I’m kind of glad that I wasn’t able to immediately put my Watchmen thoughts down. In that delay, I was not only able to let those thoughts congeal a bit, but I also decided to see the film a second time to see if my confused, conflicted take on the film was perhaps based on misguided expectations.
Somehow, a second viewing left me both infinitely more impressed with Zack Snyder’s take on Watchmen and slightly more discouraged by it as well. It’s beautiful, but I’m not sure it’s artful. It’s full of sound and fury but I’m not sure that it’s actually saying as much as it thinks it does. Its individual pieces are impeccably accomplished, and yet something about the whole feels almost wholly lacking.
So my initial impression remains: Snyder’s Watchmen is like a cover song, a different musician’s take on Alan Moore’s original rendition. And it’s actually a pretty good one one. It makes a few misguided interpretations, but it gets far more right than wrong and it’s certainly not disrespectful of its source material. A good number of the notes are all there, and they sound pretty good.
But they don’t sound the same. Something has been lost in translation, as if a large part of Watchmen’s soul fails to cross over into Snyder’s version. More troubling, Snyder’s devotion to the source material is so overwhelming that his film adds almost nothing to it. It’s faithfully redundant.
Watchmen’s biggest problem is that – like most cover songs – it makes no convincing argument as to why it needed to exist in the first place.
(Spoilers ahead, of course)
This reaction surprised me, because I’m not *that* guy. I’m not the guy who complains anytime that someone tries to turn “Book X” into a film, or attempts to remake “Classic Movie Y.” I believe that there is value in reinterpretation, whether that’s within the same medium or in a separate one. I like to see what different directors or creative teams do with the source material, and provided that is the objective of the project (and not just the money), I’m usually on-board.
And after seeing the film twice, I have no doubt that Snyder was totally, 100 per cent committed to doing the best Watchmen possible. And frankly, there’s a case to be made that he succeeded.
Okay…maybe not entirely. Some of the movie’s failings can be traced straight back to some pretty clear missteps made, and I’m not just talking about the soundtrack. I have issues with the film’s take on both Ozymandias and Laurie’s Silk Spectre, partly because their backstories are the most shortchanged in the movie’s script and partly because they’re poorly cast. Both feel younger than they should be, and Malin Akerman in particular coasts on her chemistry with Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl; the moment she’s forced to do anything more than flirt, she fails to stand up alongside her castmates.
Another thing that bothered me was the film’s action; in particular, its violence. Given that I’m not a horror movie fan anymore, I think Watchmen may be the most grotesquely violent movie I’ve seen since A History of Violence. In that film, director David Cronenberg used gore as a horrific aftermath of the movie’s adrenaline-filled fight scenes, pointing out the audience’s complicity in the process. Here, it feels like Snyder got himself a commitment for an ‘R’ rating from the studio and decided to have some fun with it. There’s no point other than to shock the viewer, and it’s never more distracting than in the back-ally brawl between Daniel and Laurie and the street thugs – do we really expect out-of-shape vigilantes to be breaking arms in half and using bodies as human shields?
But amongst these mistakes are so much that Snyder and his team get right. Watchmen is a complicated story that is difficult to get moving, but Snyder’s film is at its best in its early chapters when introducing its characters. That process is helped by some truly inspired work from the cast, with special attention to Jackie Earl Haley absolutely owning Rorschach and Billy Crudup’s perfectly disconnected take on Dr. Manhattan. The latter also gets the best flashback treatment; his origin story is arguably one of the most complicated on the page, but its soul shines through on screen. It’s every bit as heartbreaking as it’s supposed to be.
The undisputed highlight of the film, though, happens in the opening credits sequence, where Snyder manages to shove the entire history of costumed heroes into a few minutes with poise, grace and a real sense of energy. It’s unique because it’s a sequence that could never have worked on the page: it relies on its soundtrack, its slow-motion cinematography and its clever editing to tell all its little stories. It’s truly inspired filmmaking.
Unfortunately – and here’s where my problems start – the film’s inspiration starts to disappear after that point, only popping up in sporadic moments. I always thought that describing Snyder as the “visionary director of 300” on the film’s marketing materials was more than a bit cute; after seeing Watchmen, it’s downright ironic. This is Alan Moore’s Watchmen, through and through, just as Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was really just Richard Donner’s Superman. Snyder is slavishly devoted to the source material, and even the film’s changes – like the squid-less ending – feel like they’re only being made because they’re absolutely necessary.
So what’s wrong with that? Not much, you’d think. But part of the problem is that even though all the main plot points are there, that’s pretty much all that’s there. I didn’t expect much of the side-material of Watchmen to make the film, obviously, but I’m surprised how empty it felt without it. Once you strip away the aesthetic accompaniments – the people on the street, the excerpts from Under the Hood, the existential plight of Rorschach’s shrink – Watchmen is actually a fairly simple mystery story. Those acts of world creation are where some of the story’s darker edges live – like the superhero/fascism links – and there’s something hollow about attempting to make Watchmen without them, as if it’s in those moments and side-stories where the real story is found.
It’s also where the book gains its sense of urgency, and though Snyder certainly tries, he never can quite replicate the same tension. I’m not sure I buy just how close this world is to nuclear war, and the film’s decision to rely on a poorly-makeup’ed, almost comic Nixon is but one symptom of that problem. The other is that by removing all peripheral characters, the only take on the impending apocalypse we get is from our superheroes. And all they really do is worry about Jon; their perspective is skewed and distanced.
Nowhere does this lack of impending doom hurt the story more than it does at the end. Yes, in book form Watchmen is really all about putting the pieces in place for the final chapter, where its “heroes” are forced to come to terms with their untenable idealism and an unconscionable choice. And as accomplished as Snyder’s take on the book’s early chapters is, I found his version of the conclusion to be rushed and lacking. Without the doom – and with Snyder’s replacement disaster not leaving as much blood and carnage – the film doesn’t sell the moment. I remember reaching that chapter and being shocked by the cold realism with which its heroes come to support the horrific scheme. What happens in Synder’s Watchmen seems more cinematic, but it was never that cinematic a scene to begin with: it felt cold, analytical, literary.
And yet I don’t know what else he could have done, more or less. He has retold the plot of Watchmen with more-or-less slavish devotion to its most important moments. It feels uncompromised in a way that I don’t quite think I expected. If you had told me about Snyder’s choices ahead of time, it would have sounded like Alan Moore’s Watchmen on the big screen, like the Watchmen I thought I wanted to see.
But now, two times through, I’m not so sure. There’s almost a part of me that wishes Paul Greengrass had stuck with the project, or that another talented director had gotten a hold of one of the more reinvented scripts and turned it into something with a vision all its own. Aside from the opening credits, Watchmen feels like the page animated, but not the page brought to life. It goes through all the right motions but its replication robs it of a soul of its own.
So I find myself returning to the cover song. I see the singer leaving the stage as the lights go up. I hear the chatter in the crowd, about how it was cool how the singer played that song that we all loved, and played it the way we thought we wanted to hear it. And when we went back home, we all put on the original song on our stereos, rendering the evening’s previous performance faded, fleeting, forgotten.
Watch: Watchmen trailer