Notes to consider before continuing with my review of Watchmen:
1) It will not contain a plot synopsis. Over the last two weeks of online reviews and musings, magazine covers and myriad articles across multiple forms of media, I’m pretty sure you got the idea by now. In the interests of catering to those who might be making this the first review of Watchmen they’ve read, here’s the gist: What if superheroes were real? Well, they’d probably be pretty fucked up individuals. Let’s examine that, shall we? WATCHMEN.
2) It will not be novel length. You’re gonna be spending almost 3 hours with the movie as it is, probably after spending countless hours already in the course of reading the book multiple times. Spending another 20 minutes spinning your scroll wheel to read my character-by-character musings all the way down to “Stage Manager at Jon’s interview taping” is probably a little much. Speaking of which, that Stage Manager guy was Lt. Thorne from Battlestar Pegasus and I was happy to see him in a big-budget superhero blockbuster because otherwise he’d just be that bald dick who rapes hot asian robots and that’s a hell of a role to be typecast in.
And now, The Review Itself:
Alan Moore is a crotchety, pissy old bastard. Adaptations of his works are typically, in the oft-used critical parlance of our times, teh suck. His magnum opus is “Watchmen,” a deconstruction of the superhero, a 12 issue miniseries so dense it could be classified as an element on the periodic table, its entry represented by a shifting inkblot. Alan Moore has said it is an unfilmable property. Alan Moore says a lot of things, so it’s easy to dismiss his goofy, hairy ass. Dude wears those gaudy Saturday market rings where a purple rock forms the torso of a pewter scorpion. Genius or no, you can’t take a guy rocking one of those things that seriously.
Unfortunately, Moore was right this time. Watchmen is unfilmable. Or more to the point, the things that make Watchmen work haven’t been captured on film. Zack Snyder tried. The effort expended, the sweat, the passion for the book, it’s up there. It’s visible. This is a beautifully constructed work of art, much like Jon Osterman’s Glass Ship on Mars. It cracks easily and doesn’t hold together too well.
I find myself using the character of Doctor Manhattan himself as a stand-in for the movie overall. There are moments where it coalesces into something substantial, where it ties together plot, theme, performance, editing and music into something that transcends the book and achieves its own sort of magic, a magic I’m sure our favorite shaggy wizard might even appreciate, but like Jon in his early days of achieving minor godhood, Snyder can’t maintain the form, and the momentum dissipates in flashes and blasts of loud noise.
The movie spends about half its time in a cinematic uncanny valley. Panel-perfect transitions from page to screen, density of visual information translated flawlessly, moments that for all the sincerity behind the scenes, comes off as superficial. “300” was thematically thin, but felt fuller, more robust than the sum of its parts. “Watchmen” is the opposite, maybe because there’s so much more going on under the surface than Miller’s sophomoric, flexing masculine fantasy-epic, the stuff between the panels didn’t make it to the screen intact.
It’s unfair to compare the movie to the book at every turn, to catalog changes like an autistic continuity nerd dragging a red pen across a series of boxes like “no squid. Gets mask back from psychiatrist. Rorschach’s using meat cleavers now. Adrian’s triggering things instead of just doing them.” But I almost can’t blame those pedantic fun-sucker types, because if the movie was working right, viewers would be too enamored with the film to concern themselves with changes. This plays closer to a Chris Columbus-esque racing through of collected moments, as if Snyder was directing via his own checklist. It felt less like a film Snyder made for Snyder, and more like a film made for the kind of people who create memes on the internet as a form of film criticism.
Maybe studio interference has something to do with that. Maybe with 10-15 minutes of the movie reintegrated, the connective tissue holds the movie together better, the pacing isn’t so herky-jerk disjointed, the characters are given time to breathe and become their own moving, living things onscreen. But that’s a lot of burden to place on 10-15 minutes, and the movie has to stand on it’s own merits once the film moves through the projector, and those merits are these:
It’s pretty as hell. Snyder knows how to block a scene, how to move his camera, and generally how to make almost everything in front of his lens look, for lack of a better phrase, “Fuckin cool.” His speed-ramping fetish (overstated online in the last few months) is very subdued in this movie, but when he uses it, it’s quite effective.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Eddie Blake (The Comedian,) Jackie Earl Haley as Walter Kovacs (Rorschach,) and Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl II) inhabit their characters in ways that are faithful to the text and also alive on their own. My girl offered this observation on the train ride home: “It’s like the movie kept forgetting to breathe. It spent all this time holding it’s breath, and only exhaled maybe once or twice.” These actors, more often than not, were remembering to work those lungs.
The action sequences are very well done. The Prison break reminded me of Oldboy, which really surprised me. The Alley fight intercut with Manhattan’s interview, the sequences flashing back to the origins of both Rorschach and Doc Manhattan are probably the best things Snyder has ever done, the closest he comes to proving Moore wrong. But this leads us to some the demerits of the film:
Malin Akerman as Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre II) and Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) are kind of just there. They don’t suck outright, nor do they impress. They are ciphers. Robert Wisden as Richard Nixon and Carla Gugino as Sally Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre) are buried under bad old age makeup and turn in hammy, lazy performances.
Billy Crudup’s voice work as Jon Osterman (Doctor Manhattan) is good, but the decision to make the Doc all CGI was ultimately, a bad one. They apparently had someone specifically working on the jiggle physics of his wang, but they couldn’t crack the problem of making his mouth move correctly. So many cool little things going on just under the surface of his translucent skin, wasted because when they needed Jon to emote even in the minor degrees someone as omniscient and detached as Jon is, they couldn’t get it right.
Again, we’re in the realm of uncanny valley, it’s pretty disorienting, and not in the manner I felt upon first reading the book, and not just because humanity was saved after the smartest man in the world teleported a telepathic space squid into New York and ostensibly got away with it–Oh yeah, obligatory comment on the changed ending: The film’s replacement works on its own, full of sick, eerie majesty, disorienting in the right way–Anyway, upon finishing the book, I knew I didn’t get it all, but I got enough, and was so swept along by the relentlessness of it that I wanted to dive back in. I’m not so sure I want to dive back into this translation. I heard myself telling people “Well, I had to read the book about 2 or 3 times to really pull the whole thing together, maybe it’s the same with this movie.”
Maybe not. Maybe that’s me doing the fanboy thing and trying to stave off disappointment by hoping a repeat viewing would open up new layers. I was hoping that maybe the text was being repurposed into a deconstruction of superhero movies in the same way the book tore apart the conventions of superhero storytelling. But I don’t think that’s what I saw. I saw a shiny, pretty, almost panel-perfect adaptation that played more subdued and buttoned-down than anything else. Reverential and respectful, yes, but a little staid and rote too.
My dad used to buy top of the line stereo equipment, and then forbid anyone to actually play CD’s on it. He was afraid that he’d break it and ruin his investment. This movie feels like Snyder was so afraid to break “Watchmen,” that he didn’t actually use it properly. Maybe this film represents the best crack anyone is gonna get at taking one of Time magazines 100 greatest novels of the 20th century, and capturing its dour, introspective, paranoid, and nihilistically hopeful tone on celluloid. Maybe it’s just that the old hairy wizard with the stupid pinky rings is right this time, unfortunately: Maybe “Watchmen” is simply unadaptable.