Saturday, March 7, 2009

Film Review: Watchmen

Watchmen is not a movie about superheroes. For one thing, barely any of the characters in the film do anything heroic. Secondly, none of the people in Watchmen (with one notable exception) has any super-powers to speak of. What Watchmen is about can apparently be debated – Alan Moore, the writer of the comic book that the film is adapted from, thought it was about misplaced hero worship. On the other hand, Watchmen’s director, Zack Snyder, apparently thinks it’s a celebration of bone-crushing, blood-spurting violence. I think it’s about three hours long.

In the year or so that rumors have been spreading through the “fan community” (an expression used earnestly by comic book readers and derisively by everyone else) about the long-awaited adaptation of Watchmen, a great deal of worry has arisen regarding whether Watchmen would be faithful to the comic. Those fears will be put to rest by the film that was released yesterday. With the exception of the infamous “squid monster” and several of the more meta-textual elements of the series, Watchmen, the movie, is faithful to a fault to Watchmen, the comic book. All 300-plus pages of plot, subplot, and back-story have been crammed into a 160-minute film – and it feels like it. By using (Watchmen artist) Dave Gibbons’ original drawings as a strict storyboard and, at times, cribbing whole paragraphs of dialogue from the comic, Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse can all sincerely claim religious fidelity to the original text. Unfortunately, they get all the details right while somehow missing the point of the book – rather like a Catholic who reads the New Testament and thinks the story is “about” torture. (I’m looking at you, Mr. Gibson.)

Watchmen begins, portentously, with violence. For about five minutes, audience members are treated to the furniture-splintering, tooth-loosening, bone-crushing, window-smashing murder of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whom we soon learn was once a costumed vigilante and government operative codenamed “The Comedian.” Then, to get audiences acquainted with the universe this murder mystery is set in, an extended title credits sequence follows. Despite it being (painfully) set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin,” this sequence is probably the cleverest part of the film. In very little time, the various tableaux depicted (including warped versions of famous scenes like V-E Day in Times Square, the assassination of JFK, and Studio 54) manage to illustrate the differences between our world and the world of the Watchmen; the realities of superhero life; and much of the flashback material from the comic book that could not be included in the actual film.

The credits are handled in such a witty, seamless manner that one can be forgiven for expecting the rest of the film to be as smooth and understandable. Unfortunately, once the “real” movie gets underway, the labyrinthine plot complications and myriad characters that are so enjoyable to read at one’s own pace feel rushed and one-dimensional within the confines of a film (even one as long as this one). In rapid succession, the rest of the cast is introduced: psychotic, Objectivist Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley); Nite Owls I and II (the latter also known as wimpy technogeek Dan Drieberg, played by Patrick Wilson); the first and second Silk Spectres (Carla Gugino and Malin Ackerman, respectively); Ozymandias (“world’s smartest human” Adrian Veidt, played by Matthew Goode); and finally, Dr. Manhattan, a God-like CGI superman with blue skin (and little clothing). Manhattan (played by Billy Crudup in pre-origin flashbacks and voiced by him in present-day sequences) is less a character than he is a catalyst: it is largely his presence during the Vietnam War and other pivotal moments of history that caused Watchmen’s Earth to look so different from our own (one major difference: Richard Nixon is still president in 1985, when the film is set.)

The particulars of the convoluted (even for a comic book movie) plot are largely unimportant. While Rorschach and his somewhat-more-reluctant allies investigate the Comedian’s murder, Ozymandias concerns himself with the rapidly growing threat of nuclear devastation and Dr. Manhattan decides to abandon humanity, since it has already, clearly, abandoned him. In the original comic book, the prosaic details of the interwoven plots and flashbacks served to illuminate a philosophical worldview. In the movie, they serve as a staging ground for ever-escalating scenes of violence and pessimism.

It is true that Watchmen doesn’t contain any scenes of violence that aren’t in the comic. However, the execution of these scenes is radically different. Events such as the Comedian’s murder and an attempted mugging appear in the comic book as series of a few panels each. Much of the actual action is left off the page, and (notably for a comic book) few, if any, sound effects are employed. Compare that to the movie – before the Comedian’s attempted rape of Silk Spectre is averted, Gugino and Morgan have punched, kicked, bitten, and thrown each other through furniture in a sequence that could have been cut from Mr. and Mrs. Smith. An assassination attempt that, in the comic, consists of one secretary getting shot, becomes an orgy of bullets through heads, chests, and abdomens. Rorschach’s murder of a child molester, represented in the comic by a burning building and some chilling dialogue, is replaced by a series of cleaver blows to the molester’s skull. Each of these examples is underscored by the full range of wince-producing Foley sound effects – one can only guess at how many watermelons were slaughtered to produce the cleaver sequence. While Moore and Gibbons, of necessity, depicted violence in order to underscore the neuroses of their characters, Snyder depicts it because he apparently thinks it looks cool (his previous film, 300, is further evidence of this mindset), and ends up demonstrating that he has completely missed the point.

If lack of subtlety is apparent in the action sequences, Snyder can be applauded for the consistency of his approach. Watchmen’s one sex scene is portrayed in three panels of undressing and several more of post-coital pillow talk in the comic book. In the movie, we get several minutes of sweaty humping and thrusting in numerous positions, backed by Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It’s hard to know what’s more laughable – the soft-core Cinemax-style sex or the cliché background music. The soundtrack, in fact, is a glaring example of Snyder’s sledgehammer approach to storytelling. Besides the aforementioned Dylan and Cohen songs, there’s “The Sounds of Silence” at a funeral, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” during a business meeting, and even “Ride of the Valkyries” during the Vietnam War. (Someone should tell Snyder that that particular song didn’t play during the actual war, Coppola aside.)

Of course, there’s also the issue of Dr. Manhattan’s body parts. While male full-frontal nudity is, due to Americans’ (im)maturity, somewhat daring in a mainstream film (and fans would accuse the filmmakers of cowardice if they hadn’t depicted Manhattan as he is in the comic), Snyder and his team are, once again, guilty of a “hey, look at this,” sensibility. The Doctor Manhattan of the comics is discreetly endowed (as one would expect a man unconcerned with appearances to be), but the one in the movie has such a large, constantly-swinging (in that slithery, CGI way) member that it is, predictably, distracting (and does not encourage any sort of mature response on the part of the audience). Aesthetic choices like these make the film seem more like a parody of the book it is based on than the reverent re-imagining it tries to be.

Some of this lack of nuance extends to the dialogue, as well, which features several lines of the “audience-is-too-stupid-to-understand-otherwise” variety. If one has read the comic book, it is jarring to hear the characters referred to repeatedly as “The Watchmen.” That word never appears in the comic except on the cover and in occasional background graffiti, but here it’s used as though the characters are a team of mutants or a doo-wop ensemble. I can picture a studio executive saying, “I like the movie, but people are gonna wonder when the Watchmen show up!” Likewise, the narration, which is essential in a static medium like comic books, is completely redundant in a movie like this – excerpts from Rorschach’s journal are one thing, but Dr. Manhattan soliloquizing about his lack of humanity is completely unnecessary. There is also one thuddingly-obvious line in the picture that rips off the climax of The Empire Strikes Back. I half-expected to see Malin Ackerman get her hand chopped off after it was spoken.

Despite Snyder’s ham-handed rendering of the material, the actors can at least, by and large, be commended for taking their roles seriously and finding emotional touchstones in the material. Wilson is nuanced and even touching as Drieberg (who is depicted as a sort of reverse comic book archetype – in this case, Clark Kent is the real man and Superman the pose.) Morgan is convincing as the amoral Comedian, and, though he can’t do much as Dr. Manhattan other than speak in a detached monotone, Crudup makes the most of his limited role. Unfortunately, both Ackerman and Goode are badly miscast: the former comes off as a one-note bimbo, and Goode plays captain-of-industry Veidt as a peroxided club-kid with an indeterminate accent. However, the truly revelatory performance of the movie belongs to Haley. Though his unyielding, psychotic Rorschach is covered by a mask during the majority of the film, his voice is appropriately chilling – and, when the mask finally comes off, Haley is genuinely frightening and all-too believable.

It would also be unfair of me not to point out that, visually, the film is stunning. Aside from a leopard creature and Dr. Manhattan himself (I still think that CGI-rendered humans and animals are jarring when shown in motion), the effects are beautifully rendered, and the art direction and set design somehow look simultaneously fantastic and realistic. It is clear that, in that respect, Snyder cared about what he was doing. In fact, “lack of care,” is one thing I cannot accuse Snyder of, in general. Every long minute of Watchmen shows that Snyder cares tremendously about both the book he’s adapting and the movie he’s making. I only wish I could believe that his care came with genuine understanding.

WATCHMEN: directed by Zack Snyder; written by David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the graphic novel illustrated by Dave Gibbons; and released by Warner Brothers
Pictures and Paramount Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

WITH: Malin Akerman (Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II), Billy Crudup (Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan), Matthew Goode (Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias), Carla Gugino (Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre), Jackie Earle Haley (Walter Kovacs/Rorschach), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Edward Blake/the Comedian) and Patrick Wilson (Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II).

© 2009, Christopher Stansfield. Some rights reserved. This work is licensed to the public under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License, and may only be distributed according to the terms of said license. To view a copy of this license, please click here.


  1. When I saw it in the theater, people were laughing all the way through the "Hallelujah" sequence. Myself included. I'm not sure if Mr. Snyder has ever actually had sex after seeing that. I'm not sure I want to know, either.

    I agree with your points about the violence; that also seemed far more in-your-face to me than it did in the book (which I read earlier this year specifically so that I could compare the movie to it). I didn't hate every choice of song, though; I liked that "Everyone Wants To Rule The World" was turned into blandly pleasant, nonthreatening Muzak as a way of very subtly foreshadowing the later revelations about Veidt. Also, I think Snyder used "The Sounds of Silence" at least in part because it fit in with the pattern of using pop songs about nuclear annihilation – once again, almost subliminally underlining the omnipresent concern with the impending end of humankind.

    Finally, I think the choice of format – one 160-minute film, instead of, say, three 120-minute films – made it impossible to really do justice to the book and its interweaving of multiple threads, plots, subplots, and digressions. No Bernards? The relationship between the psychiatrist and Rorschach reduced to a single 2-minute conversation? The book might not lend itself well to a trilogy, though. I think I would have preferred a one-season TV series of 12 one-hour episodes, where not only could all the subplots and scenes from the original book be included, but the director could take his time and let events unspool at their own pace. It worked well for The Wire and Battlestar Galactica; I see no reason why it couldn't work here. I know that TV producers have traditionally wanted series to run for at least 2-3 seasons so that the reruns can be syndicated, but DVD box-set sales could make those kinds of 1-season narrative arcs financially viable.

  2. Interesting point about Watchmen's potential as a series rather than as a movie. Certainly that sort of thing has been done with success in Great Britain and even on pay channels like HBO. A format like that would have had a lot of potential (in fact, I think a lot of the problem with a show like "Heroes" on NBC is that it should have been a story with a clear beginning and end.)