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Non-Review Review: Watchmen (Theatrical Cut)

Probably the best we could have hoped for. Which is a guarded compliment at best. The movie has several gaping flaws, both as an adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal work and also as a film in its own right. And yet it contains more interesting ideas than most prestige dramas, and at least two standout performances. The film is widely inconsistent, sometimes feeling too long in its gratuitous acton or sex scenes, but too short on the actual big ideas that make it thought-provoking. Ultimately, what ties the film down is also what props it up, in a manner: the fact that it is based on one of the most important books of the last quarter century.

Just the three of us...

Just the three of us...

What if superheroes existed? What would they be like? Wouldn’t it suck and wouldn’t they have to be socially maladjusted psychopaths to enjoy beating up criminals and running through the gutters of society? And what – in the end – does Batman or Superman really accomplish? For all the boyhood fantasies of making a difference or making the world a better place, how does beating up thugs and other masked loons do that? Wouldn’t they all be pathetic and completely ineffective in the grand scheme of things?

When Moore posed these questions, they were fresh and needed to be asked of the comic book as a medium. Does it have any important stories to tell other than grown men in tights knocked eight bells out of each other? The wonderful thing is that now is precisely the time to ask that question about comic book movies. In adapting the book for the screen, Snyder would have done well to adjust his frame of reference. Instead of mocking the established and redundant conventions of the comic book, he should be mocking the comic book movie.

An unconventional jailbreak... Breaking into prison...

Admittedly he makes one or two attempts. The use of ridiculously over-the-top music to accompany subversive scenes helps unsettle the audience and the visual elements (the costumes of the modern heroes, for example – particularly Ozimandius) call to mind a whole rake of superhero films. The problem is that Snyder doesn’t seem to realise that he can’t mock those tropes while still engaging in any number of poe-faced and certified superhero genre conventions. Batman glide? Check. Ridiculous amounts of slow motion? Check. Brutal fight scenes? Check. He uses these particular tropes far too often to write them off as references, parody or homage. He’s playing it all straight – as if it were simply a real superhero movie.

The actions of Danny and Laurie repelling a gang in a dark alley aren’t meant to excite us, it’s meant to shock us. There’s no need for the introductory fight scene. I get the sense that these were inserted and hyped up in order to better ‘pace’ the story, and punctuate the drama, but these are the bits that drag.  It displays a stunning lack of faith in the material itself to generate thought and to engage.

Dude, not funny...

It’s a shame, because Snyder is a more-than-competent director. He speaks the visual language. Everything is well-placed and – like the book – nothing in the film is put in without thought. Alienated from humanity, Doctor Manhatten lives in the same apartment as David Bowie inhabited in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger hide underground in the war room from Dr. Strangelove. There are any number of carefully coded references which do suggest Snyder knows what he’s doing. Watch out for a unique take on the iconic V-Day kiss during the opening credits montage or the manner in which he is able to portray all humanity as one, speaking through a televised Richard Nixon address. The period touches are subtle, going as far down as Tyler Bates’ score, calling to mind a generic melodrama from the 1980s. People may be sickened when I say this, but Snyder’s touch does call to mind Moore’s integration of fictional constructs in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It’s just a shame that this loving and carefully considerate side of Zack Snyder must give way to the action director side of Zack Snyder, who hasn’t seen a slow motion clip in ten minutes – and apparently that’s nine minutes too long. It’s a shame that he’s known as such a kenetic director, as Snyder actually works very well with settings and environment as opposed to action.

I am going to get lynched for saying this, but Snyder did as right as he could to the source material. If Watchmen demanded an adaptation to a motion medium, it would have better suited a miniseries. There is simply too much there, even for a three-hour film. Snyder manages to keep most of the story and spirit as best he can with the limited space. However, he forgets that the core of Moore’s novel – and what is so sorely missed here – is the human element which Doctor Manhatten seeks to connect with. The non-costumed supporting characters like those at the news vendor or the two police officers are reduced to almost cameos. Which is a shame, because for the ending to work you need a real human connection with more than just Rorschach’s psychiatrist.

What a Dick...

I’m going to say it. The changed ending works. It does. It fits thematically with the narrative that faces us and it cuts out an artists/genetic engineering subplot which would overcrowd an already overcrowded film. Sure it has a loophole – wouldn’t the world be ticked off at America? – but it’s important to not that Moore’s ending worked in the context of comic books. Giant monsters from the fifth dimension were regular foes of any number of superheroes – a giant space squid wouldn’t shock a reader (except for the way that its used). Unfortunately such monsters are rare in cinema, so they don’t carry the same currency that they do on the printed page.

I do feel that Snyder holds back in showing the devastation though. I can’t imagine it’s easy to depict that devastation given recent history, but it feels like the director is pulling his punches. We are given generic wreckage instead of the actual destruction. It is another reason why – unlike in the novel – the ending fails to make the emotion connection necessary for it to truly work as a film ending.

The Comedian likes his cheap shots...

I suggested that the movie might work better as a miniseries partially because the novel is structured that way. And so is the film. It’s a narrative following a certain character so far before jumping to another character. It feels like the plot is on rotation rather than being fluid and progressive. As with any work in such a fashion, some moments are stronger than others. Two segments in particular stand head-and-shoulders above the rest of the film and stand proudly among the best movie moments of the year: the narration of Doctor Manhatten’s past and the adventures of Rorschach in prison (“I’m not locked in here with you, you’re locked in here with me!”). They are stunning, both as compelling drama and as film footage.

W hich brings me to another of the movie’s strengths. Jackie Earle Haley is amazing as the crazed vigilante who works on moral certainty and Billy Crudup is impressive as the man who would be god who views the world as dispassionate chaos. The two represent the extremes of the political and philosophical viewpoints in the film and both are ably portrayed by their actors. They serve as the two poles that perception of the film rotates around.

Is there Life on Mars?

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. I appreciate what Matthew Goode was attempting to do with the Adrian Veidt character, with the subtle Germanic characterisation. The problem is that he doesn’t quite exude to natural authority that the character would seem to demand until the very end of the movie. Malin Akerman isn’t particularly effective as the Silk Spectre, which is a shame as she carries the brunt of the film’s emotional content (since the non-costumed characters were cut out). Patrick Wilson is pleasant as the happy-go-luck-iest of the bunch. And it’s always good to see Stephen McHattie and Matt Frewer at work, even with limited material. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the one to watch coming out of this, though.

In the end, the film comes across as too much like the big blue guy at its core. It is too cool, too dispassionate and too shiny. Instead of deconstructing the violence of superhero fantasies, it glorifies it. Instead of framing its final dilemma in a necessary human term, it poses it as an academic discussion. And it spends more time on slow motion than it does on ideas.

You're lookin' at the American dream...

Still, for all its flaws, it does remain a decent reflection of the groundbreaking novel upon which it was based. It would be impossible to produce a higher quality theatrical cut. It features two fantastic performances and more thought and discussion than you are likely to see until Oscar season opens up. It’s the best film it ever could have been. Which is no small accomplishment. And it is interesting and merits more consideration and discussion than most multiplex fare. I’d recommend trying it, but I’d more strongly recommend (of course) picking up the graphic novel. Most of the value of the film stems from its relationship with the book rather than on the merits of the film itself, which brings us to its single greatest problem.

It is completely unnecessary.


Watchmen is an adaptation of Alan Moore’s (Swamp Thing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta) landmark graphic novel, directed by Zach Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead) and starring Billy Crudup (The Good Sheppard, Public Enemies), Patrick Wilson (Angels in America, Lakeview Terrace), Stephen McHattie (300, A History of Violence), Carla Gugino (Sin City, Spy Kids) and Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children, Nightmare on Elm Street). It was release worldwide on the 6th March 2009, which looks much cooler in American format: 03.06.09.

I hope to also review the director’s cut and the ultimate cut.

5 Responses

  1. I really, really enjoyed this film. First Blu Ray I watched and it’s still one of the best I’ve seen. Haven’t read the original graphic novel though so I just saw it as a stand-alone flick. Will be plonking down and watching it again when I get my disc back.

    • Give the graphic novel a go. It’s bloody great it is, but a little overhyped. The movie was better than most people said it was. It isn’t a classic, but it’s a wonderful little experiment and wonderfully different. I like to think of it is the biggest budget indie film ever made – there’s a (really!) naked blue man who wanders around arguing about predestination for most of the film, for crying out loud!

  2. I have just entered comic book land (at age 24, can you believe it?), and I had no idea where to start. I went to my local library and just picked out whatever I thought looked nice.
    I have always wanted to read comics and to know more about characters that are, essentially, everywhere these days. I tried reading some fantastic four and spider-man once, but it didn’t really stick.
    This time I picked up Watchmen and so far I really like it. I have never watched the movie, but will do so in the nearest future thanks to your review!

    On another note, I read your article on starting to read comics after seeing the Avengers and will definitely take a look at them. Thank you for making comic books accesible to those of us who are not familiar with all the backstory and has no clue where to start!

    • Thanks Stingray! I really appreciate comments like that. I am thinking about maybe doing something similar for Batman and Spider-Man, what with the films and all. I hope you enjoy Watchmen. The book is proabbly my one recommendation to people who want to try reading comics.

      • Just watched Watchmen today, and I actually really liked it. I thought it was the best it could be, as you said. I loved the comic!

        I look forward to your articles on Spider-man and Batman comics (if you write them, of course!), and will try to find some of the Avengers comics at my local library!

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