Watching the Watchmen

Okay. I’ve seen it. And for the benefit of those who haven’t seen it yet, or haven’t read the graphic novel, fear the spoilers…

The minute that Zack Snyder’s name was attached to Watchmen, I was concerned. Yes, he’d just scored a big hit with 300, but there’s a very big gap between Frank Miller action porn and one of the most well-regarded and genuinely complex comic books of all time. I wasn’t convinced. I’d already been somewhat disappointed when the fascinating idea of Paul Greengrass tackling the material fell by the wayside thanks to studio jitters. And now, it looked like the film was really going to get made, and yet I wasn’t certain that I actually wanted to watch Zach Snyder’s Watchmen. Yes, it’d be pretty, and yes it’d probably go out of its way to be faithful to the original, but for all the visual panache 300 complely failed to move me. But still, I told myself – whatever happens, it can’t be as horrendous as what they did to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen…

And it isn’t. We have the official winner of the “Least Worst Alan Moore Adaptation Ever” award, and a film which is challenging and admirable in the way that it does manage to get so many of the book’s difficult themes into a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster. It’s long, dialogue heavy and has a downbeat ending. It asks some pretty heavy duty questions of its audience, and features a selection of sequences which are genuinely arresting and thrilling cinema. What it doesn’t do is take the graphic novel and turn it into an amazing piece of cinema – it struggles to cram the unruly structure of the book into just over 2 and 1/2 hours, and what you essentially get is a digest version, something that frequently feels as reverant as the early Harry Potter movies in its desperation to get as much of the book’s world onscreen as possible. There are sections that are scarily exact – almost every single sequence of issue 2 is present, for example, but for every sequence that works brilliantly, there’s another that falls flat or doesn’t reach the emotional power the book does. In fact, emotional power is something the film largely lacks – it’s a film about the apocalypse that’s too chilly and too concerned with showing off splattery violence to actually make us care about what’s happening.

I think one of the biggest problems is that no matter how much Snyder amps up the violence (and make no mistake, he’s amped this up to absurd levels), Watchmen is the kind of grim, focussed storytelling that’s best enjoyed in small doses – most particularly, in the 12 chapters it originally appeared. Even in the graphic novel, you can take it at your own pace and soak up the detail – here, it’s all thrown at you in one two and a half hour burst, and the end result is a little chilly and numbing. The aspects that work are excellent – particularly Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach and Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan – but I really don’t think the “let’s be as faithful to the graphic novel as possible” route was the right way to go with a graphic novel that doesn’t have a strong through line, is very episodic and where the little details are just as important as the broad strokes. It’s the ‘because it was there’ school of cinema, when I can’t help feeling that a looser adaptation might actually have ended up more truly cinematic, especially when for the most part the sections that work are the ones that best capture the original (with the winner being the Dr. Manhattan on Mars sequence).

You get some really impressive stuff, and some amazing production design – and then you get some of the worst make-up I’ve seen in years on a Hollywood movie (I genuinely couldn’t believe it when Nixon turned up in the opening – I’d heard it was bad, but I didn’t realise it was that bad), and a sex scene scored to Leonard Cohen singing ‘Hallelujah’ that’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen in ages. The cast has some weak links – Matthew Goode is a little eccentric as Adrian Veidt, and Malin Akerman is totally forgettable as Laurie Jupiter – and there are plenty of points where the film tries to quickly capture a moment from the book and fails dismally (like the initial flashback to Rorshach’s childhood- in the book it’s genuinely upsetting, and here it’s a brief flash that’s ruined by an OTT delivery of “I should have had an ABORTION!” from the mother). In sticking so close to much of the original dialogue, it sometimes doesn’t make the transfer from page to screen a smooth one – there are plenty of places where Moore’s words don’t quite work or where the acting sinks it.

(As an aside – while the old age makeup is really bad, it’s not the only weak link in some of Snyder’s decisions. The choice to have the same people playing the roles at different points in the story is one I can understand, but you end up with several sequences that don’t quite work – especially the attack on Sally Jupiter by Eddie Blake. Now, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is extremely good in the film, but the one thing he never looks is any age other than he is – and while the sequence is an okay version of the one in the book, you don’t watch it and actually understand that these guys were supposed to be young when this happenned – early twenties at the very, very latest, and the sequence in the comic is extra disturbing because of Eddie Blake’s youth (and his slightly scary resemblance to Robin). Again, the age gap between Jon and Laurie gets glossed over, and I’m not sure it’s a creative decision that completely came off.)

The thing is, you end up with a film that’s stuck in a bizarre halfway house between being faithful and having its own vision. I’m not actually massively bothered by the changes to the ending – while the Squid would arguably have fitted better with Snyder’s OTT and stylised take on proceedings, it would have required a gigantic amount of setup to make it work, and this was a change that was actually originally made when the Greengrass version was being developed. (Although… there’s something about using Manhattan that doesn’t quite sit right – he’s still been America’s deterrent for so long, wouldn’t making him the enemy risk some kind of eventual payback against the USA, possibly sparking off Armageddon again?) The absence of the corpse-strewn streets is a post-911 change, and one which saps the ending of a lot of its impact (the scene in the book is genuinely horrifying), but the other changes to the end don’t work anywhere near as well, from Nite Owl’s overblown reaction to Rorshach’s death (which was so much more effective when it was just him and Manhattan, and nobody else even knew that it had happenned), to the desperate attempt to put a positive spin on Laurie and Dan’s decision to basically say to Adrian “Well, yes, we’re not going to derail world peace but you’re a VERY BAD MAN and we’re not friends anymore! We’re off to go back and be crimefighters!” You’ve also got other oddities – like the fact that while the environmental issues make a good excuse for Jon and Adrian’s project (and add some nice relevance), removing the technological advancements made by Doctor Manhattan in the original does mean that suddenly the Owlship feels like a rather convenient bit of superhero camp (Are we expected to believe Dan just quietly ran off and built himself a flying ship?) rather than part and parcel of the world that’s been set up.

Some people are going to love Watchmen, and some people aren’t. I didn’t love it – I’m not as attached to the materal as I was with V for Vendetta, which I seriously disliked, and this is probably the best adaptation of a difficult comic book that we were ever going to get… but ultimately, it feels rather adolescent, particularly in the way you can feel Snyder revelling in the splattery violence. He’s great at the action, and he captures certain sequences perfectly, but to actually tackle the original you needed a director who was good at everything, and Snyder simply isn’t that man. And while I can understand the need to amp up the style of the film, it takes away one of the most important things about the original – that aside from Manhattan, these people aren’t supermen. They don’t have abilities. They’re just people who decided to put on a mask and try and set the world to rights, and the story is there to show what a terrible, terrible job they make of it. Let’s not forget – Moore and Gibbons wanted to try and demolish superheroes in comics with this (and ironically made them even more popular than ever), and one of the strengths of the original is the fact that these are ordinary, believable people – not conveniently powered uber-fighters capable of punching holes in walls and spinning around the room like they’re in a Hong Kong action movie. It may be an 18 certificate over here, but so much of the film feels specifically aimed to make 12 year old boys go “Cool! Did you see his arms coming off, man?” and it did start turning me off after a while.

I’m not disappointed – mainly because my expectations weren’t that high, and were mostly met. Watchmen is exactly the film I expected from Zach Snyder, and in a few instances manages to exceed my expectations – but not enough to make the idea of checking out the upcoming even-longer-and-with-more-stuff-in-it Director’s Cut remotely appealing. I think for me, the biggest problem is simply that for all of Watchmen’s “Look, we’re doing a grown-up film about superheroes!” bravado, they were beaten to the punch by a much better and more consistent film. Now, The Dark Knight isn’t perfect – there are plenty of issues, from the non-existant romance to the occasional bursts of daftness and Christian Bale’s over-growly Batman voice (some of which I suspect was thanks to OTT post-production), but what TDK got (and what Watchmen mainly misses out on) is the sense of being a genuine tale of how a superhero would be in the real world. Plus, it actually feels like a film made for grown-ups (which even Batman Begins didn’t) – it owes plenty to Watchmen and its kind, but I can’t help feeling that it actually uses that legacy much better. And I came out of watching TDK feeling a lot more enthused and keen to watch it again than I did with Watchmen. Hey ho…

2 thoughts on “Watching the Watchmen

  1. I haven’t seen this movie yet, but know the book well enough so I don’t bother about teh spoilers. Did you know that your take on the film is almost exactly the same as Mark Kermode’s?

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    • Didn’t know that, but I’m not surprised. I’m also not surprised that while it’s been successful so far, it hasn’t been an absolute smash (some Hollywood bods were unfathomably expecting it to out-perform 300- something I would never have expected a miserabilist 2 1/2 hour superhero epic to do), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the box-office tails off very quickly. It’s a fascinating example of its kind, but it’s not a cinematic landmark by any stretch of the imagination.

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