I Watched The Watchmen

krapp-watchmen-dr-manhattan-t-shirt

Some of these [horrors] have swelled in the passage from novel to screen: what was, for [Ian] McEwan, a single rotting corpse underfoot becomes for Wright and Hampton an orchard strewn with dead schoolgirls, each of them with a bullet hole in the brow. Are we so inured to shock these days, or so hard to convince, that only mass slaughter will suffice? -Anthony Lane, ‘Conflicting Stories

I don’t have the stamina or familiarity to write anything extended and meaningful on Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of Watchmen. But I am a huge fan of the book, and because I live in France, I have a day’s edge on the American dorks who will bloat the internet to capacity with their musings in a few short hours (that’s the real doomsday clock) and so I decided to share my thoughts before I sleep on them.

The film is a success, one of the best comic book films yet made, although I’m not sure how much of a compliment that is. The purportedly ‘unfilmmable’ story has been rendered by Alex Tsi and David Hayter (the guy who voices Solid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid video game franchise), after years of troubled drafts, into a coherent, faithful (perhaps to a fault), worthy and definitive version of Alan Moore’s masterpiece. Its shortcomings are the shortcomings of the original text; eye-rollers like ‘What happened to the American dream? It came true!’ can pass under the radar when they appear in a speech bubble, but are  painful when spoken. (The fire rescue scene is as insipid as ever.)

One might say that the screenwriters managed to improve the story. The least credible part of Watchmen had always been the ending, with its preposterous consequence and Platonic overtones (Book-III-of-The-Republic Platonic, I mean). I won’t give away what they’ve changed it (the fanboys and girls probably already know), but the new ending is not only more plausible, it also reinforces what I think is the most compelling theme of the book: How do men behave when a god lives among them?

Comic book movies are never the medium of great performances (Heath Ledger included) but the casting here is simply inspired. Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach) and Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl II) seem to have been transported off the page, and a medley of character actors (Matt Frewer, Danny Woodburn, Rob Labelle) keep things buoyant and charming. Dr. Manhattan (my favorite character; I have the Manhattan-blue molecule t-shirt) is a bit wooden and disappointing, but it isn’t Billy Crudup’s fault. Prosthetics probably would have looked ridiculous, but whatever glowing graphic they’ve used to give Manhattan an arch-entity’s air deprives him of any means of emotional expression. It’s surprising how dehumanizing the lack of an iris is; the most ‘lifelike’ looking thing about him is his flaccid blue penis. (Tachyons interfering with anything else there, doc?)

My main problem with the film (besides some seriously bad sex) is its excess of violence. The comic certainly isn’t lacking in violence; at its release, Watchmen was shocking and celebrated for its ‘adult’ content. But Snyder, who also directed an adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, takes it to an unnecessary level.

Cinematic gore will always be more gruesome than its drawn counterpart, but Snyder abuses his medium in degree and detail. Some subtle insinuations of violence remain intact (blood seeping out from the prison bathroom’s door) but how many cleaver hacks must we witness to feel Rorschach’s horror? Blood spurts, fractures compound (you know, when the jagged bone pierces the skin), and when Laurie and Dan Dreiberg are almost mugged, she rams a knife into the side of one thug’s neck and out the other. In the original version of that scene, no one is killed, and the whole encounter is giddy foreplay for Dan and Laurie, an exhilarating, nostalgic rumble down memory alley. What’s wrong with the film version is that, despite the corpses, the subtext remains.

But how much can we blame Snyder? We know the bloodthirsty demographic for which comic book films are tailored. And Watchmen, spectacular in the literal sense, should please them and nerds alike. If you’re not already a fan, however, don’t expect to be moved or englightened or inspired—unless it’s to pick a copy of the source material.

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~ by ohkrapp on March 5, 2009.

4 Responses to “I Watched The Watchmen”

  1. Greg,

    I’m pleased to read that you enjoyed “Watchmen” so much. I must admit that I am still VERY apprehensive about the film. I too am a huge fan of the graphic novel (I’m re-reading it tonight and tomorrow in preparation for the movie). Unfortunately, I think Zack Snyder is a bit of a hack. He’s certainly no “visionary director,” TV spots and billboards notwithstanding. I didn’t like his remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” I found “300” to be pretty fun, but only because I thought it ludicrous. And from all the clips I’ve seen of “Watchmen,” it looks like he employs the slow-motion CGI effects in his latest film, as well — which doesn’t match the aesthetic of the novel at all.

    I’ve heard about the decision to change the ending, and I’ve decided to reserve judgement on that until I’ve actually seen the film. But I’m not hopeful. Also — and maybe I’m just being nitpicky at this point — I take issue at the decision to change the name of the heroes from The Minutemen to The Watchmen. I know this was probably just a studio executive’s decision (“But… the movie’s called ‘Watchmen!’ So call the super heroes that too!”), but the fact remains that WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN was authorial commentary in the graphic novel.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your review. A few of my friends and I have started a lil’ blog/e-zine and we’re trying to get the word out. We’d appreciate any readers and all readers. http://anamorphicanalysis.blogspot.com/

  2. In response to the aforementioned use of the phrase “visionary director”, J. Hoberman of the Village Voice had this to say:

    “Warner Bros…is marketing Snyder, who remade George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead in 2004 and had a surprise mega-hit two years later with his adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic book Thermopylae, 300, as a “visionary.” That’s a grateful studio’s code word for ‘competent hack.'”

    I got run out of a room for quoting this but I think it holds water.

  3. wonderful picture.

  4. So I saw “Watchmen,” and my initial reaction could be summed up by the tagline to J. Hoberman’s review: “Zack Snyder didn’t ruin ‘Watchmen'”.

    I haven’t distilled my thoughts enough yet — I only saw it last night (and I want to see it again before I completely decide what I thought) — but here are a few initial reactions:

    -I enjoyed the film much more than I thought I would.
    -The opening credits were FANTASTIC. Certainly the best part of the film.
    -Rorschach was perfectly lifted from the pages of the source material.
    -I actually liked Crudup’s performance a lot.
    -I too found the surfeit of violence to be off-putting and unnecessary.
    -I didn’t like the film-ending as much as the book-ending, but I understood the necessity for it and thought it was as well-handled as possible.
    -I could never quite figure out if the “super-heroes” (with the exception of Dr Manhattan) were supposed to actually have super-powers or were just particularly skilled in bad-assery. While the graphic novel seemed to imply the latter, the extensive fight sequences in the film implied the former. I don’t know why that bothered me, but it did.

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