Around 40 minutes into Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen,” my enthusiasm began to wane. The pleasure of seeing Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ classic comic brought to the big screen had worn thin.
Unfilmable my eye.
It turns out that what those naysayers had been predicting for years wasn’t true at all. It was, in fact, totally possible to bring “Watchmen” to the big screen. The impossible part was making a good movie out of it.
Warner Brothers has been pimping Zack Snyder as “the visionary director of ‘300,’” but the reality is that Snyder is the very opposite of a visionary. A visionary sees the world in ways that others can’t, understands things in on a level that transcends the surface. As technically talented as he may be, and suggesting otherwise would be disingenuous, Snyder is at best a gifted mimic. Far from delivering a point of view that’s unique, he seems only able to reproduce, sometimes with pitch-perfect superficial accuracy, what was already represented. If people love “300” or “Watchmen,” there’s a good chance that they love it because Snyder has given them exactly what they expected to see.
And if the enjoyment of a comic book or graphic novel were identical in form and sensation and duration to the enjoyment of a movie, Snyder still wouldn’t be a visionary. He’d just be ambitious executioner of other people’s ideas.
Instead, “Watchmen” is just ambitiously tedious.
[More after the break, as I try to work through my thoughts…]
By boiling “Watchmen” down to 160 minutes, it becomes about plot and “Watchmen” is not now and has never been about the basic, linear text. The story is a hanger on which Moore was able to drape his wretched, complicated, disconnected characters and his developing themes about the extremities of heroism in a decidedly unheroic world. Nobody has ever described “Watchmen” as a mystery about a trio of superheroes trying to solve a mystery, but as it stands now, Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” is too much a poorly developed whodunnit with almost no clues, no suspects, no red herrings and no room for twists. Snyder plays out the discovery of the person behind the movie’s dastardly deeds as if there were any alternatives and as if anybody is going to be shocked.
The things that enrich the book aren’t the primary text, but rather the ephemera, which inform everything else — the “Black Freighter” segments, the chapters from Hollis Mason’s “Under the Hood,” the extended non-linear flashbacks, the introduction to Professor Milton Glass’ “Dr. Manhattan: Super-Powers and the Superpowers,” the long periods dedicated to the domestic life and journals of prison shrink Malcolm Long. These parts are digressive, but their dispersal within Moore and Gibbons’ text isn’t haphazard. It’s all there for pacing and thematic development, it’s there so that you don’t start viewing the book as the adventures of Night Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman) and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) as they try to track down the person offing masked heroes.
The minute the story can be that easily distilled, it’s a problem. Many critics have noted that people who haven’t read the book aren’t going to be able to follow the story. That’s snobbery coming from people who have either read the book or read a pile of press notes. Nobody’s going to have any trouble understanding what’s happening in the movie. They’re going to have trouble understanding why they’re supposed to care.
Snyder has wisely kept the period of the comics, keeping “Watchmen” in an alternate 1985, where Richard Nixon is still president and the Soviet Union and the United States are on the brink of war. The replacement history is spelled out in the opening titles, which is simultaneously the movie’s best moment — a series of tableaus unfolding to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” — and Snyder’s biggest departure from the source material. How do I reconcile that statement with what I said earlier? Perhaps Snyder is a visionary who doesn’t trust his own vision? The credits are absolutely in keeping with the comic, but the degree of personal authorial inspiration that goes into those minutes is never repeated again.
Because Moore and Gibbons were ahead of their time when the book was published — not really inventing the idea of a revisionist superhero but certainly crystalizing it — “Watchmen” still feels current, without actually feeling contemporary. Does that make sense? Just as Snyder had no ability or desire to transpose a contemporary meaning onto Frank Miller’s fascistic blood-orgy of “300,” he can’t find a way to view the messages of “Watchmen” through a relevant 2009 framework. Period pieces need not feel like time capsules, but this one does and given how many superhero films about the emotional toll of superheroism we’ve had over the years (from “Dark Knight” to “Mystery Men” to “X-Men” to “Sky High”), it almost feels like Snyder is taking a step backwards in the discussion, reverting.
From things as big as Dr. Manhattan’s fortress of solitude on Mars and the soaring Owl ship to things as tiny as reflections in puddles and the shape of Moloch’s ears, Snyder’s commitment is to recreating Gibbons’ comic frames. He makes an effort, also, to give time to Moore’s long philosophical conversations about lost idealism and impotency, but like a kid with ADD, he doesn’t have the patience for the quieter moments, much less any idea of how to film an actual two-person conversation without crushing the movie’s momentum.
He responds to those icky indie film moments by over-amping the action scenes. If you look at the comic after seeing the movie, the biggest difference you’ll notice (and there really aren’t many, up until the ending) is that Snyder’s action scenes are longer, more violent and certainly more gory. Gibbons gave us bloody wounds, but Snyder wants CGI blood spraying everywhere. Gibbons shows us a cleaver used as a murder weapon, but skips the actual cleaver-on-flesh contact, Snyder makes sure we get metal cutting through skull, complete with pulpy sound effects. Is this just an example of Snyder attempting to compensate for 25 years of desensitization to violence or is it an example of Snyder trying to distract viewers from his own insecurity with human interaction? If it’s the former, it’s hypocritical, what with Snyder’s obsessive commitment to the book. If it’s the latter, it’s not a bad idea, because the people who are going to love the movie most aren’t likely to have any interest in watching a middle-aged costumed hero mope about his difficulties getting an erection.
Then again, these aren’t the middle-aged heroes of the comic. In the comic, in 1985, the book’s heroes are out of practice, out of shape and disillusioned with a world that no longer wants them. In the movie, Snyder has cast an assortment of pretty young actors and and thrown a little makeup on them
Snyder’s theory, obviously, is that it’s easier to age up a younger actor, than to age down an older actor. It doesn’t make sense to begin with, since most of the story ends up being the present-day (and therefore aged up) characters, but that may just have been the way it came out in the final edit. But strategy also doesn’t work either way. Ackerman, for example, is 30, but she looks 25. So when she’s supposed to be playing the 18-year-old jailbait Laurie, she looks 25. And when she’s supposed to be the far older, far wearier Laurie, she looks 25. Giving Wilson a faux paunch and Matthew Goode some gray hair doesn’t do the trick either. Only Haley seems to be the right age, but it’s a good thing we never see the younger version of Rorschach, or Snyder might have been tempted to cast Frankie Muniz.
This mutes the human gravity of the film. Again, “Watchmen” is about impotence, whether in the literal sense of being a superhero prevented by law from doing your job, or in the differently literal sense of not being able feel like a man if you aren’t wearing a cornball costume or not being able to feel like a woman if you aren’t able to squeeze into your old crime-fighting tights. Everybody in the movie looks 10 years too young to sell any of that.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t good performances in “Watchmen.” Wilson is a good enough actor that it never feels like he’s a movie-star pretty-boy condescending to Dan Dreiberg, with his bad hair and thick glasses. His work is subtle and he sells it. Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan have far broader parts, but are tremendous. Morgan’s maniacal charisma is somewhat Clooney-esque, as he makes us like an absolute sociopath. Haley makes the more interesting choice of not caring if we like Rorshach. He’s crazy and ugly and unhinged and he’s the movie’s whacked-out conscience.
There will be some contention on Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan. I loved the detachment in Crudup’s voice, which has been a liability in other roles in the past. The character’s back-story is another fine scene, though it’s straight from the page’s. What to make of Dr. Manhattan’s Giant Blue Pendulous Wang? Well, why would this guy wear pants? He certainly doesn’t in the book. But, that being said, in another tough-to-understand change, Snyder has significantly enhanced Dr. Manhattan’s Dangling Trouser Smurf. His proportions in the book are likely borrowed from Michelangelo’s David, while his proportions in the movie are… Let’s just say if I knew of a male porn star named “David,” this joke would have a punchline.
It should take nothing away from Matthew Goode as an actor — I particularly liked him in “The Lookout” and “Match Point” — to say that he’s wrong in every way for Adrian Veidt/Ozymandious. He looks too young, his accent (something Germanic standing in for either his native British tongue or an generic American voice) comes and goes, he’s too physically slight and he doesn’t come close to being the sort of intellectual and aesthetic specimen the character requires. It’s just poor casting.
Ackerman is also a miss. Snyder must have misinterpreted how important Laurie Jupiter is to the story, casting for poster sex appeal rather than finding an actress capable of making the Laurie/Dan and particularly Laurie/Manhattan scenes play as drama, rather than TV soap opera. At least the women are on the same page, with Carla Gugino, slathered in subpar makeup, making every Sally Jupiter scene feel like some sort of comic book version of “Dynasty.”
There are fanboys who are going to get giddy in their seat just because Rorschach says “Hurm” the right way. If merely seeing and hearing those things on the big screen is enough, then “Watchmen” may be satisfying to you. But without “Black Freighter” and the other satellite texts, it’s never truly going to be the “Watchmen” of the comics. With that in mind, I wish that Snyder has followed through on the potential of the opening credits and made a “Watchmen” that *feels* true to Moore and Gibbons without just playing copycat.