I’ve been fighting the flu for the past two months so missed opening weekend. Today I managed to squeeze in a very quiet matinee of the most talked about comic book movie in ages and… I find it strangely difficult to come up with anything to say about it.
But I’ll try…
I should explain that this movie is meant for comic book fans. I mean that in the deepest way possible. If you are not an avid comic book reader you may still enjoy the movie, but if you are a comic book fan this is a full date that picks you up at your door, pays for dinner and brings you home for a night cap. Watchmen really wants to please comic book fans. As such, I should explain where I’m coming from as a fan of the medium.
My initial exposure to super heroes is pretty common to most men in my general age group, Super Friends. I leafed through a few comics in my days but if not for my brother I never would have embraced comic books as much as I have. See, my brother has good taste. I snuck into his room and read two key comics books that got me hooked immediately. X-Men #142 by Chris Claremont and John Byrne and Daredevil #179 by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson. It’s pure coincidence that these comic books are key examples of how the modern comic had matured at the time. These comics were so sophisticated and full of intelligent craft that my eyes were opened. They’ve been fixated on the comic page ever since.
In 1986, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons collaborated on Watchmen which is regarded as the definitive post-modern statement on comic book super heroes. I’ve stated recently that since this factor is the strongest theme in the work that it is important that the movie based on the Watchmen be released now at a time when super hero films are a major success at the box office. Whereas the comic book version of Watchmen deconstructed the super hero psychosis, the motion picture does the same thing for the celluloid cousin.
However… it’s not all wine and roses.
The book itself, prepare to throw tomatoes, has flaws. The characters are by and large stiff and uninteresting. The poetic license of the comic book is both forced and sometimes cringe-worthy. I mean, this is a comic which concludes it’s first issue with the statement that it’s difficult to laugh because ‘the Comedian is dead.’ Taking this in 23 page doses or however much you can read in one sitting is one thing… but being forced to read the entire 12 issue collection in one sitting while your room mate makes a mix tape is a bit much to ask. That is by and large what watching this movie feels like.
Condensing the plot of a massive work like the Watchmen into a single movie is daunting task, no matter how long you end up making the final product. Asking your viewers to sit through it is even more difficult. Combine this with the problematic elements I have already laid out (this is a movie based on a 12 part post-modern deconstructionist comic book) and you’ve got trouble. This would frankly not be so much of a concern if the movie were helmed by a more experienced director or at least one that was interested in making a statement of his own rather than echoing the intentions of Alan Moore.
If you walk into any comic book shop, almost anyone present would happy to point out any number of X-Men, Spider-Man or Superman comic books that would make for better movies than what we have seen. They would insist that the comic could be used as shooting script and adapted directly. This is almost precisely what was done with the Watchmen and the end result is both stunning and a big ‘so what?’ Honestly, if I wanted to read the Alan Moore comic, I’d rather just read the Alan Moore comic. Making a movie that so faithfully and stringently adapts the source material line for line makes me wonder why the film makers even bothered. Director Zack Snyder has gone on record as saying that he brought the Absolute Watchmen comic with him to the set every day and if in the end what he has done is nothing more than create an advertisement for the comic he would be happy. Well… job well done.
But does this make for an enjoyable movie? It certainly has its strengths.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian is astounding. His character is a touch stone of sorts that connects several plot threads while also serving as a statement on both American culture and the super hero phenomenon, so it’s a lucky thing. The Comedian exemplifies the justified violence of the modern super hero in such starkness that it’s startling. As a culture, we trust our heroes to be just and right so seeing one gladly attack protesters with a riot shotgun makes us retract in disgust. But ‘we’ have put him in this position. By and large, fictional heroes and protectors are called upon to do the very things that we cannot do in order to maintain the status quot. After all, if they are punching someone in the jaw, that must be a ‘bad guy.’ But who decides who the bad guys are? And who stops our protectors if they are being manipulated by authorities that do not have our greater good in mind? The Comedian plays out the story of the hero turned bad in all of its gory detail in the comic and the screen to great effect.
Rorschach is played to perfection by Jackie Earle Haley. This is also fortunate as he is the best character in the whole movie/comic. Rorshach is a statement on the two-fisted detective/vigilante that we have seen several times in comics. However, this version of the archetype has gone over the edge after witnessing just how evil human beings really are. Rorshach’s journal audibly paints the character as a deranged lost soul who is hiding from the ugliness that he sees all around him behind his mask, his ‘true face.’ The fact that the movie gets this character right alone is worth the price of admission. A relative unknown in film, Haley is well on the way to stardom thanks to this film as it provided him with numerous opportunities to flex his acting muscles.
The comic is full of several key moments that the movie also gets right, including the Dr Manhattan on Mars sequence, a story that plays out like a how-to instruction in sequential art in the source material. The deeply movie koan on cause and effect that plays out through Billy Crudup’s delivery is both fascinating and heartbreaking in its beauty. Seeing time as a thread of events made by personal experience is one thing, pulling that thread apart and analyzing the moving parts is just maddening. Zack Snyder may be a young filmmaker but he deserves full props for pulling off the most difficult sequence in the entire work.
So it may sound like I am totally in love with the movie, right? Well… no. There are problems, major problems, with the Watchmen movie.
The film may embrace fans of the comic (and seeing as how Watchmen is one of the most widely read comic books ever that’s not a big problem) but it does everything short of kicking the uninitiated in the shins. Alienating and vague, the plot of the movie is never really clear and unless the audience is prepared to dive into an alternate reality, it’s also hard to connect to the world it takes place in. While it would be a mistake to set the movie in contemporary America, I can almost sympathize with that idea.
Another problem is the high level of violence. I don’t really have a problem with violence if it furthers the plot, but that is not always the case here. Action sequences are graphic (which I am fine with as it makes the violence jarring and upsetting which it should be) but as the film drags on they become glorified sequences of acrobatics.
Also, whereas the characters of the Comedian, Rorschach, Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan are carefully constructed statements on the super hero psyche, both Silk Spectre and Nite Owl come across as uninteresting in comparison. True, there are moments of inspired genius for these characters. In particular, the absurdity of wearing costumes to feel sane combined with the brutal fight in the alley says volumes about the comic book super hero. Unfortunately this is all done away with in the hilarious sex scene in the owl ship. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude but everything has its place and their extended love making scene was just excessive.
Additionally, the film had one of the worst soundtracks in recent memory. It started off tastefully with Dylan and devolved to K.C. and the Sunshine Band. I mean, honestly. Do I need to hear a song from a particular time period to know what decade it a scene is set in? It’s as idiotic as showing the Eiffel Tower to make sure I know that the action is taking place in France. I wouldn’t go on about this so much if it didn’t almost single-handedly ruin the experience of the film.
So is the Watchmen a good comic book adaptation? Sure. But is it a good movie? No, not really. In fact, I often found myself wondering why it was made at all, which may be what Alan Moore was upset about all along.
See, I knew if I tried hard enough I’d manage to say something about the movie.