Monday, March 9, 2009

Watching Watchmen

Watchmen is being billed one of the more avidly-anticipated movies in recent years. Given that the vast majority of the moviegoing audience have no idea who the Watchmen are, it's more accurate to say that it's avidly-anticipated by the subculture of comic book fans who came of age in the 1980s. Based on a twelve-issue comic that was rechristened a "graphic novel" when republished as a single volume, "Watchmen" was critically heralded as a great dramatic achievement that brought realism to the decidedly unreal genre of superheroes.

After over 20 years in "development hell," the comic has finally made it to the big screen as a way-north-of-$100-million would-be blockbuster. All those dollars resulted in a movie that's as visually arresting as anything you're likely to see this year (or any other), but once again, Hollywood has demonstrated that all the money in the world can't make up for inadequate writing and bad acting.

But oh, it does look magnificent. With the bizarre exception on one FX shot towards the end that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of "Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century," Watchmen dazzles the eyes from start to finish. Director Zack Snyder's talent for bringing a series of comic book panels to life is simply without peer. Original artist Dave Gibbons collaborated with Snyder on the film (writer Alan Moore washed his hands of it years ago), and much of Watchmen looks like it sprang from Gibbons' pen straight onto the screen. Visually, Watchmen is movie magic practiced at its highest level.

Unfortunately, most of the acting is lousy; a notable exception being Jackie Earle Haley, who is riveting in the crucial role of Rorschach. Malin Akerman is particularly awful as the story's female lead. What's worse, the screenplay, by David Hayter and Alex Tse, is pretty bad.

I tend to be a defender of fealty to the original text when it comes to movie adaptations, but Watchmen is a classic case of adhering too closely to the source material. Hayter, Tse and Synder are too focused on cramming every bit of nearly 400 pages of densely-rendered comic into their movie, and the result is a jumbled, ponderous mess. Dialogue that should have been translated from word balloons to English remains unchanged, to the film's considerable detriment (although that particular mistake is not as pronounced here as it is in, say, Sin City--but then again, Alan Moore's dialogue isn't as ridiculous as Frank Miller's). If you've read the original you'll find yourself nodding again and again at the meticulous recreation of pages and dialogue, but if you haven't, I doubt you'll be able to make heads or tails of this movie.

Take the case of Peter Jackson's three-movie adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings as a positive example. Even though Jackson and his own screenwriters blundered badly whenever they stepped away from Tolkien's story (particularly in the second and third installments), their overall achievement was a success because they did capture the essence of Tolkien's world and worldview as well as the big plot points and pretty scenery. With Watchmen, the filmmakers got the words, but lost the music.

Speaking of music, Watchmen's filmic father is pretty obviously Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas--the 80's rock soundtrack is a dead giveaway--but Snyder is entirely lacking in Scorsese's directorial chops when it comes to simple dramatic scenes. Snyder can block the hell out of a fight or epic tracking shot, but he's completely at a loss when it comes to filming two or three people having a conversation. That deficiency really shows in Watchmen's last 45 minutes or so, going as far as to rob the book's emotional climax (Rorschach's final scene) of its dramatic punch.

Finally, and perhaps least importantly, Watchmen is Zach Snyder's political apology to Hollywood for having made the conservative-embraced 300. The Comedian, a ridiculous characature of American conservatives in the comic, is rendered even more evil and psychotic on the big screen, as is every other character to the right of, say, Lenin. The original book was, by author Alan Moore's own admission, deliberately written as an anti-Reagan screed, but as an attendee at an early screening noted (as recounted by reviewer Alexandra DuPont at AICN),

"Watchmen's brand of dystopian misanthropy has been specifically refuted by events. It's one thing to worry about the evil U.S. policies of containment and mutually-assured destruction in 1986. It's one thing to paint a particular political party as being unconstitutionally obsessed with the possession of power and recklessly in pursuit of nuclear confrontation with an enemy who probably wasn't so bad.

"But as it turns out, that entire worldview was vitiated by events. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. Reagan's strategic policy decisions vis-a-vis the Soviet Union were completely vindicated. MAD proved to be an effective deterrent. The conflict between the East and West was settled without a shot being fired. And, perhaps most importantly, the Truman/Kennedy/Reagan view of communism as an insidious ideology which led to violent, repressive authoritarianism was borne out.

"So Moore was wrong. His fears were wrong. His warnings were wrong. His fundamental view of the world was wrong. And 'Watchmen,' in particular, is left as a bizarre cultural artifact. A pretentious piece of commentary masquerading as philosophy."

Not only does Snyder's film fail to even remotely acknowledge how thoroughly wrong Moore's by-the-numbers leftism turned out to be, he lards on additional political cheap shots to go with Moore's 80's-era Reagan Derangement Syndrome, to the point of lauding an American-Soviet alliance at the end of the movie. Just what moral sense an alliance with the dictatorship that spent most of the 20th Century with its boot in the face of half the planet makes, is a question neither Snyder nor Moore ever bothered to ask of themselves.

One thing that the movie did get right in the aggregate was mimicking the comic's use of flashbacks to flesh out the backstory and major characters. It's a little like watching several episodes of the TV series "Lost" on fast-forward (now that I think about it, it wouldn't surprise me at all if "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams borrowed that recurring plot device from the "Watchmen" comic). The multiple flashback sequences add to the overall jumble of the story, and most should have been trimmed back (the Dr. Manhattan scenes in particular), but as a narrative device, but I think Snyder makes good use of that technique. Snyder did change Moore's ending slightly, but this at least was not to the movie's detriment, since Moore's ending was famously dumb. Snyder's, at least, is no dumber.

So, that's Watchmen. Like so much of Hollywood's effluence these days, it's a feast for the eyes, but rarely better than pablum for the heart and garbage for the brain.


  1. Hey Will, I'm drawing a blank . . . which FX shot are you referencing?

    I find I'm in agreement with you on the review. Watchmen is one of those movies that gets a little bit worse in retrospect. I think Alan Sepinwall got it right--this would have been much more wisely done as a 12-part HBO series.


    Yes! The answer to crime in the streets and the threat of nuclear war was not the "smartest man in the world's", aka, the movie's only liberal, final solution, it was Rudy Giuliani and Ronald Reagan.

    And in a world where destroying 2 buildings and murdering 3000 people nearly shattered the US economy and lead to the Patriot Act, who can believe this movie's ending would lead to a "hippie paradise" rather than economic chaos and repressive regimes bent on keeping the newly impoverished population from descending into the dark ages.

  3. Charles, the first overhead shot of the Secret Villain Base in Antarctica looks like a popsickle stick model shot on a bed of cotton balls.

  4. Mild Spoilers, as if anyone reading this hasn't seen the film already.

    I agree with your assessment of the film as a work of art: great visuals, weak script made worse by some silly moments (the love scene in Archie, for instance).

    I'm not sure I agree with your assessment of the film's or the graphic novel's politics, though. Sure, we get something of a Utopian solution at the end, but the film and the novel make it clear that it's founded on a lie (perhaps Plato's noble lie) and therefore unstable from the beginning. Moreover, the works invite us to sympathize with Rohrschach's individualism and integrity (albeit with strongly mixed feelings) and to despise Veidt's collectivism built on deception and betrayal. We want the diary found -- just not by those fringe kooks at the New Frontiersman.

    Moore probably was an anti-Reaganite, but I don't think he's offering up the tragic denouement of Watchmen as the way the world ought to be.

  5. **Mild Spoilers**

    Here's where I'm going to have to disagree with you -- I actually see it as a refutation of the Big O's plan/philosophy. It's self-evident that Rorschach, as big of a psycho as he can be, is actually in the right and that a peace wrought on a foundation of lies is actually a false peace. The movie ends on a somber note, true, but there's the hope that the Truth Will Out. His sacrifice in the name of that Truth is the one essentially noble act in the final scenes. That Nite Owl and Silk Spectre (II's, respectively) accede to Ozymandias' resolution shows them to be less-than-heroic.

    Then again, I suppose it's quite normal for different people to see different things in a movie whose primary hero is named "Rorschach". *grin*

  6. I haven't read the comic, but grew up in the 80's, and I enjoyed the film quite a bit. I thought the soundtrack, while derivative of all the other period movies that rely on pop music of the period, was spot on and perfect. I had a vague notion of what the movie was about before going to see it, so I was able to follow along and understand the themes and plot pretty well.

    Personally, I think any child of the 80's will like this movie, as it did bring back a lot of nostalgia. Sure Moore was wrong about MAD, but that is why the movie is such a perfect period piece, a lot of people on the right were uncertain and worried about it too. Of all my childhood memories, one of my most vivid is still the day, time and place I first fully understood that the world could end in a second at the push of a button.


    Looks like jmarlin and I are on the same wavelength.

    That Ozymandias is willing to trade the REAL lives of millions of innocent people for a perceived risk to billions is a true highlighting of the insanity of utilitarianism. Rorschach's concepts of individual liberty, individual responsibility and individually-visited justice ultimately strike me as the far nobler and, yes, righteous of the choices put before viewers/readers.

    And, like Hugo's Javert, he pays the ultimate price for his strict adherence to concepts of justice and truth.

  8. I should note here that I didn't have a problem with the soundtrack. I do think Snyder owes Scorsese a nice dinner, though.

  9. Will--

    Thanks for the reminder. I remember that shot now. It looked like something out of Captain Scarlet.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course . . . just the wrong look for this movie.

  10. I can see why you think the adaptation doesn't work with what we now know about the Cold War (hey, we're not all radioactive ash! go capitalism!), but it's not like that's easily fixed. If you change the setting of Watchmen from the Cold War to something else, you don't really have the same story. The concept of the doomsday clock inching closer to Armageddon--an iconic Cold War image--is so integral to the piece that you'd gut it if you tried to pull that out.

    So, maybe Watchmen is unadaptable for the same reason that Le Ton Beau de Marot is untranslatable: you can remain faithful to the original context (time or language, respectively), or you can make a sensible adaptation which hardly resembles the original. The producers, understandably, went with the former. (The latter, I suppose, would be something like that hideous "adaptation" of I, Robot.)

    I did chuckle a bit at "Reagan Derangement Syndrome", though.

  11. Wow, what an awful review. The writing is taken directly from the book, and as a huge fan of the book, the hero is the conservative Rorschach and the printing of his journal by the conservative New Frontiersman.

    Ozy's plan is group planning... Socialism.

    Rorschachs plan is individual thought.... Liberty.

    This film was the most comprehensive adapatation of a comic book ever put on screen. It was brilliant and beautiful and it is one of those films that everyone should see.

  12. I don't know what some of you people are talking about. Did you notice that in real life we didn't elect Nixon 5 times? The point of the alternate reality in Watchmen is that there is NOT Mutual Assured Destruction between the US and USSR -- we have Dr. Manhattan making us (we think) largely immune to attack from the Soviets, leading us (not them) to adventurism in Asia. Add to this that in that world we never lost Viet Nam and you have a very different geopolitcal situation -- one that doesn't indict Reagan in any way that I can see.

    I also don't get how you can say the movie is generically anti-conservative, pro-liberal. Remember how the evil arch-villain who kills millions is the only self-avowed liberal in the film? They even point out his "decadence" by showing him hanging out with Bowie and Jagger in disco-era NYC. Sure, the Comedian is a bastard, but that isn't played up in the movie -- it's pretty much completely present in the book. And the "conservative" that gets mocked is Nixon, someone I don't recall any actual conservatives defending any time in the last couple decades.

    Fundamentally, Watchmen is not set in *our* Cold War history but in a parallel worse and more dangerous one. The critique of that world is not a critique of ours. Yes, Moore is a nutty lefty and was probably aiming at a critique of us but the text he actually wrote fails at this. It doesn't say Reagan and MAD were bad -- it says more Nixon and invincible defenses (not MAD at all, though arguably where SDI/Star Wars was heading) are bad.

  13. As a science-fiction fan, I'm not bothered in the least with the alternate reality of political events in Watchmen. I find I don't really care that Nixon never made it through his 2nd term, let alone got the Constitution changed to grab a 3rd or 4th. I realize you said this was the "perhaps least important" part of your review, but sometimes it's fun to just have fun and leave the politics outside.

    I read the book and watched the movie and it never once occurred to me to assign a real-life role to the Comedian such as "Conservative." There was, after all, a naked, blue God in the book and why suspend disbelief for one character and not all? In fact, I didn't see anything Conservative about the Comedian in the book or in the movie.

  14. Maybe I missed something but the plot seemed to have a few holes in it that I haven't read mention of. First the Americans and the Soviets arrive at a peace deal within minutes of millions of people being killed around the world? Isn't that a bit of a stretch. The Soviets just took the American's word that it was all the work of the guy my wife refers to as the purple, glowing penis guy? It made absolutely no sense. Second and related, New York is destroyed, we see Silk whatever standing on the side of a canyon which is what is left of New York, and then at the end Owl guy and silk girl are back in New York, like nothing had happened. Am I missing some flash back, flash forward, flash sideways, flash to a parallel dimesion or something?

  15. Interesting that you discussed Watchmen as anti-Reagan without even a passing reference to Moore's Anti-Thatcher classic V for Vendetta. I have enjoyed his ability to create interesting works of fiction dating back to when he resurrected Swamp Thing. But I would never rely on his prognostication powers.

    Oh, and for more comments from Alan himself,

  16. The Soviets didn't take anyone's word for anything. Kissinger getting off the phone and telling Nixon that the energy signatures from the blasts matched Dr. Manhattan suggests that the Soviets would also be able to tell that it was Dr. Manhattan and not US nukes.

    The quick peace is based on the idea that Dr. Manhattan will come back and nuke some more cities if they don't make peace real fast. Fear of losing more cities is a pretty good motivator for peace.

    Keep in mind that Ozymandias' grand plan doesn't necessarily work forever -- we're only shown it working for the first weeks after the destruction (it's not clear exactly how much later the scene with Laurie, Dan, and Sally is but it can't be that long).

  17. The comment attributed to Alexandra DuPont was actually a quote from an acquaintance owho saw the movie with her named only as "V. Q."

  18. The Comedian, which many say is based on G. Gordon Liddy, isn't much a superhero, he's basically an assasin, he's seen on the Grassy
    Knoll. Of course, left unanswered is why don't the Russians surrender, after Dr. Manhattan is used in Vietnam, why would they move on
    Afghanistan at all; in that context. Why would Dr. Manhattan attack New York at all; that would
    seem out of character.

  19. I think logically we are fed a giant lemon with the film's resolution, but ideologically, it does not take the hard line you are suggesting.

    Yes, the leftist wins in the end, but who in their right mind is supposed to be happy about it? Authorial or directorial intent aside, Rorshach is the hero of the story for 90% of the audience, in my experience.

  20. I found particularly amusing that the "smartest man in the world" kept his secrets password-protected. And then kept his password within the visual field of someone who might try to guess it. Someone who wasn't such a wizard of smart might tape the password to the underside of the keyboard.

  21. Rorschach was an especially well developed as a character; i hope the actor that played his role is nominated for some kind of an award (when that season comes around again)

  22. At the risk of disagreeing with Snyder and Moore (always risky telling the guys who wrote the book/made the movie that they're wrong about what it says), I disagree:

  23. Check out this cartoon about the Watchmen movie!
    *CARTOON*Feel free to post on your blog or "tweet"