Watchmen is a curious beast, a big budget move that’s either the talkiest, most action-free action movie ever or the most absurdly pumped-up character-based drama ever. If you’re a firm believer in “adaptations must look exactly like their source,” it should be a revelation; if you’re of the mind they should reflect the concepts and ideas as much (or more) as the literal look, it might leave you a wee-bit wanting.
[Many spoilers after the break.]
“Visionary” director Zack Snyder sure thinks the Watchmen are superduper awesome and violent and badass, and maybe that’s what it took to get the movie made after many aborted starts. This is Watchmen for 14-year olds. Snyder makes what little action there is superduper awesome and violent and badass. It has bodies exploding in slow motion, superheroes snapping arms in half, arms being sawed off… America, fuck yeah!
Much of the violence is made to look cool and is played for comedy, with a particularly cheap gag involving an oil executive—yeah, stick it to those bastards! Is the Comedian shooting his pregnant Vietnamese squeeze really all that bad when Silk Spectre stabs gang members in the neck? Her gang member rampage with Nite Owl makes Rorschach’s acts later almost quaint in comparison.
It’s all very R-rated, but Watchmen the movie strikes me as “adult” in the same way M-rated videogames are frequently “adult.” The comic shows its characters as frail and vulnerable and ultimately impotent adults; the movie shows them as badass ass-kickers who have slow-motion, soft-focus sex, but also have occasional breakdowns between beatdowns.
Snyder mimics the look of the comic down to the individual frame. It probably saved a fortune in storyboarding and made fans of the comic cry tears of joy during its two-year marketing campaign. Those still images! Right from the page! Simultaneous, spontaneous nerdgasm! But this hardly makes him a visionary. The dude’s made a stylish remake and two slavish photocopies; wouldn’t a true visionary put their own stamp on them in some way, or at least they would put their own imprint—their own vision—to or on them.
(Which ironically, would probably make them lesser works in the eyes of those who hold the originals sacrosanct, but would possibly make for more interesting movies. Imagine Darren Aronofsky or Joel and Ethan Coen or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Watchmen. All would be weirder, or maybe not. Who knows? But who wouldn’t want to see them?)
Snyder’s ability to perfectly mimic the look of the book doesn’t extend much to meaning, because his stylish action and fetishism of violence shows that while he may have read the comic, he didn’t really get it… or at least he got it on the level that a 14-year old would get it.
Or maybe he did get it properly. The comic walked a fine line between its adult human themes and the kind of cheap nihilism that is very 14-years old, where all problems are black and white and only solvable by violent acts committed by people in costumes. It’s this adolescent misanthropy that generally gets in the way of my enjoyment of comics. (That and a general inability to present reasonable interpersonal relationships.)
Along these lines, the character of Rorschach is the comic’s most interesting and challenging one. I’m not sure Alan Moore was able to keep the audience from loving him, and I’m assuming that wasn’t his intent. (At least I hope not.) Rorschach is a bit like Hannibal Lecter, in that he’s so interesting that we’re willing to overlook the fact he’s a sociopath and end up cheering him on even when he’s doing horrific things.
On paper, he’s a cool dude, but also a misanthropic sociopath. In the movie, Jackie Earle Haley does a terrific job making him as horrific as possible, but we still end up cheering him on because he gets the best lines. The, “they’re not protecting me from you, they’re protecting you from me” line is terrific, but it comes across as a joke. (And his eventual death is cheapened significantly by an obvious and pointless sight gag.)
Another performance of note is Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian, who comes across more in the movie of not giving a shit about anything. But poor, poor Malin Ackerman. She’s terrible, with wooden line readings and empty, empty expressions. She has many of the movie’s most important and emotionally weighty scenes and is able to do nothing with them.
Most of those scenes also involve Billy Crudup, and I think he did a terrific job with Dr. Manhattan. I’ve always liked him as an actor, and his slightly feminine, or at least soft and slightly affectless, voice was a perfect match for a character with that much power. It’s too bad they used CGI for his face, because it was firmly in uncanny valley-ville and robbed the performance of some of its natural sadness.
My favorite portion of the comic was the story of his relationship with Janey Slater, which is the only portion of the comic that I connected with on a deep-down personal level. (This is largely due to being a big girl when it comes to stories about relationships.) Unfortunately, the movie sequencing—I can’t remember if it perfectly mirrored that of the comic—puts it at the end of a series of reminisces, and by that point I was suffering from serious past fatigue. Still, it remained the only personal moment that rang true.
The soundtrack didn’t help most of these moments, being both bombastic and ham-handed, frequently at the same time. For such a big movie, it has to set some sort of record for total “what?” moments. The choices range from painfully obvious (“The Times They Are a Changin’“… really, you’re that lazy?) to baffling (“99 Luftballons”) to “you aren’t serious?” (“Hallelujah”). I suppose this was expected, when you had a trailer that featured Muse’s incredibly not-subtle “Take a Bow” with a lyric saying “You will burn” right as fire exploded behind Silk Spectre. I was waiting for “Cold as Ice” to pop up when Nite Owl and Rorschach head off to Ozymandias’s lair. Too bad “Ice Ice Baby” was too late in the decade8.
While the ending controversial in geek circles, I think it’s a conceptual improvement even if it doesn’t hold up 100% to the kind of scrutiny we geeks are famous for. As with other parts of the movie, its power is undermined by choices made elsewhere. The movie wallows in the despair of the 1980s, or at least the most paranoid alternate version of the ‘80s that never really played out (and seems patently absurd with the perspective of history). Humanity is so fucked up that it gives us no reason to care about the millions that die so that there can be peace. What did anyone do to deserve it? According to the movie, the world is just full of crooks, gang members, hookers, murderers, and crazy people in tights. As Rorschach may say, it deserved to burn.