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WATCHMEN - the wertz generation
the scourge of complacency
Sean and I and a couple of friends caught Watchmen last night. If it hadn't been the last screening of the day, I would have been very tempted to have turned around, bought a second ticket, and watched it again. In my opinion, it is the best comic-book/graphic novel/pulp fiction/superhero adaptation that has ever reached the screen. Period. It makes The Dark Knight look like the adolescent wank-fest that it is.

That said, the film is clearly not for everyone - and I won't be surprised if a lot of people hate it. In case you've been living in your own alternate universe, the premise of the story is fairly simple: What if masked crime fighters existed in the real world? Had "superheroes" been around since their advent in comics, how might they have altered history? How might they have affected our notions of heroism itself? Alan Moore, who wrote the work on which the film is based, provides answers to those questions that are often bleak and pessimistic. The fact that much of his revisionist take on "superheroism" ("deconstruction" might be a bit too generous for fairly obvious points about vigilantism) remains intact is bound to turn some people off completely.

The film, like its source, also has its share of graphic violence and less graphic sex, which will not be to everyone's taste, either (having full-frontal male nudity - even if it's computer-generated - will no doubt be enough to make some people cringe). And those who are expecting a thriller with lots of incomprehensible action sequences à la Dark Knight or Quantum of Solace will also be in for a bit of a disappointment. For a superhero movie, there are remarkably few fight or chase sequences - and those that it does have are actually choreographed with a clarity that has otherwise vanished from recent action films.

Worst of all, though, Watchmen has a complex narrative and a complex narrative structure. There are at least half a dozen threads running through the story and there are frequent digressions and flashbacks. If that weren't bad enough, many of the themes that are dealt with are geared toward *gasp* grown-ups. Despite the non-linear structure, though, the story is easier to follow than I expected a (necessarily) truncated version of Watchmen would be. I saw the film with three people who have not read the original and two who knew next to nothing about the story at all. No one had difficult "following it". In fact, the one complaint that Sean had was that he wished we had got more of the characters' back stories - that it wasn't quite digressive enough.


As to the "adult themes" (a phrase I hesitate to use since all I really mean is intelligence) of the film, they may be a bit challenging for those accustomed to the typical good vs. evil fare of most superhero flicks. The costumed vigilantes themselves are not simply the vaguely neurotic Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker types; these "heroes" are variously sadistic, ineffectual, egotistical, frustrated, sociopathic, and nihilistic. And there are no supervillains: the villainy here consists of global politics, business, and war - i.e., they are us. I suspect there are some who will find the lack of a Manichean worldview vexatious and confusing.

I read the graphic novel several years ago and quite enjoyed it, though I wouldn't put myself in the fanboy category by any means. Alan Moore is a great story-teller with flashes of conceptual brilliance, but I don't quite stand in reverential awe of his talents - and I certainly don't consider his stories to be perfect and untouchable works of art. Nor, contrary to the previously running meme, would I have thought of Watchmen as being "unfilmable" (it's written in the form of a storyboard, for God's sake), though before seeing Zack Snyder's film I would have thought that it might have required a mini-series rather than a feature-length film to do it justice. In short, though, I would not have been dismayed if Snyder or the screenwriters (David Hayter and Alex Tse) had taken a few liberties with the novel (which they have - if very few). Ardent devotees of the graphic novel will no doubt have their complaints - and will be blogging about them for months.

To me, however, all of these "disadvantages" are what made the film work. The few liberties taken with the story, including a somewhat altered ending, are ***FANBOY HERESY ALERT*** improvements on the original (seriously, does anyone think that a genetically engineered creature with an exploding brain would be a more credible threat than nuclear war?). The "grown-up" concerns of the story are a welcome change in the genre. The fractured narrative gives the film much of its energy and intensity. The violence anchors the story firmly in the all-too-real world and illuminates the characters, raising questions that should be evident in any costumed vigilante film (there's a big difference between a "POW!" graphic and a compound fracture tearing through a bad guy's forearm). And the questions which the film does raise are not only challenging, they are extremely pertinent - perhaps more pertinent now than when the story was first drafted twenty-odd years ago.

As to one's ability to watch an action sequence and actually know what's going on - unlike the incomprehensible messes made by films like The Dark Knight and The Bourne Supremacy - this speaks to one of the film's greatest strengths. Film, like the graphic novel, is a visual medium. And Watchmen is visually stunning on almost every level. I can't say that I cared very much for Zack Snyder's last effort, 300 - though its greatest strength was also in its visual story-telling. He uses a few of the same techniques here (like the slow-motion/rapid-advance fight choreography), but much more sparingly. It is the combination of the design, the cinematography, the editing, and the staging that works so very well in bringing the story to the screen. The color scheme of the film also relies heavily on John Higgins' original comic-book palette - the dark reds and purples, the searing cyans, and (of course) the black on bright yellow of the emblematic smiley. Snyder sensibly relies on a lot of the frames from the graphic novel itself and there are numerous individual shots and sequences that are breath-taking, expanding the often workmanlike graphics of Dave Gibbons. Snyder animates the original artwork with an immediacy and attention to detail that brings the story to devastating life. And the capsule history that runs under the opening credits is one of the best visual sequences ever committed to film. (An online copy can be found here - at the moment, anyway - though I'd definitely recommend seeing it in the cinema first, ideally in IMAX.)


The film does have a few flaws, but none that are overwhelming. I expect there will be complaints about a couple of the performances (though I rather appreciated the fact that there are no star turns and that the telling of the story overshadows the individual characters to an extent) and the central love triangle drags slightly (just as it did in the original), though not enough to make the film feel long - which, at 163 minutes, it could easily have done. But a few of the performances are quite good - particularly Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan (even though the character was largely CGI), and especially Jackie Earle Haley (who seemed to be channeling Clint Eastwood) as Rorschach. Some of the music (much of which is drawn from references in the original novel) seems a little heavy-handed, particularly the My Chemical Romance cover of Dylan's "Desolation Row" that plays - jarringly and unnecessarily - over the closing credits (and which should be cut from the film immediately, if not sooner). But most of the soundtrack is quite effective - and effectively ironic.

The only problem I had with the adaptation was the severe editing of a number of secondary characters: Bernard and Bernie (the newsagent and comics kid), Detectives Fine and Bourquin, Dr. Long (Rorschach's psychiatrist), and so on. Obviously, developing such characters would have added considerably to the running time (and none of them are that interesting of themselves), but they gave the novel something that the film ultimately lacks: a human element. Our sole focus in the film is on the "heroes" (and a few public figures like Nixon and Kissinger), not on any "ordinary" citizens. This removes a certain amount of sympathy for the bulk of humankind, which is under threat from nuclear annihilation, and renders the countdown to Doomsday a little less immediate, weakening the story's sense of urgency.

Moore himself has said, "What Nixon does and what Dr. Manhattan does and what Veidt does - it effects the people on the street corner but only peripherally, indirectly... And yet, in some ways, those people on the street corner, it's their story. They're the people we're concerned about." And they are the people who are missing from the film.

The overriding impression, though, is that of the writer's vision being fiercely realized by an intensely visual director. It had my party sitting in the cinema discussing the film after the final credits finished rolling until the staff had to throw us out - then continuing to discuss it for an hour or so in the parking lot. I expect we'll continue talking about it for weeks to come.

I guess you could say I recommend it. smiley

humour: satisfied satisfied

8 others have so why not generate commentary
pacotelic From: pacotelic Date: March 9th, 2009 09:59 am (UTC) (link)
That was the on;y thing I missed, but I knew that adding t would've added an hour to the movie: all the street corner interactions and their eventual end. The director did a very good job of threading the needle between fauth and detail. His contemprary tacking on of big oil and big auto concerns wasn't even that egregious, as it played like a revenge epic for 2007-2008 American audiences.
wertz From: wertz Date: March 9th, 2009 04:09 pm (UTC) (link)
And they weren't even that tacked on. In the original, as I recall, one of Veidt's first big money-spinners was some kind of electric car and fuel efficient "airships" - aided by Dr. Manhattan's ability to create lithium or something.
rowanda380 From: rowanda380 Date: March 9th, 2009 03:41 pm (UTC) (link)
really...you liked Dr. Manhattan's performance? I found his delivery so belabored...I was so annoyed just thinking, get the words out and stop talking!!!
wertz From: wertz Date: March 9th, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC) (link)
I did, yeah. Maybe it had to do with my expectations. I was afraid that there might have been some attempt to make Dr. Manhattan seem other-wordly or something (all of his dialogue in the novel appears in outlined balloons with a blue background, indicating that his voice is somehow alien). I was actually pleased that he sounded kinda low-key, even a bit reedy and felt that gave the character more humanity than a computer-generated character might have had. Plus, in the novel, Manhattan is much more verbose, so I found the screen character relatively terse by comparison. I'm not sure how I would've felt if I'd been coming to the film cold.

It may also help that I generally find Billy Crudup pretty appealing - and I thought his persona came through in the voice work. The god-like buttocks probably didn't hurt, either.  :)
rowanda380 From: rowanda380 Date: March 9th, 2009 05:32 pm (UTC) (link)
lol, those were definitely some crazy buttocks...but yeah, with nothing to compare it too since I haven't read the comics...I am just glad they didn't make him talk any more than they did :0)
rpeate From: rpeate Date: March 9th, 2009 03:54 pm (UTC) (link)
First, let me thank you for this reasoned review. You like the film, but you analyse it rationally, which enables me to take you seriously and to reconsider some of the bad I've heard. That said:

I have heard bad things about it, and what you post here does not assuage my concerns. Two specifics:

1. "The violence anchors the story firmly in the all-too-real world and illuminates the characters, raising questions that should be evident in any costumed vigilante film (there's a big difference between a 'POW!' graphic and a compound fracture tearing through a bad guy's forearm)."

How does what you say here differ from this criticism in the negative New York Times review?

The sex may be laughable, but the violence is another matter. The infliction of pain is rendered in intimate and precise aural and visual detail, from the noise of cracking bones and the gushers of blood and saliva to the splattery deconstruction of entire bodies. But brutality is not merely part of Mr. Snyder’s repertory of effects; it is more like a cause, a principle, an ideology. And his commitment to violence brings into relief the shallow nihilism that has always lurked beneath the intellectual pretensions of “Watchmen.” The only action that makes sense in this world — the only sure basis for ethics or politics, the only expression of love or loyalty or conviction — is killing. And the dramatic conflict revealed, at long last, in the film’s climactic arguments is between a wholesale, idealistic approach to mass death and one that is more cynical and individualistic.
What's wrong with wanting to like the good guys, to think there are good guys, guys (metaphor for "men and women") who actually behave morally? I don't want to leave a movie feeling sullied by immorality or apathy. I don't want to see a story raise big questions only to answer them negatively or not at all.

And why do I need to hear bones cracking to get a lesson? I don't. Presentation can be less violent yet instructive. My big complaint is with gratuitious violence, and everything I'm hearing says this film is chock full of it. A three-minute rape scene? No, thanks.

2. "It's just too long," a man on the radio said last week, while also saying that he thought young nerdy males would like it and everyone else would not, because it's too violent, dark, and dreary.

My own personal complaint with the storyline (as opposed to its violent execution) I read on Wikipedia is that the transition from superheroes helping society to being outlawed is not explained. Is it explained, ever? Why the turning against heroes?

Thanks again for thoughtful commentary!

Edited at 2009-03-09 04:06 pm (UTC)
wertz From: wertz Date: March 9th, 2009 06:06 pm (UTC) (link)
I'm in the midst of errands and so on, but I'll definitely get back to this tonight some time.
wertz From: wertz Date: March 10th, 2009 10:11 am (UTC) (link)
Heh - I was way too long-winded. See new post for reply...
8 others have so why not generate commentary