, it’s time to move away from the spinner rack. As he told Suicide Girls, “Someone was like, ‘What comic book movie are you going to do next?’ I’m like yeah, I don’t think I’m doing another comic book. What am I going to do, Archie and Jughead? What’s the follow up?'”
In Northhampton, the bearded man laughs, as he always does.