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Film Review: Watchmen

Watchmen (2009; Directed by Zach Snyder)


First things first: this is Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, not Alan Moore’s. Bear this firmly in mind before continuing. As tightly as Snyder skews to the seminal comic by Moore and Dave Gibbons (and he often skews very tightly), this is the work of a cinematic artist with a vision all his own. And it is Snyder’s own personal vision, his deviations from Moore’s work, that makes this film, that gives it its breathtaking wonders and its nagging setbacks. There’s more of the former than the latter by a long shot, but it’s hard to ignore the missteps, ultimately.

What Snyder gets right (and he gets most of it right) is astonishing. The book’s tone of atheistic deflation and the mood of oppressive dystopian alienation is all there, unfiltered. The complicated histories of the Comedian, Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan are presented in their proper order, with the proper level of emotional detail. If the other characters (especially those of the previous generation) get short thrift, then Moore gave it to them first; Snyder gives us enough information to infer more if we choose, but it’s only what we need. The intricate plot is preserved in all its complexity, and proves out the cinematic language of Moore’s (and Gibbons’) comic storytelling even as it feels much stranger and less conventional than your usual film narrative. And, more than anything, the look and style of Watchmen is all there, epic and dingy, dark and glowing, never anything but deeply powerful. Fans of the comic will spot dozens, even hundreds, of images ripped straight from the pages of the original.

The cast does what’s asked of them, and there’s nary a bad performance. Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre veers close to bad territory, but it’s more the fault of Moore than the actress, who looks the part well enough. He made Laurie into a sexualized object, passed between strong men and forever in the shadow of her parents, a woman with no real life or identity of her own. You can argue that it’s a perfectly fair (if distinctly unprogressive) characterization, but as the main female character, her dependence rings louder than it otherwise would (and this is to saying nothing of her mother, who falls in love with the man who tried to rape her, a choive which can’t make Moore too popular with feminists or anyone else with much of a conscience). Meanwhile, Patrick Wilson makes a decent Dan Dreiburg, and Matthew Goode doesn’t turn Adrian Veidt into a smug Eurotrash villain as I feared he might. Jeffrey Dean Morgan gets at the buried wistfulness behind the Comedian’s smirking nihilism, and Billy Crudup’s voice for Dr. Manhattan is supernaturally resigned (although his scenes as pre-accident Jon Osterman are far better, even a little heartbreaking). But, as most reviewers note, it’s Jackie Earle Haley’s devastating turn as Rorschach that steals the picture. He plays his final scene with a different tone than in the comic, but it’s nonetheless every bit as wrenching.

But, as I wrote earlier, what makes and sometimes nearly breaks this adaptation is the adaptations. Snyder deploys some remarkable imagery that the comic never gives us. His opening credit montage of slo-mo tableaus of the history of masked adventurers is remarkable, recasting V-Day and the Kennedy Assassination and other seminal events with key twists and telling the stories of the previous generation of heroes with broad strokes. The use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is a mite obvious, and I would have preferred “Desolation Row”, which is later turned into a gaudy punk punch-up by My Chemical Romance over the end credits (“Times” is a bit short for the sequence and has to recycle some verses and harmonica breaks, so “Desolation” might have been a better time-match as well). But it’s still an excellent sequence that sets the stage perfectly. On the other end of things, the amazing shot that follows Rorschach’s end is transcendent and note-perfect and gains points for being Snyder’s own creation rather than that of Moore and Gibbons.

We are no less badass for being sociopolitical metaphors.

And the larger changes wrought by Snyder and the writers aren’t so bad either. Hollis Mason’s fate is excised, as is most of his story, and that’s fine by me; the murder of the original Nite Owl always bugged me, coming across as an unnecessary underlining of the brutality of human nature and society in a work that had more than enough of them without the empty killing of a kindly old man. Rorschach’s treatment of a child-killer gives the character a bit more of an active role in his final turn to absolutism, and the comic’s specific turn of events in the scene in question was famously stolen by Saw anyway, so savvy film-goers who didn’t know the book would cry foul.

And, of course, there’s the replacement of the transdimensional squid with devices that replicate Dr. Manhattan’s powers in Veidt’s climactic act of destruction, which I think makes sense from a few perspectives. Without the Black Freighter comic and the extra scenes needed to set up the squid, it would have dropped in out of nowhere, a bugnuts insane idea that worked in the comic (was one of the most indelible images of the comic) but never would have flown onscreen (any attempt to replicate Gibbons’ graphic panels onscreen wouldn’t have gotten by the censors anyhow; that much gore at once is unfathomable, even in an R-rated flick as hard as this). More than anything, though, it’s a 9/11-influenced change, though not in any cop-out kind of way (check the WTC towers looming behind Veidt in his first appearance, if you want those echoes to resonate). Simply put, 9/11 and its political aftermath made Veidt’s masterplan seem quaint; we know that a cataclysmic and deadly attack on New York City will not lead the whole world to lay down its arms and join hands in peaceful brotherhood. And one can hardly argue with making the disaster bigger and more wide-reaching, really.

The Spandex Fanciers Club petered out a bit by the '50s...

Still, there are some Snyder originals that don’t knock it out of the park. Though I remain a fan of his style for action-sequences and think they are even more effective here than in 300, he adds one or two that aren’t necessary, and the blasting rock-guitar background can get a bit goofy. And really, he’s much sharper with the sex and the gore and the violence and only skims the surface of the deep wells of moral philosophy running underneath the story; those issues are there, sort of, but their full import is not teased out. Furthermore, we get next to nothing about the Hooded Justice, the mysterious figure who began the whole masked hero thing in this universe. The New Frontiersman is also not set up at all, leading to a few scratched heads when the film ends with Rorschach’s journal in their office. The sex scene is not too good and Leonard Cohen seems a poor choice for booty-grinding. Nixon is turned into a much larger demagogue than he was in the book (if that’s possible, and it’s not really the point). And don’t even get me started on Manhattan’s wang!

These are minor quibbles, but little things add up. Despite the wondrous and potent vision Snyder provides us with, Watchmen doesn’t quite have all of its gears in synch. It’s spectacular and entertaining and mostly as profound as the source material, but there are tiny slips and minute cracks in the facade, when one looks closely enough. The film is very, very good and holds up and even deepens on subsequent viewings, but there are too many smallish nagging downsides to it that keeps it from full masterpiece status in my mind.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews
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