In my opinion, director Zack Snyder’s film interpretation of the classic comic book series Watchmen is a mixed bag.
Don’t let that put you off though: coming from me that’s high praise. After all, I am a nearly lifelong, hardcore comics fanboy who has read Watchmen at least half a dozen times in the last decade. In my previous Silverfish piece on the topic, I asserted in no uncertain terms that Watchmen was the greatest thing ever written. Twice. I went into that theater ready to absolutely love or completely despise the film. The fact that I of all people can recognize and praise its numerous successes alongside the spots where it just doesn’t (and shouldn’t be expected to) live up to its impeccable source material is a testament to both the quality of the film and, of course, my own maturity.
And to be fair, adapting Watchmen to the screen has always been considered an impossible task. Back in 1986, Alan Moore1 and Dave Gibbons created a dense, dark, long, and layered Cold War fable that turned every last rule of superheroes on its head, and Hollywood has been trying to get a film adaptation together for nearly twenty years. Luminaries such as Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky were unable to get the project off the ground. Snyder himself, the man who ultimately earned the “Directed by” credit at the start of the film, has said that doing the comic justice is impossible. He only took the job for fear that someone who didn’t love the comic would direct an utterly unfaithful adaptation, and contends that his movie is little more than a $120 million commercial for the source material.
In light of all that’s stacked against him, let’s start with what Snyder gets right:
First of all, the movie looks absolutely marvelous2. While shooting, every member of the cast and crew kept a copy of the book tucked under their arms and this slavish devotion to the original art pays off. Everything looks just right and fanboys will be able to play elaborate games of “Spot That Detail!” while the uninitiated can sit back and bask in set-piece after luscious set-piece. The superhero costumes in particular are impeccable, sticking close to the original comic designs but shooting them through with a modern edge and a gritty realism.
It helps that those costumes are filled by some talented actors who throw themselves headfirst into their roles, especially Jeffrey Dean Morgan (who perfectly pitches sadism and pathos in his portrayal of The Comedian) and Jackie Eale Haley (who absolutely disappears into the disturbed vigilante Rorschach). Snyder also nails the tone of apocalyptic dread that courses beneath the action. And, the opening scenes – from the attack on The Comedian that kicks off the story’s central mystery through the remarkable credit sequence that offers the audience a slo-mo crash-course in The Watchmen’s alternate history – are flawless.
In spite of all that good stuff, there are a few things about the movie that irk this hardcore fan. The biggest is a problem with Snyder, who as a director is anything but subtle and punches the comic’s already considerable violence to occasionally ghastly proportions. Snapping bones and sprays of gore are here in such excess that it periodically threatens to pull the audience out of the story. However, the over-the-top violence is nothing compared to the ludicrous, Leonard Cohen-scored superhero sex scene that literally stops the movie dead in its tracks. This scene – that took up less than a page of the comic where it felt natural and sweet – is roughly 3 minutes of pointless T&A that only succeeds in being awkward and uncomfortable.
While Snyder is excessive in some places, he skimps in others. Even though the film is more than 2 ½ hours long, everything felt rushed to me. Each scene lasted lasting only as long as it took to propel the story from one plot point to the next, leaving little room for things to breathe. One scene in particular – a flight over the shifting red sands of Mars – had me breathlessly hoping for just one wide and lingering shot to let me soak up the grandeur.
Finally, while screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse did a much better job of fitting Watchmen into a script than most readers could have hoped, the film focuses on the primary superhero plot to the complete exclusion of the myriad subplots that run through the story. Now, I know that things have to be cut in any page-to-screen translation and I’m not trying to be a Watchmen purist here. My issue with the side-plot cuts is that it means all the audience sees are the superheroes and no normal people. It makes the world of Watchmen feel empty and robs the story of a large amount of its emotional impact because the audience never meets any of the normal people that inhabit it. There is little at risk in the impending apocalypse and the heroes’ life-and-death decisions about “saving” the world turn into a thought-experiment without any consequences that the audience feels. The end of the world has never felt so empty.
Now, does all this negative talk mean you shouldn’t go see it? No way! It’s still an exciting and gorgeous film, and will almost certainly get audiences interested in reading the original book which is the unsurpassed masterpiece of comics. Hell, even with my reservations about the movie I still plan on seeing it again3 and you know I’ll be first in line the day the Extended Director’s Cut DVD comes out. Despite some, shall we say, “questionable choices,” Snyder’s Watchmen film raises the bar for grown-up comic book movies, and is almost certainly the best adaptation we could possibly get.
Of course, whether we needed a Watchmen film in the first place is still an open question… but I’ll leave that for another article.
1 Whose name you won't find anywhere on the finished product – he separated himself from any film adaptations of his comics work long ago…
2 With the notable and glaring exception of still-president Richard Nixon’s grotesquely exaggerated nose. Was the visual joke of Nixon as Pinocchio really worth ruining every scene he is featured in with silly makeup?
3 Probably drunk, so that I can stop all this obnoxious analysis and give myself over completely to the thrilling spectacle of it all.