Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009)

” I heard a joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life is harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor… I am Pagliacci.” Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains.”

Introduction

This has been a long-time coming and – opposed to some ‘introductions’ I give, this deserves an introduction. First off, I have never really cared for comic books – my childhood was shrouded by Action Man, Jurassic Park, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Live and Kicking, Cartoon Network, etc, etc. Not big into football (though was briefly into Wrestling – having a Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake poster on my wall. Funnily enough I found the picture: http://www.wrestleslamuk.com/images/brutus22.jpg) and not big into comics (only a brief stint reading Tintin) so I don’t know about rivalries between DC and Marvel, I don’t know who is better – Spiderman or Superman, the whole X-Men and Avengers, etc. It was not a part of my childhood. Because of this, I only knew what I heard through the grapevine and, to be brutally honest, Watchmen I never knew about until the pre-publicity came about, whereby every book on the Watchmen were sitting on point-of-sale displays in HMV. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before friends (you know who you are) began telling me how the film release of this is a huge deal. ‘The first graphic novel’ and ‘its a comic book with rape in – its so-o-o-o dark’, etc. I was always a bit mystified because, when this growth in populairty comes shortly before the film-release it all seems a little dubious. Like the marketing campaign got everyones interest perked enough to start word-of-mouth, getting everyone psyched. Fact is, say with the release of Tintin next year – there is going to be pre-publicity for the comics again and inevitably it will be the talk of the town. Either way, Sarah’s a big fan of tintin herself and – to be honest – she goes through ‘Tintin’ phases every now and then when she reads one of the comics. At no point did these friends who suddenly became huge fans of Watchmen did they care so much at Univeristy, or shortly after Uni, it was only when that first trailer ‘which looks awesome’ – using Muse for the soundtrack, very hip – did all these closet-Watchmen fans emerge. Thats how I saw it – because fact is, I didn’t understand the hype. The trailer looked like any other comic-adpatation, neo-noir, explosive blockbuster release – maybe a little more ‘epic’ in its scale. Could have been The Spirit or The Punisher for all I knew. Then I saw the infamous Empire strapline: “The Citizen Kane of Comic Book Movies”. C’mon. Really.

This entire hype amongst my friends ultimately created a Watchmen weekend, whereby friends travelled to London, tickets were booked months in advance at the IMAX and a group of us went at 11.30pm (that was a bad decision). But I thought, maybe I was out of the loop. maybe I didn’t get it – it was some comic book thing that just passed me by, but was incredibly important so (contrary to the inevitable comments from Jo and Richard) I went in with an open mind …

What I reckon …

It really wasn’t great. In fact, I thought it was awful – dragged on for way too long and had some absolutely cringe-worth sequences (“hallelujah, hallelujah”. Did I give a flying fu**. No.). I think the fact that it came shortly after The Dark Knight (a superior film in every possible way) probably didn’t help. I knew what an excellent dark, edgy, graphic-novel adaptation should be like and Watchmen simply didn’t come anywhere close to the grade.

First off, I have now read the Watchmen comic book that, as everyone points out, was ‘One of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels’. I have also found out that Alan Moore – one of the writers of Watchmen – refused credit on this film adaptation (but he also claimed that Hayter’s script was “as close as I could imagine anyone getting to Watchmen” … a script that lifts alot of text directly from the comic-book itself…) , while with all the ‘it was the first of its kind’ stuff, turns out that a year prior to the Watchmen graphic novel was a miniseries that had very similar themes called Squadron Supreme – four characters called Nighthawk (Funny, because in Watchemen there is NiteOwl), Doctor Spectrum (Strange, in Watchmen there is a Doctor Manhattan…), Whizzer and Hyperion. They lived in an alternate world to the Marvel Universe. In the comic, members in Squadron Superior were removed for abusing their powers – in one case a superhero forces another to love him (Reminds me of Watchmen whereby The Comedian rapes – and then becomes the father of Silk Spectres child…) and the comic explores the origins of each of the four characters. To be fair, from what I have read, it is by no means the same. The credit Watchmen – alongside The Dark Knight Returns – have, still stands, as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns are without a shadow-of-a-doubt the first examples of what became graphic-novels. Nevertheless, even with this small bit of insight, there is a little bit of an edge taken off of the Watchmen comic book, and therefore the film. As well written as it is and as interesting as it might be – rather than a unique where-did-this-come-from? attitude – turns out many themes and ideas had been done and Watchmen is an inevitable, though important, progression of some-sort in comic story-telling. Maybe thats a bit harsh, but I remember shortly after watching the movie feeling that for the sake of the film, as dark as the film is, The Dark Knight was more successful while, in terms of the epic nature of the film (a whole world created, a whole history, etc) something like Lord of the Rings even, completely surpasses the ‘epic’ nature of Watchmen. I’ll bet if this was released shortly after the comic book in the late eighties, though special effects may not have been great (then again, only Dr Manhattan is a super hero…), it would have been the bar all comic-book movies would have been compared with. That didn’t happen – Watchmen comes after the comic-book adaptations are solidly established in cinema thus paling in comparison to most adaptations that came before it.

Thing is, it came so late that any contemporary relevance is (pretty much) gone. Snyder has adapted the graphic novel very closely – Empire’s DVD review of a directors cut release (the second of three DVD releases in one year: Theatrical, Directors Cut and ‘Ultimate’ version) states that “so faithful was the theatrical cut to the source material that there’s little overmatter left”. The Cold War is over – we now have the whole post-9/11 issue floating about explored by The Dark Knight – so what is the pull to this dated story? I think we all know the answer – money from me and my cronies going straight into the pockets of Mr Snyder and Co is the reason.

The biggest difference [spoilers here – not that I have ever prepared readers of the this blog before] is the change in finale in the film over the finale in the book. Now, as I recall, the finale of the film was some sort of huge Dr Manhatten inadvertantly destorying New York – Kim Newman even claims this as some sort of better ending – but, I have to admit, as ridiculous as the graphic-novel is, I prefer the graphic-novel ending and not the films. The plus-point of pictures is that, a powerful picture sticks with you – and the comic images of the destroyed NYC: the corpses, blood and destruction forces you to appreciate the range of perspectives of each character.

On the one level we can’t ignore it – see Rorshach. On the other we can completely understand it – see Dr Manhattan. But if we did not control it and we did not create it then how do you continue in life? Moving on – understanding the horror of humanity is part of the problem, and – more importantly – working with others to achieve success is important, thus NiteOwl and Silk Spectre work together. One-man crusades do not work – whether you are the one ‘rebelling’ (akin to Rorshach) or whether you are the one who has the intelligence to surpass emotion – and thus lack humanity like Dr M – to engage in ‘neccessary’ deaths means your perspective is skewed.

Two things come to mind. First, “one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter”. Secondly (probably the same point), it reminds me – and I don’t know why this is the film that reminds me, it probably should be something better – but Swordfish directed by Dominic Sena had a great sequence with Travolta – as a terrorist – explaining to Hugh Jackman – a hacker hired to help – the entire ‘you gotta break some eggs to make an omelette’ analogy. ” If you could cure all the dieseases in the world, but you had to kill one innocent child – could you do it?”. Jackman answers, obviously as the moral compass, that “no one is worth the life of …” etc. But it is a difficult dilemma because on the one side you have the rational, logical sense of Dr M that clearly makes senses but lacks humanity, while on the other you have the humane (?) perspective that extremist Rorshach has whereby morals and humanity come first and foremost in any future, in some cases ignoring rational and logical solutions. An age old argument I’m sure, but it is a fascinating discussion after a few drinks. I won’t bother answering it here – it is simply a focus point of Watchmen that I think is shown better at the end of the graphic-novel rather than the film.

More practically anyway, I had a huge discussion about possible changes that would have improved the film – and, obviously this is all my own perspective and take on making a film of a two-decades-old comic book that utilises the current climate in cinema to support the style of filmmaking without getting rid of the underlying themes and intentions of Watchmen.

1. The tone of the film. The colour schemes primarily. The comic book, from what I can see, has a pretty dated style. Its not especially unique in its tone – if anything I can imagine what makes the comic so great is that is mixes this standard superhero-style comic-tone with themes that are more rooted in realism and therefore creating an interesting contrast. Fact is, the tonal quality of darker themes have become established and enhance the art form hugely – so twenty years after this possibly neccessary ‘contrast’ it would have been a better idea to look at other comic-book adaptations in the past for a little inspiration: The stylized Sin City and modernized X-Men would have been good starting points … but alas, we have a film that looks weak in its presentation doing nothing to change the visual scope that film can offer.

2. Why make sure that the film so closely follows the plot structure of the comic? When you watch a film and when you read a novel – of any sort – the whole process of receiving the story between these two forms of art differ and should be changed accordingly. In the comic and film, we are slowly shown flashbacks of each character as we start each chapter pretty much – why not show the entire ‘history’ of the characters themselves during the first act in the film – establish a much more interesting Veidt, who is clearly a much more imposing and fascinating character in the graphic-novel than in the film – so that for the second act you can plough ahead with the story itself without worrying about filling in the gaps – the pace would be non-stop, rather than splitting it up with little flashbacks here and there … this leads me to the next point whereby, the whole scope of the comic-book would be better suited to a …

3. Trilogy – imagine it. Mix up the plot so that it fits neatly in a Trilogy (Apparently The Two Towers is completely different as a book in comparison to the film, but, as part of the trilogy it is a brilliant section that keeps the films consistently watchable.). First film introduces Rorshach and is all Film-Noir-ish as he begins to uncover the plan in detective mode, introducing briefly the characters and starting the whole story off – this film finishes When Rorshach is arrested. Part Two Rorshach is in prison, while the film is more focussed on Dr Manhattan. Obviously NiteOwl and Younger Silk Spectre semi-work with Rorshach in the first film, but are more in the forefront in the second film. This finishes as NiteOwl and Silk Spectre work together and break Rorshach out of prison. Third Part we have ‘the showdown’, whereby everyone is finally together and the character focus in the film is Veidt and, ultimately, his demise. Perfect. You could keep all the Black Freighter stuff in a trilogy, you can get a lot more focus on the Minute Men and explore those characters alot more – so Hooded Justice and Dollar Bill we would see their sections and ‘know’ them alot more, feeling alot more towards the whole world-that-has-heroes context. Would have been brilliant I reckon. When planning The Godfather Part III Coppola claimed that he intended each film to surround the other brothers of Michael – so Part I is about Sonny, Part II about Fredo and, therefore Part III about Tom Hagen. Obviously Duvall didn’t star in Part III so that idea was dropped – but the focus on different characters outside of the main plot itself could have been applied well to a Watchmen trilogy.

Fact is, they didn’t do any of the above – playing it safe with, pretty much everything, shot-for-shot. I’ll finish recalling the line quoted, in the film spoken by Rorshach, this could have been a film with real heartfelt emotion, real depth to character and real change to the comic-book film genre but instead it becomes this excessive, violent and pretentious film that does not only not give justice to the themes it tries to explore but, more importantly, fails at giving depth to a comic that had so much. The quote above could be delivered with intensity and sadness and – in no-way the fault of Jackie Earle Haley – it comes across as pretentious and false. Much like the majority of the movie.

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9 comments

  1. I may have to keep this brief given I'm at work but that attitude may disappear out of a very high window depending on how worked up I get. Bear in mind I'll not address your points in any logical order but travel all over the place, skipping backwards and forwards like a carefree child…

    Makes perfect sense to start at the end. You say the quote could have been delivered with sadness & intensity but came across as false and pretentious. Whose fault is the delivery if not the actors? I found Jackie Earle Haley gave a performance of tremendously angry bitterness and the line works because he delivers it as such. The reason this movie shouldn't be compared to The Dark Knight is because it is a different beast entirely. I fear this may cause your eyes to roll in your head so dramatically that they won't come back but this is a graphic novel not a comic book…

    Whoops. So this is no place for a discussion about the difference between comic books and graphic novels although perhaps it is a space to chat about the difference between graphic novels and this graphic novel. I must humbly beg your pardon because I am a out of the loop on this particular subject having not actually read Watchmen but I'll quickly put some ideas in the mix before my head gets torn to shreds.

    I have only a vague understanding of where this text fits in the history of the world and thus a vague interest in the film which, if memory serves correct, was exacerbated by the trailer which was proper incredible. Essentially to my mind this is different to The Dark Knight (and other superhero films you might have quoted) because the content goes (pardon the expression) to the max, hence the 18 certificate (they're tough to get dontchaknow. There's (again you'll have to pardon my language) balls to the wall sex, tough talking language, rather extreme and graphic violence and a massively complex and intriguing series of moral and philosophical questions. This ain't your friendly neighbourhood Spider-man, surely the massive blue penis (even bigger in Imax) should have given that away…

    So here's little old me, loving both the Dark Knight and Watchmen (and Sin City and the Spider-man trilogy and the Tim Burton Batman films) but not loving The Spirit or the Punisher (or Hellboy or the Lord of the Rings Mess or Bryan Singer's Superman for those keeping count). I think the tone is different from those (and they have differences in amongst themselves) because it's nice to have different films. Nice to contrast such unpleasant themes with some garish colours. Nice to have a sexy lady is a tight yellow uniform. Nice to be true to the source material. Nice to see fights and know what is going on because there are some lights on.

    Also I think the Cold War themes are still super relevant. This idea of an alternate path for the world to travel upon is intriguing and still raises questions about how our current society might exist with a few changes (and the introduction of a bunch of vigilantes backed up by an increasingly bored all powerful God on earth). The Vietnam War, the nuclear race with the Soviets, the legacy of Tricky Dick still resonate to various degrees today. Let's enjoy a bit of a history lesson, a bit of history both subtly and conspicuously rewritten and see what we can learn to apply to the present and future. What would Doctor Manhattan do about Osama bin Laden? And would that solve the problem?

    I think that's me done for now, gonna watch some more rubbish trailers and get excited about the hype for some other rubbish film.

    P to the S I just wanted to check as I may have misread it but I don't believe you detailed the ending of the graphic novel which is awfully generous to dreadfully behind the times people such as me.

  2. First off,

    comic book n. A book of comics strips or cartoons, often relating a sustained narrative

    'Graphic-novel' is a type of comic book, but nevertheless is a comic book.

    Secondly, I stated that the actor Jackie Earle whatever was great – it was everything that surrounded him that was the problem, thus making such a statement delivered with such intensity fall flat, negating his acting abilities and pushing it into pretentiousness. (is that a word?)

    The comparison to The Dark Knight merely shows that an adaptation of such dark subject matter – not to mention the adaptation of a 'Graphic Novel' – is not only neccessary and possible but can defy all expectations and be simply stunning … Watchmen is not stunning.

    I take your point about Cold War relevancies – and more importantly the alternate timeline possibilities. The point that 'destroying the enemy' is not neccessarily the problem with the world is valid. But I counter that with a concern that is that maybe Dr M VS Bin Laden might actually be better … because I really didn't give a toss about Dr M and the Russians.

    Research the different endings though … because it is good reading. Or, maybe, read the comic book. Its only a comic book for fucks sake – hardly War & Peace.

  3. Hi Si,

    Thought I'd take a gander at this review, as Watchmen is probably my film of the year. But I'm happy to admit that it's because I'm a comic book geek and read Watchmen years ago. I did, however, suspect that the film would be difficult/rubbish to a newb. Probably one of the best examples of “by a fan, for the fans” (think at one point Dr M even refers to himself in the third person as “Osterman”, but they don't actually mention in the film that his real name is Osterman).

    I mainly just love it's deconstruction of Superheroes (both the book and comic). My main defense for it is “just think how bad it could have been”. Snyder must have had meeting after meeting defending the right for Dr M's tackle to be out, or for Rorsharch to explode at the end thereby limiting the sequel opportunities (Hollywood money-men are, in my opinion, fuckwits and will alter source material in order to generate the green).

    Finally: Alan Moore may have stolen ideas for the darker nature of the story… maybe, but the actual Characters are homages of Charlton Characters that DC had acquired the rights to and that Alan originally wanted to use. Check out Captain Atom and The Question to find Dr Manhattan and Rorsharch.

    Oh, and unless you saw a different trailer, the song wasn't by Muse. It was “The beginning is the end is the beginning” by the Smashing Pumpkins. Off the Batman and Robin soundtrack… now that's a Superhero film.

    Keep posting, and I'll keep reading.

    Cheers

    Emlyn

  4. gotta agree with simon here. Being also a n00b, i felt robbed of my life while enduring this mess.

    The thing is, the deep phiosophical lines work better in comics- i can imagine those anecdotes/reflections being amazing on paper, but simply was not converted well onto screen.

    I thought the desperately 'hip' soundtrack didnt work with the subject matter also. like, you could see what they were trying to do, but it didnt work. i think the 'times they are a'changing' intro is where it began and ended. that bit was cool.

    after that, all i saw was a few cool fight scenes among dragged-out pretentious monologues, and caracatures desperately trying to find relevance in an irrelevant world.

    in short, i just couldnt give a shit.

    Bangor Rep

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