Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009)


So it seems that Zack Snyder has found the precise formula for creating the perfect, seamless blend of cliché AND pretentiousness: a sex scene aboard a giant mechanical owl set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  When the most faux-serious (in other word, most overused) song you can think of is combined with two lousy actors playing two exceedingly good-looking superheroes making the goofiest and least convincing O-faces imaginable, and the whole thing just leads to an entire theater full of people cracking up, that’s a pretty good indicator that that scene was just plain ill-conceived.

But otherwise, fuck me sideways, “Watchmen” was alright.  I came in expecting to hate this adaptation of the supposedly unadaptable graphic novel about an alternate 1985, where costumed heroes were once plentiful but now outlawed, a blue, god-like superman led the U.S. to victory in Vietnam, Tricky Dick Nixon is serving his 5th term, and the Russkies have their nukes readied and aimed (though The McLaughlin Group is as much a mainstay in this alternate reality as it is in our own 😛 ), expecting to see every reason why Alan Moore would disown it, but 2 and 3/4 hours later (a 2 and 3/4 hours that isn’t nearly enough to cover the epic scope of the comic), I came out satisfied.  Not floored or anything, but satisfied.  Obviously I could’ve done without Zack Snyder’s typical slow-mo ‘look at me, I’m a Gen-X Sam Peckinpah!’ bullshit and other hyperstylized “300” leftovers (Silk Spectre and Nite Owl have been out of the superhero game for a long time now, but all of a sudden they can take on a group of hardened criminals during a prison riot and dispatch of them all flashy and special effectsy-like like they’re Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at the flip of a switch?  Really? c’mon…), and the soundtrack, a collection of GREAT songs, nevertheless felt more superfluous than anything – just throwing in easily-recognizable songs for the sake of throwing in easily-recognizable songs a la “Forrest Gump” (Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” is one of my all-time favorite songs and one I could listen to over and over again, but to use it out of the blue for of all things The Comedian’s funeral?  Just feels weird.  And I’ve already covered Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” 😛 ).  As for the performances, Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl and the lovely (to say the least) Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre have no charisma and even less chemistry, are just there for show, as is Matthew Goode as Ozymandias (smartest man in the world?  I sure hope not…).  But Jeffrey Dean Morgan is cool in flashback as the doomed Comedian – a man who we see do some terrible, terrible things, but we still have a small kind of understanding of because he knows how shitty and hypocritical the world really is and acts accordingly.  Billy Crudup (or at least Billy Crudup’s voice, straight out of the Mastercard commercials, and CGI-ified body…and package 😕 ) brings just the right mix of total detachment and ever-so-slight child-like innocence to the metaphysical, deity-like Dr. Manhattan (though I didn’t exactly wanna have his babies or anything, like Roger Ebert did…), so that you sympathize with his plight of growing more and more emotionally detached from the human race that he once inhabited, but no more (a human race that now uses he and his awesome abilities as a potential weapon against the Soviets, like any other nuke – a far-cry from the mild-mannered physicist he once was before the ‘accident’), embodying one of the comic’s key conundrums on what it means to be human during his self-imposed exile on Mars (one of the best parts of the graphic novel, and done nearly as beautifully in the film).  But the real star, the showstopper, is Jackie Earle Haley as the paranoid, unhinged Rorshach.  Complete with ever-shifting inkblot mask, trenchcoat and hat, and the same voice that Christian Bale used for his Batman in “The Dark Knight” with near-disastrous results, Haley as Rorshach is a monotone, emotionless near-psychopath with only the slightest hint of an understanding of the difference between right and wrong – brutally efficient in acts of violence and brutally cynical in his Travis Bickle-like observations of the world around him, he’s both our frighteningly subjective eyes and ears and narrator to the story, and, oddly enough, its comic relief.  With a movie and story as bizarre, nearly nonsensical, and over-the-top as “Watchmen”, a performance as over-the-top as Jackie Earle Haley’s fits right in.

So, does “Watchmen” the movie live up to the holiest of holies for comic book geeks, “Watchmen” the graphic novel?  Hell no.  The comic is hailed as a landmark for a reason – a sprawling soap opera of so-called superheroes who (other than Dr. Manhattan) are really just neurotic schlubs in goofy costumes trying to hide their insecurities about themselves and the hopelessly shitty world around them.  It had that semi-realism slant to it, but also some fascinating philosophical issues involving what gives one’s life meaning, what role, if any, love and compassion have in defining one’s purpose, the importance of the individual versus the importance of the masses, and just how far you can ethically go in securing peace and harmony – all lofty, headache-inducing stuff that belongs in a long and protracted medium that you can take as much time as you need to digest and consider – hey, whaddya know, a serialized graphic novel.  With a boatload of special effects, some cool and some arbitrary, and just 2 3/4 hours, the makers of “Watchmen” the film can only hope to scratch the surface of the graphic novel’s depth.  It’s as if Snyder felt obligated to copy panel after panel from the graphic novel perfectly to be as accurate an adaptation as possible (although, a key change is made in the film concerning the graphic novel’s big climax – a change which I’m sure will be controversial but I personally welcomed with open arms), but in copying images, the spirit behind those images gets a little lost in translation.  Who knows, maybe this would’ve worked better as a 5-part miniseries or something, just to let such an abundance of characters and material breathe a little, in terms of both the overarching themes as well as the plot structure that goes back-and-forth through time, from the 1940s to 1985 – handled perfectly in the graphic novel, but a little confusing, though still fascinating, in the film.  Still though, this is a great-looking movie with plenty a thrilling moment, and enough hints of depth and philosophical/psychological quandaries (chiefly involving Dr. Manhattan, Rorshach, and the real reason behind the nefarious plot to pick off ‘masks’ and endanger the world) to at least spur the uninitiated to seek out the graphic novel.  “Watchmen” the movie is some action-packed, slightly thought-provoking, good old-fashioned fun – a far-cry from its deeply provocative source material, and a bit of a mess, but an awfully pretty and rockin’ mess.


3 comments so far

  1. moogirl22 on

    I assume you have read the graphic novel. From the perspective of someone who hasn’t – it was just sex and violence. I didn’t get any of the undertones that are apparently in the novel, nor did I fully grasp the motivation behind the characters. Everything seemed underdeveloped and many of the technical choices were poor, particularly with the actors and the songs. And it seemed like too much time was spent on things that didn’t add anything to the plot (i.e. the Nite Owl/Silk Spectre II sex scene – seriously, it was hot, but you could have used that time making the film make sense). Hopefully I’ll understand the director’s cut better.

  2. Simon M. on

    or you could just read the graphic novel 😉

    i see what you’re saying, though. Other than Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Crudup the acting was a mess, and as with almost any other superhero/comic book movie any person on-screen who’s not a main character is completely devoid of individuality and is just there to be a potential victim, or one amongst many in a crowd begging to be saved from a fire or something. the sex scene was awful and silly (but actually handled pretty tastefully in the book), and in all honesty, you can’t expect a 2 1/2+ hour movie adaptation to be able to cover all the little nuances of a long and detailed piece of published fiction. it’d just be impossible, so the most you could’ve hoped for was a pretty and exciting, if somewhat empty movie, which this ended up being.

  3. moogirl22 on

    Haha, yes, I’ve been planning to read the novel for a while now. Should probably get on that.

    But I honestly felt that there were too many characters, with too many backstories, and it just kinda tried to achieve too much. You kept being dragged out of the moment and away from the central plot of the film and it felt a bit all over the place. It tried to achieve too much. I know that people say that it was “ambitious” and give it extra marks for trying, but in the end it didn’t work and it didn’t flow. There is a big difference between something being a good adaptation and something being a good representation of the core material. It tried to be both and flopped.

    But I guess you’re right – with something that complex and long to begin with, it couldn’t really have achieved everything it wanted to.

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