Saturday, March 7, 2009


Ever since the idea of making Alan Moore’s Watchmen into a movie was first kicked around everybody from Moore himself to the local comic book guy has said it can’t be done. Moore went as far as to say his graphic novel was “un-filmable”.

The new movie proves that Moore was right.

Where things start to get interesting is that the Watchmen movie isn’t an awful film. It isn’t insulting or horrible in fact it’s a really good time adventure ride that never feels long winded even at its two hour and forty five minute running time. The reason I say that this movie proves Moore right is that this isn’t Watchmen, not the way it was meant to be seen/read and not the way Alan Moore envisioned it.

Everybody from Director Zack Snyder to the original Watchman artist Dave Gibbons has said the movie is very true to the comic book and it is. However it’s only true to the comic visually. I think when the people involved spoke so passionately about how they consulted the graphic novel at every turn it was to bring to life actual panels of the comic. That’s staying true to the comic but only in the most superficial sense.

To really pick apart the film I’ll start with what works. Visually the movie is absolutely breathtaking. There are things in this film you’ve never seen before executed in a style that will set new standards for motion picture special effects.

The character of Rorschach is perfectly brought to life by Jackie Earle Haley. Not only does he nail the violent psychopathic tendencies of Rorschach he also brings to life the human side, something most actors would have failed to do.

Haley never lets the mask take over, there’s always a character under there and when the mask comes off you lose nothing of the scarred psyche that dwells beneath it. In fact Rorschach becomes more terrifying with the mask off than on, which is a real tribute to Haley’s abilities.

Jeffrey Dean Morton also lights up the screen as The Comedian. Morton, like Haley, fully embraces and fleshes out his character. You hate him, laugh with him, feel bad for him and ultimately come to understand what has made him this way. With very few scenes in the film Morton shows a deep and layered character that is impossible not to miss when not around.

There is also great fun in the story itself and its execution. It bristles with action, adventure, violence, killer fight scenes, sex, and all the things you need to make a great escapist “popcorn movie”. Sadly that’s part of the problem with the Watchmen and largely the end of its good points.

While exciting to watch there is nothing in the plot or execution of the story that makes you care at all about what’s going on. When you read the Watchmen you were invested in all the aspects of the world Moore had created. You wanted to know how this new world affected Owlman but just as much you followed the story of the common man Newsstand Owner who was peppered throughout the book.

With the movie you’re just watching it to see what happens next and as soon as something does you’ve forgotten what just happened. The rich subtext, deeper themes and meanings woven throughout the graphic novel are gone here, not cut back, but simply gone. Shadows of political satire and dark tones do not give you depth. The folks who worked on this movie seem to have forgotten that.

Another aspect that fails in the movie is the rest of the characters. Outside of Rorschach and The Comedian everybody else seems to be phoning in their performances. In the comic Dr. Manhattan is an omnipotent demigod who has lost his connection to humanity. Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan is a whiney complainer who seems like he’s going to cry into his herbal tea. You aren’t fascinated with how a transformation like that could affect the human condition, instead you just want the guy to shut up and stop bitching.

Patrick Wilson, the man beneath the Owlman cowl, has no dynamics in what he does at all, none, zippo. His emotional gamut runs from A to B and you lose interest in him about halfway through the movie. When he does regain his mojo and rises to be Owlman again you don’t care at all. In fact the machine he flies around in has more personality than he ever does.

Malin Akerman's Silk Spectre II is simply there to look good and make doe eyes. That’s it, that’s all she does. Sure she kicks ass in the fight scenes but essentially she’s cheese cake. That really bites when you consider how long Moore spends in the comic developing her character. Only less effective is Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias. You’re supposed to believe this one note, uber boring, wanna-be thespian is the smartest man in the world? I’d sooner believe he was a gay dance instructor or a used car salesman.

Another failed aspect in the film comes from the generational themes that show how much Zack Snyder doesn’t understand the source material. In the graphic novel showing the older generation of superheroes, the back story to the Watchmen members, the way the elements of politics come into play is all encompassing. These are aspects of a world that play off of each other to enrich the story. In the film they’re just flashbacks, nothing more than plot device to get us caught up on what’s happened before. That cuts the spine out of what the Watchmen was about and why the comic was such a landmark.

I also found the constant use of pop music throughout the film a major blunder. Bob Dylan? Jimi Hendrix? 99 Luftballons? Zack Snyder was trying to set a mood with the music but instead succeeded in taking you out of the film everytime the music was played.

Finally there is the huge change to the ending which just doesn’t work. I can’t give the big change away so as not to ruin the film but trust me it was a bad idea. It’s ham-fisted, badly thought out and blunders its way into the movie thus rendering the last 45 minutes or so of the film laughably ridiculous.

The funny part in all of this is that I enjoyed the Watchmen movie a great deal except that it wasn’t the Watchmen. This movie barely skimmed the surface of what made the Watchmen great. It would be like somebody describing Citizen Kane as a story about a guy who wants his sled or typing up a double spaced one page paper to translate the deeper themes of Atlas Shrugged.

This was Dave Gibbons Watchmen. This was a fully realized visual story that lacked any plot, dialogue, or character development. In that way it was very much like what it was touted as: “A comic book come to life”. I don’t think this was due to Zack Snyder and his crew not caring about the Watchmen or being in it for a quick buck. I honestly think they just don’t get it.

What was lacking was all of the stuff that’s insinuated and not written down on the page that your imagination fills in. All the things that exist organically between the panels brought to life by Moore’s writing is what the Watchmen really is. For example Snyder goes overboard showing you how violent Rorschach is and all the gore that goes along with it. That still isn’t as awful as the implied violence Moore wrote into the book. With that you’re imagination filled in the blanks which was so much more disturbing.

That being the case then the Watchmen, much like Moore claimed, is un-filmable. It can only be done in a comic book, period, end of story. If this movie had come out of thin air and been based on nothing it would’ve been a brilliant film as of now it’s just a pale shadow of the original. Based on that when the world looks up and screams “Is the Watchmen movie any good”

I’ll whisper “No”.

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