Now that’s we’re all deeply entrenched in a violent “who’s better?” war between Marvel movies and ’70s New Hollywood lions, it can be easy to lose sight of how our modern-day comic-book adapters occasionally resemble the tortured cinematic auteurs of yesteryear. Take Damon Lindelof, the maestro of HBO’s stunning new self-described “remix” of the classic ’80s graphic novel, Watchmen.
In a recent interview with Vulture, Lindelof goes to near-comic lengths to emphasize that he did not enjoy the process of making this television show. He points out that it was offered to him three times before he finally set aside his misgivings, including the extremely vocal non-blessings of the book’s writer, Alan Moore, who currently does not control the rights to his own work. Lindelof even suggests that Moore — a Gandalf-looking British man who supposedly practices magic — has put a curse on him, which Lindelof insists that he deserves!
“I did not enjoy any of this,” Lindelof sighs. “That’s the price that I paid. Psychological professionals would probably suggest that I emotionally created the curse as a way of creating balance for the immorality.”
Before Lindelof self-flagellated with hypothetical magic, he contrasted himself with another Watchmen adapter, Zack Snyder, who directed the 2009 film version. “When Zack was making Watchmen — and I only know this because I watched the DVDs — I was like, ‘This guy is having the time of his life!’” he marveled.
Perhaps Lindelof was complimenting Snyder for his in-the-moment appreciation for having the opportunity to interpret one of the most beloved comic-book of all-time. Or maybe he was throwing some subtle shade, implying that Snyder did not fully appreciate the ethical quandaries of making Watchmen without the consent of one of its creators. But the end result was that it made me want to revisit Snyder’s Watchmen film.
Like many people who read and loved the graphic novel, I saw Watchmen upon its release in 2009. And my lasting impression was mostly negative, though I also couldn’t remember much of it. This might be too much information but it’s pertinent to my original Watchmen experience: I got stoned with my friend Andy before the screening. And when I say stoned, I mean extreeeemely stoned. So stoned that my friend and I initially went to the wrong theater. And then — this part I had completely forgotten until Andy reminded me this week — once we arrived at the right theater and promptly inhaled all manner of popcorn and candy, we both fell asleep within the first 30 minutes. So I guess I hadn’t really seen Watchmen after all.
Now that I have actually watched Watchmen, completely sober and without falling into a semi-coma, I can say that it is a movie that I actually sort of admire. And what I admire about it seems to stem from Snyder’s all-encompassing love for adapting this material, which compelled him to make the most violent, alienating, all-around unpleasant and — given its 163-minute theatrical cut, later expanded to an 187-minute “ultimate cut” preferred by Snyder — unapologetically epic superhero film. Even Joker, which feels like a close cousin to this Watchmen, doesn’t go quite as far as Watchmen, which includes a nuclear holocaust; various acts of limbs and skulls being split open with sharp blades; a truly off-putting sex scene set aboard a flying mechanical owl; and, most infamously, a full-frontal, cancer-causing, and larger-than-life blue penis thrust into center-stage in several scenes. Only a guy passionately in love with his own movie would dare go so overboard with this much bombastic wang.
Of all the charges one could make against Zack Snyder, you can’t accuse of him lacking moxie, at least not in the case of Watchmen. But admiring the chutzpah of this movie isn’t quite the same thing as enjoying it, or believing that it ever justifies its existence.
The road to Snyder’s Watchmen was long and fraught. The book was originally optioned in 1986 soon after it premiered in 12-part serial form. In the ’90s, Terry Gilliam was attached to the project for years — he even managed to attract Arnold Schwarzenegger as a potential Dr. Manhattan — before the famously Quixotic director threw up his hands and declared the book unfilmable. (He thought instead that it should be a miniseries.)
In the aughts, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass flirted with the project before Snyder was tapped in the wake of 300‘s massive box-office success. While Gilliam had pondered various digressions from the original Watchmen — including a twist in which Dr. Manhattan travels back in time and prevents himself from being created, thus preventing all of the superhero characters from being coming to be — Snyder intended to use Watchmen essentially as a sacred text, mapping out his images in close accordance with the book, similar to Robert Rodriguez’s approach for adapting Sin City.
When Snyder’s Watchmen came out in early 2009, the fidelity to the material proved to be an unforgiving double-edged sword for the director. Whereas Lindelof stated from the beginning that his Watchmen would exist in the world of the book while telling a new story only fitfully connected to the original text — much like the FX series Fargo resides in the context of a Coen Brothers universe without slavishly remaking the titular film — Snyder set up a high expectation for fidelity to the source material among fans that he probably had no chance of achieving. And those fans, perhaps inevitably, came to view his film as a dumbed-down, action-movie redux of a nuanced, even intellectual novel. For neophytes, however, Watchmen seemed painfully insular and — given Snyder’s apparent disinterest in putting his own stamp on the material — sort of pointless.
Then there were people who actually loved Watchmen. Roger Ebert gave it four stars, and another critic even compared it to 2001. (Clearly, I was not the only person who saw Watchmen in 2009 while stoned out of his gourd.) As for me, a person who re-watched — or, I guess, just watched — Watchmen just this week, I can point out two sequences that I loved. The first is the opening credits sequence set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin,'” which recounts the rise and fall of the Minutemen during the Cold War era, like Stan Lee riffing on Noam Chomsky. The second is the origin story of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who evolves from a sensitive human man in love with a fellow physicist to a dispassionate god-like figure who coldly concludes that the molecular structure of a living person and a corpse is nearly identical.
Both of these sequences feel like self-contained set pieces adrift in a larger, directionless narrative that’s sort of about Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) investigating the murder of the sociopathic comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and sort of about the budding romance between Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), and sort of about Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) plotting to save billions of people by killing millions. With the exception of Rorschach and The Comedian, all of these characters are far less interesting than Dr. Manhattan. The movie suffers whenever the focus shifts from him. Which, given the film’s considerable length, happens a lot.
This key problem with Watchmen is obvious: There’s too much plot in Watchmen to convey in one movie, but the attempt to hit all of the bases makes it impossible to keep even one storyline fully coherent. But there’s another, larger issue with Watchmen that has to do with “why?” Why make this movie, beyond just as an expression of Zack Snyder’s love for the original comic?
In his zeal to simply get the movie made, Snyder never bothered to figure out his “why?” Ultimately, he had nothing to add to the material beyond his technical skill as a filmmaker. Which is why Lindelof’s “remix” angle feels especially novel and smart — the HBO Watchmen will, for better or worse, feel very much like a reflection of 2019 in a way that Snyder’s Watchmen never felt connected to American culture at the dawn of the Obama era.
When I read about Lindelof’s genuine anguish over usurping creative control from Moore, it made me think that Moore was simply a “bearded, pretentious graphic novelist who is constantly complaining.” But watching Snyder’s Watchmen made me see the wisdom of Moore’s protestations that Watchmen should’ve stayed a comic book. With Moore, in collaboration with artists Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, they used the comic-book form to critique the content. While the shock of a “dark and subversive” comic is impossible to fully appreciate in 2019, the idea of superheroes having complex inner lives haunted by addiction, mental illness, and psychic guilt in the context of a comic book that looked like a comic book was truly shocking in the mid-’80s. It would be like an ’80s sitcom with a laugh track and a corny theme song in which the lovable, goofy dad is a crackhead and the affable, understanding mother is schizophrenic. The ironic distance between what an audience expects out of a medium, and the dark underbelly being exposed beyond the fantasy in the text, is the story of Watchmen.
That meta-textual dimension is absent from Snyder’s Watchmen, and it’s also missing from Lindelof’s. And that’s because that long-lost shock of the new can’t be replicated now. Not after The Dark Knight and Joker, or Snyder’s other comic-book films. All heroes are broken now, which has made even a landmark work like Watchmen feel a little redundant. Not only have the adapters changed Watchmen on the screen, they’ve also changed the book.
If Alan Moore is truly out here cursing his interpreters, perhaps he’s justified. After all, they cursed him first.