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Wednesday, March 04, 2009


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.

Silk Spectre II.

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.)

Dr. Manhattan.

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.

Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias.

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.


Laser Rocket Arm said...

I'll be the first to admit I'm not a comic geek (but I know many), but after all the ravings I heard about the published version of Watchmen I wonder if it would have served the book (and geeks) better had the film version gotten the Lord of the Rings treatment and been split up into two or three parts?

Bunche said...

Laser Rocket Arm, you could not be more right. The graphic novel works as well as it does by having the space in which to fully develop and explore its strengths and if I had my way the movie would have been a twelve-hour HBO series, one hour for each chapter.

MindyP51 said...

I agree with both of you, Laser and Buncheman...I haven't seen it yet, but the sheer volume of the graphic novel indicates to me that it should have been done either ala LORD OF THE RINGS or as an HBO/SHOWTIME series.

I recently rewatched GONE WITH THE WIND--hold on here, you'll see my point--and although the movie is still very good, it pales in comparison to the book; the nuances of all the main characters, especially Scarlett's, is lost in the movie because of it's running time--which is what happens when a 1000+ pages book is condensed into even a nearly 4 hour movie--

And this, I'm sure, is what happens in WATCHMEN.

Still, of course I will to to see it.


Anonymous said...

Nice review - will definitely be seeing the movie this weekend. I was curious - what would you consider the greatest graphic novel of all time? I'm relatively new to this blog, so I apologize if you have covered this before. I just recently started reading comics again after a 15 absence - just wanted your recommendation.

Bunche said...

The greatest graphic novel of all time? It's a tough call and one that's open to interpretation (I say a mutli-volume run, provided it ads up to one story, can be counted as a novel), plus such a call would be completely subjective. I can't nail down an all-time greatest, but my short list would include:

ELFQUEST (first series)-this is collected in four archive editions by DC Comics and tells a long fantasy epic about a bunch of elves who attempt to figure out where their race came from. The characters may look cutesy at first, but don't let that fool you; this series is gripping as hell and features my favorite love story in the entire comics medium. Book one sets up the protagonists and the subsequent volumes detail the quest itself. Highly recommended.

MIRACLEMAN-Alan Moore's original deconstruction of the superhero (in this case Captain Marvel/Marvelman), this series is simply the last word on the subject. Too bad the collected editions are long out of print, the individual issues are pricey as a son of a bitch — if you can can find them — and the series is unlikely to be reprinted within the foreseeable future thanks to a nightmares of rights/ownership issues.

SWAMP THING-Alan Moore's run on this is what put him on the map, and with very good reason. Genuinely scary and emotionally involving as well as intelligent, it's all collected but I say you don't really need to read it after Swamp Thing's encounter with Batman in Gotham City.

LONE WOLF AND CUB-a truly incredible samurai epic that defined the genre in comics form. Everything about it is excellent, but the American collections of the full series are reprinted in an annoying tiny format that kills much of the highly-nuanced wash art and renders the text almost too small to read.

Anyway, you can't go wrong with any of these four.

Suki said...

I had just seen "300" at home and was thinking The Watchmen would be a lot worse. I shall go see it. Thanks for the write-up, Bunche.

robseth said...

Thought everyone might get a chuckle from this:

robseth said...

And one of my favorites is still "Kingdom Come" by Waid and Ross.

Scott Koblish said...

With all the preview screenings, I'll be amazed if anyone actually winds up paying to go.

Joan said...

I find myself mostly in line with both the first and second opinions posted here. On the one hand, it's been way oversimplified, and I found ALL the acting painfully bad, really -- everyone complains about Silk Spectre, but Rorschach's hammy gargle is as irritating as Dr. Manhattan's fey drone, though I blame this less on the actors than on Snyder. (It reminds me of my reaction to Spider-Man: Raimi is awesome with the creepy horror of radioactive blood, and horrifically lousy with human interaction.) Also, there's my tortured relationship to the sexual politics of Alan Moore, who on the one hand does marvelous characterization of women and applies his S/M fetish streak beautifully to superhero critique, and on the other that same fucking streak fuels the same cocktease maybe-it-was-maybe-it-wasn't rape scene of WATCHMEN that he'd later rehash for KILLING JOKE, and gives Snyder license for totally unnecessary shit like dressing Silk Spectre I in Lost-Girls-like black lingerie for it.

On the other, this really is an unfilmable book, and as with V FOR VENDETTA, anyone who grew up in the punk-to-New Wave flavored nuclear dread of the 80s can't help but be affected by the movie's heroic attempt to just plain TRY while specifically aiming to nail that element of the series. There are gorgeous scenes still burned in my brain hours after seeing it this morning. But like you guys, I'm just at a loss as to whether the general (& especially younger) public will get that even superficially. The series was ahead of its time for being a critique of early superheroes, not later ones. But will a couple generations raised mostly on Marvel movies get that? We shall see.

Joan said...

Oh, and p.s., I must be the only person in the world who didn't mind the giant squid in the comic. Something about the lost subplot where Veidt was also breeding creatures in the Antarctic made it work for me, I suppose as some kind of depressing environmentalist commentary about transplanting species...But it never would've flown in this movie, so no objection there.

Nelson said...

Jesus, I haven't seen it yet but your reviews are always so, "Spot on", That I'm sure I will leave the theater with your exact sentiments. BTW, I prefer your reviews the old way you used to do them at Marvel Comics, with funny art depicting all the scenes. Please tell me one of these days you'll post those!! They are a scream!

Satyrblade said...

My full thoughts on the Watchmen film would require a long, detailed post that I don't feel like writing. Thus, I'll summarize:

* Better than it could have been, not as good as I had hoped it might be.

* Worst. Nixon. Ever.

* Silk Spectre should have been called Wooden Doll. Pity, seeing as how the character is one of the story's emotional anchors. Looked the part, but... wow. Bad.

* Ozymandias = Worst Miscasting of the Year. The mass-murdering would-be heir of Alexander the Great should not be a lisping emo fag.

* The soundtrack choices were... unfortunate. Aside from "The Times, They are a'Changin'" (which I thought fit the montage beautifully) and the Phillip Glass mash-up (which also fit beautifully, even though it involved cannibalizing bits of another film's soundtrack), the selections were dire. I know this would have been out of place chronologically, but I wish they'd used that Smashing Pumpkins song from the trailers. It suited the film far better than the songs they did use.

* Someone needs to ban Zack Snyder from using slow-motion for his next 10 films or so. I felt that device worked well overall in 300 (and I suspect I may be the only person on this list who liked that film), but found it intrusive, silly and poorly-timed in Watchmen.

* The "knockback" effects were fucking stupid. Aren't these supposed to be normal people? Then why can they punch their opponents across the room?

* Had certain moments had real-time room to breathe, timing-wise, their emotional impact would have been stronger.

* I wish they'd let Ozymandias enjoy his moment of glory in the film. Moore and Gibbons had him tearfully triumphant; Snyder had him stone-faced and whispery.

* I understood why all the subplots involving normal people were excised, but really felt their lack. Without getting to know the "little people" who wind up sacrificed by the "heroes," the devastation wrought by Ozymandias becomes just another CGI catastrohe.

* Gods, I'm getting sick of CGI.

* That said, I felt the film's "final solution" worked better than the climax of the comic series.

* I applaud Snyder for sticking close - even to a fault - to the original graphic novel. For all that it fell flat in places, I would rather have had that approach than suffer through the expected Hollywood alternative.

* Rorschach's mask was creepy as hell. Wish they'd left more of his origin in the film, but... brrrr....

* I felt they nailed the look & feel of the series perfectly. The costumes, I think, worked far better than the rather silly ones in the graphic novel. (Admittedly, they were supposed to be somewhat silly there...)

* I loved the opening montage and the origin of Dr. Manhattan. Those moments - as well as Rorschach's attempted escape and prinson brawls, the Veitnam scene, and the alley fight/ Dr. Manhattan interview scene, were excllent. I wish the rest of the film had been nearly as good as those particular moments.

* Loved Bubastis. Too bad she had so little screen time.

For all its flaws, the film still stands taller than most of its kind. I'm glad Snyder stuck to his guns. He certainly dropped a couple of really important balls (though cleraly not Dr. Manhattan's!), but his heart was in the right place.

I actually feel that 300 is the better film... but then, 300 is a stark, simple, brutally stupid tale that I think works better as a movie than it does in its original inception. Watchmen demands far more (not to mention Moore), and I'm glad the film was as good as it was. In other hands, it could have been a whole lot worse.

Honestly, I hope the film makes a mint. I want to see Snyder vindicated in his decision to honor the source material. He put a lot on the line in his decisions to "go risky," and since hollywood values box office performance above all other considerations, I want Watchmen to do well despite its many flaws.

5 stars for effort
3 1/2 stars for results
Yeah, I'll probably watch the director's cut DVD.

And I actually like the Black Freighter story!