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MOVIE REVIEW: Watchmen

REVIEW SUMMARY: Lovely images and faithful panel translations, but with no emotional significance, or grounding.

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The film is set in an alternate 1985, in which Nixon has remained in office far longer than two terms, the Doomsday clock is ticking ever closer to the fatal midnight mark…and super-heroes have been existing in the world for some time now. The story begins with the murder of one of them, The Comedian. The mystery of who hunts the Watchmen begins to be explored by Rorschach.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Gorgeous imagery, with scenes from the comic copied exactly. Also, a soundtrack that you can’t help but notice as it turns up throughout the film. Some of the most amazing opening credits out there.

CONS: Almost everything else. The acting is extremely dodgy at times. There is no emotion or context or explanation for what’s happening.

BOTTOM LINE: Since one has to read the comic to really get anything of interest out of the film, the film is little more than some brought-to-life panels. Interesting to look at, but it doesn’t have a leg to stand on.


I think that we’ve all known the Watchmen movie was coming. It was inevitable, and it’s been in the works for an awful long time. Terry Gilliam was attached briefly to direct. Which led to him having lunch with Alan Moore and asking Moore how he would make the film. Alan said, “To be honest, I wouldn’t.” Terry took that to heart, it seemed, and left the film. It floated in limbo, the way things do in Hollywood.

And then, Zack Snyder, fresh from directing 300 — a Frank Miller graphic novel — was attached to the project. Comic book movies became a big deal around the same time. Suddenly, Watchmen had legs. Hobbled legs, occasionally, as there were lawsuits, and there was Alan Moore who said, and I quote, “I will be spitting venom all over it.” (and good for him, says your faithful reviewer).

When it was out in theaters, I couldn’t bring myself to get interested. The trailers were pretty, but…frankly, I wasn’t impressed by Snyder’s 300 (I didn’t care for the graphic novel a great deal either), and didn’t expect that this would be much better, intellectually. Alan Moore hasn’t fared well in the theaters. I was waiting to watch it until someone convinced me it was worth seeing.

No one did. So I waited much longer, until I could get it through Netflix.

I watched it with my wife, who had never read the Alan Moore comic series, and who asked that I not tell her anything about it, so that we could see how well the film worked for someone who comfortably reads comics all the time, but who is unfamiliar with this particular piece of work. I thought that was a fine experiment. I’ve read Watchmen many times, and I’m a tremendous Alan Moore fan, so I was the other end of the spectrum: the loyal comic fan, who is willing to be convinced, but still has to be talked into the thing.

The movie let us both down, sadly, and perhaps unsurprisingly.

I was very aware of something else Alan Moore had said, as I went into the film. He said, and I paraphrase here, “that Watchmen was intentionally designed to be a comic, to do things only a comic book could do.”

Unfortunately, the movie can’t decide if it’s going to slavishly adapt the comic, panel-by-panel to the screen, as was done with Sin City by Robert Rodriquez…or if they were going to take the initial material and adapt it. They wander between the two.

What this means is that while the images are gorgeous and really look like live-action versions of some of the comic panels…the whole thing feels a bit odd. It doesn’t feel adaptive, it feels imitative, if you see what I mean. It has the odd imitative creepiness that Superman Returns did, because it wasn’t just being a Superman film, it was trying to be a Christopher Reeves Superman film. Odd imitative fan-fiction, in a way, you see?

For me, as a fan of the comic, it was frustrating to watch. Because they would show all these beautiful images from the comic fully realized — from Dr. Manhattan’s amazing clockwork home on Mars, to the initial fight scene that results in the Comedian’s death — but it doesn’t give the emotion and resonance and context that the comic book does.

A good example of this, is Dr. Manhattan wandering on Mars, and we briefly get his voice-over as he experiences all of these different moments in his own personal history. The problem is…in the comic book, this is done in such a way that what you are supposed to realize is that for Dr. Manhattan, all of these various moments in time are happening right now. You are given this amazing sense of how he views time, and you suddenly understand why he’s so cold and distant and disconnected. But in the film, it just plays out like a recap. A pretty recap, but it doesn’t give you any reason for its long existence.

Another problem the film has is, there aren’t a lot of strong actors here. In particular, the lady playing Silk Spectre II…cannot act. Or find the commas in a sentence, one suspects. (And, and this is not a complaint against the film, but I was constantly thinking that the man who played Night Owl looked like Chevy Chase, from certain angles). The strongest actor in the film is Billy Crudup, who we know to be a strong actor from other pieces. Here, though, he plays the emotionless Dr. Manhattan.

The movie does very little to explain itself to the viewer who has not read the comic. You are not given any way of realizing that these super-heroes had really not worked out, and were a bit of a scary joke, and now they were all in retirement, except for Rorschach. Why is Nixon still in office? Why is the global situation bad? Why did the heroes not work out?

Essentially, the movie flounders the moment you challenge anything by asking “so what?”

Comic fan, or not, you are left with a sequence of pretty images. And you are left with some emotion, and some good bits…which mostly are there because the emotional power of the original work bleeds through the clumsy film-making.

There are good bits to Watchmen, besides the visuals. For one thing, there’s the soundtrack, which makes itself notices (from songs like “99 Red Balloons” to “The Sound of Silence”). It was a bit blatant in its cold war, nuclear theme…but I really didn’t mind. It really seemed to fit well.

For another thing, there is an amazing — and I do mean amazing — opening sequence, which kind-of-sort-of tries to explain how the world got to where it is. It does the back-story of the super-heroes in these amazing frozen images, with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin”. It’s an amazing, evocative, beautiful sequence. And watching it, I really had hopes for the rest of the film.

Something else good in the film is Rorschach. They captured him faithfully. His character is interesting and well-done. Particularly, the sequence in the prison, when he kills Big Figure’s henchmen without ever leaving his cell…that whole sequence is faithfully adapted, and really, really good. full of energy and attitude and gleeful bloody fun.

(But here, again, we briefly glimpse Rorschach in a psychiatry visit and then move rapidly on, leaving us with a random look into why he’s gone mad, but not as comprehensive as the comic, and more or less useless to us).

And the ending, Rorschach’s ultimate ending, is handled well. None of the other characters particularly are, especially not at the end, when we are guided to a shocking and horrible realization which is not shocking at all, because the movie has really failed to make us suspect who the real killer is (unless you already knew from reading the comic).

Finally, there is the matter of the ending. We all knew they changed the ending, away from the odd-but-workable ending of the original Watchmen comic. I was nervous to see what they would do. (and I’m being vague, so as not to give too much away). I must say, I actually preferred the movie ending to the comic book. That is, the final situation that brings the world together…I preferred who the movie made a scapegoat, as opposed to the comic book. It felt neater, it was useful, and it made good sense. I liked that quite a lot.

I would also offer, in my defense as a viewer, that I don’t need a comic book film to slavishly stick to the source material. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are all the better for picking and choosing what they want from the comics, and then going where they will. Hellboy was the same way. I don’t want faithful adaptations, necessarily, I just want something that is a pleasure to watch and perhaps accomplishes something along the way. I don’t need faithful substance, just substance.

In the end…I mostly came away from the movie with some pretty images, a nice soundtrack, and a desire to re-read the comic book. The movie can’t stand on its own without someone reading the comic, and it doesn’t augment and support the comic enough to really justify its existence in that matter. What breaks the film? Is it the sheer complexity of the comic book? Is it Zack Snyder’s inability as a director? Did Alan Moore cast a curse over the film, and it worked?

Regardless of the reason — I like to think it’s all three — it’s an ineffectual movie that plays no emotional chords, gives no context, and leaves you neither thrilled to have seen it, nor especially angry at having watched it. It exists, and that’s about all you can say for it.

About Peter Damien (33 Articles)
Peter Damien is a busy writer who lives in Minnesota because he just really likes frigid temperatures and mosquitoes. He lives in the crawl-spaces between heaps of books and can be seen scurrying out at dusk to search for food and ALL the TEA. His wife and two boys haven't figured out how to get him out of the house, so they put up with him. He as astonishing hair.

13 Comments on MOVIE REVIEW: Watchmen

  1. Sorry you didn’t like it, but I didn’t find the issues you mention to be a problem for me.  I enjoyed the characters and the acting.  I thought some things were overdone (the sex scene in the owl, the rape) but other than that I enjoyed it.  My wife, who hadn’t read the novel, liked it too giving it 3 out of 5.  It isn’t a perfect movie, but it was entertaining.  And hey, that’s what I want :).

  2. Mostly, I want to be entertained too, but it just didn’t do it for me. It doesn’t have to major, astonishing, epic earth-shattering art, but it’s got to hold itself up, yanno? I guess because it aspired to be more, it had more to live up to. I liked the Edward Norton Incredible Hulk movie, because it was sort of dumb…but it was fun. And it did what it was trying to do.

    Which is not what I came here to say. What I came here to say was:

    If you haven’t seen the film — and I’d watch it and see what you think, regardless of my opinion — at LEAST you owe it to yourself to watch this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKJ0QHLm1Uw

    Which is the opening title sequence I mentioned, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin”. It’s gorgeous, and emotional, and amazing.

  3. Short of focusing on one character, I have to believe that the comic book is basically <strong>un</strong>adaptable. You either have to <strong>try</strong> to tell the whole complex, interwoven tale or just go home.

    The film is a heroic effort to approach the Gordian knot that is the Watchmen, and while not perfect, I’m happy with the bright flashes and breif glimpses of greatness we were given.

    The acting was a little stiff in places, but maybe these characters were stiff, not knowing how to live their lives without a mask. That’s kind of the point, no?

  4. (I still miss not being able to HTMLize my thoughts. πŸ™‚

  5. Jeff,

    Ah but you can! Sorta. You just need not use the actual HTML code. Since we use a ‘nifty’ WYSIWYG editor, just hilight the word(s) you want to modify, then clicky-clicky on B, I, U buttons at the top of the comment box. 

    Viola! (not the instrument) you now have bold, italicized or underlined words.

    And I’ve been bitten by the literal display of HTML in comments too. Think of it as a geek badge.

    πŸ™‚

  6. I had completely the opposite reaction, Pete.

    I wrote about my reactions to the film on my blog, so I won’t rehearse all that stuff here.

    Yet I will say that I went into the film “cold,” never having read the graphic novel. What completely absorbed me, besides the stunning visual look of the film, were the story and the characters. I was able quite easily to understand the context of the story and where the heroes fit in the world (it is mentioned at least a few times in the film that Dr. Manhattan is the only “true” superhero in the world); I had no problem with the moral and philosophical complexities at stake, with the emotional reach of the story. I loved the vulnerability of the characters, the ironies at play, the immensity of the choices they had to make (personal and … global). In these respects, the film is incredibly well constructed; moreover, I would even suggest that the film brings greater emotional weight, more gravitas, to the graphic novel’s themes, issues, and questions.

    On the matter of “so what?,” I think the story is clear and powerful. What is the role of superheroes in a world degraded by fear, self-interest, lawlessness, greed? Who is or can be a hero? What makes these particular individuals the ones who can both destroy and save us? Here, Rorschach (as in the graphic novel) is the key. He makes us uncomfortable, sure, but he’s also right, even at his ending.

    Ah, there’s so much more I could say, I suppose. I find your experience of the film unfortunate, I guess, because for me it is a incredible achievement — one of the best films of the year so far, I would argue, and a film that will improve with time. (For my money, maybe the best “comic book movie” yet.) In the end, I appreciate its faithfulness to the graphic novel, as well as its willingness to stray from its source text. Ultimately, the story’s the key, and that’s what makes Watchmen important and relevant, both graphic novel and film.

    I wonder if, in general, those unhappy with the film (I’ve heard of people walking out halfway through) are those very tied to the graphic novel. If so, it goes to show how much we attach ourselves not just to specific stories, but to the forms or media in which we experience and know those stories. Translating from one form/media to the next always brings its potential pitfalls, but maybe also its surprises and revelations?

    Thanks for your review of the film.

     

  7. As an artist and fan of graphic novels, I was a shoe-in to like the film, but walked away seriously believing it was one of the worst films I’ve paid for in some time.  It falls at the feet of Schneider, who may know how to put a visual together, but fails to understand the pacing and emotional beats necessary to make truly compelling film.   I can’t tell you how many times I looked at my watch.

    Love the novel, but the film isn’t worth a second viewing.

  8. My 2 pennies: 3.5/5 – Watchmen (2009) – A superb example of why some material *should* be changed when being adapted to film. The awesome world building experience of the graphic novel didn’t work as well in the visual medium. Instead of being true to the work (out of respect, I’m sure) someone should have made the call to make the necessary changes. If you haven’t read the awesome graphic novel, subtract 1 star.

  9. @Retrocog — Then again, the pacing of the graphic novel is distinctly different from that of the film, with the subplot of The Black Freighter and the chapters from Hollis’s book. The film quite rightly leaves these elements out (hence showing in one respect, I think, how the film is very much an adaptation as opposed to strictly an imitation of the graphic novel). The graphic novel asks to be read in a particular way: colour, image, text (dialogue/thought bubbles; Hollis’s book), frames, holding the physical book in our hands and turning pages, and so forth. The film, however, must be read on its own terms as well: image, angle of shot, type of shot, props, set, dialogue, music, sound, cuts, and the like. Information is conveyed in different ways, especially when you throw human actors into the mix. As I said, I found the film to be incredibly compelling because the characters and their stories are complex and distinct, but also because visually the film is rich and purposeful (and rather postmodern in its awareness of itself as a film).

    What’s perhaps most interesting in your comments, though, is that the film’s faithfulness to the graphic novel in terms of not just the story but the very composition of scenes and frames suggests that its narrative pacing is grounded in the graphic novel’s (structure, flashbacks, character relationships, etc.), leading to the question of why is the graphic novel’s pacing for you more compelling than the film’s? I appreciated how the film took its time to establish the core characters, to let us learn about them, but also how the film kept the central conflict focussed and intense. With the graphic novel, I appreciated all the background we get from Hollis’s chapters — but the film works hard to give us a fair amount of that information, such as in the opening credits sequence, but also in what the characters say to and between each other.

    Out of curiosity, was the film a disappointment as a film, or because it failed to do the source text justice in some way? Did Snyder not translate Moore’s vision adequately, for instance, or did he simply produce a subpar film, Watchmen adaptation or not? For me, the Watchmen film uses every ounce of the medium of film to tell its story, and the result is fascinating ….

    @John D. — I’ve read the graphic novel, so I hope I’m good. πŸ™‚ I think that the world of the film is clear and strong in its characteristics, themes, nature. As a different kind of text than the graphic novel, the film has to give us its world in different ways. If anything, the film showed me how timeless the story of Watchmen is: a world threatened by legal, social, military, political, and personal degradation and chaos; a world dark, foreboding, uncertain, even claustrophobic; a world of self-interest and greed; a world disdainful of its real heroes, to the point where it finds itself at the point of nuclear war. This all sounds familiar and not far from our post-9/11 world of the War on Terror, global economic crisis, environmental crisis, and other problems. Who are the heroes today? Have they become cynical like The Comedian or detached like Dr. Manhattan or confused like Night Owl II? Are they driven underground to marginal, counter-cultural positions like Rorschach? Would we even trust them? In this way, the film for me is true to the fundamental spirit of the graphic novel, which maybe didn’t need a lot of change in the end. Great review of the graphic novel, by the way!

     

  10. My feeling is that there is material in the book that could make for a compelling film under a director with a better sense of drama, emotional beats, and pacing.   Snyder, for all his efforts, just spent too much time thinking about being faithful to the source, and not enough effort constructing a film from that source.   As you know, all novels don’t translate perfectly to film, and Watchmen is definitely one of those.   With so much material, it needed to be sharpened and shaped to fit the medium.  Liberties (and probably controversial ones) had to be taken. 

    When you remove those creative constraints, a director usually can construct something for film that carries it’s own flow and works to the medium’s strength.  Look no further than The Dark Knight as a film that no longer had to deal with an origin story, and was free to create a story for film that resonates.

    Any filmed story that involves so many characters, is going to suffer from diluted drama.   You see this over and over again with superhero films, and especially with superhero teams.  The X-Men films are great examples of this.  Decent films, but just too many characters scratching for screen time and constricting those stories from achieving more as film.   I think it’s often been the case that screenwriters have always wittled or combined characters from novels to focus the message and storytelling of film.   It’s not always popular, but it’s very often necessary.   Hard to do with Watchmen and maybe Snyder did the best he could with that constriction.  The end result is something that completely mirrors the last paragraph of Peter T’s review.

  11. I recently finished re-watching Watchmen on BluRay, and I just have a few comments from someone that reads LOTS of comics, but never read the Watchmen comics:

    The problem is…in the comic book, this is done in such a way that what you are supposed to realize is that for Dr. Manhattan, all of these various moments in time are happening right now.

    I don’t know, but I easily picked up on this. At some point before this part he says explicitly that he lives in all times at the same time. The narration of the “flashback” says “It is ninteen [whateveryearitwas] and we’re at the movies. We meet [theguysname]….tonight, we make love for the first time” etc. etc. Everything he’s saying is in the present tense and this came across very clearly to me.

    The movie does very little to explain itself to the viewer who has not read the comic. You are not given any way of realizing that these super-heroes had really not worked out, and were a bit of a scary joke, and now they were all in retirement, except for Rorschach.

    I also think that this was pretty clear if you were paying attention to the movie. They even mentioned more than once that the Keene Act forced them to abandon their costumes, and Roshrac was the only one that didn’t.

    (But here, again, we briefly glimpse Rorschach in a psychiatry visit and then move rapidly on, leaving us with a random look into why he’s gone mad, but not as comprehensive as the comic, and more or less useless to us).

    I don’t think this was a “random” look at all. It’s pretty clear that this was the proverbial straw that pushed him over the edge. He says “Walter Kovacs died that night”. It was the defining moment in his life.

    which is not shocking at all, because the movie has really failed to make us suspect who the real killer is

    If the movie failed to make us suspect who the killer was, then how is it not shocking?

    We all have our own opinions and we’re entitled to them, but I get the feeling that you’ve read the comic so much that those parts of it that weren’t in the movie left you feeling like the movie was lacking. Like I said I never read the books, but for my piece, I think if anyone paid enough attention, there was no problem following the movie at all, and it wasn’t weak.

    I only went through so much detail because I just watched it again a day or two ago.

  12. I agree with 99 percent of this review, but I think the way the ending was changed was awful. After seeing it in the thearter, and then watching the directors cut at home, the best thing that could have happened to this movie was  staying in Hollywood limbo.

  13. I agree with Tony Greer: the film is very purposeful in communicating its meanings, and if one is watching attentively then those meanings are clear. I thought that the script, editing, cinematography, sound/music, etc. all contributed to establishing the world and the characters, and it all goes toward to creating a powerful, enthralling story. I don’t believe that one needs to have read the graphic novel to get the film, for what’s crucial, in the end, are the characters and the story — and, in this case at least, they transcend restriction to any single medium/media. In fact, I even wonder if the film ends up showing just how big, how nearly mythical the Watchmen characters and story truly are: i.e., the scale of the medium/media fits the scale of what Watchmen reaches for.

    @Retrocog: Again, coming from the perspective of someone who saw the film (twice) without ever having read the graphic novel, I feel Watchmen is an incredible film. Snyder uses just about every single aspect of the medium of film to tell the story, and he pushes that story to the grandeur of myth/legend. Having read the graphic novel since seeing the film, Snyder, for me, translated the original source beautifully to film — faithful to the visual look and feel of Watchmen‘s world, faithful to fundamental natures of the characters, faithful to the story that Moore/Gibbons tell, but also willing to adjust and add and rework where necessary (the opening title sequence is brilliant; the soundtrack; the ending is fitting and powerful in all the ironies at play).

    A very importance difference between Watchmen and The Dark Knight, is that, of course, Nolan has a significantly vaster amount of history and source material to mine. Batman does not occur in a single, contained novel/book/source; Batman has been through several iterations in the 50-plus years of the character’s life, imagining, reimagining. Thus, Nolan was not restricted to a specific “Batman,” to a discrete story that is all we have of Batman. In other words, he had much more to play with. Your comparison of Watchmen and The Dark Knight thus maybe doesn’t quite fit the situation?

    Also, I think where Watchmen (film) succeeds and the X-Men films stumbled (especially after the first one) is that each of its principle characters is provided with clear, strong, believable motivations and backgrounds; each of its principle characters is distinct and fascinating, such that, at least for me, when they all come together in the film’s final act, there’s a great deal of context to the decisions they make, giving the final series of events (say, from the raid on the prison to spring Rorschach and on to confronting Veidt) significant emotional impact.

    The film is definitely faithful to the graphic novel, but I see this as a strength. However, I also think Snyder made a film — a work wholly of its medium (even a celebration of all that film can do), complete unto itself.

     

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