Watching the Watchmen

watchmen-posterI’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


7 responses to “Watching the Watchmen

  1. I saw this tonight and enjoyed it way more than I thought I would (maybe low expectations help?). I thought its incredible loyalty to the novel was great, and I even think I may enjoy this ending more. That being said, I’m not a huge comic book person – but I liked it.

  2. I’ve never really had so much difficulty pinning down how I feel about a movie as I have with this one. I’ll repost some thoughts I’ve placed elsewhere:

    “My biggest complaint isn’t that things were changed – In most cases this seems to have been done to bring it alive on screen or format a complex source material into the constraints of the medium- but that many of the smaller changes done seem to be done for odd reasons.

    The squid/Dr Manhattan changed ending bothers me a little, not so much because the squid was great – even Alan Moore admitted its a mcguffin – but because ultimately I think it changes what the ending means philosophically. In the book humanity unites to defeat a perceived common foe not to appease an angered god to prevent further “Sodom and Gommorah”-like attacks. But really this is a matter of nuance and really isn’t that big of an issue.

    Similarly the amped up action even for the characters who, unlike DR. Manhattan, do not have superpowers is a conceit that I’m willing to forgive to get asses in theater seats. Do I think It’d be a better film with out the tacked on action? Yes. Would it be successful in this medium without it? Probably not.

    So really what bothers me are the changes that seem to be done for no reason. Normally in a film adaptation these kind of smaller changes would really pass unmentioned but in a film where obvious effort was expended to stick to the source these changes seem glaring.

    For example Rorschach’s “origin” with the dogs and their owner. Why was it necessary to have Rorschach kill the man with a cleaver (and brutally so) as opposed to letting him burn? Also why change the scene at the jail with the crime boss and the two thugs? Were these changes made to amp up the gore? If so why is this necessary? Do we need torture porn in modern R-rated Films?

    Overall I think I fall into the group that accepts that this is about as good a Watchman film as our current film industry is like to deliver. At the end of the day the amount of discussion and debate the film has caused I think in many ways mirrors the impact of the source material, although for different reasons. Its hard to see that as a negative.”

  3. I’m still struggling to disentangle what I think and feel about this movie from what everyone else says about it, but I would like to make two comments.

    The first is that it seems to me that your complaint about the use of All Along The Watchtower is a bit unfair. It’s an integral part of the concluding chapters of the novel, (I’ve even wondered if Moore included Bubastis largely to tie in with the lyrics) and given how faithful to the novel the movie is, then I’m not sure Snyder had anywhere else to go.

    Secondly, it looks like the Black Freighter pirate animation will be released soon, and then there may be a rerelease of the movie with the Pirate material integrated. The intention for the DVD release seems to be to include the Pirate stuff, supporting documentation, image archive, chunks of Under The Hood, etc.

    Now that could be something much more effective as a way of turning the graphic novel into a movie – make it into a full multi-media event in the same way that the original Watchmen was so much more than just a comic. In fact it might be the first DVD release to have all that stuff and it actually be worthwhile checking it all out.

    Although if this is the case, then the publicity for the movie should have put it in this broader context.

    And maybe I’m just hoping too much…

  4. It’s one thing to cagily reference a few verse lyrics to a song at the end of a chapter; it’s another to blast the song over top of a crane-shot penultimate pre-climax scene. They play fundamentally differently. All I know is that the song choices took me out of the film instead of keeping me within it, and that’s a problem regardless of what *may* have been noble intent by the director.

  5. As I was saying before, I’m happy Snyder went with such a literal translation. It’s true that we could have wound up with some transcendent adaptation that took Moore’s themes and changed them to tell a relevant and shocking new movie, but more likely, we would have wound up with a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen style fiasco. Did you see the original script for Watchmen that ended with Nite Owl, Silk Spectre and Rorschach being teleported to our universe? “Hallelujah” doesn’t seem quite so bad in comparison. I’m happy with the movie being a very competent companion piece to the book.

    I’m agreeing with James in that it was the pointless changes that bothered me most. Sure, it doesn’t matter that the failed team was called Watchmen instead of Crimebusters – but what does it add? All that does is make Ozymandias look even stupider. Not only is he the one naively trying to start a new group, but he’s given it a name even more shortsightedly ironic than his own.

    I was originally really pissed off at Anthony Lane for his frustrating review, but I’ve had to concede a few points. He said that he wasn’t certain watching the movie whether it was all the costumed heroes or just Manhattan who had superpowers, and if you weren’t really into the story and didn’t know the comic, I can see how that could actually be confusing. Snyder’s characters are impossibly strong and fast, and Ozymandias catching a bullet is treated like no big deal – a ruse instead of an amazing feat of strength. But yeah, I guess it is kind of a necessity to make the action better. I will admit to geeky thrill watching Rorschach take on a bunch of riot cops instead of immediately snapping his ankle.

    I’ll never forgive Lane for his casual and disdainful spoilers, though.

  6. Calum, I think you’re doing a disservice to Alan Moore’s work when you say “yeah it had it’s flaws, but it could be worse.”

    Yes it could have been worse, but it could have been better.

    The things that Ryan has pointed out are all excellent reasons why the movie was good but not great, and they’re reasons that pop up outside the printed medium. The sometimes irritating soundtrack, the amped up violence (James March was right on with his “Would it be successful in this medium without it?” comment), it’s actors and it’s well…


    … are all factors which will make The Watchmen a footnote in cinematic history. The book that regularly makes the top 3 of “greatest graphic novels ever” won’t even crack the top 5 of superhero movies, and that’s saying something.

    – Eddie

    (p.s. for the record: Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, Superman, Unbreakable, and The Incredibles were all better movies. I would even put Iron Man (not particularly contraversial) and Ang Lee’s The Hulk (very contraversial) because my mutant superpower is blowing your mind up.)

  7. Just to show how I still can’t settle my feelings for this film even a week after seeing it, heres another post from elsewhere (and facebook aside I stay out of commenting for the most part so this obviously struck some kind of weird chord)

    “I find all of the articles and comments referencing 300 rather funny. The central conceit being that somehow Watchmen and 300 were similar books and thus would be similar movies with similar fan bases, audiences and draws.

    This is nonsense.

    300 is the kind of book that Hollywood should be adapting, its basically an awesome storyboard with the scripting already inserted. 300 is not a deep character piece using super-heroes to meditate on the duality of mankind staring into the abyss, its about 300 tough dudes kicking some ass.

    Its not difficult to judge which one will be a huge draw. 300 and Sin City are very cinematic in book form, and for the most part exist as a whole on the plot level without delving into the philosophical places that Hollywood films abhor (outside of award season).

    Watchmen, however, does not. As has been stated many times in the past few weeks the plot is really secondary to what it evokes in the characters and in the reader itself. This is something that is difficult to translate via celluloid– especially to an audience who (fans aside) are expecting “slow-motion superhero action” .

    For me I guess that means I still am unsure of how I feel about this movie, so as said before me, I guess I’ll wait for the directors cut.”

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