Was there ever a more eagerly-anticipated comic book movie adaptation than WATCHMEN?
Before we get started, I’m writing the following with the assumption that your interest in WATCHMEN has to do with having read and digested the classic graphic novel and the curiousity to see how it translates to the screen. Therefore I will not bother to recap the plot, but I will make references to specific events in the novel and how they were handled — or not — in the movie version. That said, I’ll just cut right to the chase and tell you I liked WATCHMEN, far more than I expected to if truth be told, but I am by no means crazy about it. And I certainly don’t ever need to see it again.
The film adaptation of WATCHMEN is briskly paced for a nearly three hour film and it manages to get in what could best be described as the “surface” plot of the novel, namely Rorscach’s investigation of the “cape-killer” and the events that occur simultaneously in the lives of his former crime-fighting colleagues. If you’re coming to the flick looking for a superhero movie, you will certainly get that, but those who never read the source material may wonder why all the hype for what’s essentially a better-made-than-average spandex & capes yarn. Those expecting to see “the greatest graphic novel of all time” get that to a degree, but the emotional depth, layering and nuances that made the graphic novel such a groundbreaker when first seen are largely given short shrift, but when looked at realistically there’s frankly no fucking way WATCHMEN could have been faithfully and accurately translated without a minimum running time of at least five hours. Basically what we get is the shell of the famous construct without the gripping framework that held it together as a work deservedly considered a milestone in the graphic storytelling medium; it’s not bad, but it makes a rich, savory gumbo into a not-bad can of Dinty Moore beef stew.
So what is there to recommend about this better-than-assembly-line Hollywood version of the beloved graphic novel?
As adaptations of novels go, WATCHMEN fares better than most and gives us the characters who have become icons rendered in the flesh and, for the most part, the actors bringing them to life get it right. I won’t string you along and make you wait to find out: Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach is the star of the piece, just as he was in the book, and he’s worth the ticket price.
Rorschach: still the baddest of the bad and crazier than an outhouse rat.
That’s all I’ll say about him and leave you to see his badassery for yourself, but when sharing the screen with such a presence it’s kind of a given that the rest of the cast is in for some pretty tough going, yet the majority of the remaining Watchmen acquit themselves admirably.
The film’s script diminishes much of the soap opera buildup to Silk Spectre II’s big epiphany during the last act, and that’s a damned shame because when read in the novel it’s as shattering to the reader as it is to the character. But with so little time in which to properly develop that journey it was perhaps inevitable that what’s probably the most “human” element in the tale would get lost. Consequently, actress Malin Ackerman, who does a good job with what she’s given to do, comes off as little more than a vigilante dominatrix once she reclaims her heroic persona, being on hand mostly to look great in her black and yellow vinyl fetish gear.
Nite Owl II, looking more butch than ever before.
Patrick Wilson’s Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II’s gravitas as a character also doesn’t totally survive the translation to the cinema, but he’s likable enough to allow some of the character’s vulnerability to shine through and make us care about him as the only real “sweetheart” in the narrative. (I would have liked him to be as flabby and out of shape as he was in the book, but you can’t have everything.)
The CGI Dr. Manhattan (voiced by Billy Crudup) is almost as good as Rorschach and really gets across the feeling of a man whose distance from mere mortal humanity grows greater by the day. With his big blue ween present for much of his screen time, Dr. Manhattan at once exudes sheer awesomeness while also being almost painfully sad, nailing exactly what made him work in the first place.
The Comedian, about to commit an act of outright villainy upon his teammate, the original Silk Spectre.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian is visually perfect in nearly every way, but again a character that was given considerable depth and complexity in the comics version suffers due to the need to maintain a reasonable running time. The movie’s Eddie Blake has a lot going for him, but he just does not convey the menace and general sleazy unpleasantness of his four-color source, not even when attempting to rape the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino, a favorite of mine whom I hope has a bigger part in the inevitable DVD director’s cut) or when shooting and killing the Vietnamese woman who was very heavy with his child, and that’s a problem. The Comedian without his raw, animalistic menace is just an ageing, cigar-chomping frat boy meathead in S/M bondage drag, and if I want to see that I can do so for free on any given night in the West Village.
The weakest link among the main characters is a woefully miscast Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias. Goode gives a game enough performance, but physically he’s too much of a weed to make us believe in him as the world’s most perfect man, and from certain angles he looks like a gene-splicing of David Bowie from around the period of “The Lodger” and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin from THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., exactly not in line with the top physical specimen drawn by Dave Gibbons.
David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin, not Ozymandias.
As for the plot alterations, let me address the only one that really matters: yes, that idiotic squid is gone and what it was replaced with improves the ending in no uncertain terms; in the post-9/11 world there was just no way a reject from an episode of SPACE: 1999 would have flown with audiences, and the substitution for Veidt’s genetically-engineered Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade tribute to the works of H.P. Lovecraft is not only totally acceptable, it actually makes a hell of a lot of sense. In fact, it makes so much sense that I would love to hear what original graphic novel author Alan Moore has to say about it, but that’s never going to happen since he’ll never see the film.
The rest of the alterations are omissions — thank Christ that “Tales of the Black Freighter” was not inflicted upon us during the theatrical version! — or glossings-over, such as much of the psychological meat of what transpires during Rorschach’s brief stint under psychiatric care while in prison and the alteration of how he dealt with a child-kidnapper/murderer in wake of what’s been done in the SAW franchise. But from what I hear, damned near everything in the book — including “Tales of the Black Freighter” — was filmed, and it’ll all be there should you choose to watch it in the ultra-uber-super-deluxe director’s cut that’s coming out in a few months (and the animated “Tales of the Black Freighter” hits DVD in just a few weeks; betcha can’t wait!).
What surprises me most about WATCHMEN is the one element that I truly despised: the soundtrack's use of old pop music to accent the narrative and try to add some flavor to the proceedings. Use of "All Along the Watchtower," "The Times They Are A Changin'," "99 Luftballoons" and worst of all "The Sound of Silence" during The Comedian's funeral are lazy ways to try and tell us "Isn't this sad?" or "Isn't this ironic?" of "Isn't this appropriate for 1985?" and if you ask me it distracted from whatever emotional resonance that made its way onto the screen. It made the film feel like an obvious made-for-TV movie in those moments.
So there you have it. WATCHMEN is a flawed-yet-worth-seeing piece that works about as well as any other novel adaptation. I doubt it’ll win the source book any new fans unless they’re curious to see where it all came from and just what the big deal was, but as I’ve said in a previous post I doubt newcomers will find what they seek. The things that made WATCHMEN a classic in 1986 have long since entered the common language of the comic book storytelling that came in its wake (and that of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, which came out at right around the same time) and if anything it may seem quaint to today’s readers and not worthy of its lofty rep. I don’t agree with that assessment, even though I don’t rank it as the so-called “greatest graphic novel of all time,” but I do honestly wonder if it’s a case of “you had to be there” to really appreciate WATCHMEN’s impact. Either way, I still urge newbies to give the book a chance rather than see the movie. Just like the film, it’s totally worth experiencing for a look into the dark world of Rorschach, even if the rest of it doesn’t click for you, and the graphic novel version blows the movie's handling of that segment out of the water in black, smoky chunks.