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Watching Watchmen

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 9, 2009 5:25PM

WARNING: Spoiler alert! If you haven't seen Watchmen yet, we discuss plot points after the jump, so you may want to hold off reading any further!

2009_03_watchmen.jpg TANKBOY: I was actually working in a comic book store when the original Watchmen comics were published, so it's fair to say I've been waiting for this particular movie adaptation for a long time. How could you transform a complicated soap opera crossing numerous time periods and incorporating a dizzying number of subplots into film of reasonable length and a more linear storyline? And how could one do that under immense expectations from an audience that has lifted that collection of newsprint and ink into something that has become totemic in nature? A near riot of folks unable to get in for a 10-minute sneak peek at footage from the film at a convention last year was a less than subtle hint that folks might be expecting a little too much from the film, and judging by the buzz over the past few days it seems as if the movie is polarizing people into two camps. Opinion is deeply divided even here in the Chicagoist offices.

Marcus Gilmer and I each saw the movie separately and had two very different takes on the movie, and we'll discuss our views here today. In brief, I think that director Zach Snyder did a good job at managing the source material, and created a movie that feels very similar to the graphic novel in tone, pacing, and characterization. Snyder isn't always subtle -- his musical cues literally smack you across the face with their intended messaging -- but in the end I really enjoyed Watchmen. Marcus? Not so much. Let's get into it.

MARCUS: I think the movie was doomed to fail in part because of the time period in which we're viewing it. When it was written, we were knee-deep in Cold War paranoia; the USSR-USA superpower struggle the dominant force in global politics and it cast a shadow over everything. We weren't all that far removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nuclear Armageddon was still a real, viable threat. The movie, however, is a product of 21st Century irony. So much of Moore's paranoia from the graphic novel has been stripped. Part of that is the (understandable) removal of the newspaper stand/comic reader figures who acted as sort of a Greek chorus, as well as so many of the smaller hints littered in the graphic novel. But President Nixon doesn't curdle our blood, he's almost comic (no pun intended); we've been weaned on films like Forest Gump over the years. It no longer feels genuine, though I did totally dig using the Dylan song in the movie, though I felt the use of "Desolation Row" in the comic was a bit more apropos. But that was just one of several themes I thought Snyder tried to weave in but it either fell flat or it was a half-assed attempt that just wound up a loose thread, like with the undertones of why these people choose to wear masks in the first place.

2009_03_doc_manhattan.jpg TANKBOY: I agree with you to a point. As a child of the times I remember the fear of a single superpower annihilating humanity, the nightmares triggered by watching the broadcast of The Day After, and it was that theme that drove the crux of Moore's story. Moore's handling of Watchmen was nearly paralyzed by the ooze of paranoia surrounding his characters and the overly mannered, somewhat stiff emotional responses of those characters fit well with that over arching theme.

Over the weekend I've found 4 distinct camps responding to Watchmen. One group viewed the graphic novel as a grand adventure / soap-opera and feels Snyder dumbed it down too much. Another camp (and this includes me) is impressed by the results and is pleased to see that so much of the comic, including the stiffness of many of its most repressed characters, made it through. A third party is comprised of folks unfamiliar with the original book who just enjoyed a sweeping, dark superhero epic, and I think we can thank Dark Knight for even creating this crew. Finally the fourth group isn't familiar with the book either, but believes that Snyder created an overlong, under acted, misogynistic and overly violent movie ... and they may be right ... but last I checked Alan Moore's Watchmen was all those things, right down to the overly long, graphic, and fumbling sex scene featuring two naked superheroes floating above a city whose climax is shadowed by a spurt of flame shooting across the sky. It is this last camp I may give most credence to, if only because they are unafraid to point out the ways the sometimes obtuse and -- again -- less than subtle source material is mirrored in its cinematic delivery.

Simply put: the response to the movie by those that read Watchmen seem directly plugged into how they read the graphic novel, and the responses of the others seem dictated by whether they would even like the graphic novel or not.

MARCUS: I'll go with that. My problem is that Snyder seems to have been hindered by his desire to appease fans of the novel by including as much as possible, but the time constraints of the motion picture format forced his hand and some of the elements and themes and subplots are truncated and thus it feels like a mess even to me.

2009_03_rorschach.jpg As for the stiff character response, this is a good segue to the acting. I'll precede this by saying Jackie Earle Haley was absolutely brilliant. Heath-Ledger-in-Dark-Knight brilliant. He fully embodied the character of Rorschach and brought that character to life; he wasn't just an actor reading lines. On the flip-side of that was Malin Akerman who was awful as Laurie/Silk Spectre II. Just awful. First of all, Laurie is supposed to be in her mid-30's and just as world weary as the rest, which she is certainly not in the movie. Things like that continued to undermine the themes that worked so well in the book. Patrick Wilson was somewhere in between as Nite Owl, trending towards that older, dumpy stature,'s Patrick Wilson. He's, ultimately, still too young of a guy to really pull this off. And I say that generally liking the portrayal of Nite Owl.

TANKBOY: I'm 100% with you on Earle Haley, he WAS Rorschach as I always envisioned him. At the same time, I think the stiff acting of the others actually made sense. These are people so barely comfortable in their own skin that they put on costumes to beat other people up. They aren't exactly at the top of their game when it comes to emoting in any way we might find "normal." I will concede I may be projecting a bit here since I always envisioned the characters speaking in slightly stilted tones, so I found the at times wooden demeanor of most of the cast in keeping with the piece's overall tone poem. Watchmen isn't an adventure story, it's a rumination of a broken society, and its even more damaged (and at times downright delusional) self-appointed caretakers.

MARCUS: "Watchmen isn't an adventure story, it's a rumination of a broken society, and its even more damaged (and at times downright delusional) self-appointed caretakers."

I agree completely, which is why I was disappointed in the movie. I felt Snyder didn't know if he wanted it to do this or be an action flick to appeal to non-fans of the graphic novel. Some of the most important threads you get in the graphic novel aren't even included in the movie. There's no real discussion of the pathos of why these characters do this, at least that I could see. Of course, I realize that it's impossible to pile everything into the film version: it'd be 10 hours long if that was the case. There are just so many layers to the novel and perhaps pacing plays some part of that. But it's like Snyder took the novel and used that as his storyboards while stripping the film version of some of its meat.

2009_03_ozymandias.jpg TANKBOY: Your last sentence confuses me as a negative critique since that is kind of how I always figured an under ten-hour film adaptation of Watchmen should be approached. You find the most pertinent points from the source material, hone what you can and jettison much of the rest. Honestly, in the end, I think you and I may both be hampered by our devotion to the original graphic novel, and we obviously expected two different things in the end. If you jettison any and all preconceptions, though, I still think you're left with a pretty impressive film. For a three-hour film, other than Ozymandias' drawn out final monologue, I felt the film's pacing clipped briskly along and ultimately I felt as if Watchmen continued the tradition of, and set the bar higher for subsequent, post-millennial damaged superhero epics. I also predict this is a movie that will probably blossom over time after repeated viewings and after the inevitable emotional viewer backlash has dimmed. People expectations were blown out of proportion and as time passes the film will be judged more on its own actual merits.

MARCUS: But he stripped the wrong meat. That's what I meant. He stripped away so much of the underlying themes and subplots that go to characterization that the film becomes a mess, not sure if it wants to be a straight action movie or a study of these characters. And the brisk pace didn't enable me to emotionally invest in these characters. Granted, this is a problem any time a written work is adapted for film, but he did nothing to compensate for that.

I'll admit I'm already slated to go see the movie again (in IMAX) and see if my opinion has changed, but so much of the movie upon my initial viewing made me cringe - like the flashback in which Nite Owl and The Comedian discuss the American Dream. Snyder altered this scene ever so slightly and by one tweak, he cost the moment its edge.

TANKBOY: Well, maybe I'm being too forgiving, or perhaps your expectations were too high. Let's reconvene at a later date to see if time has caused either of our views to either move closer together or if further reflection only cements each position?

MARCUS: Fair enough.