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Watchmen, how a Movie went head to head with a great Comic Book and lost

March 13, 2009


Alan Moore’s Watchmen was epic and dense. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is long and hollow. If you want the bare bones difference between the movie and the graphic novel, ladies and gentlemen, there you have it.

Anyone who remembers Peter Jackson’s obsessive focus on the technical details, the armor, the weapons, the clothes and the sets, only to wipe out some of the most vital scenes in the trilogy and replace them with his ideas of what should happen, had to be getting flashbacks when Zack Snyder kept showcasing the sets, the costumes and telling us how well he recreated the world of Watchmen. There’s no better tell for when a writer and director have missed the point, then when they’re busy telling you how well they recreated a visual world, because they’re focusing on the wrong thing.

In Watchmen Zack Snyder very succesfully recreated what Dave Gibbons brought to Watchmen. He completely failed to recreate what Alan Moore brought to Watchmen. No wonder what Gibbons approved and Moore didn’t. It’s easy enough to recreate an artist’s work, it’s the ideas in the written word that are so hard to put on screen. And for all his technical facility, Snyder fails badly.

Snyder took a graphic novel with complex moral and political ideas, and faithfully recreated the look of it, amped up the violence, and made it “current” by focusing on the energy crisis. The soundtrack got filled up with Bob Dylan numbers and other self-conscious period music, Snyder dug into his 300 bag of tricks for slow motion shots and wacky camera angles made possible only by special effects. And did I mention the sex and the violence? That’s right folks, graphically fake CGI amputations, fake CGI blood splatterings, and some pointless nudity from half the cast. Including fake CGI nudity from Dr. Manhattan.

The one piece of violence that Snyder couldn’t show was the destruction of half of Manhattan and the piles of corpses falling out of buildings. That actually filled page after page of Watchmen and represents the moral complexity of the story. So naturally Snyder left it out in favor of showing us fake CGI amputations and people being punched in slow bloody motion. The difference of course is between meaningful violence and meaningless violence. The death toll in New York City raised serious moral questions. A fat guy’s arms being amputated by another criminal is meaningless Hollywood violence. It’s no surprise that 300 director Zack Snyder chooses to go the Hollywood route. And it’s a testament that the fears that Snyder would turn Watchmen into 300 were correct. Except 300’s ending had more balls than Watchmen’s ending did.

The Watchmen cast fall well into the uneven category.  Patrick Wilson seems to be playing Nite Owl as Chevy Chase in full Clark Griswold mode, while Matthew Goode almost gets Adrian Veldt right, but the movie denies him his full share of villainy. Instead Watchmen’s ending is almost too eager to sanitize him, cutting out the comic’s most iconic panel of Veldt triumphantly raising his arms in victory in front of a television set of corpses. Billy Crudup was apparently told to play Dr. Manhattan as an aimlessly gentle soul, a performance that minimizes Manhattan’s more ruthless side, and the charachter’s impact. Haley is notable for delivering with every line  and Malin Akerman is notable for being so bad that it’s hard to imagine reasons she was cast that don’t involve her taking a position on a casting couch. Watching her act next to Carla Gugino is like watching Chris Klein act next to Robert DeNiro. It’s not just painful, it feels like you’re watching two different movies. One for adults. And one for kids.

But that’s exactly what Watchmen is. What we see on screen isn’t Watchmen, it’s Zack Snyder looking at Watchmen and taking away the same things a kid would, the violence, the sex and the fight scenes, and a big explosion, and building a movie around that. For all the pre-release hype and the R Rating, that’s all Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is. A movie that pretends to be confrontational and radical, but like the V for Vendetta adaptation is hopelessly sanitized and fumbled.

Watchmen is not considered great because it has violence or nudity. Not even because of Gibbons’ art. It stands out for its creation of a world racing toward oblivion and then weighs the human choices that people will make in the face of that and the price they will pay for it, using comics as the medium for raising those questions, in more ways than one. Snyder may never have had a shot at putting that on screen. But he could have done a lot better than he did. Instead Snyder faithfully recreates a world racing toward oblivion, but takes away the complicated questions, smoothing them away to offer an easy answer.

And yet part of what Watchmen had to say was that it was the easy answers that were leading us to oblivion.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. James17930 permalink
    March 28, 2009 2:27 am

    I agree with a lot of your points, but it would have been really hard to include that level of complexity and detail into an under-three-hour movie. It would have had to have been a TV mini-series, I think, to pull it off probably (sidebar: how come we don’t get good mini-series anymore?) I was actually surprised for how closely they did seem to stick to, if not the original text, at least the original feel of the book. So I’m not going to entirely begrudge them for it; but you’re right, it could have been more complex had they wanted that.

    But, apparently there is a much longer director’s cut in the work, so who knows, maybe some of this will be thrown back in. Or it’s just the Black Freighter stuff, which I’m glad was not in the theatrical cut anyway (I didn’t like it in the book either).

    As for the changed ending/leaving out the dead bodies, well, true, Snyder chose not to show heaps of bloody corpses, but he did show people being incinerated, which is just as gruesome in its own way. Kind of splitting hairs there, I think. But again, I agree with you that the toning down of Ozymandias wasn’t necessary.

    • drnormalblog permalink*
      March 29, 2009 12:51 am

      I never said that the movie had to include every single scene in Watchmen. If it did that it would be unwatchable and terrible. As it is the movie included too much that should have been cut, had no real anchor, and did cut the things that it should not have cut.

      The attack on New York had zero impact. Less than zero. The ending takes away the meaning of Watchmen, no wonder so much of the audience walked out with no clue as to what they just saw. Because none of it ever boiled down into a whole. Instead we got a whole lot of stylized visuals, violence and sex with no moral or intellectual substance

  2. drnormalblog permalink*
    March 29, 2009 12:48 am

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a nitpicker or obsessive. Keep the squid or don’t keep the squid. Cut down some plot lines. Even make the movie sound like a damn Best of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s Radio station. I can live with all that. I can even survive Malin Akkerman doing her best to audition for the reboot of Melrose Place, and I can even accept your lame attempt to modernize the story by throwing in the energy crisis and making Dr. Manhattan the one who gets the blame. (Yes those are spoilers, you’ve now been spoiled. Live with it.) It’s a halfway clever idea, and a genuinely talented writer might have made it work. You didn’t, but I could still accept all that if there was some larger redeeming value to the whole damn movie. Too bad there wasn’t.

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