I was right to worry. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie is indeed a sexed-up and dumbed-down shadow of the richly multi-layered graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
I’ve already unleashed my pent-up anxieties about the then-forthcoming movie in 10 Reasons the Watchmen Movie Will Suck). Now that the notably long-gestating and troubled production is finally out in the wild, I’m puzzled why so many comics fans utterly adore it (q.v. Wil Weaton and AintItCoolNews), while mainstream film critics are competing to deliver the most vicious teardown (q.v. The New Yorker and The Hollywood Reporter). The exception to the rule is the always-unpredictable (bless him) Roger Ebert, who gave the “powerful experience” four out of four stars.
As a lifelong comics fan, I ought to naturally fall into the first camp, but I cannot relate to geeks like Kevin Smith, for whom, after spending decades anxiously pining to see Watchmen playacted on the big screen, found the result “fucking astounding” and “joygasmic.” Endlessly fascinated by the original, I personally never even wanted a Watchmen movie in the first place. But as a lover of both comics and movies, I felt obligated to suffer through it.
My aforementioned rant also repeated the old saw that Watchmen is the Citizen Kane of comics, and attempting to adapt it into another medium is folly. What is important about the example of Citizen Kane in particular isn’t so much its characters or incident, but rather how the story is told. As Welles did to movies in 1941, Moore did to comics in 1986: stretching, bending, or breaking every so-called rule of comics, and revolutionizing how the medium could be used to tell stories. Like Welles, Moore didn’t invent the many storytelling devices he used: including scrambled chronology (flashbacks nestled within flashbacks – not just as a storytelling device but a key insight into how one character perceives reality), mixing of media (prose pieces expand the story), and stories-within-stories (the embedded Tales of the Black Freighter comic book that foreshadows a cataclysmic ending). Watchmen is in essence a book, not a movie.
Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City inaugurated the recent trend of treating comic books not just as raw story material but as actual storyboards. But whereas Snyder had room to expand the story of Frank Miller’s relatively short graphic novel 300 into his previous film, Watchmen is a massive beast of a book that only realistically had to be brutally cut and/or significantly altered to squeeze into a roughly two-hour motion picture narrative. Maybe, just maybe, that’s exactly what Snyder should have done: radically reinvent the story to fit another medium. Instead, he created a slavishly accurate translation that comics fanboys like Wheaton, Smith, and Ain’t It Cool News apparently thought they somehow deserved.
In the end, Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse did make numerous cuts, many out of simple necessity. Some of them hurt (especially the murder of Hollis Mason, essential to the story). Whereas I suggest above that the movie fails to reinvent the book as a film, Snyder’s mostly faithful adaptation does in fact make many significant alterations, but they are arguably the wrong ones. My three primary objections are the out-of-character violence, the flawed characterization of key character Adrian Veidt, and the altered ending.
I. Here’s What’s Wrong With: The Violence
First let me pre-empt the immediate objections: I am not a prude that decries any portrayal of violence in fiction (be it movies, video games, whatever). I have never subscribed to the reductive theory that censoring movies is the way to reduce real-world ills; if an individual is so damaged as to be inspired to violence by a movie (or even to take up smoking), there’s something more wrong with that individual than can be repaired by censoring movies for everyone else. So I don’t object to Watchmen‘s notably extreme violence and gore per se, but rather to its injudicious use by all its characters, regardless of whether it is motivated by their individual natures.
All of the so-called superheroes in the Watchmen movie are shown to be brutal killers. It does makes sense in the cases of Ozymandias (a megalomaniac who rationalizes killing in the theory that it will save others), Dr. Manhattan (an unemotional non-human that finds nothing extraordinary in life), The Comedian (a misanthropic, nihilistic mercenary), and, most especially, Rorschach.
One of the most difficult-to-watch sequences of the entire film is a flashback relating Rorschach’s (Jackie Earle Haley) origin story. His voiceover narration states that, early in his career as a costumed vigilante, he was originally “too soft on crime,” meaning to him, that he used to let criminals live. He goes on to recall the specific case in which he cracked. He tracks down the hideout of a creep that has kidnapped and killed a little girl, and fed her to his dogs. This case is beyond the pale for a street-level vigilante more accustomed to busting up organized crime and purse snatchers. Rorschach sees no point in apprehending him on the police’s behalf, and summarily executes him in a rage. This sequence is unbelievably violent, but it speaks volumes about Rorschach, why he is the way he is, and what differentiates him from his peers, the vigilante fraternity.
But all this is undercut when we also see Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) execute an entire gang of would-be muggers. Muggers, not demonic child molesters! What’s their excuse for splintering bones and severing spines? At what point in their careers did they adjust their moral compasses and decide it’s justified for them to kill? To murder is totally out of character for both of them, and undercuts the entire point of the Rorschach sequence. Their actions make them no different than Rorschach. If the point is that they think they are different than Rorschach but are not, the movie doesn’t seem to be aware of this contradiction. Silk Spectre’s fighting style, incidentally, seems inspired by Madonna’s “Vogue” dance and maximized to strike sexy poses (not that I’m complaining).
The movie also alters the already-horrific rape scene in the book in two very strange ways: it makes it considerably more violent, but also explicitly clear that the actual act of rape was interrupted before… there is no word for the crime… completion, I’ll say. In later scenes, it is explicitly spelled out that Sally (Carla Gugino) and The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) have consensual sex some years later, conceiving Laurie (who assumes his mother’s mantle of Silk Spectre). My interpretation of the rape scene as it appears in the book has always been that Laurie was conceived during the rape, and that there is no evidence in the text that Sally and The Comedian had any kind of relationship afterwards.
In both the book and the movie, the aged Sally cries and kisses a picture of the original hero group The Minutemen, which included a young Comedian. The scene is ambiguous in the book; I always assumed that Sally’s feelings were very complex – certainly not that she forgave or loved her rapist, but more that she was sad and nostalgic for a world long-lost. Laurie’s biological father (for better or for worse) and most of the population of New York were all murdered. Her happiness and glory days are long gone. Wouldn’t you cry too? But in the movie, it’s made utterly clear that she consensually slept with The Comedian some time after his attempted rape. If we are expected to believe that a fictional woman could do that, the movie ought to spend some time examining her psychology and motivations, which it does not.
In fact, this scene was so squeamish that the crowd in the theater became unruly (an opening-night screening on Manhattan’s Upper West Side), and at least one person (a man, as it happens), got up and walked out, loudly complaining all the way. I also note without judgement that a few other people also walked out during the absurdly long sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre. Personally, the most offensive aspect of that scene for me was its ironic soundtrack of Leonard Cohen’s lovely “Hallelujah”.
II. Here’s What’s Wrong With: Adrian Veidt
To pull off a workable movie version of Watchmen, I would argue that the one character it would be most important to get right is Adrian Veidt. Strangely for such a visual director as Snyder, Veidt’s origin story is told not as a flashback (as with all other characters) but as a dull lecture given to a bunch of industrialists. He takes pleasure in explaining that he has patterned his hero persona after no less grandiose historical models than Alexander the Great and Pharaoh Ramesses II, also known as Ozymandias. Everyone should have known that this one would be nothing but trouble. A statue in Veidt’s arctic hideaway (his version of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude) is inscribed with the Percy Bysshe Shelley verse:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:Percy Bysshe Shelley
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.
One of the key details that makes the superhero characters in the book so interesting is that only one of them is actually “super.” Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a nonhuman being that exists on a quantum level of reality, but every other “hero” character is mortal. Exemplary and/or damaged in certain ways, but all human. We know from the book that Veidt has honed his body to near-perfect physical fitness, but the movie clearly shows him to possess superhuman strength and speed. It’s a pity to make Veidt more than human, because, like all of history’s greatest heroes and villains, he is just a man.
Most curiously of all, the movie implies Veidt is gay. If you think my gaydar is on the fritz, bear with me here for a moment. First, we see a brief flashback of Veidt hanging out in front of the legendary Manhattan nightclub Studio 54 with gay and/or androgynous pop icons The Village People, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger. Additionally, actor Matthew Goode made the bizarre choice to give his character a speech defect, perhaps meant to be the sort of lisp that codes movie characters as “gay.” It’s so dominant that some lines of dialogue were actually difficult to understand. Goode seems to speak clearly in Match Point and Brideshead Revisited (in the sexually ambiguous role of Charles Ryder), so we can rule out it being natural for him. The original graphic novel does not make any suggestions as to Veidt’s sexuality at all, which makes a kind of sense, as he is a megalomaniac that probably doesn’t want or need anybody, of any gender.
III. Here’s What’s Wrong With: The New Ending
Veidt’s final solution to save the world is utterly insane, but one aspect in particular is brilliantly manipulative. He distracts his former comrades from his machinations with a conspiracy theory perfectly tailored to their own little psychodrama: an invented serial killer targeting former superheroes. While the world slides towards armageddon, they are preoccupied running around the globe fretting about a “mask killer.”
Meanwhile, Veidt plots to save the world from immanent nuclear war, a threat the other heroes are aware of but never consider to be something they can affect. In the graphic novel, he fabricates a nonexistent extraterrestrial threat, and stages a massive alien attack on Manhattan that kills thousands (millions?). Humanity is effectively united in a new but fragile world order, looking outward for foes, rather than at each other.
Veidt’s plot in the movie is significantly different, framing Dr. Manhattan for the destruction of New York. Both endings imagine a kind of 9/11 in 1985, but the movie version is more self-contained and less absurd, perhaps meant to be easier for audiences to digest. The comic version is admittedly utterly batshit insane, which is part of the point: the faux attack is so shockingly unprecedented that it shocks the entire world into submission. It also underscores Veidt’s true diabolical evil genius: he’s the only one of his kind that sees outside of the superhero psychodrama, and he knows that to truly unite the world behind a fiction, it has to be something new, not something humanity has already rejected: the superhero.
Also, as contributing blogger Snarkbait notes, why would the Soviets necessarily react peaceably to the threat of Dr. Manhattan? He was already a threat to them for decades, but had long since stopped becoming a deterrent (as the story begins, they were encroaching on Afghanistan anyway). It shouldn’t have surprised any citizens of this fictional world that Dr. Manhattan might blow something up. But it would shock the entire world if a gigantic alien squid were to decimate a city.
Another issue entirely is the pathetic cop-out of depicting only the decimated buildings of Manhattan, and not the accompanying piles of bodies (something the book does not shy away from). Co-screenwriter David Hayter chalks it up to a fact of the movie being a big-budget product of a major studio:
The ending of the book shows just piles of corpses, bloody corpses in the middle of Times Square, people hanging out of windows just slaughtered on a massive scale. To do that in a comic book, and release it in 1985, is different from doing it real life, in a movie, and seeing all of these people brutally massacred in the middle of Times Square post 2001. That’s a legitimate concern, and one that I shared.
If you’re doing the movie for $40 million, fine – bloody bodies everywhere. And that’s fine, and it’s a niche film, and only the hardcore fans would go see it. But if you’re doing it on this big of a scale, I just don’t think that’s… I understood their [Warner Bros.’] reticence to putting those images on screen.David Hayter
IV. Here’s What’s Right With Watchmen
Quite a rant this is turning into. Who needs this much negativity in their lives (and blogs)? The movie was not a crime against humanity, and certainly could have been a lot worse. As io9.com reports, for all its flaws, Snyder’s flawed alterations look like genius compared to the rude bastardization the studio Warner Bros. wanted: to set it in the present day, cut all flashbacks, cut the sequences on Mars, cut Rorschach’s psychoanalysis, and worst of all, end with the villain Veidt dying, apparently based on the conventional wisdom that audiences are conditioned to expect villains to die.
The movie kept one of my favorite little character moments of the book: when the old crimefighting duo of Nite Owl and Rorschach are reunited, Nite Owl finally snaps and tells him people only put up with him because he’s a lunatic and they’re afraid of him. Rorschach shows a final glimmer of the last bit of humanity left in him, and puts out his hand: “you’re a good friend, Dan.” But he doesn’t let go. Rorschach has long since lost his ability to interact normally.
Watchmen is, remarkably, a period piece. Snyder keeps the original setting of the book in the 1980s, complete with nostalgic easter eggs: including a vintage Apple Macintosh desktop, Pat Buchanan, Annie Leibovitz, John McLaughlin (of The McLaughlin Group, not the jazz fusion guitarist), Andy Warhol, Henry Kissinger, Ted Koppel, Lee Iacocca, Truman Capote (seen in Warhol’s Factory), Fidel Castro, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie. But one background detail in the book (a repeatedly reelected Nixon) is expanded to an absurd degree.
Jackie Earle Haley was extraordinary, far and away the best asset of the movie. More than any other cast member, Haley seemed to really understand the complex character. Rorschach is undoubtedly an unhinged, right-wing, sexually stunted nutjob, but in a strange kind of way, he becomes the moral center of the very liberal graphic novel. The same utterly uncompromising nature of his character that causes him to appoint himself an executioner of criminals also makes him unable to live with the grand lie that Veidt architects. For all his sins, Rorschach is right about one thing: the world deserves the truth. Haley’s final scene was perfectly performed, and the one moment in the entire movie imbued with real emotion.
Some of the best bits of Watchmen commentary, clips, humor, and esoterica that bubbled up on teh interwebs during the buildup to this geek apocalypse:
Official movie site: watchmenmovie.warnerbros.com
Official iPhone game: watchmenjusticeiscoming.com
Official DC Comics Watchmen site: ReadWatchmen.com – download a free PDF of the first chapter of the original graphic novel.
Official expanded, interactive trailer: 6minutestomidnight.com
Todd Klein’s Watching Watchmen, the best-written review of the film I’ve yet read. Klein is the comics letterer extraordinaire, and friend to both Moore and Gibbons.
Reading the Watchmen: 10+ Entrance Points Into the Esteemed Graphic Novel by Tom Spurgeon. A sober look at the phenomenon from the point of view of one who’s fallen in and out and in love with the book, and has no interest in the movie. Via The Comics Journal.
Levitz on Watchmen, in which DC Comics CEO Paul Levitz reveals the heartening statistic that DC hurriedly ran hundreds of thousands of additional copies of the book to meet demand. (also via The Comics Journal Journalista)
5 Reasons a Watchmen Movie was Unnecessary by Christopher Campbell. Prejudges the movie “redundant, rehashed, irrelevant, ridiculous and inescapably disappointing superhero cinema.” I’m jealous they received more comments than my own 10 Reasons the Watchmen Movie Will Suck, despite having precisely twice the number of bullet points! Via Snarkbait
This is Not a Watchmen Review by Sean Axmaker, asking not only why the world needs a Watchmen movie, but why it would need another Watchmen review. Guilty.
Why Alan Moore Hates Comic Book Movies by San Shurst. Total Film’s brief exclusive interview with Moore in which he pithily nails the problem with movies: “everybody who is ultimately in control of the film industry is an accountant.” On Watchmen’s 100 million dollar budget: “Do we need any more shitty films in this world? We have quite enough already. Whereas the 100 million dollars could sort out the civil unrest in Haiti. And the books are always superior, anyway.
Will You Watch the Watchmen? by Jason A. Tselentis. A consideration of the then-forthcoming movie from the point of view of a designer. I posted what I thought was a decent comment but was rejected. Ouch!