Posted in: Commentary, Essays, Film Reviews

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