If time is relative, as Einstein and Dr. Manhattan, a fictional blue god and one of the Watchmen, like to tell us, than it’s never too late for a Watchmen review. In our opening-weekend-only film culture that’s usually a sin. But if the filmmakers are asking you to return, fear of second weekend box office drops hanging over them like a mushroom cloud, another round of reviews should also be encouraged. Time being relative...
It is today and you are reading this review. It is March 6th, 2009 and you are sitting in the theater watching the Watchmen. It is 1986 and the first issue of Alan Moore’s Watchmen is in comic book stores. Director Zach Snyder is twenty-years old and studying painting in London. It is eight minutes from now and you have finished reading this review. You are commenting. It is the 1990s and the movie is in development hell. It is March 6th 2009 and you are sitting in the theater watching the Watchmen. It is tomorrow and you are returning to The Film Experience to read more daily updates. You are still annoyed by something you read the day before.
Watchmen is based on a comic book cum graphic novel from the 1980s. It takes place in an alternate version of our earth where costumed vigilantes (i.e. superheroes) have been outlawed unless they’re working for the government. The Cold War still rages with Russian and American leaders ready to destroy the world in a nuclear holocaust should the other side look at them funny.
One of the few active heroes “The Comedian” is murdered and the members of the disbanded superhero group “The Watchmen” realize they’re being targeted. But why? They’re retired.
Plot descriptions leave Watchmen wanting because it’s so many things: a book of ideas, a visually compelling oddity, a product of its time with cold war paranoia encased wittily in spandex, and a meta-deconstruction of the superhero genre: What makes superheroes tick? What kind of a sicko would someone have to be to put on tights and beat criminals up as a hobby? Would man’s inhumanity to man eventually break their spirit? What would happen when they hit middle age?
You’ve seen other films that ask these questions in the service of comedy or spectacle (The Incredibles and Hancock spring to mind as recent variations) and violent heroes are nothing new either (Wolverine, The Dark Knight, etc...) but the influential Watchmen had a hand in all of this. The current psychoanalytical angst-ridden view of superheroes was probably a natural result of Marvel Comics brilliant move in the 1960s to shift the genre away from DC's godlike heroes (Superman, Wonder Woman) to those who were decidedly less super under the mask (Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, etcetera). One could argue that Watchmen was the brilliant apotheosis of that evolution.
It is 2009 and there’s finally a film version of all of this. And I mean all of this. Barely anything save The Black Freighter (a comic within the original comic) has been jettisoned even if it’s only squeezed in with a quick edit here or there. The resulting movie is inevitably cluttered and overlong, making one long for a miniseries to do it justice or more merciless scripting. It’s pleasing and disappointing, exciting and dull. Fans of the comic book will enjoy seeing the characters finally come to life (I know I did) but might not learn anything new through this living. The visual effects and art direction are beautiful but to what end?
The source material wasn’t deemed unfilmable for so many years for its visuals but for the density of its storytelling. Watchmen’s original power was closely tied to its medium: paneled storytelling, the long form storyline and chapter construction, the very language and history of comics. The movie is not tied to its medium: the power of motion, streamlined narrative arcs, the distilled humanity of acting and the language and history of cinema aren't well leveraged.
The actors embodying the anti-heroes are hemmed in in this bookmovie (boovie?). Jeffrey Dean Morgan is appropriately vile as The Comedian, Patrick Wilson is game for the sad sack Nite Owl and Matthew Goode is slightly amusing in his total superiority as Ozymandias the smartest man in the world, but there’s precious little depth. Silk Spectre II has the most to offer the movie, emotionally speaking, but Malin Akerman seems disinterested in her material. She delivers all her lines in the same vaguely negative if not quite whiny fashion. No wonder her super powered lover Dr. Manhattan, embodied by impressively creepy and intimidating CGI and Billy Crudup’s face, is drifting away from his humanity. She’s his tether to Earth? Mars looks better all the time! Jackie Earle Haley tries hard as Rorschach, a fan favorite, but this isn’t an actor’s film.
Maybe it should have been. Watchmen is not an action comic. It thrives on ideas and the psychology (however bluntly defined) of its heroes. The film needed an actor’s director who could also handle the demands of a colossal technical project. Snyder is more than capable with the latter but his heart is with storyboards not actors (see also: 300). Faced with oppressive costumes, one note roles and dialogue insufficiently altered to flow in a different medium the actors choke. Their conversations have the distinct feeling of word balloons: dialogue in cages.
But it’s not just stiff acting and stop and start dialogue that gives Watchmen its weirdly staccato anti-rhythm. The action sequences, usually a highlight of superhero movies are a bigger problem. They actually do start and stop, refusing the potentially exciting momentum that action scenes can build and soar with. Where has the impressive Zach Snyder of Dawn of the Dead gone? His first film was relentless in its forward motion and growing sense of dread. Both were needed here.
At this point I should note a personal prejudice. I dislike slo-mo. It's my least favorite of cinematic action devices. It trips the "pretentious" switch in my head, as if the director thinks his visual choices so portentous that the masses require extra time to properly notice them. This technique can be useful if a director uses it in tiny portions for emotional punch or to convey something so inherently fast that one wouldn’t be able to see it in real time (Ozymandias’s swinging stantion attack is the one truly effective slomo moment in the film –we’ve been told that he can move with inhuman speed. We see it). Even if you don’t share my aversion, you’ll notice that Snyder has a limited arsenal of action tricks. Literally every fight scene in Watchmen uses slo-mo and frequently at that. Any film device constantly employed loses power and meaning.
It’s not appropriate to review a film based on its marketing but I do wish we’d stop hearing Zach Snyder referred to as a “visionary director”. He has made one remake (Dawn of the Dead) and two extremely faithful adaptations of visual work (300, Watchmen). He’s yet to reveal any particular visual ideas of his own. He may well have them but how would we know? Snyder’s latest adaptation prefers to function as a photorealistic recreation of the comic book. Watchmen the movie is ambitious in scope if not quite in cinematic design. To function as superbly as cinema as the comic did as literature, the adaptation would have had to have been a movie first and foremost. In its new hybrid form, all glories (and there are a few) are borrowed.
Movie if you haven't read the comic: I can't even imagine. D ?