I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watch(men)ing Me
I like comics. I'm a big fan of DC ComicsOne of the two biggest comic publishing companies in the world (and, depending on what big events are going on, the number one company), DC Comics is the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and just about every big superhero introduced in the 1930s and 1940s.. I'm gone through and tried to read the various seminal works from the publisher, picking up this big crossover, that Elseworlds tale, these few volumes of Sandman over here. But, with all of that and understanding the comic publisher, it's characters, the the various eras of comics the creative teams have worked in, I have to admit, deep down, the original Watchmen doesn't do it for me. It's a fine comic, and I get why people could like it, I just don't.
This does give me a different perspective from a lot of comic book fans because I'm not a staunch defender of the original title. Comics are adapted all the time so I don't feel like it's such a big deal for a comic like this -- the comic of the 1980s if you ask some comic book nerds) -- to be adapted into a movie. Yes, I understand that Alan Moore hates all adaptations of his work on sheer principal and would never have signed off an a film like Zack Snyder's 2009 film. Hell, I realize that Moore and Dave Gibbons (his co-creator) were screwed out of the rights for Watchmen by shenanigans over at DC Comics and that, by rights, the comic should have gone back into their hands after ten years (so they could go make their own movie based on it instead). I know all this but I don't really care.
End of the day what makes a movie good or bad is how is stands on its own. It can be colored by the politics going on behind the scenes -- lord knows I won't go to see anything with Mel Gibson in it because he's an absolute fuckhead of the highest order on the planet -- but a work like 2009's Watchmen is going to be watched (pun intended) whatever our personal feelings on the matter might be. Hell, I knew more than my fair share of comic nerds that swore up and down Watchmen was a travesty because Moore didn't want it made and wasn't involved... and then they went and saw it opening weekend regardless. Nerds are fickle and often lack spines.
So how is Watchmen as a film? It's a very Zack Snyder experience, that's for sure. This is the guy that brought us the 2004 Dawn of the Dead as well as the Frank Miller adaptation 300 and, of course, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Watchmen slots very neatly into his oeuvre. For fans of Zack Snyder, Watchmen delivers the exact experience you'd expect and, sadly, for people that hate his movies, Watchmen delivers the exact experience you'd expect. The director is nothing if not consistent.
At first glance the film appears to be a faithful adaptation of the source material. We open with the death of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a government spook and one of the few superheros still allowed to operate in Nixon's administration (currently going through its fifth term). The Comedian was at home when an attacker broke in, brutally beating the man before throwing him out a window. One of Comedian's past colleagues, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), thinks this might be the start of a series of attacks on supers, specifically all of those who used to serve in the Watchmen team, but it isn't until another hero from the team is almost killed, Ozymandius (Matthew Goode), that Rorschach friend and former partner, Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) begins to suspect there might be some merit to the theory.
Poking around, Nite Owl finds out that Ozymandias is working with Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the most powerful man in the world (who was created in a government experiment gone horribly wrong). Manhattan has been working on a new kind of power sources that would provide free and unlimited energy for the world and Ozymandias wants to ensure it gets to everyone. Frankly, the world is in a bad place, on the brink of nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviets, and something has to be done to save all of us before it's too late. Nite Owl worries that the superhero killer is targeting the Watchmen to stop this device, or to provoke war, or something. But what's clear, as the team gets picked off one by one, is that someone has an agenda and they have to figure it out before it's too late and, just maybe, the world ends.
By its broad strokes Watchmen follows the plot of the comic as you might remember it. Very few liberties are taken (as least until the last act), with many scenes from the comic used as storyboards for the film. If you only have a passing familiarity with the original comics, having seen a few pages, this movie is going to look pretty authentic.
But while it might look authentic it is, honestly, far from a solid adaptation. For starters, while the film might have the right look it lacks the proper feel. The characters all feel so static, so emotionless, as if they took acting lessons from the Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. prequel trilogy (which is always fun to dunk on). The only character who feels like a real, authentic person is, ironically, Rorschach, who spends most of the movie with his face hidden by his mask and is, frankly, criminally insane. But that's what makes him brilliant: Jackie Earle Haley play him pitch-perfectly, as some dark and twisted version of BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. (or, more literally, if you know your comic lore, the Question), with the raging venom coming out in his words and actions. His performance is brilliant, the bright spot of the film.
The rest of the movie works, when it works, by sticking to the plot of the original comic and letting that 1986 story do the heavy lifting. Billy Crudup's Doctor Manhattan, for instance, is pretty flat -- because the character is flat in the comics, too, a man so far removed from humanity that he struggles to relate -- but in the one sequence (taken from the comics) where we get to delve into his past and see how he became Doctor Manhattan, the film comes alive. Moments like this in the movie are great but they're also fleeting.
More often we have moments of Zack Snyder trying to adapt the page to the screen while also throwing in his own directorial flourishes which totally muddy the staging and action. Snyder loves stylized action and hasn't met an action sequence he couldn't "improve" with slo-mo. In Watchmen, a film about retired, street-level heroes with real pain and deep emotional wounds, the film works at cross-purposes in ever action sequences. Instead of showing the cost, the stakes, the weight of what these heroes do, the action sequences revel in the carnage. There's a gleefulness to the hits, the broken bones, and spurts of blood, all highlighted in glorious slow motion, leaving the film fighting with itself.
Don't get me wrong, Snyder has an eye for action. In the right context his way of filming super-heroics can be fun -- the 300 is a dumb, backwards, xenophobic piece of celluloid garbage but damn it if it's pretty to watch -- but Watchmen is a story that doesn't benefit from his kind of direction or his eye for carnage and gore. The script has an important, deep story it's trying to grapple with but then Snyder barges in, gleeful saying, "whee, let's really smash these action figures together," and it all comes crumbling apart.
Of course, then the film goes and changes the ending of the film into something remarkably stupid. For those that haven't read it (and yes this is spoilers for a 35 year old comic and an ten-plus year old movie), the story ends with Ozymandias, the secret villain of the piece, trying to save the world by giving the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. a threat they fear even more than each other. In the comics this is a faked alien attack via a giant squid who unleashes a massive psychic attack on New York City, killing three million people -- the threat is that the countries of the world won't know when the next alien attack might be so they should set their differences aside to work together. In the movie, though, instead of a fake alien the attack is faked to look like it came from Dr. Manhattan, and he attacks all the countries of the world, killing tens of millions.
I won't lie, when I read the comics original I thought the giant squid was stupid. But, in a way, it makes sense -- if the threat is external, not coming from any one nation and, obviously, not from the U.S. (since they were the ones targeted first), then it could have the ability to make everyone actually work together. But by using Doctor Manhattan -- a superhero who is clearly an American agent, who has worked with the U.S. for decades -- and having him attack everyone, the whole threat of it is lost. Now it seems like the U.S. is behind the attack, that they only attacked themselves to say, "oh no, it wasn't us, pinkie swear." The Doctor, as scary as his powers could be (and they can be very scary, no doubt), undercuts the whole point of the attack. Maybe the squid would look dumb on screen but it at least makes more sense in the context of the story.
This big change only underscores the problems with the film. Snyder's Watchmen may be pretty, and it may even try to honor the original tale, but it's too loud and brash and dumb to understand what it's adapting. It's very much a Zack Snyder film, but no one involved seems to understand that this is the exact kind of big, dumb, stupid story that Watchmen (the comic) would dunk on. The original comic wanted to tell a serious story about superheroes, was one of the first to really tackle that idea, but the movie reduces it all down to a brash and senseless violent spree, throwing out all the parts that actually matter (including the ending) to make it more palatable to the viewing public.
Thankfully, despite coming out at the start of the Superhero Boom in cinema (one year after Iron Man), the film died a quiet death at the Box Office. Whatever sequel plans DC had for the film (and I'm sure they at least had an eye towards extending the franchise somehow) died soon after. And we never had to worry about a Watchmen continuation again.
Well, except for Before Watchman. Oh, and Doomsday Clock. Oh, and there's the HBO TV show, Watchmen, and... well, shit.