Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon
Having watched the theatrical cut, director’s cut and ultimate cut of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, it’s clear that it’s a flawed piece of work. No matter how much story is added or small details made clearer, it’s still isn’t the adaptation that can do justice to the source material.
Arguably that’s a harsh take on the film. There’s many things that it gets right. It’s very faithful, but it doesn’t quite seem to know how to grapple with its complexities that made Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons adaptation such an iconic piece of work. Watchmen is a film of well-intentioned decisions that don’t mesh into a satisfying whole.
The film starts off well enough. It’s the eighties, Nixon is in his third term and America and Russia are on the brink or nuclear war. We’re introduced to Edward Blake, a retired vigilante now living a life of supposed luxury in his penthouse when it’s broken into by a masked assailant and a fight ensues.
It ends with the Blake being thrown out of the window uttering “it’s all a joke”. His death sparks an investigation by another vigilante called Rorsharch (Jackie Earle Haley), who presumes that vigilantes are being knocked off one by one, but is that the case and if so, who’s behind it?
The comic is essentially an alternative history of the United States. What if superheroes existed? What effect would they have on the world? To me the comic was a study of these vigilantes who tried to be something more than they were, to be an individual who made a positive difference to society. The death of Blake re-unites, revealing suppressed memories them back together of impending doom brings these men and women together when for a number of years they’ve been estranged from one another.
At times it feels bloated with too much happening in too short a time and the introduction of the Black Freighter animation doesn’t help. It never meshed well with the story for me and I found that if you hadn’t read the comic you would scratch your head as to its inclusion. It felt like a self-contained story that had very little to do with the main one.
If you’ve read the comic the connection you thought it had with the main tale was in the shape of Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias). There were a few similarities between the captain’s plight and Veidt that only became apparent after the first read. The need to prevent what they deem as some terrible atrocity from occurring without realising the impact their decisions will have or the way in which they use their ‘friends’ as a way reaching their true goal are common thoughts between the two texts. It’s implicit with the text referencing what’s happening in both worlds (that of the Black Freighter comic and the world of the Watchmen) so that there is a double meaning inherent in the dialogue.
That intertextual reading is lost upon watching the film, the way the footage has been cut with the animation is fluid and seamless but elucidates very little (if at all) upon the main text. It frequently slows the pace of the film allowing the momentum to slow down before having to build up again. It adds little and the feeling derived from its inclusion is one of appeasing fans who would be upset if all the material was not included in some final cut. It’s a nice touch but one that doesn’t expound on the film’s main themes as well as the comic.
My biggest problem with the film however is how the action is shown. It’s all completely exaggerated and I do not mean in the form of slow-motion (which is used far too much) but the sense that this action feels super-human and not realistic at all. You might ask, well, it’s a film about super-heroes but it isn’t.
It is about people who aspire to be heroes, jumping in to save the day and rescue some poor maiden from the clutches of whomever. Nonetheless they are still people, so when I see Dreiberg punched someone so hard in the arm that it breaks so badly you could see the bone sticking out; or when Sally kicks someone and they fly into the side of a trash disposal all sense of realism is drained away. You don’t get the feeling you’re watching real people in action but fetishized heroes that have little connection to reality.
It all feels as if Snyder felt he had to exaggerate the action to make the film more accessible but to me it only serves to distance the characters and make the action overblown. We’re supposed to believe that Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) is supposed to be some flabby, out of shape loser and yet the first encounter he finds himself in he’s breaking arms and smashing heads as if he never was out of shape in the first place.
It doesn’t ring true to me and I can’t reconcile those feelings. In the scene when Rorschach leaps out of an apartment window and falls however many floors he gets back up in a fight scene that, again is well choreographed, is also ludicrous. He jumped out of window; landed on the pavement without suffering an injury, got back up, beat the snot out of few police officers before eventually being overwhelmed. That doesn’t strike me as being realistic even if he was on PCP.
When the slo-mo kicks in it only adds to this superficial veneer that Snyder has infused the film with. Action scenes have no real meaning, they’re just there to look ‘cool’ or ‘wicked’ or maybe even ‘wicked cool’.
I never believe this film gets at the truth of why these characters do what they do, the comic benefitted from having Hollis Mason’s Under the Hood extracts in it that really revealed the kind of psyche someone would have in order to put a costume on and perform heroics. The film sorely misses that kind of insight.
I haven’t even started on the characters yet. Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter (aka Silk Spectre II) doesn’t cut it. She can perform in the action scenes but there is something lacking in many of her more dramatic scenes. I never get a read on Laurie in a way that makes her appear anything more than just boring. I don’t care if she’s fetching in her PVC outfit, her personality bores me.
Matthew Goode as Ozymandias is never in the film for too long to make an impression and when he does he’s saddled with giving monologue after monologue, dishing out exposition as if they are cliff notes. He plays Ozymandias as a rather fey character, I think Snyder and the writers here took Rorschach’s thoughts on him being a ‘closet homosexual’ and tried to make that more apparent. Again like many things in the film it never breaks through the surface.
Wilson is good as the pathetic, emasculated Dreiberg who’s the more shy and retiring type rather than enthusiastic. It’s in both Billy Crudup’s interpretation of Jon Osterman/Dr Manhattan and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach that really do justice to their characters.
Dr Manhattan is the most fascinating character in the film as since he received his God-like powers he’s lost any semblance of connection with humanity. Crudup’s monotonous line readings are wonderful in an emotionless way, presenting a being that can see the past, present and future as someone who’s grown weary of Man’s actions.
Haley as Rorschach is a force to be reckoned with in a similar way Heath Ledger was as the Joker in The Dark Knight. He’s someone you shouldn’t like with his right wing leanings and sadistic ways of dealing with criminals but you can’t help but laugh at some of the things he says and does no matter how wrong they are.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is also good (at least when he’s not buried under makeup) in his role as The Comedian. I remember reading a play from the 70s called Comedians, by Trevor Griffiths that centred on comedy acting as revealing the truth, not necessarily in har har manner but in a way that revealed the more uncomfortable truths of our existence. That is the function of The Comedian who is the person who sees through all the bullshit with unerring accuracy.
There are some amazing moments but even those moments aren’t enough to put it into the echelon of excellent comic book films. The birth of Dr Manhattan is maybe one of the best origin sequences in comic book movies, in my mind rivalling the birth of the Sandman in Spider-Man 3. When Philip Glass’ score for Koyaanisqatsi kicks in it almost becomes transcendent. In another moment when the original Nite owl Hollis Mason (Stephen Mchattie) meets his end, it’s a scene that’s full of detail and wonderfully evocative of a much simpler time.
Again when the film is good it’s good when it isn’t I couldn’t care less as to what’s happening. The mystery is flat and unappealing, as if the film drops that thread an hour into the film then remembers it and has to move the plot forward.
That’s if you couldn’t figure out the bad guy in the first place especially when the first scene makes it so obvious (the assailant is tall, sinewy and is white, there’s only one character that comes to mind…) and I think the film struggles in deciding what it wants to be. Setting it in the Eighties makes it a period film and potentially a lot more interesting in comic book films set in modern times.
Yet there’s no overt commentary on the Eighties or now, the film says nothing at all which makes me think what exactly the point of this film is? I can’t figure out if there is some deeper meaning or whether it suffices as some entertaining theatrics for 3 ½ hours or whether it’s just a revisionist take on history ala Inglorious Basterds. Maybe it’s all of them.
Technically the film is great…well, apart from the score (and to repeat myself, the makeup). The orchestration from Tyler Bates tries to emphasise how cool this film is but is akin to be screamed at, particularly when the guitar strings start. A lot of sound and fury signifying very little.
The songs chosen are also hit and miss, All along the Watchtower feels out of place, 99 Luftballons my make me want to get up and start dancing like an idiot but again feels a little odd. And Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, I know that scene was intentionally corny but that song was too on the nose.
The visuals are lush and look simply fantastic, I’ve never doubted that Snyder’s propensity for putting some really imaginative visuals on screen and I just wish he could back them up with a solid narrative and interesting characters. The visuals can’t mask what is an insubstantial story.
The ending is a bold attempt but still isn’t without his problems. The world unites because Dr Manhattan has ‘struck’ against them when they should really be angry at the United States because it was their hounding that led to this. I’m still torn as to whether this is a better ending than having a giant squid; yup I think I might prefer having a giant squid instead.
So while I like Watchmen and could definitely watch is again I may have to put mitts on my hands to stop myself from tearing my hair out. It’s not as profound or as clever as it thinks it is and the action distracts rather than involves. However some characters are worth watching the film for but the lasting impression is an ambitious but pedestrian film that’s unsure of what it is or what it’s trying to say.