This is Not a Watchmen Review

The world doesn’t need another Watchmen review. Everyone with access to a preview screening and a web page has already done one. The world is not short of opinions and the web doesn’t seem to differentiate between considered responses and emotional reflex put to words, though you can find some of the better ones here (thanks to David Hudson at The Daily @ IFC.com for wading through the onslaught to pick out the more interesting responses).

So this is not a Watchmen review. It’s a consideration of what the film is and how it got that way: perhaps the most faithful cinematic replica of a comic book experience every accomplished.

Here is my question: why would anyone want that? I have the graphic novel. I’ve read it a few times and can pick it up anytime I want to.

I go to the movies to be immersed, impressed, awed, engaged. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen feels like a film made to deliver a sense of comfort that everything is exactly as you remember from the graphic novel. The character stories and arcs are all there, along with the complex backstories and the alternate history of America. The signature images from the comic books are all on display: the marvelous costume designs (which in some cases evoke comic-book silliness and garish impracticality of yesteryear costumed heroes), Doctor Manhattan’s Mars Fortress of Solitude, Archie the Nite Owl’s ship. In an interview Alan Moore gave to Wired Magazine, he complained that no film could get the texture of Dave Gibbons’ artwork. Maybe, but I can’t imagine anyone getting closer.

Nite Owl and Archie
Nite Owl and Archie

Yes, Snyder streamlined the story and judiciously edited out certain subplots and side-stories (notably the “Tales from the Black Freighter,” which will be released on a separate DVD later this month and is promised to be returned to the DVD release – though fans of the comic will notice that the news agent and the comic-book fan are present in a few shots). And he even dared to change the details of Moore’s original ending, twisting it with an insight so perceptive that one wonders if Moore would have done the same had it occurred to him, so beautifully does it wrap itself within the self-contained mythology and the character dynamics.

In moments like these, Snyder showed how much he understood Moore’s Watchmen. He gets the schizoid conviction and moralistic hysteria of Old Testament avenger Rorschach, the vestiges of human emotion struggling with existential disconnection in Dr. Manhattan, and the arrogance and false piety of industrialist gazillionaire Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, whose show of suffering for all the souls he kills is a piece of theater he stages like a martyr. Meanwhile his corporate logo adorns the reconstruction of the devastated cities. These details are inherent in the graphic novel, but Snyder brings them to life in a way distinctive to the movies. Matthew Goode lets the hypocrisy show through the mask of saintly sacrifice, and shows that for all his fears of Dr. Manhattan becoming a God, it is Veidt who acts like one.

Dr. Manhattan disconnecting from his human origins
Dr. Manhattan disconnecting from his human origins


Yet these editorial decisions are ultimately tinkering on a small scale. It’s less about seeing Snyder’s cinematic interpretation of the story than watching an adaptation so slavish, so respectful and so literal that there isn’t anything original or interpretive or personal in it. What we get is the inevitable adaptation from the fertilizer provided by the echo chamber of the web culture and the blogosphere in the age of “Ain’t It Cool, which has given an inordinate power to every fan with an opinion and a webpage. This is the film to please the obsessive fan who wants every frame of the comic on the screen, by God, or it’s a failure. Snyder was surely as driven by his need to satisfy the collective voice of the minority, amplified by 21st century communications until it overwhelms the discourse, as his own vision. You can see it in the way he has crammed detail that, in the scope of a feature film, becomes a distraction from the drama. You can feel it in his pacing, tied to the structure of a 12-episode comic-book series, as if the fluid nature of a movie and the static nature of graphic storytelling can be interchanged. The fans have gotten the adaptation they deserve. Is it the one they want? Maybe it is.

Little kids like to watch the same videos over and over again. They like the sense of comfort that familiarity brings, and the assurance that they know just what is going to happen next.

When I revisit movies and books, I do it to dig deeper. Yes, I do appreciate the familiarity of some films, but I also want to reach beyond the familiar to see new things within, or to see the same stories and images and words through different eyes. And with adaptations, I want to see what insight and perspective one artist has brought to the work originally created in another medium by a different artist. As I watched Watchmen, I felt that a narrative and visual checklist was being counted down to satisfy every expectation of the die-hard fan. I was impressed, maybe even dazzled. But I was never surprised. This movie may be as good a feature-length version of the graphic novel as you could hope for, but it lacks urgency and passion, at least dramatically. It’s a dazzling pageant of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but there were only brief moments where I felt that I was seeing Zach Snyder’s Watchmen.

Rorschach
Rorschach

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

7 thoughts on “This is Not a Watchmen Review”

  1. Well done, Sean! Part of the fun for me was seeing how the movie reinterpreted the comics. It’s really close at times, even “quoting” the images off the pages, but if you go back and look at the book you’ll see it does a lot of really smart condensing, editing, re-interpreting… I think it’s designed to be viewed that way by the cult “fanboys.” Smart move. It doesn’t quite come to life for me, either — but neither does the graphic novel. It’s unconventional like that. Still, there’s so much imagination, so much to look at in every frame. (One of my favorite thing is the shot of the swinging bathroom door in the prison — which isn’t in the comics.)

  2. Thanks, Jim. There are a lot of things I think Snyder does well, but his slavish adherence to the structure and pacing I think comes at the detriment to the story he is telling of the story Moore and Gibbons told. When he adds his accents and perspectives, his character interpretations, the use of Leonard Cohen’s otherwise overused anthem as counterpoint to Nite Owl having mad sex with Silk Spectre (of course, it is only right to celebrate his triumph over impotence), I’m with the film.

    What I want to hear are the responses of people who haven’t read the comic and don’t have those narrative expectations. Are their responses substantially different from mine?

  3. Oh, yeah? Well, you’re a DOODY-HEAD! OK, I saw the movie in overwhelming IMAX, and I was quite giddy with the “slavish dedication” to the book in many if not most scenes in the film. One of the things that did strike me as an unexplored option, was the idea of rearranging the various chronologies in some way as to make it flow more like a movie than the constant jumps between past, present and future in the book, but I don’t pretend to know how one would make that work, or how far to go with it.

    For myself, I found myself in the role of total fanboy pretty much throughout the movie, and I agree that it seems to have been created quite significantly to existing fans of Watchmen and less for a wider audience. My wife did note, however, that not having actually read Watchmen herself, she was unable to make sense of a whole lot of what was going on and whom was who. I think that, while on the one hand I am one of those that is quite happy with the idea of simply making the original book move up on a big screen (at least in this instance), I also would have liked to see a restructuring of the story so as to more effectively provide the necessary backstory and exposition to allow virgin viewers to know what’s going on.

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