Ah, Watchmen. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 12-issue comic that helped usher in the tortured and dark days of the superhero in the 80s. It’s a great read, though I never really bothered to re-read Tales of the Black Freighter in-depth. There’s only so much meta you can bother with, I suppose. Nevertheless, it’s the quintessential comic book, telling a story in a way that can only be told in the comic book format, which makes it perfect fodder for a movie.
The Watchmen project has been bandied around since the release of the comic, attracting directors as diverse as Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky. Gilliam threw in the towel, and Greengrass was removed after turning in a script more convoluted than the original comic. It would have been interesting to see what they came up with, though I think 3 hours of Greengrass throwing the camera at the actors could have been a bit much for me.
In the end, the movie was handed over to Zack Snyder, the visionary director behind the visionary remake of Day of the Dead (Running zombies!) and the visionary slo-mo wankathon-in-speedos (White men fighting probable homosexual muslims!) that was 300. Snyder is by his own admission a hardcore fan of the comic and wanted to preserve the integrity of Moore and Gibbons’ work. Considering the bad luck Moore has had with the other adaptations of his work (V for Vendetta was OK), this was an admirable goal. And preserve it he did; he’s been extremely faithful to the main story arc except, of course, when he hasn’t. The ending is changed, and while the alien squid in the comic was a fine, if outlandish solution, I thought the new ending fits the movie far better. New York is still decimated (it was sorta weird to see the huge crater with the Twin Towers standing behind it…), so everybody wins, except New York.
Still, being too faithful to the comic can be a problem in itself. Since dialogue and even camera angles from the book are so closely adhered to, I was actually taken out of the story when the script deviated from the comic. Granted, this is only a problem for the fanboys, so I won’t pursue the point too doggedly. I will say that the changes don’t always make sense: One such is example is when Walter Kovacs becomes Rorschach – it’s gorier than in the comic (which ripped off Mad Max, but has less impact nonetheless. And while the script has fashioned a reasonably coherent whole out of the many, many threads in the comic, it’s still a Reader’s Digest version where a lot of the human moments get lost in the violence and plotting.
The casting is pretty much spot-on, with Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach as the standout. My one objection is that he was too intense with the mask off. In the comic, the dead eyes and unmoving face was creepier than the simmering-just-beneath-the-surface rage of Haley, but again, it works in the context of the movie. Malin Akerman plays the Silk Spectre II, and has taken a lot of heat for her performance. I’m not sure why, to be honest; she’s perfectly fine. Yes, she’s a bit wooden, but she’s definitely athletic enough to be a believable ass-kicker (at least in a movie), and it not like she has that much to work with either. Her character is pared down quite a bit from the comic. Patrick Wilson’s portrayal of Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl is quite good, grounding the movie and giving the audience an average guy to identify with. Billy Crudup voices Dr Manhattan, and has been gollumed into the movie (ie motion captured). It works well, and though there’s still a Jar-Jar Binks quality to CGI characters, it works in this case, since Dr Manhattan isn’t 100% human in the first place. The actor playing Adrian Veidt looks kinda weird, and his accent keeps slipping, but what the hell. Lastly, Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a good job of portraying the Comedian, though I think there’s something too wholesome about him.
There are a few extra nice touches; the incredibly violent street brawl set to the strains of Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable, for example, makes for a powerful juxtaposition of sound and image, and works just as well here as when John Woo did it in Face/Off 12 years ago. Another wonderful touch is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment when Dr Manhattan is disintegrated by Ozymandias. Just before it happens, there the tiniest glimmer of exasperation on his face, the atomic superman thinking “Oh, for fuck’s sake…” before being torn apart. I’m not sure if it was Crudup himself or a CGI trick, but either way, it was magic. I also enjoyed Malin Akerman’s retractable heels. During the jailbreak scene, she has flat heels on when kicking ass, and high heels when posing in slo-mo. I know this is a normal way to shoot action, but it still makes me snicker when I see it. Snyder has done a fine job of directing the action. With 300, he proved he could shoot a beautiful-looking movie, and Watchmen shows it wasn’t a one-off. But like 300, it’s essentially a limp effort. In addition to Speedos, 300 at least had a linear structure, which Watchmen famously does not (though it has a Speedo). And while it’s fun to see the characters come to life on screen, the story feels shoehorned into a format it was never supposed to be in. On the other hand, I’ve read Watchmen at least 15 times, so I’m aware I could be biased. Snyder deserves credit for fighting the studio so as to keep the integrity of the material intact. But he’s an action director more than anything, and it shows when the movie slows down. I kept wondering what seeing the movie must be like for those who haven’t read the comic. One of my friends remarked that it was a bit difficult to follow, but “still cool”, in a tone of voice that implied it wasn’t. Another friend claimed she nearly nodded off, a feat in itself considering the volume accompanying the on-screen carnage. So in the end, it wasn’t that bad and it wasn’t that great either.