The event that comic book geeks and fanboys have been waiting for with equal amounts of dread and excitement has finally arrived: Watchmen, arguably one the most important and influential comic books of all time, has arrived on the silver screen.
It’s been an arduous journey, to be sure. Over the years, the film has passed from writer to writer, director to director, with nothing ever coming of the efforts but more frustration and doubt (Terry Gilliam once described Watchmen as unfilmable, which ought to tell you something). But that’s not really surprising: Watchmen is an incredibly complex work, full of deeply layered narratives and intricate visuals. That, combined with the cynicism, and even nihilism, that runs through its pages, as well as the alternate timeline setting, would be daunting for any filmmaker.
And so it was somewhat surprising when a relative newcomer -- Zack Snyder -- was eventually chosen to direct the film. Snyder burst onto the scene with the 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead and 2006’s 300, an adaptation of a Frank Miller comic. Given that he had just a few films (and music videos) under his belt, it was surprising that he, and not a more, shall we say, “experienced” director, had been selected.
With the hyper-stylish 300, Snyder proved that he had more than enough panache to pull off any of Watchmen’s visuals. But 300 was all style, and little else, which just wouldn’t fly with Watchmen, with its convoluted plot-lines, philosophical ponderings, genre deconstructions, and moral dilemmas.
So how did Snyder do? From a technical standpoint, the film is a smash, full of dazzling visuals, impressive casting and production design, and plenty of Snyder’s trademark style.
But that doesn’t necessarily make Watchmen a good film.
It’s the year 1985, and the world stands on the brink of armageddon. Cold war tensions between the United States and Russia continue to mount, with both countries refusing to stop rattling their sabers. There used to be superheroes: masked avengers fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. Until, that is, the government passed a law banning all superheroes, forcing them to retire and return to civilian life, go public with their identities, or continue to fight the good fight in an increasingly chaotic and unfavorable world.
However, someone has now begun killing off former superheroes. In the movie’s first scene, The Comedian, a former “mask” and government operative, is brutally attacked and thrown from his penthouse suite by an unknown assailant. Rorschach, a brutal vigilante (think Batman with his psychoses turned up to 11) who is the only remaining active superhero is soon on the case, contacting other “masks” to warn them of an apparent conspiracy against all of them.
There’s Nite Owl, who has since retired and spends his days either shooting the bull with other former heroes or tinkering in his basement with his old crime-fighting gadgets. Ozymandias, billed as the “world’s smartest man”, has gone public with his identity and parlayed his fame into vast wealth and power. And finally, there’s Silk Spectre, a former femme fatale, and her lover Dr. Manhattan, the only hero with actual powers, but whose godlike abilities find him increasingly unconcerned with both human affairs and his wardrobe.
They all dismiss his claims as the ravings of a paranoid lunatic. But subsequent assassination attempts, startling revelations about Dr. Manhattan’s abilities, and growing international tensions soon find Nite Owl and Silk Spectre drawn into Rorschach’s investigations, all while coming to terms with their own personal demons and fears over becoming masked heroes again.
From a technical standpoint, Watchmen is largely a triumph. The film’s devotion to the original artwork is quite extraordinary, reproducing scenes at length from the book right down to the tiniest detail -- be it a random sign hanging from a fence, the way someone sits and holds their eyeglasses, or a science experiment gone horribly wrong. Combine that with some truly outstanding production design and some beautiful special effects -- such as a particularly lovely sequence on the surface of Mars -- and Watchmen has more than enough eye candy to fill its frames.
Watchmen is also quite strong in the acting department. Patrick Wilson, Malin Åkerman, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan all give solid turns as Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and The Comedian, respectively. Morgan is especially delightful to watch as the utterly amoral, cigar-chomping Comedian; he chews up his scenes with gusto while still delivering in quieter moments that reveal the cracks in his bravado.
The film’s finest performance comes from Jackie Earle Haley, who plays the ultra-violent and sociopathic Rorschach. I’ve always found the character of Rorschach to be as tragic as he is reprehensible, a man whose extreme, unstable views of morality and society were the result of a childhood of abuse and neglect, a man who hates the world that he is trying desperately to save. And Haley captures both sides of the character, even when his face is obscured by Rorschach’s iconic mask (one of the film’s best, and subtlest, special effects).
But all of that being said, I still walked out of the theatre rather underwhelmed, and that feeling has only increased as I’ve reflected on the film.
When I wrote my first draft of this review, I noted that the special effects were used to serve the story, as compared to the excesses of 300. But the more I thought about that, the more I realized that wasn’t quite right. True, the effects in Watchmen are more tasteful than those in 300, which was purely style for style’s sake. But Watchmen’s effects aren’t so concerned with remaining faithful to the original vision, etc., as they are to enforce and enhance Snyder’s particularly gratuitous vision.
Obviously, when bringing a work to the screen, you have to make changes to the original work. Sometimes, those changes enhance the story. And sometimes, those changes emphasize all the wrong things about the story -- which is precisely what happens here.
Wherever and whenever Snyder can introduce a little more violence, gore, and/or sex into his film, he goes for it. It could be a particularly brutal alley brawl in which we see legs snapped like kindling and an assailant’s broken bones rip through his skin. Or the way in which Dr. Manhattan causes his victims to pop like blood-filled balloons. Or an extended and graphic sex scene high up in the skies above New York.
Make no mistake, Watchmen is a dark, gritty book. But the darkness and grittiness were not the result of the book’s violence and sex. No, the darkness comes from the philosophical quandaries, personal demons, and moral dilemmas faced by the heroes (and villains).
What happens in a society that is constantly on the brink of war? How do superheroes make a difference in a world where the very terms of “good” and “evil” seem to have different definitions depending on the day of the week. What if the heroes are worse than the villains they fight? What if they’re flawed, damaged human beings like the rest of us? Do the ends always justify the means, especially if the existence of the human race hangs in the balance?
These themes and questions are in the movie. But whenever he can, Snyder is willing to place those things on the back-burner so that he can give us another dose of the ol’ ultra-violence -- and usually in super slow-motion so that we don’t miss a single second of it. But what Snyder seems to think constitutes dark and gritty eventually becomes tedious, boring, and uninspired. And it lessens the philosophical impact and horror raised in the graphic novel. (It also raises some confusion as to whether or not the superheroes have powers -- how else do you explain their abilities to easily toss folks across the room, punch through walls, and so on? In the book, it was made very clear that, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, they didn’t have powers. In the movie, not so much.)
In one of the story’s darkest scenes, a hero tracks down a man who has kidnapped a little girl. To his horror, the hero discovers that the man has killed and butchered the child and fed her to some dogs, a revelation that causes the hero to snap. In the novel, the hero handcuffs the murderer, douses his home in gasoline, gives him a hacksaw to cut through his arms to get free, and sets the place on fire. In the movie, the hero simply hacks him up with a meat cleaver.
The former is horrifying with little blood shed “on screen”. But it tells us so much more about the lengths to which the hero is willing to go to “punish” evil. In the movie, what should be a critical scene in telling us the hero and his motivations is reduced to a little hack n’ slash -- which is far less revealing, not to mention dark and gritty, and far more gratuitous, blood for the sake of blood.
(And the less said about the film’s sexual content, the better. But one quick note to other filmmakers out there: don’t ever use Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for a sex scene that’s supposed to be a pivotal moment for two of your characters. That is, unless you want the audience to burst into guffaws during it.)
So where does Watchmen ultimately end up? It’s certainly not the colossal blunder that geeks and fanboys have been dreading all of these years. At times, it’s remarkably engaging and quite entertaining, especially whenever Rorschach is on-screen. But in his attempt to make the film engaging and entertaining, Snyder jacks up the film’s “kick-ass” quotient whenever he can and effectively undercuts the story’s inherent deconstruction. Which doesn’t result in a train-wreck, but rather, a film that, for all of its extreme violence and apocalyptic destruction, is ultimately hollow and unaffecting.