Locus Online



9 March 2009

Review of

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Zack Snyder

Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse (based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons)

Starring Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Robert Wisden, Matt Frewer

Both: We both liked this better than we thought we would. Howard thinks it's very good. Lawrence thinks it's merely good.

Howard Waldrop: In 1985, Watchmen was a revelation. (The only thing wrong with it was the ending.) The movie has a different wrong ending, satisfying only on an intellectual, not a visceral level.

It's all here. (I mean, Gibbons storyboarded the movie for them 24 years ago.) I miss the pirate stuff — it only could have resonated.

Lawrence Person: It wasn't as bad as it could have been. It wasn't as good as it should have been. Objectively speaking, this is a good superhero movie, and is a considerable improvement on director Zack Snyder's previous 300. Objectively speaking, it's extraordinarily faithful to Dave Gibbons' original look and feel, and about as faithful to Alan Moore's text as you could ask a Hollywood film to be. Objectively speaking, the vast majority of individual choices Snyder made in how to present and structure the film are entirely defensible. Subjectively speaking, it will probably disappoint those familiar with the source material far more than a random moviegoer, many sections fall strangely flat, and the film ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

HW: It's a faithful adaptation of the great original (except the ending), yet it's not a great movie. (Somebody tell me how that can be.) You had the densest and most solid graphic novel ever done. You adapt it faithfully yet the result isn't great, only very good.

LP: The fidelity to so much of Moore's original vision makes this a very hard review to write. It is patently unfair to compare the movie on the screen to the idealized version running in your head. But in this case, the very typical complaint about how Hollywood screwed up the writer's original vision isn't available. They crammed as much of Moore's vision as you could reasonably expect them to cram into the film's 163 minutes... and it wasn't enough.

Some context.

The line between "comic books" and "graphic novels" is, at best, ill-defined, and at worst a distinction without a difference, beyond the cynical "graphic novels are comic books adults aren't ashamed to be seen reading." However, Hollywood generally makes a firm distinction between the two. "Graphic novel" means "pre-storyboarded movie," a self-contained unit that can be filmed (more or less) intact. "Comic books" mean not only "superheroes" but also "pre-made franchise audience" and "a large grab-bag of characters and plot devices that can be mixed and matched at will." Either approach can work in the hands of a talented director with an affinity for the source material.

However, this fast and loose taxonomy breaks down in the case of Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen, since it has the look and feel of a superhero comic book, but the self-contained story arc of a graphic novel. The problem is compounded many-fold by the fact that Watchmen is a pretty strong candidate for The Greatest Graphic Novel Ever (and even received the official imprimatur of that official oracle of all trends already dead, Time Magazine, in their 100 Greatest Novels List).

In Watchmen, Moore asked "If there really were costumed superheroes, what would the world look like?" And then extrapolated that world to the hilt, one where Dr Manhattan won the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon was elected to a fifth term as President, and non-governmental superheroes were outlawed. Moreover, Moore pushed the edge not only of his basic premise, but also the graphic novel form itself, cramming practically every panel with telling background details, plus using ancillary and interstitial material to depict a complex world subtlety different from our own. He also examined precisely what type of person would be drawn to the life of a masked vigilante. Some altruistic crusaders, but also amoral sociopaths like The Comedian, and moral psychopaths like Rorschach. The density is such that if you really crammed everything into a movie, it would easily run 6-9 hours long.

The problem of a movie version of Watchmen is compounded by the fact that the source material undercuts the core crossover appeal of comic book superheroes for blockbuster summer movies, that of (Warning! Gross Generalizations Ahead!) male adolescent power fantasies. The vast majority of superhero comic books start from the politically incorrect premise that there are Bad People who seriously need to have their asses kicked, and that superheroes (as an emotional stand-in for the adolescent male reader) are the right guys to deliver said kicking. From that starting point, most superhero comics go on to layer more moral and personal complexity (as do the most successful movies, such as the first two Spiderman and X-Men movies), but the core appeal still remains one of personal potency. Watchmen not only undercuts that potency, it actually goes out of its way to nullify it. (Without spoiling any plot points, let's just say that Nite Owl and Bob Dole have some things in common...)

In short, adapting a movie version of Watchmen seems to offer a plentitude of wrong choices, and no obvious right ones. Which hasn't kept naming potential casting choices (Ralph Fiennes as Ozymandias! George Clooney as Dr. Manhattan! Johnny Depp as Rorschach! ) from being a popular convention pastime. Terry Gilliam's name was attached as a director for a while, and though utterly brilliant at the top of his game (as in Brazil), his primary theme (the intermingling of fantasy and reality) is only, at best, a subtext in the graphic novel.

Because of the extensive intellectual heft of the source material, and because both Howard and I are so familiar with it, this is very much an insider's review. For a tabula rasa impression, you'll have to look elsewhere.

The alternate universe the story takes place in is pretty close to that in the graphic novel: Costumed crusaders started fighting crime in the 1940s, a group that included the brutal and amoral Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the first Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) and the first Nite Owl (Stephen McHattie, here little more than a cameo). In the '50s, an atomic testing accident turns scientist Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) into the super-powered Dr. Manhattan ("I didn't say the superman exists and he's American, I said God exists and he's American") . The timeline really changes when Nixon (Robert Wisden) asks Manhattan to intervene in Vietnam, resulting in a quick victory and Nixon being re-elected four more times. In the '70s, Dr. Manhattan, The Comedian, Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), the first's daughter, the violent hooded vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), and World's Smartest Man Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), later mega entrepreneur Adrian Veidt, form the Watchmen, who fight crime until the Keene Act outlaws masked vigilantes except those (Manhattan, The Comedian) working directly for the government.

(Half of the aforementioned information comes by way of a very cleverly done series of living historical tableaus during the title sequence, a very effective summation of a great deal of material in a short period of time. I suspect that if any cinematic flourish from this movie will be studied in film school, it will be that.)

The movie opens with The Comedian being defenestrated and Rorschach (whose voice-over narration by way of journal entries provides much of the movie's spine) quickly comes to suspect that someone is hunting former superheroes. The happily retired Silk Spectre II is shacking up with Dr. Manhattan, who is both working with Veidt on a new energy source as well as growing ever more distant from humanity. Plus the possibility of nuclear war hangs over the world, averted only by the presence of Dr. Manhattan as America's nuclear deterrent... until Silke Spectre leaves him for Nite Owl, at which point our nuclear deterrent heads off to Mars, and things start to get really complicated. And even that summary leaves out about 90% off the stuff going on here. There are a lot of moving parts.

HW: Jackie Earle Haley gives an outstanding performance a Rorschach, your neighborhood sociopathic hero. (The role in the comic and as written for the movie is virtually actor-proof.) I haven't seen him since he punched the time-clock in Breaking Away. In the thirty years since he's become more beaten-up looking than Nicholas Cage and Harry Dean Stanton put together.

Pretty much all the acting is outstanding. Dr. Manhattan, who I didn't think they could do right, is the most interesting character after Rorschach. (When Gilliam was going to do this movie in the late 80s I heard he wanted to use John Cleese, who I thought would be as close as you could get.)

LP: I'm not quite as sold as Howard on the acting, though three of the actors do nail their characters. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the cigar-smoking incarnation of The Comedian . (He also looks like Robert Downey, Jr.'s beefier older brother.) Patrick Wilson is pretty close to perfect as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II. And Malin Akerman has more than enough of the Lucy Lawless vibe to carry off Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II.

Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan and Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach come so close to nailing their characters that the tiny bit they fall short is more irritating than it should be. For some reason, Manhattan (who is in large measure a CGI creation) doesn't have the awe-inspiring gravitas he should, possibly due to a slight sibilance in his voice; my dissatisfaction with him may be strictly a matter of personal expectations.

Rorschach, however, is more problematic, especially given how heavily his character's narration weighs in the overall effectiveness of the movie. Haley portrays Rorschach as a cynical, violent, disgruntled sociopath... and he doesn't go far enough. In the graphic novel, Rorschach isn't just cynical, he's a full-blown Nihilist who has gazed so long into the abyss that he can no longer see anything outside it. (He and The Comedian share a fundamental world view, but react differently; for The Comedian, the limitless capacity for human cruelty is a great joke; for Rorschach, it's a great tragedy.) He's not disgruntled, he's emotionally dead, having burned away all his humanity in order to become an uncompromising engine of vengeance. Like his mask, he has an unfettered black and white vision of absolute justice and absolute retribution, devoid of pity, mercy, or shades of gray. Haley and Snyder give us a Rorschach at an emotional temperature around 50° Kelvin, when it should be just a few degrees above absolute zero. The few moments Rorschach attempts to act like a real human being (such as thanking Nite Owl for his friendship) should come as revelations.

This is one area where condensing the graphic novel has hurt the movie, as Rorschach's offers only a minute's worth of resistance at his psychiatric interrogation before offering up his life story. It's badly out of character.

But far and away the worst casting among the Watchmen themselves is Matthew Goode's Ozymandias. When I first saw a picture of him, I wondered why they had picked Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers for the role. In the graphic novel he has the buff physical presence of an Olympic gymnast (think a young Charlton Heston); Goode is so slender he looks like he would have trouble taking on a competent flyweight. Sadly, his depiction of Ozymandias is equally flawed. His motivation seems less like megalomania than disgruntlement over one too many wedgies at prep school.

In a smaller role, Carla Gugino seems equally at sea as the elderly (and unconvincingly made-up) Sally Jupiter. The scenes with her, and several other character-driven scenes, don't work, largely because where Moore whispered, Snyder shouts. Subtlety is not his strong suite. While he's gotten better since 300, he still needs a steadier hand for his character's quieter scenes. He also explicates things (like The Comedian's part in the Kennedy assassination) Moore only implied, to the movie's detriment.

The political scenes in particular seem stagy and unrealistic. Moore obviously hated Nixon, but was too good a writer to make him a caricature; Synder and the otherwise faithful writers have made him a spoof of a caricature, positively lusting after Armageddon. Likewise the other real people of the time period are unconvincing.

HW: There are astounding scenes (as per the original), moments of real violence and character insight. The art direction is pretty fabulous, and the soundtrack is a wonder. (Leonard Cohen's up twice, with "Hallelujah" and over the end credits "First We Take Manhattan" which takes on new meaning with the big blue guy standing around.) Hendrix has rarely been used better with visuals.

LP: This is another point of disagreement, as the way Synder approaches the music (appropriate, but broad and unsubtle) is emblematic with the way he approaches the period. If you're going to have Nixon as President, you have to do the movie as a period piece. But when the original graphic novel was written, it was the present. Snyder treats the period more like a K-tel Best of the 1980s compilation than a living, breathing era. Using "Hallelujah," a song (in part) about sex as religious rapture, during a sex scene is more than a little heavy-handed. And I doubt Moore ever anticipated "99 Luftballons" being used on the soundtrack. Also, although great pieces and appropriate to the era, Philip Glass' "Prophecies" (along with "Pruit Igoe," both from the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack) seems to be used on about every tenth YouTube video.

(On the other hand, "All Along the Watchtower" is not only appropriate, it's actually in the original text. Between that and the final season of Battlestar Galactica, who would ever have guess that a 42-year old Bob Dylan song would be the science fiction soundtrack cut for 2009?)

That sort of rough-and-ready museum piece approach is also visible in the rest of Synder's take on the era, except where it would be politically incorrect (unlike the original, no one in this film smokes except the villains).

One thing that bugged me only in retrospect is how staged the sets look. From Veidt's corporate suite to Moloch's craphole, none of the locations convinced me that real people actually lived there. The original looked like a comic book imitating real life; the movie settings looked like a movie imitating a comic book.

At this point I've spent about 2,000 words telling you all the problems of a movie that I actually think is reasonably good. This is probably a bit injudicious. But the film comes so close to getting so many things right, the pangs of its shortcomings are all the sharper.

There are numerous good points to the film, even beyond its fidelity to the source material. Snyder does action well, and the fight scenes are well-staged, if a bit more brutal than in the original (as in 300, the "slow-mo, full-motion, slow-mo" is his all-purpose hammer here as well, but isn't nearly as badly abused). The movie is tightly paced and moves along at a good clip. The CGI is top notch, and the clockwork mechanism on Mars is pretty awe-inspiring. The scenes between Dan and Laurie generally work really well. And though he might not be perfect, Haley's Rorschach is still frighteningly effective in his own right.

It's miles better than Ghost Rider. It's marginally better than Hellboy II: The Golden Army. And it kicks the ass of Spiderman III. But when you actually find yourself comparing something to Spiderman III, you know there's a problem...

For all its greater intellectual heft and complexity, it's not as satisfying as the first two Spiderman or X-Men films (the latter of which it shares a writer with), or The Dark Knight, despite the fact all those films also had notable flaws, and more than their share of plot absurdities. (The Incredibles is still the reigning champion of superhero films.) Like 300, parts of Watchmen have so comprehensively exceeded Snyder's grasp as a director that it seriously compromises the film, despite his measurable growth between the two. Respect for the source material, technical proficiency and a suitable budget are all strong prerequisites for a great film, but it also requires talent. Ironically, I think Snyder could make a great film from Watchmen... about a decade from now.

This is a good, solid superhero action film. You'll be entertained, and you won't be bored. It's a fine way to spend three hours of your leisure time.

I just wanted it to be so much more.

HW: It's probably the best movie from a comic-book source, and it should be liberating and a joy to watch. I think the serious intentions of the source material gets in the way of the joy, Watchmen was part of the genres-rejumpstart of the mid 80s — all of them, comic books, mysteries, westerns, SF were being revamped from the inside (we went through that with the Wild Cards stuff). A new seriousness got onto funny books from which they are just now recovering.

It's a much better movie than I'd been led to believe. Did I enjoy it (and appreciate it as an adaptation)? Hell yes.

© 2009 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.