I own well over 1,000 comic books collected over the years, and to this day they sit “bagged n’ boarded” for their protection, tucked away safely in my grandparents’ basement. But I would only consider myself a comic book geek on the superficial level. I was in it for the pictures. If it looked cool, I bought it. If I wanted to read words, I’d buy a novel. And, with no disrespect to artist Dave Gibbons, I never got into Watchmen because it just didn’t look as cool as, say, Jim Lee’s X-Men, or Rob Liefield’s New Mutants. In my adulthood, though, I’ve read the book. It’s dense. It’s dark. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. But I don’t love it like I’m supposed to.
But, when they announced that it was being made into a movie, I was psyched. When I saw a teaser for it, I was edge-of-my-seat psyched. And when I was sitting in the theater last night with a sold out crowd, I wanted to grab my friends who attended with me and shake them while yelling, “Do you know what this means? Someone has done the unthinkable! They have made the un-filmable! God exists!”
And when the opening credits rolled, I thought to myself God exists and he is Zach Snyder. The sequence, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” is lightning in a bottle and hurled against the screen. We see the entire history of an alternate United States in which costumed heroes are born. Each shot is like a still frame set into subtle motion. A masked avenger punches a robber in the face just as he shoots his gun… A hero presents a ne’er do well to the media as camera flashes burst. It’s nothing short of modern art, and I hope they make a coffee table book with these images, if they haven’t already. I will buy it.
These opening credits don’t exist in the book. And here’s where Watchmen fell short of perfection for me. For almost the rest of the film, it tried too hard to be the book. It’s the most faithful adaptation of an Alan Moore-written comic yet. Even Moore, notoriously pissy about his ink being turned into celluloid, had to admit that David Hayter’s script was, “The closest anyone could ever come to Watchmen.” (Since then, the script has gone through some doctoring and other writers, but you get the point.) But is that a good thing? Not necessarily.
What didn’t work:
Well, Moore’s Watchmen was set in an alternate 1985, but a credible one with political figures, pundits and celebs we know. The film tried to recreate those characters but made many cartoons. Witness a rubber-faced Richard Nixon, who looked more like a bank robber from Poin Break than the real Tricky Dick. Witness a recreated episode of PBS’s The McLaughlin Group, which looked more the Phil Hartman-led SNL spoof than the real deal.
Also, certain poignant moments in the comic are best left as still images. It’s so much easier to believe the moments between those frames if we’re making them up in our head. Witness the film’s climax, in which Watchman Sally Jupiter (Malin Akerman) indignantly raise a gun to a dogged adversary’s head and deliver a rather uninspiring, “You’re an asshole.” A key moment becomes a bit of a groaner. And there were several times in the film that the performances seemed out of synch with the tone. It shifted from subtle realism to melodrama and back again, sometimes in the same scene.
The film’s use of music is also hit or miss. Many times, it’s meant to put you in the era. We get “99 Red Balloons,” and an ironic muzak version of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” in scenes from alternate ’85. Yet sometimes the song choice feels way out of time, like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” played over a funeral scene – also set in ‘85. Maybe the mid-80s just lacked songs with enough gravitas. Wham! doesn’t go well with funerals, I guess.
What worked really well:
The opening death of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) sets the tone for the rest of the film’s hyper-violent Sam Peckinpah-by-way-of-The Wachowskis violence. At times it was egregious (Skilsaw severing a prison inmate’s beefy arms, anyone?) but for the most part, it was beautiful bombast and made us feel every crunch, punch, shatter of glass and smatter of blood. It made Steven Seagal’s choreography look like a drunken bear slap fight. (I’ve only seen a drunken bear slap fight in my head, but you can imagine.)
Rorschach, Rorschach, Rorschach. Jackie Earle Haley’s take on Watchmen’s most beloved vigilante detective is nothing short of genius. Rorshach is the hard-liner – the last of the true crimefighters. He’s also f**king nuts. Haley spends most of the time with his mask on – still cool – but when the mask comes off, you can’t look away. He does as much with a tiny facial tic than any amount of one-liners can achieve. (The sequence in which Rorschach spends a brief stint in jail with the scum he’s helped lock up was my screening’s real crowd pleaser.) If there’s someone to come out of this ensemble a real star, it’s Haley. Little Children was no fluke.
Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Carla Gugino also give good turns, too. Billy Crudup (as the radioactive blue Dr. Manhattan) was essentially given a CG paint job for the majority of the film, so it’s hard to gauge what was him and what was some animator in a darkened cubicle. Except for a few moments when the CG-artifacts showed their face – like when he talked in close-up – it was wholly credible.
Simon and Garfunkel aside, the most effective sequence in the film for me was The Comedian’s funeral (I’m not really spoiling anything if you’ve seen the trailers). As the Watchmen stand around the descending, Old Glory-draped casket, we stop on each one of them, and are then transported into his or her telling backstory. The sequence revealing Dr. Manhattan’s tragic origin was particularly moving. Set to music from Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack, we watch Crudup’s John Osterman “die” in a science experiment gone horribly wrong and come back as Dr. Manhattan, the world’s first real superhero. At the end of the sequence, during a press conference revealing Manhattan to the public, one of his scientist colleagues proudly quips, “The superman exists and he is American.” It’s a great line borrowed directly from the comic, and got a huge laugh from the audience. (I saw this in West L.A. so it may have elicited a different reaction elsewhere.)
One significant adjustment the film made from the book comes in the ending. (Spoilers ahead.) Nowhere to be found is the giant squid attacking New York. Instead we have the mastermind Ozymandias constructing a massive tachyon beam conductor and destroying the world’s major metropolises – not just NYC - in order to frame Dr. Manhattan and unite Cold Warring countries against a common enemy. Now, here’s a prime example of where the film took liberties and it worked really well. I liked this ending better than the book. It felt more thought out. It felt more poignant with Dr. Manhattan being forced into exile in such a tragic and direct way. It felt more complete. It was, as Dr. Manhattan says to Sally Jupiter, “Like watching air turn into gold.”
Should YOU watch the Watchmen?
Well, you probably already have. But if you haven’t, go see it.
At the end of the day, you’re not going to walk out of the theater feeling good. This is a requiem for the common superhero, and tackles some morally complex questions about people in power. Spider-Man told us, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Watchmen tells us, “Great power and great responsibility can sometimes mean the choice between fighting a losing battle valiantly or blowing up the world to save humanity.”
I applaud Zach Snyder for such a grand experiment. You can tell a lot of love was put into what’s essentially a tribute to what so many call the greatest comic book of all time. But the film suffers for its slavishness. Maybe when the super deluxe mega gigantic Blu-Ray director’s cut comes out, it won’t feel that way.
In the meantime, I might just have to see it again on the big screen to be sure.
-- PATRICK SCHUMACKER