Perhaps no other film in recent memory has been as hotly debated and anticipated amongst such a small group of people. For a certain subset of the world, Watchmen is to many the Holy Grail of comics, the drawn art elevated to its absolute peak. Watchmen is so respected that it has even been listed as one of the greatest novels of all time, sharing the list with titles like Lolita and A Death in the Family. Journey outside the hallowed halls of geekdom (The comic shop) and you might be more likely to hear Who is The Watchman and what is this movie about? rather than Rorschach is a study in absolutes while Nite Owl II represents the emasculation of males in our culture. It is unnecessary for me to say, but I shall anyways – Watchmen is a tough film to sell.
Apparently it was also a tough film to make, languishing in varied production hells for anywhere between 10 and 20 years, depending who you ask. Why Watchmen, why now, why not? Zack Snyder has brought this troubled world of heroes – often lacking the super – to the big screen; according to producer Lawrence Gordon he was the only one able to do it, having proved himself marketable with the financially successful and R-Rated 300. Luckily for fans, Snyder scoffed at what the studios had flirted with before – modernizing the story or aiming for a PG-13 rating. No, with a raunchy sex scene, a disgusting New York City, and bloody language, this film is for Restricted audiences, true to the nature of the book. But enough dillying and dallying. Most assuredly you just want to know one of two things: Is it good and is it faithful? On both counts I say: This is the best Watchmen film anyone could have made. Now, that isn’t necessarily to say that it is great, but merely that it is the best it could be.
There is a staggeringly impossible conundrum that surrounds The Watchmen. First published as a 12 issue miniseries overflowing with related parallels and parables that enrich the story, but are somewhat extraneous, the work was previously described as unfilmable. And it is, if you think of it like a normal movie following a regular three-act structure. Watchmen could best be described as having a 36 act structure as well as 25 pages of addendum. The conundrum also includes this – if you stay too faithful to the story, you risk alienating 85% of the movie going population. If you stray too far, you risk pissing off the fans which is as equally deadly as the former. It is almost a lose-lose proposition, yet if one were to err it is better to err on the side of being faithful. The general audience is forgiving and can be deceived – fanboys are harsh and vengeful.
The greatest strength of Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation is also it’s most glaring weakness. Well, second most glaring weakness, but I’ll address the first momentarily. The greatest strength of this film is its faithfulness to the feel and tone of the original story. There are many bits of dialog translated from the page to the screen and hundreds of images are transposed from paper to celluloid. As has already been revealed, some minor additions to the story have modernized it while an omission from the source has been wisely altered to make the ending a tad more palatable though the true end result is exactly the same. How this same, most essential facet is also a weakness is directly related to the length and structure of the novel. This is not a 2 hour 35 minute movie, but rather it is 12 vignettes of shorter length. In keeping true to the comic and all that happens, Snyder had to forgo a traditional narrative and dance through time like Dr. Manhattan and jump from piece to piece, unable to totally interconnect the puzzle. This fault can not be blamed on Snyder, for surely fans would call for his head if he omitted large sections of the comic or replaced them with more obvious threads to keep the story flowing unobstructed. So to the casual moviegoer wondering what a “Watchman” is, this may prove distracting, difficult, or even boring at times. To the fan of the comic, it will stir the loins and bring about erection in 9 of 10 cases.
I mentioned a previous weakness which I’ll address now – Malin Ackerman. Truly a beautiful woman though lacking in the acting department, noticeably in this film where she is set against Billy Crudup and Patrick Wilson, too incredibly capable actors who come into this ready to kick ass. In terms of acting, the film is otherwise strong throughout. Jackie Earle Haley is Rorschach. To anyone who read the graphic novel, other than him being a few inches shorter, there is nothing more you could ask for in an actor adapting such an interesting character. Wilson does a good job with both his action sequences and more impressively humanizing many aspects of the story. Much credit must be given to Billy Crudup who nails Dr. Manhattan and actually makes me enjoy the character. In the novel, I disliked the blue nudist very much and found his mere existence in that world to be bothersome, now he is amongst my favorites. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is capable as The Comedian, though he is given (accurately to the book) little to do. Perhaps the most stunning performance, to me, comes from Matthew Goode who portrays Ozymandias/Adrien Viedt, a character I loathed on the page who came across as a Streisand wearing a fur lined cape and drinking from the cup of lame. However, Goode’s performance in Watchmen elevates Ozymandias to perhaps my favorite character in the entire movie, a tremendous feat I would have not thought possible.
With any Snyder movie, it is of course necessary to discuss style. Though perhaps it is quickly becoming unnecessary as with each movie, this slow-mo fanatic proves again and again that he has an eye for arresting visuals and exciting action sequences. The movie looks absolutely brilliant and the action sequences are vivid and enthralling. The score didn’t leave an impression on me, though the soundtrack was absolutely mind blowing, full of tracks culled from the relevant decades, decades which are humorously and creatively displayed on screen through various montages and screen sequences, fully establishing what life is like in this new world. The attention to detail in pulling the Watchmen world from the book and putting it on screen is bordering on insanity, though well worth the price of admission alone.
Having prattled for quite some time, I now come to the crux of the issue. I’m certain there are dozens of reviews flooding the world right now, many of them deriding the story and equal number letting their orgasm geek juices overflow the copy, pouring a plethora of words on the page in some misguided attempt to defend the film rather than review it. Watchmen is a difficult film to put a letter grade on. It is exactly what the comic adaptation should be which by definition makes it an odd movie for a somewhat limited audience. I find myself needing to answer the following questions to help you, the audience, determine whether or not you should invest $12 in this.
Who will like it? Fans of the graphic novel should be in heaven. Those with an appreciation of or at least a willingness to indulge in stories that have a non-traditional narrative. In this instance, one that occurs as a series of vignettes rather than a flowing cohesive stream.
Who won’t like it? Anyone expecting Spider-Man or a comic movie of that nature. People who like their stories cut and dry, fast and flowing. Watchmen is a walk through a world, not a story. Many comic books and their adaptations are based around single issues or single storylines, where as this monster is based on 12 issues that tell the past and the present and the analogue stories all at the exact same time.
Should I go see it? If you’re asking yourself this question and the “Who won’t like it?” hasn’t scared you off, then definitely. It is a movie worth seeing for its message and the creative way in which it was brought to the screen. There is a richness to the world that is excellent to see. Watchmen as a story is worthy of praise for how it changed comics, allowing them to become darker and more complex, and as such, some respect is owed to the movie which captures that same feeling. I can not stress enough the vignette style storytelling. If that will bother you, do not go see it. If you can accept it, much like in the way you might read 12 separate issues of the series, you’ll be prepared for it and enjoy it.
As the credits roll, one can simply say – this is Watchmen. Fans of the graphic novel rejoice, as it is a mostly faithful retelling that captures the spirit of the book. I must admit I enjoyed the novel, but didn’t love it, and ended up feeling mostly the same about the movie. As for the general audience, this film may not be for you as it is not a traditional super-hero movie, but with the success of The Dark Knight, a more serious take on the comic movie, I think now more than ever people can appreciate a film of this type. That said, if TDK was a little too dark or serious for you, Watchmen will bury you six feet underground – it’s a completely different level.
Overall, the movie is a joy to look at, features many great vignettes, embraces and brings to life all of the characters and the tone of the book, but feels bogged down at times. Despite its flaws, it is most successful and I wouldn’t want this film to be made any other way. I stand by the statement that this is the best a Watchmen film could ever hope to be. Be sure to check out my 10 and 5, coming soon!
All things Watchmen – Discuss! How has hype influenced your decisions about this movie?