Who watches…?

So on Saturday a few of us went to see Watchmen. I went in cautiously optimistic, realizing that the project Snyder was attempting was nigh-impossible to pull off, but at the same time falling for the marketing campaign just a little. It’s hard not to.

If you’re not familiar with Watchmen, you should head down to your local library and check it out. It’s an astounding work of graphic storytelling. The story begins with what seems to be a simple murder, but events quickly spiral out of control, and soon a massive conspiracy reveals itself. Along the way, writer Alan Moore dissects the superhero – the effect of heroes on society, the psychological issues, and so on. It’s a book so layered you can read it multiple times and catch something new every time. And you’d probably still be missing things. If you’re not someone intimately familiar with the genre and its history, you’ll likely miss a lot of the subtext, but I wouldn’t consider that a big problem. The story works regardless.

There’s a huge cast. Watchmen covers not just the modern batch of heroes, but their predecessors as well, weaving a story that spans decades. I could keep gushing, but there are plenty of people who’ve already done that better than I could. You get the idea, though – it’s a big, complex, layered story with numerous subtleties. Hollywood has none too good a record with any of those attributes.

I’m still digesting the film, but here are my initial thoughts. I’ll avoid spoilers.

The film has a lot of really cool stuff going for it – the cast is, for the most part, fantastic. Billy Crudup nails the increasingly disconnected, creepy Dr. Manhattan. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is appropriately jackassian as the borderline psychotic Comedian. Patrick Wilson is solid as the geeky, soft-hearted Nite Owl. The real stand-out is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, who transformed into the disturbed detective in a performance that blew me away. I don’t think I can stress enough how awesome he was.

Visually, the film was extremely faithful to the book, from the dingy alleys and floating airships to Ozymandias’s massive Antarctic fortress of solitude and Nite Owl’s basement hideout. Snyder follows the book almost panel for panel in many scenes, which is kind of a shame. Comics and movies aren’t the same thing. Blocking your widescreen film into 9-panel pages of close-ups is a bit of a waste of potential. But the sets and effects are quite good. It was with bitterness that I noted the screen I saw it on lacked a digital projector.

Likewise, the dialogue is almost line-by-line the same. Some of the dated elements (such as insults) have been updated for the better. Unfortunately, there are some spots where the filmmakers had to plug in their own dialogue, and those patches stuck out painfully in one or two scenes.

Otherwise, the screenplay was pretty amazing. They managed to squeeze in everything they needed to, and the numerous flashbacks worked well. A lot of world-building background material was worked into a very well done opening credit sequence, allowing them to spend more time on the main plot. Major kudos for managing to fit such a complicated plot into a three-hour time frame. At the same time, most of the main characters are well developed. Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and Rorschach are all explored almost exactly as they were in the book, with perfectly reasonable cuts for time. Sadly, though, Ozymandias, one of the most important characters in the story, gets severely short-changed on the development side. Other than a few monologues (at least one or two of which were not just badly-written add-ons by the filmmakers, but also contradicted some of the facts of the character and smacked of attempts to make the story “relevent” to modern political topics), Veidt is badly neglected.

Perhaps what bothers me the most about the film is the violence. The book has plenty of action and violence, sure, and plenty of blood. But the stylistic choices Snyder made for the action scenes is highly questionable. The gore factor was turned up quite a bit, for no other reason than shock value. One case in point – when Dan and Laurie are jumped by a gang of thugs, we see them gleefully handing out compound fractures, using men as human shields to protect against gun fire, and even stabbing them with their own knives. Not only does the extra gore not add anything to the story, it contradicts both of their personalities – Dan was always the one who wasn’t comfortable with excess brutality, and Laurie never cared for the life to begin with. In addition, it means some of Rorschach’s actions, which should be shocking, just don’t hit as hard as they should.

And on top of all that, Snyder apparently forgot that these people don’t have superpowers. They’re normal people. Yet in the film they have no trouble punching through walls, breaking bones, and tossing people across alleys. I assume it’s all in the name of “kewl” but it just doesn’t work for Watchmen.

All in all, it’s not terrible film. It has some big flaws, but I was entertained the whole way through. I look forward to seeing a longer cut later. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll probably have a lot more fun with it.

I’m still mulling over a pretty significant rewrite of the ending. I do think the slavish adherence to the comic’s framing robbed the film of some of the ending’s power.

Now if this same cast and crew (minus the ridiculous action scenes) had been tapped for a 12-hour HBO miniseries, it would have been solid gold. But as is, the filmmakers failed to convince me that this film should needed to be made.

I look forward to hearing other thoughts on the movie, so feel free to chime in. I’ve avoided official reviews up to this point, but I may peruse some to see what some of the pros though.

4 thoughts on “Who watches…?”

  1. I saw it last night – totally agree with you on both the violence and the ‘super-strength’ of the heroes. My understanding from the book is that only Dr. Manhattan was ‘super’ – hence the rest of the world’s fear of him. And the blood and gore was ridiculous.

    I _think_ I liked the movie’s ending better than the book, however – certainly fit in better with the nuclear clock motif throughout the book.

  2. Not a lot to add to what the two of you have said.

    I wasn’t bothered by the body-tossing and wall-punching, massive adrenaline dumps can produce surprising, short-term effects, nor was I bothered by the glee exhibited by Night Owl and Silk Spectre during the gang fight. Some people get a rush from such brushes and these two characters obviously need that sort of thing for sexual fulfillment.

    But I’m not certain why Snyder saw the need to be so graphic in his depiction of the violence. The bent limbs and protruding bones and explicitly severed body parts made me wince. I don’t need to see a power saw biting into flesh to understand someone’s arms have been severed.

    I also didn’t understand why Snyder decided to show Rorschach kill the child murderer with a cleaver. Shackling the killer within a burning building, and giving him his own cleaver to free himself, was much more emotionally satisfying.

    Overall, though, I consider those quibbles. I thought Snyder carved what needed to be carved from the book to make a good movie and that the changes made to the end were well done.

    And I particularly liked the performances turned in by Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.

    I have a theory that film actors are born to play certain roles and Haley’s is most certainly Rorschach. It was difficult to look away when he was on-screen and I cried when he died, even though I knew it was coming.

    Morgan was a surprise, too. I had never heard of him, but he invested something into the role of the Comedian that was special. And Is it just me, or did he remind you of Robert Downey Jr.?

    So, all said and done, a thumbs up and a very solid 3.5 stars (out of four) from me on Watchmen.

  3. Excellent comments, KC, and I agree. I went to see Watchmen again last weekend and was liking it a lot more before a brownout struck the entire town half-way through. Sigh.

    Haley reminded me very much of Ledger’s performance of the Joker. He just totally became Rorschach, and you really got a feel for him despite some crucial scenes of his getting cut for time. I agree about the change to the scene where he murders the child killer. Seemed like an odd change.

    I was similarly puzzled during the part where Nite Owl and Spectre save the people from the burning building. Why remove the water cannons from Archie in favor of an elaborate gun show to shoot down the water tower?

    I might actually go see it again this afternoon, hehe.

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