Starring: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino
Directed By: Zack Snyder
The first thing I want to know about a review of the new Watchmen movie is whether or not the reviewer has read the original graphic novel on which it is based. I need to know if the reviewer is basing their opinion solely on how it works as a film, or if the reviewer is comparing the film to the comic (consciously or subconsciously). In that spirit, I’ll fill you in on my level of experience when it comes to Watchmen: I’ve read the original series created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons a few times, including a re-reading a couple of days before seeing the film. When it comes to the comic, I have no original opinions to share: basically, I agree with most everyone that it represents the very best the medium has to offer, and reading it for the first time well over a decade ago changed both what I came to expect from comics and how I read them.
That said, I’m no über-fanboy who thinks the original text is sacrosanct and is insulted on behalf of Alan Moore by the very thought of a Hollywood adaptation of his work (Moore long ago decided he wants no part of adaptations of his work, deciding the medium incompatible with comics after being burned with a couple of bad adaptations of previous work). I enjoyed the 2005 film adaptation of V for Vendetta, and felt that if properly respected, there’s no reason why a good Watchmen film couldn’t be made. Sure, things would be lost in translation, as the comic was as much about the medium of superhero comics as it was about these particular superheros, but that’s true any time you adapt a story from one medium to another. I was prepared to allow for changes as long as the main ideas and themes of the story remained intact. Honestly, despite how much is written about how unforgiving fanboys are over the minutiae of their worlds, I think the whole thing is either exaggerated, or representative of only a small minority of comic book fans. As long as filmmakers treat the characters and stories with respect, most comic book fans have no problem with changes like Spider-Man having organic webshooters or Storm being an original member of the X-Men.
Still, despite having some anticipation for this film, I can’t say that I’ve been looking forward to it for years. I was fine with the comic just being a comic, and haven’t exactly been waiting for Hollywood to come along and validate its existence. I’m a huge film fan, but I don’t think it’s the superior medium. I don’t need my personal favourites to become fodder for the general public, so if a Watchmen movie was never made, I wouldn’t think it a great loss.
Going in, I’d say my outlook toward the film was cautiously optimistic. I purposely kept my expectation levels in check (as much as possible), but made sure to enjoy the preceding hype for what it was. Whether or not the film ended up being any good, it was fun to see so many online discussions about the book and characters pop up, or experience the fun little pieces of viral marketing that boded well for the film’s attempts to recreate the iconic imagery from the book, or even just to take in a few Watchmen related spoofs. Sure, Zack Snyder wasn’t my first choice of director for a potential Watchmen film (or second choice, or a choice I would’ve made at all), but I had to give him credit for fighting the battles to get it made, set it in the 80s, and other little touches that showed that he respected the work (after all, I may not have liked 300, but I did feel that it was a pretty exacting adaptation… of a pretty dumb comic).
So how did Snyder do? To start with the good news, his at-times slavish devotion to the source material led to scenes that leapt off the page and on to the screen, be it Dr. Manhattan’s origin or Rorschach attempting to avoid capture. It was thrilling to see these iconic images spring to life in two-dimensions on a 50-foot IMAX screen, and enough to warm the cockles of even the most cynical fanboy’s heart. Snyder is an adept visualist, an ability put to good use in the film’s bravura title sequence, where he takes iconic moments in America’s history, and inserts the characters of this world, adeptly establishing the world and history of Watchmen in a creative way that is not borrowed from the book.
In terms of the cast, there are some good performances on display, with Jackie Earle Haley standing out in particular as the grim Rorschach. He’s the highlight of the film, and can be placed in the pantheon of perfectly cast roles in comic book movies, and is probably the best reason to go see the film. Patrick Wilson is solid as the film’s emotional centre, bringing a humanity to the film that is largely missing from its two stand-out characters in Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan. Billy Crudup bring the calm, distant attitude of Dr. Manhattan to life, while Jeffrey Dean Morgan brings charisma to the morally reprehensible Comedian.
On the flip side, Malin Akerman and Matthew Goode are pretty bad as Silk Spectre II and Ozymandias respectively. Neither can overcome the Alan Moore purple prose that populates David Hayter and Alex Tse‘s screenplay, giving flat line readings that fail to imbue either character with any depth. Unless she’s in her tight latex costume (or immediately out of it), Akerman barely registers at all, which is a major disservice to one of the key emotional journeys of the book. Worse is Goode’s one-note performance that telegraphs the film’s ending when greater ambiguity was called for. And as much as it pains me to say it, Carla Gugino is hit and miss as the original Silk Spectre, although a lot of the misses can be blamed either on Akerman, whom she shares many scenes with, or the make-up department, whose attempted aging of Gugino was really poorly done, particularly when viewed on a 50-foot screen.
Which brings us to the bad news. It’d be unfair to pin all the flaws of the film on Akerman and Goode, as their struggles would’ve easily been overshadowed in a better film. As much credit as Snyder gets for having the stones to finally get a Watchmen movie made, it still doesn’t mean he was the right choice for the job. He’s an adrenalin junkie action director, which works great when he sticks to speeding up zombies or greasing up Spartans to fight in front of green screens, but not as well when telling one of the most dense and complicated stories in the history of comicdom. When not assaulting the audience with an overbearing score and soundtrack, Snyder ups the levels of violence that were already fairly significant in the book, and needlessly extends fight scenes in a film that was already stretched to its limits with a 2 hour and 43 minute running time. While making sure that he got the right shots and moments from the series, Snyder neglected to get the right tone. Too often the heroes of the film seem bad ass, when they should seem disturbed and pathetic.
In many ways, Snyder is guilty of the same crimes the majority of the comic book community committed following the release of the 12 issue Watchmen mini-series from 1986-87 (along with the 1986 release of Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns). Instead of trying to tell stories of greater sophistication and depth, the comics world decided that the lessons of Watchmen and DKR were to create darker characters and inject more “mature” themes into the world of superheroes.
But the biggest problem with Watchmen the movie is the same problem that infects most film adaptations of longer books: in order to get all the story into an acceptable running time (even one this long), the stories tend to be reduced to merely plot. In this way, Snyder is no different than prestige picture directors adapting literary classics. The film feels like a collection of scenes and plot developments, mashed into one another without the necessary time to develop its characters or invest us in the developments. To squeeze in the dense plotting of the book, the flavour is left out. Scenes that needed a few more minutes to breathe aren’t given the time to do so, and threads that connect one development to another are sometimes left out. This is what kept me from truly embracing the film, in that I never felt comfortable enough with it to embrace it. The other flaws, be it subpar acting from some of the leads, the oppressively loud score, or Snyder’s by now signature slo-mo action scenes would’ve been mere annoyances if the tone of the film was properly established.
The plan is to release a director’s cut with another hour of footage, mixing in footage that will appear in the forthcoming Tales of the Black Freighter DVD release, presumably along with some of the connecting scenes that are absent in the theatrical release, so perhaps this issue will be addressed then. For now, all I can judge is the theatrical cut, which at times felt like there were “insert scene here” moments that took me out of the film. It’s not that Watchmen is a bad film, there was some truly thrilling moments and enough of the original work to be worthwhile. But when you’re adapting perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of a medium, merely “worthwhile” equates to “disappointing”. There’s enough right with this film that I look forward to watching the extended version on blu-ray when it comes out, but not enough that I have any desire to see the theatrical cut again.