TR Non-Review Review: Watchmen


First things first: this is not a normal review. I don’t believe I’m letting you guys down. Frankly, I’m guessing most if not all you saw the movie this past weekend anyway, so a review would be largely meaningless in that regard. Secondly, did any of you read a single review before watching the film that affected your decision to see it in any way? I doubt it. You either were going to see it no matter what, or you were going to hate it no matter what. Nothing I was or am going to say is going to change that.

But having watched the Watchmen movie, I do have some thoughts I’d like to share with you. Hopefully, whether you thought the idea of a Watchmen movie was terrible from the beginning or you were expecting the greatest movie of all time, I have something worthwhile to say about why you were both wrong. Now, overall, I liked the movie. Was it perfect? By no means. Could it have been worse? God yes. But here’s what I think the movie comes down to:

? Zack Snyder tried to make the most faithful adaptation of the graphic novel possible.
? He also tried to make it as accessible as possible to mass audiences, but that was his secondary goal.
? Most of what fans dislike about the film, I believe, comes down strictly to changes made to broaden its appeal.
? By remaining so true to the graphic novel, the Watchmen movie could not possibly measure up to it; and since it was designed primarily with the fans in mind, I don’t know how much mass appeal the movie actually has.
? So in the end, what did you want from the movie? The graphic novel put on the screen? Or for everyone to see why we consider Watchmen a masterpiece?

 Hit the jump for the gory details. (The vintage Watchmen art courtesy of Timothy Lim — check him out.)

Why Nerds Should Kiss Zack Snyder’s Feet

After watching Watchmen, I have no idea why anyone is pissed at Zack Snyder. Commenters on TR have blamed him for his stylized direction, specifically all the slow-motion scenes, but frankly, I didn’t think it had more than any other action film (and I was looking for it). II tell you, I recognized far more individual comic panels from the graphic novel than I noticed any kind of inappropriate film techniques.

Moreover, people have blamed him for trying to adapt Watchmen at all, and for making changes — and after seeing the film, I will fight you on this point. No one else on the planet would have given us a more faithful adaptation of Watchmen than Snyder. There is no doubt in my mind the fans were #1 on his mind at every single point during filming — to a fault in most cases.

For example — can you imagine, having never read Watchmen, watching the movie and seeing a big blue tiger with antennae all of a sudden? We know Bubastis is a beloved part of the story, but for mass audiences, he’s this bizarre animal which comes out of nowhere, who serves no purpose to the story. He’s a distraction, a way for non-nerds to just get more confused by an already epic, heady story. And Snyder gave him to us anyways, because he knew we loved him.

Better examples — think about the Deadpool debacle. Fox has taken a nerd-beloved character, and just stripped away everything from him but the name. Why did they do that? Just because. In all honestly, Fox execs probably think we nerds will be happy because “Deadpool” is in the film, never realizing that he’s a character to us, not a name. Hollywood is rife with those kinds of beliefs by people in charge — that’s how we get Elektra on a playground. Io9 had an interview with Snyder, where he said:

Then [the studio continued on]‘You know what else troubles us. You’ve changed the ending again and Adrian lives? We really liked the old version where Dan like crashed the Owl ship and killed Adrian with it at the very end.’ And I said, ‘Yeah that’s really not cool. That’s like the opposite of the movie.’ I kind of held off. I didn’t trick ’em, but I did wait quite a while before I actually said, ‘We can’t have Adrian die at the end, it’s impossible. It’s like a superhero movie, then, and a bad one.’

(Hit the link for other horrible changes the studio wanted.) Regardless about how you feel about Snyder’s direction or style, this man fought for the fans every step of the way, every frame of the film. So if you didn’t like the movie, that’s fine, but don’t accuse Snyder of not trying.

The Shit That Wasn’t for You

Obviously, there were some changes to Watchmen, but I contend they were made strictly to try to connect to audiences beyond the nerds, or just by the necessity of it being a film.

We all know how carefully Alan Moore crafted the Watchmen graphic novel. Every scene had something to add, to the story or about the characters, so obviously, any scene that got deleted from the movie lost something. But no studio would ever allow a four-hour superhero movie to be released, so things had to go if the movie was to come out at all. I think Snyder and the writers did an excellent job paring down the story for mass audiences. Besides — I have zero doubt the 3?-hour Director’s Cut due on DVD will put back most of what we nerds missed in anyways.

So let’s deal with the biggest complaint I’ve heard from nerds, which is the music. Snyder used some very standard period pieces during the film, which seems to have struck nerds as inappropriate given Watchmen‘s grand tale. I’m one of them — when I heard “I’m Your Boogeyman” during the Nite Owl and the Comedian’s ’70s scene in a clip a couple of weeks ago, I thought it was extremely heavy-handed. And that’s just one example of many, making the film like some sort of evil Forrest Gump, at least in regards to its soundtrack.

But now, having seen the film, I think that’s exactly what they were doing — trying to ground mass audiences as quickly and efficiently as possible, and I think the music did a damn fine job. Yes, they could have tried to work in the fact it was the ’70s into Nite Owl and the Comedian’s conversation, but that would have worked maybe once or twice, then gotten increasingly clunky given all the time-hopping Watchmen puts us through. Far better to set the scene without saying a word. Point being: yes, the music was obvious, but it probably needed to be for those people who had never read the comic.

Once change I noticed was the addition of the graphic violence and the rather graphic sex. Both are far more explicit than they were in comic. Now, I’m not talking about the action scenes in general, since I think they were beefed up just because it was a movie, and both nerds and mass audiences alike need some action in the films. My buddy Zach Oat at Television Without Pity said it best in his reviw:

“Reviewers can trash-talk the action, but if not for the occasional exploding person or snapped neck, all the talking in this film would have driven me insane.”

What I’m talking about is all the broken bones and sawed-off hands and Nite Owl’s man-ass in the flick. Why the emphasis on graphic violence and sex? I think it was partially to ensure the film got an R. Filmed as is, would Watchmen really have gotten an R rating in this day and age? Probably not, but I think it was important to Snyder that people see Watchmen as an “adult” superhero film. If it was PG-13, it could have been seen just as the brainier big brother to X-Men or Spider-man, and that’s not right. The violence and sex tells audiences that Watchmen is not kids’ stuff, by any stretch of the imagination. Frankly, this is no different from Moore including the more muted sex and violence in the graphic novel. In 1985, it was mind-blowing to comics fans, who saw Watchmen as a truly adult superhero story. Times have changed, but Snyder made sure mass audiences would recognize the Watchmen movie in the same way. And I think that’s a very good thing.

And then there’s the ending. If god forbid you haven’t seen the film, but plan to, and still want to be surprised by the ending (then why in god’s name are you reading this?) consider this your SPOILER WARNING. As we know, there’s no giant alien squid; instead, Ozymandias’ plan is blow up about a dozen major cities and make it look like a wrathful Doctor Manhattan did it in order to get the world to shape up. I think it works, frankly. Of course I miss the squid, but you have to recall that after decades of silver age comics, in 1985, comics fans were incredibly willing to accept a giant interdimensional alien squid ending. It didn’t faze them a bit, because they were used to that sort of thing in Superman and the like. Modern movie audiences? Not at all. Think about the confusion when Bubastis comes out of nowhere, multiplied by about a million — that’s what the squid would have created, and I doubt they’d have left impressed with Watchmen. The Dr. Manhattan frame-up works in the context of the story, and is something mass audiences can handle and understand. It’s a great solution. It works.

The Problems

Now, the Watchmen movie does have some problems, admittedly (although the squidlessness is not one of them). For me, the biggest problem is that Malin Acker
man just isn’t very good. Silk Spectre II is certainly a looker, and she did convey a lack of depth which I feel matches the character at some points. But I almost never bought her emotional scenes, especially with Manhattan. It’s by no means a deal breaker, and it looks worse because everyone else in the movie is so damn good. Okay, maybe Ozymandias isn’t fantastioc, but he’s not a problem in and of himself.

The problem with Ozymandias is that he’s telegraphed as the villain too early. Now, I don’t say that as a Watchmen-lover, because like all of us, I was looking for signs about Ozy’s intentions from the beginning (incidentally, the music in the Veidt lobby during the assassin attack? “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Awesome!) But the lovely Ms. Robot, who had not read Watchmen before seeing the movie, guessed Ozy was probably the villain by his magazine interview, just because he was rambling about how awesome Alexander the Great was. Obviously, I think the graphic novel makes it a much better shock, since Ozy seems so blond and heroic, and less sketchy.

Why Zack Snyder Is Kind of a Genius

Here’s what the movie does brilliantly — condense the graphic novel’s massive scope, time jumps, and back stories into one solid, easily followed (albeit complex) narrative. I don’t know how much credit should be given to the screenwriters and how much to Snyder, but just technically, seeing this story adapted so well is impressive in its own right.

So why am I calling Snyder a genius? Because of this:

I don’t know that I’ll see anything in the theaters in 2009 so elegantly, eloquently done as the Watchmen credits. The amount of information packed into these frames, done so quickly, so efficiently, and so gorgeously is absolutely astounding. Even if you hate the movie, I hope to god you can see what a feat this is. I used to be excited by Zack Snyder’s projects. After watching this, I am excited about Zack Snyder, and will watch whatever he puts on screen.

I am also impressed with how Snyder used the mass audience’s knowledge of superhero films. When Watchmen came out in 1985, it used standard superhero archetypes all comics fans instinctively knew and understood. Obviously, today’s mass audiences don’t have that; their superhero lexicon is informed almost entirely by, what? The Batman movies (both ’90s and the new ones), and maybe the X-Men and Spider-man flicks. So Snyder tried to use that just as Moore used the original archetypes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Nite Owl’s outfit looks like Batman’s in Batman Begins, as he’s the closest analog to the criminal-punching, gadget-laden hero the story has. And I’m dead certain Rorschach’s voice sounds like Bale’s silly Batman voice on purpose, because audiences can instinctively understand Rorschach’s mania by remembering when they heard Batman at his most psycho. Silk Spectre II’s latex outfit is derived from the ladies of X-Men, I believe, although there’s no clear analogue. As for Ozymandias, what movie superhero would better represent him than the smug, too-in-control hubris of the later ’90s Batman flicks — note his mask looks almost exactly like Robin’s and his over-muscled suit comes complete with nipples. And the Minutemen, dressed in the terrible costumes from the ’60s Batman TV show and the serials that preceded it?  Amazing Mass audiences instinctively know that the Minutemen were the Watchmen’s predecessors in a simpler time.

I think that’s brilliant.

Additionally, my pal Sean Collins has a theory about the movie’s inherent ’80s-ness, which I buy. The original Watchmen graphic novel was such a product on 1985, and I think Snyder tried, in a away, to make this an ’80s film. The music especially — had the film actually been made in ’86, right after the comic came out, I can see the exact same music being used. Collins adds:

Maybe my favorite aspect of the movie is how it riffed not just on superhero conventions, but on ’80s sci-fi action dystopia movies, too. I think it was Harry Knowles or Moriarty who pointed out that the score was designed to evoke the likes of Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, and John “Carpenter–it’s not super heavy-handed at it, nor is it as obvious as, say, “Machine Gun” by Portishead, but it’s there. Meanwhile, during the sex scene, the flick uses a super-duper-conspicuous romantic pop song (Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” getting a big laugh from the audience), in much the same way that basically every ’80s movie starring Tom Cruise did. The Road Warrior and that 1984 Macintosh Super Bowl ad figure prominently on Ozymandias’s TV screens toward the end. It’s cleverly done.

I don’t know how much the ’80s-ness works for me, or overall, but I get what Snyder was trying to do. Still, I can’t help feeling that while it might seem weird now, I bet the music choices will help the film age marvelously.

The Result

I really liked the movie, but I think I liked it more as an adaptation than just as a movie. Frankly, it was enough for me to see a movie version of Watchmen that it really doesn’t matter to me if the movie tanks or not after this weekend (more on that later today). I honestly don’t think we could have gotten a more faithful film if Alan Moore had been on set with an AK-47, and I think it’s probably too faithful to be successful as a film.

Let me tell you this — I forced the lovely and brilliant Ms. Robot to see Watchmen before reading the graphic novel, because I really wanted to know what someone who wasn’t a fan would think of the film. Although she’s lovely and brilliant, she’s not by an stretch of the imagination a nerd, so I think she’s reasonably indicative of the mass audience. After getting her bearing with the alternate 1985 and five-term Nixon, she wasn’t confused at all. And while she liked the film, at the end, she said she didn’t see why Watchmen was one of Time‘s best novels of the 20th century.

I doubt she’ll be alone. I doubt this movie will make Watchmen fanatics out of mass audiences. But really, that’s because it wasn’t made for them — it was made for us. Frankly, if Watchmen ends up tanking at the box office or not being considered a financial success, it’s nobody’s fault but ours. We got the movie we wanted. And this is the result.

But I should probably add that when the movie was over and we got home, Ms. Robot immediately asked to read the Watchmen graphic novel. And that’s a result that even Alan Moore should consider a resounding success.