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