Note: Okay gang, look, this is going to be a long post. Like, even by my standards. There's really no way around it. I decided to try and do this in a bullet-point style sort of thing to keep it shorter than it would be if I worried about transitions and topic paragraphs and introductions and conclusions and all that fancy-schmancy stuff you should expect in good writing, but well, you're getting my writing for free, so you'll just have to deal with it not being as good as it could be, okay? I'd recommend just kind of skimming this article and stopping when you see some aspect of the film you'd like to hear more about (i.e. glowing genitals).
So, Watchmen the movie, huh? They actually went ahead and made it, and it was really in theaters and everything. I still kind of have a hard time believing the movie exists, despite having seen it myself a week ago, and seeing silly little updates of every step of progress throughout the entire process, and seeing a good ten to 20 articles about it every day for at least the last month.
I've been pretty apathetic about the existence of the film. I don't think anyone should have bothered making one, but I certainly understand why they did ($$$), and I was never, like, appalled by the thought that they were going to make a movie adaptation.
Even when I saw the creators, who have done a series of decent but flawed (or flawed but still somehow entertaining films, depending on how you wan to look at it) films I neither had my hopes lifted, nor felt any panic (Director Zack Snyder was responsible for the sufficient but pointless fast-zombie Dawn of the Dead remake and the hilariously entertaining, politically confused, crazy-ass 300 adaptation; screenwriter David Hayter worked on the first two X-Men movies, which I liked okay save for the maguffins, and The Scorpion King, which had its moments; and this was to be Alex Tse's first film work, according to IMDb).
As to the why of my thinking they shouldn't bother with a Watchmen movie, it mainly came down to not seeing the point (again, aside from the obvious point of making some money off it).
Now, there's rarely a point to a lot of big studio movies beyond making money; the point of your average horror movie is to make a scary movie for teenagers to go to on a weekend night while you take their money, the point of your average comedy is to make people laugh while yout their money from them, and so on.
Watchmen's reputation makes it a rather different endeavor though; there's a reason so many people have been talking so much about it compared to, say, Punisher: War Zone or The Spirit, you know?
But Watchmen the comic/graphic novel was and remains very much a work of its time. It had a great deal to say, but most of it had to do with the real world as it looked in the early to mid-1980s and the comic books of the same period. It still has a great deal of value today, beyond its status as a cultural artifact and a sort of fly-in-amber commentary on its day, in terms of craft, but those craft elements simply cannot carry over into an adaptation to another medium, because for whatever similarities there may be, however the media may have influenced one another's development, the craft of a comic book simply cannot be translated to a film (I won't bore you with a few hundred more words on this aspect, but instead of repeating things that other people said in a more clumsy and wordy fashion then they've said them, I'd recommend reading Kevin Church's "Why I will not be seeing Watchmen" post* and Joe "Jog" McCulloch's review of the film**).
Since the craft elements are untranslateable, and the time it was of and commenting on has now passed, what was the point of the film? It would have to find something new to say somehow.
I understand there was some (perhaps brief) talk of making a Watchmen film that dealt with 9/11 or the "War on Terror,” which makes a certain amount of sense—if the graphic novel dealt with what some in the defense and intelligence world refer to as World War III, why not have the movie deal with what those same some call our current world war, World War IV?
Certainly many would howl about such drastic changes; I sure as hell wouldn't have wanted to see Snyder direct that movie (I didn't despise his political point-of-view in 300 as much as I despised his apparent lack of understanding that there was a political point-of-view; Persia and Sparta as depicted in the move are both equally analogous to the United States and the Iraqi insurgency/"the terrorists"). But there was a chance for a great film there, even if only a slim one. Certainly a greater chance than simply filming as much as the graphic novel as they could get away with before a studio executive was like, "Six hours? Fuck you Snyder. Cut some of this shit out."
I've heard the argument (in several places, and from several folks, so I apologize if it was youwho said it and I'm not properly crediting you, dear reader) that perhaps the Watchmen movie was going to deconstruct the superhero movie in the same way that the Watchmen comic deconstructed superhero comics and man, that would have been something.
Again, it's unlikely these guys would have been the ones to pull it off, but that would have been a more vital, more risky film to make, one that tried to replicate the formal and aesthetic achievements of the source material in a different medium instead of simply trying to translate it the best they could.
This argument was made, by the way, in reaction to the initial revelation of the costume designs, which showed a great deal of influence from previous superhero movie costumes. So maybe it was simply the costume designers who were going for a Watchmen that is to movies the way Watchmen was to comics, and the director and screenwriters and producers weren't on the same page.
As interesting as that approach might have been, it wouldn't have been the right time for that either. You see,
—It’s too early for a Watchmen film. I know it seems like we're reaching some sort of comic book superhero movie critical mass these days, but superhero movies based on comic books haven't yet begun to replicate superhero comics, for some fairly obvious reasons.
While a couple of franchises have managed to make it to three films, the Spider-Man movies, for example, are probably the first to do so in a way that replicated the serial nature of comics—the same director, the same actors, the same characters, sub-plots that spanned from installment to installment.
X-Men had three films, but changed direction, director and focus. For all the Batman movies, no director/actor combo has lasted longer than two movies so far. Superman has had five films but, again, characters, actors and creators would change too frequently to give them a sense of continuity comparable to, say, a two-year run on a Superman comic book. So Spider-Man and mmmmmaybe the X-Men franchise are the closest we've come to movies behaving like superhero comics in terms of serial storytelling. It's hardly a common practice yet.
Additionally, the idea of a shared superhero universe is something that is just now being toyed with, with those little post-credits scenes at the end of last year's Iron Man and Incredible Hulk. Marvel is starting to build a Marvel Universe in the movies, but, thus far, there's no sense of a shared setting that belongs to groups of superheroes the way that the alternate Earth-4 of Watchmen does (Unless you count films with original superhero universes, like The Incredibles or Sky High or Mystery Men).
The Watchmen graphic novel came at a time when the superhero comic seemed to be dead or dying, or at least had gotten so entrenched and generated enough cultural gravity that it was possible to deconstruct it. The superhero movie just isn't there yet. They've been making the things off and on for decades of course, but the current superhero movie has only been around for about a decade now, with those in the '70s, '80s and '90s seeming to belong to a different trend all together.
To use an analogy to a different genre, I suppose it would be a little like a deconstructionist Western like Unforgiven or Dead Man being made when the Western was still in its infancy, and the standard markers of the Western genre were still being formed.
—And yet, it's also too late for a Watchmen movie. The comics series ended and became a graphic novel by 1986, right? That predates almost every single comic book superhero movie, save the first three Superman movies and the Batman with the anti-shark repellant (Does Swamp Thing count as a superhero? If so, his first movie was 1982). I don't know how much (if any) influence Watchmen had on 1987's Superman VI: The Quest for Peace, but by the time Tim Burton's 1989 set-off the first sustained cycle of superhero movies, the lessons of Watchmen seem to have been thoroughly digested.
In fact, has there even been a comic book superhero movie since 1989's Batman that wasn't dark, somewhat violent, fairly realistic and aimed as much as adults as at kids? The Fantastic Four movies seem to be the lightest-hearted, but in the time since, all comic book superhero movies have been (Bam! Biff! Pow! Holy Maturity, Batman!) not just for kids anymore. (Without double-checking, I'm fairly certain the animated-but-released-for-theaters-first Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Fantastic Four: Rise of The Silver Surfer have been the only PG comic book superhero movies in the past 20 years).
The things that Watchmen (along with Dark Knight Returns) is credited with doing to superhero comics’making them grow up, forcing more sophisticated and/or dark subject matter and more complex storytelling, addressing teens and adults instead of kids and teens—is something that all superhero movies do. How then does one make a Watchmen movie post-Watchmen?
There may be a way to do it so that none of these timing issues matter, but I can't prescribe what that way might be. Snyder and company had to do it though, and I don't think they did, or even tried very hard to. I think this was the existential question the film version had to wrestle with—justifying its own existence as something other than just another supehero film (only with an R rating). And I'm not sure it ever even stepped into the ring.
—A single "co-creator" credit looks extremely silly. That's cool that they were honoring Alan Moore's wishes by not having his name on the film, and honoring Gibbons' contributions by having his on it, but it looks really weird and makes everyone involved seem like children. If I were Moore, I sure as hell wouldn't want my name on a movie ever again, but can he really control his byline like that, if he doesn't have control of what it's attached to? Was there really no more elegant way to handle the situation, like maybe "Based on the graphic novel designed and drawn by Dave Gibbons" or something…?
—I wasn't kidding when I said I thought Watchmen was the best Zack Snyder movie ever. At least, not about where it falls on a list of Zack Snyder movies ranked by quality. I enjoyed 300 a lot more, and if I had to choose between watching 300 and Watchmen again, I'd certainly choose 300, but Watchmen is certainly the all-around better film. There were things to like and loathe about all three of Snyder's films, but less to loathe about this one then the others.
—I did not care for Dr. Manhattan's design. He looked much, much better on a big screen then he did in the trailers, commercials and photographs I had previously seen online and TV in terms of how glow-y he was and how fake-looking he was, but I found his physique incredibly distracting.
Bear with me for this silly (sillier) little nitpick a moment. Okay, Dr. Manhattan was really, really well built, right? Like, huge muscles; he looks like he probably works out every day, and would dwarf most of the cast of 300.
Why is that, exactly? He clearly doesn't look like Billy Crudup would naked, so some force has changed his musculature. Did he do it to himself? Because he's able to control, in the film, the shade of blue he is, his size, whether or not he has a little symbol drawn on his forehead. Couldn't he just choose to look like Billy Crudup at all times then? Why did he decide he'd rather be bald, pupil-less, body hair-less and built like that? Or did the accident/the universe determine what he'd look like, including his physique, and he had no control over it? If that's the case, and it seems more logical, then how come he can control other, lesser aspects of his physical appearance?
—I was disappointed in the size of Dr. Manhattan’s penis. I was expecting it to be huge, based on Brian Hibbs’ reaction (“I was distracted by…Jon's massive cock. It is pretty big, alright, and you notice it in every scene it is in”) and Jon Stewart’s mention of Billy Crudup “swinging some pipe” in his interview with the actor. It didn’t seem that big to me, and if it distracted me at all, it was because I was trying to see if it was as big as I was lead to believe.
It didn’t look all that penis-like to me though. Like, it lacked some definition, which probably only struck me at all because every inch of the good doctor’s physique is so defined and exploded.
—I thought Crudup did a really good job by the way, and, like Jackie Earle Haley, it seemed a damn shame that he had to spend so much of the movie as a vocal actor, obscured by a special effect.
—This is more a matter of adaptation than how the film itself was, but the casting choices for Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Jupiter were less than ideal. Patrick Wilson was quite good and I don't think Malin Akerman was quite as terrible as some film critics have called her out for being, but neither one looked terrible middle-aged, over-the-hill, retired, or in their second act or third act of their superhero careers. In fact, Akerman was quite clearly exceptionally young and fit, and Wilson didn't exactly look schlubby in the nude either. (Physically, I pictured a real-life Dan Dreiberg looking a bit like John Hodgman...not that he would have been the best actor for the role or anything).
Of course, Akerman is 31-years-old, and I suppose that may actually be considered middle-aged for a Hollywood actress these days.
—The opening credit sequence was fantastic. It was a seriously great piece of filmmaking, and probably the creative climax of the entire film. It’s the only part of the film that really stuck in my head the way great scenes in great movies do, the only part that I wanted to go back and rewatch as soon as possible.
—The costumes were just no good. Rorshach and The Comedian looked pretty great, yes, that much is true. And The Minutemen did as well.
I think Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II’s costumes were fine on their own, and in a different movie would have been fairly cool superhero costumes, but the movie makes a pretty strong argument that Nite Owl’s costume didn’t need to look less ridiculous on him than it did in the graphic novel. The Minutemen’s costumes were all meant to be ridiculous looking, and succeeded without sinking the scenes around them, why did Nite Owl have to look like he was wearing a cool, post Batman ’89 costume, while Hooded Justice and Mothman and those guys were allowed to look a little sillier? T(hat silliness, by the way, made the violence and the rape scene in general seem all the stronger, as the content was in such a sharp contrast to the costuming).
As for Silk Spectre, shouldn’t her costume have had a piece of silk or a silk-like material somewhere on it? She looked more Latex Lady than Silk Spectre to me.
Ozymandias’ costume was by far the worst. Like Nite Owl’s, it’s a very ‘90s movie superhero costume, despite the fact that it’s the mid-eighties (Actually, he was shown wearing it as far back as the sixties and seventies, wasn’t he?).
The movie makes much of his pharaoh and emperor fetish, yet he eschews wearing anything that looks like something Ramses II or Alexander the Great might have rocked, at least not anything that doesn’t look like it was filtered through Batman and Robin first. Even the headband that suggests laurels looks like it could also be some kind of sci-fi en-smartening device.
The chest plate also sucks some of the drama out of the bullet-catching scene, as someone wearing what looks like a Kevlar tunic jumping up after being shot isn’t really all that dramatic. Of course he survived the shot; look what he was wearing!
—The Dylan song aside, the soundtrack was just awful. The particular pieces of music were decent enough—I like some of them quite a bit on their own terms—but the way they were applied to the film were as blunt and obvious as possible. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” playing over decades of times a-changin’ is also a terribly obvious choice, but perhaps it didn’t seem so bad because it was the first super-obvious soundtrack choice.
But the “Ride of the Valkyries” in Vietnam bit? That’s what you’d use in a comedy parodying Apocalypse Now, not a serious movie making some sort of serious point about Vietnam.
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during a sex scene between two people who wanted to have sex with one another finally having it and achieving the orgasm that was earlier denied?
Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” playing, synched up so that we see watchtowers when we hear the word “watchtower” and see two figures approaching it when we hear the lyric “two riders were approaching…” Jesus.
Is Zack Snyder fucking fifteen years old?
—Ozymandias’ first line of dialogue made me think, “Wow, they’re really telegraphing the bad guy here aren’t they?” Given the fact that the book is over 20 years old, I suppose they need not have played the mystery angle up too hard, but they didn’t have to be so up front about it either.
—It’s way too violent. I’m not entirely sure why it might have been made to be so violent. Perhaps Snyder was thinking that Watchmen is supposed to seem extremely violent, and the amount of violence in the graphic novel would now seem quaint twenty-some years later and he therefore needed to ratchet it up.
Or perhaps he wanted to go out of his way to earn an R-rating, and wasn’t sure Malin Akerman’s nipples and a few F-words would have done it without limbs being shattered and severed. Or maybe he just loves the stuff.***
Why ever there’s so much violence and gore in the movie though, there’s way too much of it, and during at least one scene, it does serious damage to whatever story Snyder’s trying to tell, suggesting moral equivalence between all of The Watchmen (Don’t look at me; that’s what they called themselves!), and, somewhat irresponsibly, the crimes of their foes (More on that below).
What’s also odd is that the major challenge Snyder faced in adapting the graphic novel to the screen (beyond the transfer of a work created so specifically for one medium into a medium it was not at all created for) was trying to get it all in. A large part of the reason it’s always been called unfilmable was that it was such a long, dense story.
So any time wasted on a gory, arm-breaking, wall-shattering battle is just time that could have been put to use developing Ozymandias’ character or explaining a climax that’s less nonsensical or getting in something that just couldn’t fit into the film.
Did we need to see a minutes-long fight between The Comedian and his killer at the beginning? Did it communicate any information that simply cutting from The Comedian facing his attacker and then being thrown out the window wouldn’t have?
—The new ending doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. I understand why they didn’t go with the squid.**** Ozymandias’ weird, unexplained-in-the-movie cat creature aside, there were no real hints that a fake Lovecraftian alien menace is the sort of thing Ozymandias could cook up, and while Lovecraftian creatures and alien invasions are at home in the comic book medium, up on the silver screen it would look like something for a different genre film—a stage coach robbery in the middle of a romantic comedy.
But I assumed the squid was removed to make a more realistic, believable ending, not a more ridiculous, less believable ending. Making Dr. Manhattan the threat that unites the world seems somewhat less out of left field than the squid would have in that Dr. Manhattan is an element of the film we were introduced to early on, and it’s understood that Dr. Manhattan is something that rightly scares the world.
But as something the whole world would rally against? It doesn’t hold up to two seconds of though.
Firstly, why would the USSR and the US decide to work together against Dr. Manhattan? If one of them is unable to deal with him with their thousands of nuclear missiles, how exactly would doubling the number of nuclear missiles help? It’s a little like the crooks who impotently empty their guns into Superman’s chest and then throw the empty gun at him thinking, “If only I had a couple more guns to shoot at him! Bullets 12-18 might have worked where 1-6 didn’t!”
I was just a little kid in t he early ‘80s, so I guess I don’t have a great idea what the mood in USSR was at the time, but I’m kind of unconvinced that a former U.S. operative destroying a bunch of cities around the world would have inspired the Russians to make nice. Would they believe the U.S. that it was out of their control? Would the Nixon who was ready to sacrifice the East Coast of the U.S. to destroy Russia give a shit about a lost city here or there? How would that scare him straight?
And if Dr. Manhattan could have scared the world into peace, wouldn’t it have been easier for Ozymandias just to ask him to play along? Couldn’t John just have threatened to destroy some cities, and maybe blow up an uninhabited island or something?
Or, and here’s a novel idea, instead of killing millions, why not just assassinate Nixon?
—Which brings me to another point. (Note the new bullet.) By focusing so much attention on President Nixon, particularly in the scenes where we see him talking to his generals, mentioning a two-day deadline, and moving down the Defcon countdown, it becomes clear that nuclear war isn’t just the inevitable outcome of the Cold War (or what seemed like the inevitable outcome in the early ‘80s, anyway), but rather that it was all Nixon’s fault.
The point is made that he’s the one who militarizes Dr. Manhattan, which is what scares the Russians into aggression, and, more so as the movie reaches its climax, he’s the one deciding to preemptively attack Russia. That is, he’s starting a nuclear war before the Russians can, in the hopes that he can reduce the amount of America that is annihilated.
Since Snyder portrays him as the solitary, driving force toward nuclear war, it seems like Ozymandias could have saved billions of dollars and millions of lives by simply giving Nixon cancer or throwing him through a plate glass window or whatever.
—According to the movie, all of the members of the super-team known as The Watchmen have superpowers.
Sure, none of them are as fantastic as Dr, Manhattan’s quantum abilities, but they’re all super-strong and super-tough. Look at the way The Comedian can put this fist through a wall, or break a counter top with his skull and only suffer some bloody gashes. Note that Ozymandias threw him through plate glass window, something the police detectives tell us is impossible for one human being to do to another, or that he’s strong enough to kick Rorshach ten feet into the air and thirty feet across the room. And that Rorschach can shake such a blow off, even though he hits a wall spine first. Even Dan and Laurie, the most “human” of these superhumans have no problem pulling human bodies apart like so many steamed lobsters at dinner.
Or do they simply all know kung-fu and achieve these superhuman feats through focusing their chi, kung-fu movie style? Because, if so, that’s kind of fucking stupid, isn’t it? Is that any worse than a giant squid? It still seems like a genre implant that a movie-going audience would reject just as hard as they’d reject the squid. It looks rather Matrix-y, only much less cool, and logical—in the Matrix movies, there was a built-in excuse for the combatants having such mad kung fu powers. Watchmen is not set in a virtual reality though.
—Back to that violence, for a moment. Plenty of people, comics commentators discussing the film and film critics alike, have mentioned how violent and gory it was. Much of it fit into the story okay, for example, Dr. Manhattan vaporizing gangsters and Vietnamese or Rorshach being Rorshach. But the scene where Dan and Laurie fight off the gang of muggers? Holy shit. Did the scene need to be violent? Maybe. But did it need to be that violent and that gory? No, and the fact that it was did a great deal of damage to whatever point Snyder might have been trying to make about the nature of vigilantes.
Dan and Laurie don’t simply defend themselves, but they gleefully slaughter the bad guys, not only breaking limbs, but breaking necks and plunging knives into throats. How exactly are they any different/better than The Comedian or Rorshach? Are they not, in fact worse?
Because The Comedian at least could use war and national security as an excuse, and the guy Rorshach cuts to pieces was a child rapist/murderer who had fed a little girl—or at least her body—to some German shepherds. Doling out the death penalty to a bunch of muggers seemed a little extreme for a pair of characters who spend most of the movie shaking their head at what a violent psychopath Rorshach is.
—The Dan/Laurie humping to a chorus of “Hallelujah” in the owl ship was already a pretty goofy scene without Laurie slamming her hand on to the flame-thrower button, so that Archie ejaculated flame into the night sky as they came. Whatever Snyder’s next movie is, I pray it’s not a comedy.
—Ozymandias, The Smartest Man in the World, sure had an easy computer to break into. Not only was his password something that former colleagues Rorshach and Dan able to free-associate their way to in the space of a few seconds, but it was actually written on the spine of a book that Dan could see while sitting in front of the computer. This makes his corporate computer only slightly more difficult to break into than Sarah Palin’s Yahoo mail account was.
—Dan’s “Nooooooooo!!!!” at the sight of Dr. M exploding Rorschach would probably be laughably melodramatic no matter how it was staged (it was one of the few times I actually smiled during the film), but the fact that Dan stood there and watched the build up without doing or saying anything made it all the worse.
Was there really any suspense about the fact that Dr. Manhattan was about to kill Rorshach? I mean, Dr. Manhattan has his hand raised, Rorshach has his mask off and is screaming “Do it!” at him. Why didn’t Dan step in with a, “No, hey, wait a minute guys, let’s talk about this?” He just stood by and then acted surprised, no shocked by the fact that the guy who said he was going to kill the other guy who was screaming "kill me" actually killed him.
—I kinda wish Charlie and Donald Kaufman wrote this adaptation.
—I know there's an awful lot of negativity in this post, but I should note that I didn't hate the movie or anything. I was sufficiently entertained throughout to the point that I wasn't eager to leave or wondering how much longer it could possibly go on. It failed to convince me that it needed to exist, or was worthwhile, but I didn't mind spending a Saturday afternoon and a five bucks on it.
It was no Speed Racer though.
*Oh how I envy his willpower.
**Yeah, yeah, yeah. Caleb's writing completists will recall I already linked to that review over at Blog@Newsarama.com. But it's a really well written one. I envy McCulloch's critical skills and ability with a phrase. Apparently, I am full of envy tonight
***It occurred to me that Snyder’s reverence for a work by Alan Moore and the pains he goes to take visual cues from Moore’s artist collaborator coupled with his apparent love of gore and violence would have made him a perfect choice to direct From Hell, which would easily have been the very worst Moore-to-screen adaptation, were it now for the great lengths “LXG” went to in order to be depressingly, soul-crushingly abysmal.
****After writing this, I read Dr. K’s review, and he offers an interpretation that does make a great deal of sense. I think he presents enough evidence for that interpretation that I understand how he arrived at it, but, if it was Snyder and company’s intent, I don’t think they did a very good job of making it clear. Anyway, if you haven’t, check out his review—it’s a good read, and starts off with a wonderful anecdote.