Watching the “Watchmen”- A Review

March 9th, 2009 | Posted in General

Disclaimer: Spoilers clearly marked, and there aren’t many…

©2009 EC Publications / MAD Magazine
From “Botchmen” in MAD #499

The “Watchmen” and I go way back.

I can’t credit it as the reason I got interested in comic books again. That distinction belongs to Frank Miller‘s “The Dark Knight Returns“. However I can say that, even more than Miller’s masterwork, “Watchmen” showed me that comics can be as literarily relevant as any novel. I was given my first copy as a gift for being a groomsman in my friend and fellow cartoonist Mark Engblom‘s wedding. Having not read it before, I remember Mark’s general comments about it to me being the same sentiments I impart whenever I loan it out to a friend who hasn’t yet read it: “I envy you for what you are about to experience”. That is perhaps the highest praise you can give any creative work… to be jealous of someone who has yet to discover it and is about to.

Which brings me to the movie of the “unfilmable” graphic novel.

I tried to watch the movie with two different sets of eyes. One being the set that knows every nuance, panel, plot and subplot of the story intimately, and one that knew nothing about the graphic novel and the story.

“Watchmen fanboy” eyes loved the film. It was hard not to when I saw panel after panel straight out of the comic being shown in gorgeous splendor on the big screen. Much of the casting was well done (with a few exceptions) and while a few of the sub plots were not included many more than I expected were either directly addressed or alluded to. The story itself was adhered to almost religiously, with only a very few small changes here and there. Only the ending was changed significantly (more on that at the end of this review).

“Watchmen virgin” eyes, however, was confused as hell and bored stiff for a few stretches.

Ultimately the problem with the movie was that director Zach Snyder had a choice between making a good movie for a broad audience and making one that was a panel by panel slavish adaptation to appease the fanboys. He chose the latter.

Synder should know there is no appeasing the fanboys. Not really. They will always complain that this wasn’t done right and that wasn’t done right… that this actor wasn’t right for the part, etc. Making a movie for the fanboys is an exercise in futility, and it ultimately results in a film that does not serve the general movie going public enough to make it successful in a commercial, critical or entertainment sense.

Comics and books are not films, nor vice versa. The different mediums each have their strengths and their limitations, and what works well in one does not necessarily work in another. In the case of a complex and multithreaded story like “Watchmen”, one great advantage the graphic novel has over the film is that the reader can stop and go back a few panels if they don’t grasp what is going on at a given time. A DVR control for “Watchmen” the film would have been welcomed at many moments for those who did not catch the many time shifts between flashbacks and reality. Synder didn’t do a very good job of establishing the “when” of many scenes… a flaw that was exacerbated by his choices of music. Why would he pick a Jimi Hendrix song from the 60’s to play during a scene set in the present (in the film the mid 80’s is the ‘present’) when he just got back from an actual 60’s/70’s flashback in Vietnam?? Shouldn;t that have been an 80’s song? Talk about confusing.

All that aside, I’ve come to the conclusion after seeing the film and reading some of the reviews and opinions by the uninitiated, maybe Synder was right to stick strictly to the comics and make a movie for the fanboys first as opposed to trying to make a possibly better film for the rest of the world. Maybe “Watchmen” never really had a chance to be accepted by those outside the graphic novel’s fanbase, no matter what kind of changes were made to the story. Many reviews paint it as vilely depressing, with anti-heroes that are so flawed they don’t give you anything reason to care about them. One reviewer was upset by the sexual hangups of what he considered the only really good guys in the film. Well, that IS the story.. a depressing and bleak alternate world on the brink of war and people who dress up in costumes with all sorts of hangups, sexual or otherwise. If those kind of key elements from the original needed to be changed to make the movie publicly acceptable, then it either shouldn’t be publicly acceptable or it shouldn’t be made at all. Maybe that is what the fanbase means when they said “Watchmen” was “unfilmable”.

This is getting long, so here’s a few of the good and bad I got out of the film (warning a few spoilers here):

The Good-

Jackie Earle Haley and Patrick Wilson– as Rorschach and Nite Owl 2, respectively. Great casting, especially Haley. He really came off as a disturbed psycho without making Rorschach an over the top caricature. Wilson’s Drieberg/Night Owl had just enough sheepishness but still brimmed with repression and conflict.

Cinematography/CGI- I only had a few moments where the CGI stuck out, mostly it was a seamless alternate reality world with a awesome palette of dark and dingy colors that perfectly painted the bleak world of Watchmen.

The Owlship- Can’t help it, the geek in me thinks “Archie” might be the most perfect screen representation of a comic book gadget in the history of cinema.

The Comedian- A lot of fanboys hated the choice of Jeffery Dean Morgan (of Grey’s Anatomy fame) as Edward Blake aka The Comedian, but I thought he was terrific. He played Blake as the reprehensible sadist he was, and pulled no punches (literally). Yet he still managed a little sympathy for the character. The attempted rape scene with Silk Specter was brutal and hard to watch… as it should have been.

The Bad-

Owlship Sex Scene– Good grief. That went on forever, was about the least sexy sex scene I’ve ever seen and didn’t even have the good grace to be funny with the flamethrower thing. Part of it was another bizarre choice of music.

Viedt/Ozymandias- The worst casting of the film. Matthew Goode didn’t come off well in any aspect of the character. He seemed neither smug or arrogant, smart, physically capable or sophisticated. Total miss.

Dr. Manhattan- He looked good, but there should have been a coldness there that was missing. I think it was the soft and somewhat effeminate voice. I read in an article that Synder specifically refused to alter actor Billy Crudup‘s voice, citing that Dr. Manhattan would “try and put everyone as much at ease as he could, instead of having a robotic voice that I think would feel off-putting”. Uhhhh, does he notice that Dr. Manhattan mostly walks about naked with his blue junk dangling? That’s a little “off-putting” for most, I doubt his voice is given much more thought. Osterman’s detachment from the human race is a key plot point. His revelation on Mars about the miraculous nature of the human race was unconvincing.

The Ultra-Violence– Actually I am conflicted about this. I understand the need to impart the brutality of this cold-war world through graphic violence, but we were beaten over the head with it so mercilessly it became almost mundane by the end.

Travelers Beware- Here they be Spoilers!

Finally, the Ending…

The ending of the movie differed greatly from the graphic novel. In the comics Veidt has a team of scientists, artists, writers and clairvoyants sequestered on a tropical island genetically creating a giant, one eyed squid-like creature with a brain cloned from human psychics and filled with stories and images of an alien world created by the artists. This creature is teleported using Viedt’s Dr. Manhattan based research machines into New York City where it dies instantly, killing thousands with the psychic wave of it’s death throes and instilling tens of thousands with telepathic images that convince the world it was an alien attacking earth. The world’s countries abandon war with each other to unite against the common threat.

A great ending… for a comic book.

At the risk of raising the wrath of the Watchmen faithful, I respectfully submit that to have this be the ending of the film would have been beyond ridiculous. Everyone would have been laughing their heads off on the way out of the theater. Let’s face it, some things just can’t be translated out of the comic book page and taken seriously.

The movie’s ending makes much more sense and is actually a much better one than in the comic. There, I said it. Kudos to Synder and company for understanding this and wrapping the story up with an ending that everyone can understand.

So, I enjoyed the movie and can’t wait for the extended director’s cut, the addition of the animated “Black Freighter” story and the “Under the Hood” feature about the 40’s heroes. However I believe that the theatrical release will drop off sharply at the box office after a decent start and will end up with a disappointing take. Most non-comic book people just won’t get it. I read one reviewer who accused it as being an ultra violent rip-off of “The Incredibles”. Talk about being ignorant of the source material… obviously “The Incredibles” owes much to “Watchmen”, rather than the other way around.

Comments

  1. Roy Blumenthal says:

    Killer review. And I’m realllly realllllllllllly realllllllllllllllllllly glad you included the spoilers. I’d almost decided not to see the film cos of the almost overwhelmingly negative press I’ve been reading re the ending.

    I love and cherish the book. And I’m hoping the film gives me some serious thuds.

    Thanks Tom.

    Blue skies
    Love
    Roy

  2. Tony Stewart says:

    I think you hit every nail right on the head Tom. The only casting choice I couldn’t buy was Ozymandias. I felt that the casting choices for Rorschach and The Comedian were inspired. Regarding the choice to drop the giant alien psychic squid and use Dr. Manhattan instead; at first I thought it was a cheap easy cop out, but then I realized, “Why go out of your way to create a monster when you’ve already got one conveniently hanging around?” It suddenly seems the obvious choice. In the end, I think I enjoyed it for the same reason I enjoyed the film adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There’s no way anyone could have done complete justice to the source material, so all we can hope for is a respectful homage. That’s what we got.

  3. Antzo8 says:

    I loved the movie. I was kinda a fan, but not really obsessed with the comic, but I could remember when everything was going to happen and which characters end up dead. I had to explain a lot of the background and bits of the story to my non-Watchmen reading friends.

    I thought all the acting performances were pretty good, but Rorschach definitely the strongest. His dark badassery was one of the best parts I thought, and his costume was awesome. The graphic violence was a bit unexpected, I guess The Dark Knight was the darkest I expected a ‘comic book movie’ to go. Dr Manhattan always being naked was a bit annoying and distracting, but I liked the way they did his back story. The ending was much better than I expected: no ‘large order of calimari’ definitely made it much more ‘mainstream’.

  4. sir jorge says:

    It was a terrible idea to change the ending, especially with so many people hyping it as a great adaptation.

    The constant use of slow-motion to high speed fight sequencing took me completely out of this film.

    Rorschach’s prison stint was the greatest part of this film. That and the attempted rape, wow, they got away with a lot, with so little.

    • Tom says:

      I also liked Rorschach’s prison scenes a lot. The slo-mo things is a trademark of Synders, so I knew that was coming.

      I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about the ending. As much as I loved the graphic novel the “alien attack” ending was always the weakest part to me. It seemed impossible to me that no genetic scientist in the world would find it obvious the remains of the squid creature were terrestrial in nature and it was a genetic creation from earth, not from another planet. There were too many holes in that ending.

  5. bluemoonpaul says:

    I agree with you about the ending, Tom; spot on. I’ve never had as much trouble with the comic book ending as others seem to have, for just the reasons you cite: Moore was using comic book and science fiction motifs to comment on the medium itself. For me, that ending fits. But I do like the movie ending better.

    I’m not sure this movie is just for fanboys, though. I certainly wondered the same thing, before viewing, during and after. But friends of mine who were unfamiliar with the comic liked it, and Roger Ebert has written a couple pieces from the perspective of not having read the book. Ain’t it Cool has links:
    http://www.aintitcool.com/node/40335

    Lastly, you may have found the Hendrix tune out of place, but I think that was the one ’60s tune Snyder utilized which was actually used in the book. “All Along the Watchtower,” written by Bob Dylan, was quoted extensively in Moore’s text, another perfect fit, having to do with watches and towers (bringing to mind John’s father and the “watch tower” John creates on Mars), as well as who’s watching whom. Maybe Snyder could’ve chosen another version than Hendrix’s, but it’s probably the most well known and best, and certainly a better version than, say, U2’s. Personally, if I had any problem at all with songs used, it would be with others.

    • Tom says:

      Yes, I understood the significance of the song with relation to the story, but there were plenty of 60’s scenes it would have been better placed for. Then again, if Synder choose “99 luftballoons” as representational of the 80’s then maybe it is pointless to reflect on his musical choices.

  6. Dan Schwab says:

    I agree with the squid ending not being plausible in film. It reminds me of the TV movie version of Stephen King’s “IT”. The nightmarish monster at the end looked like a goofy spider-muppet.

    I, too, look forward to the extended DVD cut. You can even see in the film where the extra footage would go in. I assume more scenes with Hollis Mason, (such as his death by the knot-tops), the news vendor and the kid, (maybe the lesbian couple as well), The New Frontiersman staff, and there has to be more scenes with Rorschach with the psychiatrist.

  7. Mark Engblom says:

    The new ending was fantastic…and, like you, I think it works better than the comic book version (further confusing the torch and pitchfork mob running toward your house).

    Although I think they could’ve made a better choice for Veidt, he didn’t bother me as much as he did you. Given the choice between a genial Veidt or an arrogant, imperious one, I would have to lean toward the latter, and only then for the requirements of the “shorthand” way the characters need to be developed in the movie version. If he was too much of the nice guy we see in most of the comic book version, the progression to megalomaniac savior would have been too jarring. Not trying to change your mind, just sharing my take on the way he was portrayed/performed.

    Doc Manhattan’s voice didn’t bug me, either. Partially for the reasons Crudup gave, but partially because of how it adds to his “ethereal” qualities. His almost trance-like demeanor suggested someone who’s *barely* there, and completely immune to the passions and frustrations of humanity. Barring that, I’m trying to figure out what people would have preferred in the place of the soft-n-gentle voice.

    But the star of the show? Rorschach. Rorschach. Rorschach. Everything I hoped for and more. As long as they nailed him so perfectly, everything else was gravy.

    (still wish they’d shown Blake wearing his gimp mask while riding the Owl-Ship during the Keane Riots. I undestand why they had to do without it…but still…)

  8. Howie Noel says:

    Great review! I completely agree with you with the choice of the Hendrix song at that time. It was a very strange place to put it when the ‘nam scene would’ve been perfect. Rorschach was perfect and so was the Comedian. I also really enjoyed the translation of issue 4 into the movie with Dr. Manhattan’s origin. I have to see the whole film again to really soak it in because four idiots behind me decided to talk through the whole thing!

  9. MIke Kudna says:

    I had been anticipating this movie since last summer when i saw the first preview at the Dark Knight. I personally thought this movie was the greatest movie i have seen. I saw it in IMAX on friday and thought it was so good that i saw it again saturday. I honestly think that most of the bad reviews are from critics who have not read the book. I think that if you are going to see a movie you should know something about it. I thought the trailers of watchmen did a good job in giving the viewer enough info to spark an interest to read the comic, and see what its al about. The best thing about the movie was the fight scenes. They were absolutely amazing!!!

  10. MIke Kudna says:

    OH!! Also, when i read the book i didnt really like the Veidt Character, and i know you hated Matthew Goode as Veidt, but after the movie Veidt became my favorite character. I dont know why, or how but something about his performance made me go ” yes Veidt RULES!!!” I think it was the amazing fight scene at the end, OH and when he caught the bullet. Just amazing performance!!

  11. Tom, I’m so glad you’re doing the Botchmen parody. I LOVED the movie and therefore, when I hunt you down to sign the issue, it will be that much sweeter to have. In fact, I may have to move the WATCHMEN up to my all-time favorite. Rob and I watched it this morning and were blown away. A few nitpicks from me on the CG–it STILL bugs me to see certain things rendered. Blood spatter in particular stands out as fake. And yes, the actor playing Veidt was a little too slender for me (Rob argued he was an olympic gymnast, so he should look more lean, like a cat rather than a linebacker).
    But the pros FAR outweighed the cons for me… this action movie had something FEW action movies can boast: GOOD WRITING.

  12. Whoops, I hit return in order to separate paragraphs and it published my dang comment. Anyway, this movie engendered TONS of discussion between me and the hubby, who is a geekboy. I’m a geekgirl (who took film studies in college), and I’d read the novel around 10 years ago.
    We noticed that some of the changes/nitpicks we noticed were actually DUE TO how the Watchmen has infiltrated the cultural zeitgeist since its publication (see, “cultural zeitgeist”–I WAS in film studies in school!) Rorschach didn’t leave the kidnapper a hacksaw and set the place on fire because it would have been too much like “SAW.” Which, of course, likely took its cue from the graphic novel in the first place! Dr. Manhattan was the son of a watchmaker, which is reminiscent of Seiler on “Heroes”–and that show wouldn’t exist, I’d wager, if it wasn’t for the Watchmen. So in many ways the film is a victim of its earlier success as a cultural phenomenon when released as a graphic novel. All cultural phenomenons are ripped off/recycled/imitated, that’s just the way it goes.
    We were both a bit peeved that the characters all got the hollywood treatment when it came to looks and fitness, to an extent. Dan didn’t have the paunch he displayed in the book, and neither he or Laurie were winded at all after fighting a gang of–what–fifteen attackers that first night? (In the book they were winded and wheezing, and had only fought off a handful of guys). And no one smoked those funky pipe cigarettes. Can’t have anyone smoking in a blockbuster movie, heaven forbid. Well, the bad guys can chomp cigars, but that’s it. Rob was peeved that it made Laurie’s action of hitting the fire button in Archie a little nonsensical if she wasn’t looking for a cigarette lighter.
    There were also things I really LOVED about how the movie differed from the novel. I agree that the original ending would have been impossible to pull off with any believability on the big screen. The cinematography was amazing when the camera panned up and showed Rorschach had become a red “blot” on the white snow… something that didn’t happen in the novel. And though I see your point on the confusing nature of the music, I really enjoyed all the montage/music pairings. Rorschach stole the show, he was cast perfectly… in the theater we were sitting in (even with the sparse crowd that came out for the 10am show), there were cheers and hoots when he growled “I’m not locked in here with YOU, you’re locked in here with ME!”
    The decision to make John the scapegoat for everything rather than an imagined alien attack was, I think, even better than the original. It made John into an agnostic Christ character… someone who was sacrificed not in blood and pain but in reputation. And he accepted it for the good of all mankind, a coldly logical scientific lamb who went to another, less complicated galaxy instead of taking a seat at the right hand of God. In that way, I found his gentle voice extremely fitting. The screenwriter chose to alter his dialogue just slightly, I noticed, having Adrian tell John he has rediscovered his appreciation for life (movie version) rather than his appreciation for human life (novel). So when John replies “Yes, I think I’ll go create some,” it was much more religiously punctuated in the comic.
    Wow. That’s a long-ass comment. I really need to go get a life!

    —Celestia

  13. Mugshotz says:

    “All Along the Watchtower” seemed more interesting in the comic book when they were on their hover scooters than just walking 200 feet to Veidt’s place. Bubastis made no sense in the movie after the ending was altered and genetic experiments seemed irrelevant. But I really dug the new ending. I never really liked the original ending.

  14. Sean Gardner says:

    Great Review Tom, I thought your assessment of the film was fair to both sides (as a movie go-er and as a fan). I have no doubt that many people will not be as impressed with the actual movie as they were with the previews. This is simply not a film to truly enjoy without having read the comic first, and will no doubt fall out of popularity with the general audiences.
    (and the reason I really wanted to comment), Awesome Mad panel, the art work is done extremely well and some well placed gags.. Love it!!

  15. […] I haven’t seen the movie yet (nor did I read the comic that inspired it) but Tom Richmonds Cartoon Blog and Tannerleah’s Stop Annoying Me Blog, both this week gave much press to the fact that the […]

  16. MIke Kudna says:

    Hey i know this is really late, but whatever. first off, the directors name is Zack Snyder, not Zack Synder, but who cares, just wanted to point that out. And second, I saw the movie a second time with some friends, and I noticed that at the end when the manhattan bomb was in place in that little secluded area, all the monitors read- S.Q.U.I.D ACTIVATED- and I was like, woah, they kinda got the “squid” in there. I just recently found out that S.Q.U.I.D stands for Sub Quantum Intrinsic Device. Just thought I would share my little “hey it says squid on the monitor” experience

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