March 4, 2009

Written by Matt Goldberg

“Watchmen” is the “un-filmable” graphic novel. It’s un-filmable because it’s too dense; because it’s too rooted in comics instead of cinema; because there’s a comic within the comic; because there’s supplemental material like autobiography excerpts and magazine articles; because the characters are too fucked up and subvert what the mainstream expects from superheroes; because the film would be too long; because it would have to be Rated-R; and so on, and so on.

Over twenty years of reasons why “Watchmen” can’t be a movie but none of them matter now because writers David Hayter and Alex Tse wrote it and director Zack Snyder directed it and it will hit theatres worldwide on March 6th, 2009. “Watchmen” now exists as a motion picture but the question is whether it can exist on its own terms. Zack Snyder has made no secret of staying faithful to the source material, but the demands of that material are far beyond his previous comic-to-film adaptation, “300”. There’s too much story, too much meta-text, and too much history to cram into a three-hour film. But for all these reasons why not, no one must have told Zack Snyder. It is the most valiant attempt at adaptation in recent memory. The result is mostly successful.

For those that haven’t stormed off at that last sentence, outraged that this film could be anything less than its magnificent source material, I will explain. The problem isn’t slavish devotion, like Robert Rodriguez’ “Sin City”. That was what I feared most in learning of Snyder’s love of “Watchmen” and his desire to faithfully bring it to the big screen. That faith can be paralyzing and a 162 minute movie that says nothing more than “I really like this comic” is a waste of time. Using the graphic novel as nothing more than a storyboard can cause the filmmaker to forget about where comics and movies diverge and become their own animals. Snyder never forgets this distinction and he is always active in that director’s chair. From the gorgeous cinematography, to the inspired sound design (I can still hear the Comedian’s blood-stained smiley-face pin rolling around on the sewer grate), to the pacing of the action, Snyder never forgets what’s cinematic about “Watchmen”.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t always remember what’s important about “Watchmen” either. Sometimes, he absolutely gets it. He doesn’t shy away from showing his characters’ faults; he embraces them. He doesn’t try to twist the pacing or the narrative to fit tradition structures; he allows the original story to work on its own terms. There are major characters that are only present for a third or two-thirds of the film. And while every review will tell you how great it is, I will simply reiterate: if you don’t like the opening credits, you hate cinema. But Snyder asks you to be on board even before those spectacular three minutes and thirteen seconds. You’re thrown into a world where it’s 1985 and an old man is watching The McLaughlin Group is discussing the potential of World War III and what is President Nixon going to do about it. Then a shadowy figure busts down the door and the old man (who we’ll later learn is a former-costumed vigilante named Edward Blake, aka “The Comedian”) watching the television program cryptically turns to his assailant and quietly says “Just a matter of time, I suppose,” before getting the shit beat of him and thrown out of a window by the shadowy figure.

So it’s a murder mystery! With superheroes! Not quite. “Watchmen” asks a lot from those who have never read the book. I won’t attempt to feign an understanding of what those unfamiliar with the graphic novel will think of this film. I will say that while it makes demands of their attention and requires them to be active viewers, the film doesn’t reach the point where I would say it’s wholly confusing. Snyder knows just the right pacing to take with the story so while he does throw a lot of information at you, he’s measuring it with character, action beats, and the graphic novel’s ingenious method of using origin stories as the structure for each chapter while simultaneously moving the story forward.

“Watchmen” may not take many chances in diverging from its source material but remaining faithful to that material, especially if that material is “Watchmen”, is a huge chance in itself. If you understand conventional cinema structure and what a major studio will and will not allow in a film that costs over $100 million to make, Warner Bros broke the rules in trusting Snyder to make this film exist. But Snyder takes it at the pace the original story demands. What’s ballsy isn’t a naked Dr. Manhattan (unless you think Michelangelo’s “David” is also ballsy); it’s taking ten minutes to do a slow, measured origin story of one character with absolutely no distractions because you’re confident that the sequence will be sublime. Snyder wins the bet and we’re rewarded for it.

But not all of Snyder’s gambles pay off. For one, Snyder chooses to embellish to gore to an almost distracting degree. I’ve heard the argument that he’s trying to recapture the shock of violence the comic produced from those reading it in 1986, but since Snyder has only two major films prior to this, both incredibly violent, I saw this as Snyder being more of a gore-hound rather than trying to shock us. And the violence is rarely shocking because it’s so over-the-top as to be darkly comic. For instance, as Dr. Manhattan, the world’s only super-powered being, is busy disintegrating Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, all that remains of his kills are the ribcages. It’s an unforgettable image but also odd as you’re left to wonder “Why are ribcages indestructible?” There’s also the recreation of JFK’s assassination which almost seems to revel in the kill as Snyder manages to out-Oswalt Oswalt in murdering the 35th President. Moments like these are shocking and grab your attention but in a film that’s so well constructed and shot in the first place, the violence can feel like an unnecessary grab at your attention when film already has it.

Snyder’s other misstep is in his music choices. While his use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” during he opening credits is perfect, other attempts to use popular music tend to be either too on-the-nose or too out of place. As The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) violently disperses a crowd of protestors, we hear KC & The Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man”. As The Comedian and Manhattan fight through the fields of Vietnam, we hear the familiar operatic sounds of “Ride of the Valkyries” (would “Apocalypse Now” even exist in this alternate history since America wins Vietnam?). Other times, the music is just the wrong choice. During The Comedian’s funeral procession, we hear Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence”, a song that’s owned completely by “The Graduate”. There’s a sex scene later in the film where Snyder selects Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which will remind most audience members of Jeff Buckley’s overused and incredibly depressing cover; if it were a sad sex scene, then maybe the choice would work but as it plays in the film, it’s one of the worst decisions Snyder makes.

What doesn’t really bother me is what’s included and what’s not. If you want to see everything from the graphic novel, I suggest you re-read the copy you already own and accept the realities and gifts of adaptation. Yes, there is stuff from the book that I miss: the absence of the Bernies, Malcolm and Gloria Long’s decaying marriage, the troubled relationship between Josephine and her top-knot girlfriend—This all material I hope is restored to the upcoming director’s cut of the film because I missed the payoff it delivered in the book. It fleshes out the world beyond the stellar production design (I’ve heard comparisons to “Blade Runner” and that’s not wrong) and raises the stakes beyond the drama of the main characters.

I will say that I am bothered by one of the cuts in the film and that’s the trimming of Laurie Jupiter (I don’t think anyone ever calls her by what she asks to go by in the book, Laurie Juspeczyk) aka Silk Spectre II’s (Malin Akerman) storyline. She’s got an unglamorous arc in the book but what she does is ultimately important but her humanity is overshadowed by larger-than-life characters like Dr. Manhattan or the identification-character of Dan Dreiberg. Laurie’s chapter is highly compelling but its truncated version feels rushed and disrespectful which isn’t great when there are really no other female characters except for Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), who is Laurie’s mom and the former Silk Spectre. Cutting it down makes a male-dominated film feel even less conscious of women and while there are those that have looked negatively at Akerman’s performance, I can’t really judge it one way or another. She simply doesn’t have enough of a story arc with which to work.

Because most of the background characters and the supplemental material are missing from this adaptation, it falls to the actors to absolutely master these characters and know them inside and out. The success of these performances varies.

The best among them is easily Jackie Earle Haley as grim sociopath by way of Raymond Chandler, “Rorschach”. Despite being insane, unforgiving, and borderline-sadistic (it’s hard to tell whether Rorschach takes joy in anything), he is what we can accept as cool. Haley deserves credit for taking the character further than that. He goes beyond the badass and finds the hurt child underneath. He’s wearing two masks and while the one with moving ink-blots may be his signature, I would love to see more face time with what’s underneath. The fire behind the eyes, the micro-expressions, and the delivery that’s just short of deadpan without losing any of the personality all combine to create a perfect realization of the character.

Equally unforgettable is Billy Crudup as the big blue man, Dr. Manhattan, formerly Jon Osterman before a freak lab accident (are there any other kinds? I wish) transformed him into the world’s only super-powered being. When I first found out that they wouldn’t be augmenting Manhattan’s voice in any way, I was a little worried. His speech bubbles in the book are drawn differently and have a blue background, indicating that even his voice is otherworldly. What would a human voice do for the character? But yet again, Snyder knows best. Crudup talks like a sad HAL 9000, growing further and further away from humanity, not by his choosing but by his very existence. Dr. Manhattan is one of the most difficult characters to sell (even though his conceit is so easy once you think about it: if you had the powers of a god, how could you continue to relate to mortals?) and Crudup, coupled with the spectacular visual effects, makes it look easy.

Also worthy of credit is Patrick Wilson as sad sack Dan Dreiberg who has been left impotent (existentially and physically) by leaving his vigilante days as the second Nite Owl behind. Wilson brings a highly-valuable sympathetic character into the mix but he’s not so vanilla that he loses what makes him unique and his character challenging. There’s a delightfully nebbish-y quality to his performance where he wants to do good but deep down, he also wants to get the girl and feel like a man. What really stands out about Wilson on the first viewing is that he seems the most aware of the world which makes sense seeing as he (and if she weren’t so ignored, Laurie) is the most human and relatable character in the story. His character isn’t stuck inside his own head like Rorschach or Manhattan. Still, Snyder never wants us to relax for a second and there’s a scene involving Dan, Laurie, and some unfortunate gang members where the brutal violence serves an important tonal point. One of the things “Watchmen” struggles for and achieves throughout its 2 hour and 42 minute runtime is to keep the audience from feeling comfortable.

Sadly, it misses that opportunity with a character who should create great feelings of conflict within the viewer, The Comedian. If The Comedian is too grotesque and ugly in the comics, in the film, he’s too charming and likable. While that should be and achievement considering he attempts to rape Sally, happily torches Viet Cong, and cold-bloodly shoots a pregnant Vietnamese woman. For a guy that doesn’t seem to shy away from violence, only Sally’s rape feels brutal while the Comedian’s murders, especially that of the pregnant woman, feel casual. Now perhaps that’s Snyder’s intent—to let us see Blake’s nonchalant sadism—but if Blake’s philosophy doesn’t change throughout the film, why is Sally’s rape brutal while the murder of the pregnant woman is not? If Morgan has the natural charisma to make Blake so likable, then Snyder needed to ramp up the brutality of Blake’s actions. I think Blake’s scar in the film pretty much says it all: in the comic, it’s a horrific facial deformation. In the film, it’s hardly noticeable.

Finally, there’s the film’s weakest performance: Matthew Goode’s Adrian Veidt, aka “Ozymandias”. I can’t really get into why this character doesn’t work without going into spoiler territory so for those who haven’t read the book, I will simply say this: while choosing to play the role of the world’s smartest man as “bored” is a valid choice, it ultimately feels like a one-note performance.

(Scroll over to read) Okay, for those familiar with the character’s full arc, I will explain: There are those that have taken issue with the character’s slight German accent. I have no problem with this choice because he only uses it in private company while using an American accent in business and in public. It shows that duplicity is in his nature. What bothers me about Goode’s performance is that there’s no joy in it. At his big triumphant moment, he’s still just doing “I’m smarter than you all so I’m bored now.” If you killed 15 million people in the hopes of achieving world peace through an elaborate and complicated plan taking years to accomplish, wouldn’t you show the slightest hint of emotion? I understand how Goode crafted his character but I think he shortchanges his own performance by those choices. END SPOILERS.

“Watchmen” isn’t un-filmable. It’s been filmed and the result is, for the most part, successful. The attempts to fill out the world as much as possible are impressive, but some of the choices, the cuts, and the density of the script hinder the emotional resonance and intellectual stimulation of the comic. But as much as the film has in common with its source material, I hope it shares the value of repeat viewings. As a graphic novel, there’s more to notice, new ideas and emotions that translate more effectively and it feels more cohesive and layered every time you get to the last page and read that final quotation, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies.” The film may end with an awful cover of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” by My Chemical Romance instead of that quote but usually Zack Snyder’s choices pay off and the result is a film that is challenging and rewarding by its very existence if not always by its contents.

Rating —– B

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