I realised, after watching the Watchmen film today, that I had been approaching it as an adaptation rather than as a film. I really don’t know how it is as an actual film, apart from the fact that it is quite long with no indication as to its pacing if you’re unfamiliar with the story, and that it remains fairly episodic.
What do I think of it? The reviews have been mixed, I know. Unlike Wil Wheaton, I have not been waiting for Watchmen for more than twenty years. Unlike Roger Ebert, I don’t consider it a four star film.
A brief history of me and Watchmen: I bought it about eighteen months ago, and read it last month. As is the case with such things, the moment of consumption is the moment that you kick yourself for not doing it earlier. It was very good. I was even moved at points, and would describe the end of chapter eleven as one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in comics.
The movie is brought to us by “the visionary director of 300“. I advise rereading that sentence. If it makes you shout “THIS IS SPARTA!”, carry on. If it makes your eyes roll back into your head and your mouth begins to foam, I accept no responsibility for your medical bills. I’m not sure how much of a visionary you have to be to produce near carbon copy faithful recreations of comic books, but I’m not sure that Zack Snyder is one – particularly in light of the fact that, despite the absolutely ridiculous fidelity to the source material, Watchmen differs in places both minor and key – including the much talked of yet infuriatingly vaguely whispered new ending.
SPOILER CITY FROM THIS POINT FORTH
NO, SERIOUSLY, I SPOIL THIS MOVIE SO HARD
Rather than pretend to write a cohesive extended piece of prose, I thought that some bullet points would be the order of the day. Unfortunately, I’ve lent out my copy of Absolute Watchmen, so can’t refer back to it. I’ve already verified one thing: this movie is ridiculously violent, much more so than the comic ever was. As there is a rule of “show, don’t tell”, I’m certain that there’s one that suggests the implication of violence can be more effective than simply showing a dude being hacked repeatedly in the brain with a cleaver, or a man having both of his arms cut off with a circular saw.
The body count in this movie simply makes no sense: early in the comic Dan and Laurie are cornered in an alley by a gang of top knots, whom they make short work of. In the film they make short work of them … by breaking their arms and snapping their necks. Even if vigilantes were legal, I’m fairly certain that they wouldn’t be allowed to kill everyone who got in their way. Then again, in a fantasy America, maybe this would be possible.
Besides that, the film doesn’t get off to a great start: the set up of 1985 is a hamfisted news report explaining the concept of the Doomsday Clock, assisted by people who are more caricatures than characters. Snyder has decided to insert a lot of lookalikes of celebrities of the period and they’re all very clumsy. Richard Nixon, who is actually integral to the plot, is a ridiculously nosed fellow who has an approximation of that voice, but it’s something that really takes you out of the movie. The Nixon role is greatly expanded from the comic, but not in a welcome fashion. When the Comedian starts the film’s first fight and I was presented with a damned 300 reference I fretted, but the trouble soon passed.
Of all of the intrigues attached to the film, one of the greatest is that of the change to the ending. It was frustrating that no one could tell me what it was. Now, thanks to the magic of a simultaneous release, pretty much everyone on the internet would be able to find out very easily.
Put simply, I don’t like it. The plot, as it was, tied everything together pretty effectively. In changing something so fundamental to the story in the late stage revelations, earlier parts of the film don’t make much sense. This is going to be absolute spoiler territory here, so you’ve been warned.
Adrian Veidt’s plan in the comic is to synthesise a giant psychic squid, which he teleports to New York, where its intrusion instantly kills about half of the city’s population. Having suggested the existence of an alien threat to all humanity, the world comes together in peace – and Veidt has to bear the weight of all of the deaths on his shoulders.
I suppose that, from a certain point of view, this looks a bit silly, but consider the reality of the situation: if an otherworldly being materialised in a major city and half of the people died as a consequence, you’d rethink things. You wouldn’t think “‘ere, that’s one fake giant squid! Someone’s pullin’ our legs!” You probably wouldn’t even be a cockney. You’d have physical evidence of all of these deaths, and you wouldn’t have time to be sceptical.
Moore was, of course, writing before the internet and 9/11 Truthers – but it’s a sound argument.
In the film, Veidt still wants to achieve world peace – but this time by besmirching Dr. Manhattan’s good name. He synthesises Manhattan-like explosions in major cities across the globe, and Nixon takes this to mean that Dr. Manhattan stands in judgement of humanity and he could strike again at any moment. This idea is sound in theory, but it also means that a lot of the Comedian’s material makes no damned sense – and that his death was an inevitability, rather than the result of an unfortunate coincidence.
One of the great mysteries of the comic was the idea of “the island”. The Comedian happened to fly over the island, and was horrified by what he saw there – the squid. Here, though, we’re expected to believe that The Comedian was researching Veidt on behalf of Nixon and found out about this “Dr. Manhattan Project”.
Veidt’s plan makes no sense if he’s under any sort of suspicion from the government, because the whole point of the man is that he’s beyond reproach. No one suspects him. One might even suggest that no one is watching the Watchman. The squid is rooted deep in the psyche, and almost certainly more likely to have unhinged the Comedian than any Manhattan explosion machine could have done. To say “yeah, uh, the Comedian found out about the plot and had to be stopped” is weak. It explains nothing, really. I like the concept of a poor schmuck who coincidentally happens to be a government sanctioned masked vigilante accidentally stumbling upon an arch scheme that ensures he would never be allowed to live. Like that one time I found out the horrible truth of fluoride.
On top of that, Veidt’s Antarctic base has been transformed from bio domes and science to a replica Ancient Egyptian complex. I’m not entirely certain I understood his justifications for killing everyone with blue sparks as being the Ancient Egyptian way, but I liked his tropical snow domes and don’t quite understand why they needed to be changed. On the same note, Dan didn’t have to show any smarts to crack the code at all, which is disappointing: he simply saw a book on Veidt’s desk and guessed. The best thing about superheroes, even if they’re just dudes in masks, is that they talk themselves through problems for the benefit of the reading public – frequently solving them in ingenious ways.
A weird touch is that, on Veidt’s computer, is a folder labelled “BOYS”. Yes, he’s a suspected homosexual. But what good could come of a folder with that name on a 1985 monochromatic computer? One has to think of these things and their larger implications.
One of the things that struck me about Watchmen in its original form is that it always felt like a period piece to me despite the fact that, when it was written, it was set in the future. The alleged New York that we’re presented in this film is a sort of second-hand Blade Runner without the dust and frequent stolen glimpses of the World Trade Centre. It was small stuff that built a larger world that I realise, in retrospect, I came to love. The scope of this movie does not allow for that stuff, and I understand that completely. The simple fact is that you cannot throw the cliché “New York is a character in the movie” out there and expect it to stick here.
To the rest of the film!
The penis talk that you’ve seen all over the internet is totally exaggerated: Manhattan certainly is naked a lot of the time, but honestly it’s blue on blue and you’ll only notice it if you’re looking for it. Of course, you will be looking for it because you’ve been brainwashed into the search for a blue penis, but it’s not something that’s likely to haunt you or stick in your mind. If the most disturbing part of this filmic adaptation is a bit of CG nudity, then you must have ignored the dead dogs and the amputations – all on screen, of course.
Manhattan himself kind of rubbed me the wrong way, I guess because seeing him in made flesh kind of reveals how much of a dick he is. In book form you can accept that he’s separate to humanity and sees himself as above it. On film he’s just a big blue dude with boundless reserves of arrogance.
The way the issue of his leaving Earth is tackled leaves something to be desired: while it cuts down on exposition time to have Manhattan already in possession of the photo of himself and Janey, and to have Janey confront him face to face, it’s too much of a manipulation of the character. I got the impression that, despite living in all times, Manhattan didn’t really think of Janey much – but that the news of her cancer was torturous to him. His trip to Mars is not just a way of revealing his back story to us, but his own logical reduction of his life to its base elements. The “true” love story of Watchmen is that between Dan and Laurie, so we’re not supposed to care that much about her and Manhattan – despite him taking her youth away. It rankles that Manhattan gets one last kiss from her before he disappears from the galaxy altogether, when one should accept that all things have come to their end in this relationship (and here I really wish I had the comic to hand, because that kind of criticism could bite me in the arse if it’s in the source material).
Of course, reducing Manhattan’s final guilt inducing words to Veidt to “I neither condone nor condemn” is a ridiculous disservice. Matthew Goode’s Veidt shows no sign of being hit with the realisation of the more personal implications of the crime that he committed.
Jackie Earle Haley does a great Rorschach, and one for whom it is easy to feel sympathy despite his patent wackness. He seems a perfect fit for the role, although his back story is a little too concatenated and there’s no explanation for his “true face”. The Walter Kovacs chapter is one of the best parts of the comic (although, honestly, there’s too much that I seem to attribute as the “best part” of the damn thing), and it’s sad to see the psychiatrist (along with the newsagent) sidelined.
Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl/Dan is good in a faintly pathetic way, and there’s no part of the character that I felt was underrepresented. He’s the “everyman” hero of the film, and not exactly bland for that but desperately in need of a little excitement. Naturally, Laurie is the source of good times – including the film’s faintly ridiculous sex scene set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (take that, Jeff Buckley!).
Malin Akerman is better than expected as Laurie/Silk Spectre, with only one really bad line delivery – “Just stop your bullshit!” being rendered by her as “Just stop! You’re bullshit!”. She’s also evidence that women can be good at punching and killing people.
Which brings me, at long last, to the claims of misogyny. The attempted rape scene is a bit much. The Comedian punches the original Silk Spectre (here rendered as “Miss Jupiter” to simplify things) a hell of a lot before he attempts to have his way with her. But besides this very graphic, very violent scene, I’m not seeing much else that could be read as misogyny – unless you consider naked breasts on film misogynistic by default. Oh, yeah, I guess there’s also the matter of the Comedian shooting a pregnant Vietnamese woman without remorse. This is a simple case of transference, though: it’s a wrongheaded idea to transplant the worldview of a character onto a movie itself. The Comedian is somehow a personable and sympathetic character despite being a mass murdering rapist (“but,” as Rorschach might say, “so was Hitler”), but the movie isn’t saying “hey guys, beating and raping women and shooting protestors is awesome!” It dares to show the Comedian committing heinous acts without the pretence of judging them. Of course, the only place I’ve seen the accusation of misogyny from is generally insane, but I thought I should address it anyway.
I also can’t let this thing go past without mentioning that the music is probably the best part of it – down to nuclear cautionary romance tale “99 Luft Balloons”. If you ever wanted proof that Bob Dylan wrote every song ever, this is probably it.
My biggest problem with the film, beyond the absence of our friend the squid, is that it’s sometimes far too obvious. This is clear not just in the violence, but in the case of Laurie’s parentage. I checked at the time: nowhere in the comic is it explicitly said “The Comedian is Laurie’s father”. In the film it’s said at least four thousand times. Well, closer to Laurie saying “The Comedian is my father?!”, Manhattan saying “The Comedian is your father …” and then going on to explain the chances of conception, then Laurie saying to her mother “I know that Eddie Blake was my father,” and her mother saying “yep, he sure was your father.”
So at least we’ve got super confirmation there. On a similar note is the treatment of homosexuality within the Minutemen (the precursors to the Watchmen, although if you’re reading such a spoiler laden jumble of words you should probably know): Silhouette, Mister Metropolis and Hooded Justice are, in their brief appearances, incredibly obvious – despite the fact that Silhouette was drummed out of the group after the exposure of her proclivities. Why so much of this is revealed in a tableau that is none-too-subtly reminiscent of The Last Supper is beyond me.
I think what I’m forced to say – and I might contradict myself after I see it again tomorrow – is that we’ve got a flawed recreation of a great work of sequential art (hah, I avoided saying “graphic novel” all the way, then I throw that at you at the end). It’s long, it’s episodic, it’s excessively violent and it misses out on things that could not be reasonably replicated in the cinematic form that were nonetheless essential to the charm of the piece. Honestly, though, this is probably as good as a Watchmen movie could have been. Still, where’s my damn squid?
Yeah, I suck at bullet points. Also there’s going to be the director’s cut to consider in a few months’ time, so this might not be the last we’ve heard of me and Watchmen.