This is Not a Watchman Review

[published in conjunction with the blog seanax.com]

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.

Nite Owl and Archie
Nite Owl and Archie

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 image anyone getting closer.

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

5 Comments

  • Mr. Push

    March 6, 2009

    Honestly either way your not going to be able to please everyone .. you have to think about the people who have not read the novels like yourself and the people who know nothing about this movie .. maybe in a sequel I would understand your statement but for the first movie you sound more like a person who is griping, because they stuck to the same formula that made people like yourself like the novel, why not make a movie that will attract more people like the novel did with you then build from their.

  • admin

    March 6, 2009

    I don’t disagree with you and there are some critics who appreciate what Snyder did. I would love to get a sense of how viewers who don’t have any familiarity with the novel respond to the film. It’s so dense that I wonder if viewers without previous familiarity with the story will be able to get a handle on it.

    But my big problem is that in its slavishness to the book, it doesn’t have a life of its own – I just didn’t find it alive in any way, not in the way that “The Dark Knight” or the first “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” films are both faithful to the source and distinctive expressions of the creators.

  • Decker

    March 6, 2009

    I totally agree with you about the ending – maybe it pisses Moore off, but having Doctor Manhattan as the existential threat makes a lot more sense than a giant fictitous squid.

    What helps keep other super hero adaptations “fresh” is that they have to refine decades of continuity into a short story. Watchmen is very finite – Snyder could have taken more liberties, but I feel like he did right by the source material. While “Dark Knight” bore Nolan’s stamp, but to the movie’s detriment. The cuts were spastic and the tacked-on Two Face story was a tired cut and paste from the Year One comic.

    Likewise, if I see a ‘Hamlet’ I don’t expect plot surprises. A good story told well is entertainment enough.

  • Sean Axmaker

    March 7, 2009

    When I refer to wanting to be surprised, I don’t mean tossing in new plot twists. I mean things like offering an insightful interpretation of a character or bringing a specifically cinematic expression to the original graphic image of the comic. But more to the point, even an adaptation can be so immediate to the moment and emotionally and narratively involving for the viewer that you stop thinking about the source. And while I may never forget what is going to happen at the end of “Hamlet”, only one film ever did the uncut text. Every other film had to make creative decisions on what to keep and what to cut, and took a stand on their interpretation of the character and his situation. Therein lies the surprise. I, for one, found Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film to be a very fresh and interesting take, especially in the casting of Kyle Maclachlan as Claudius, a man much closer in age to Hamlet and thus a different kind of threat to Hamlet’s relationship to his mother, and Bill Murray as Polonius, a sweet, doting father to Ophelia. His death at the hands of Hamlet in this version is much more upsetting than I’ve ever experienced in a film version.
    And yet, it is a faithful adaptation.

  • Decker

    March 8, 2009

    That’s a good analogy with Hamlet. It would be interesting to see how someone would emphasize different scenes or characters, a wrinkle generic superhero adaptions easily provide. I was surprised how much Snyder brought music into Watchmen – another sign of devotion to Moore’s text. (And even tho 99 Luftballoons is completely apropos to the story, it came across in the move as nothing more than an 80s signifier. I think that was Snyder’s choice). Like V for Vendetta, I think this film provided what Moore needs most – an editor.

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