Set in an alternative 1985 in which the United States won the Vietnam conflict, President Nixon is serving his third term in office, and masked avengers are real, the Watchmen graphic novel has been called many things since it was first published over twenty years ago. “The most acclaimed graphic novel of all-time” (so they tell us) has been hailed as a revolutionary piece of fiction that challenged the medium and helped inspire a generation of writers to think outside the paneled box.
In full disclosure, I’m not one that prays at the altar of Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s original work, despite having read it often over the years. While considered a sacred cow within trendy geek circles and worshipped for its complex, unforgiving reimagining of the art form’s possibilities, its masochistic worldview and unlikable cast of characters have made it a hard sell to the mainstream. These are traits that Watchmen share with many of Moore’s most popular works, including previous adaptations of From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V for Vendetta.
Watchmen manages to avoid many of the pitfalls and errors that made the above-mentioned adaptations unwatchable, instead turning what many have labeled “unfilmable” into a visually inventive, streamlined version that should please most of the original novel’s least-demanding fans, most of whom will just be grateful to see this thing finally hit theaters at all. I’ll leave the film’s complex journey to the screen for your own research, but suffice to say, the movie gods certainly put up a good fight in keeping a filmed version from ever being released. Whether the final product justified the effort will depend entirely on how willing fans are to accept this version, and if the uninitiated will accept it in any form.
But many of Watchmen’s most glaring missteps may have been unavoidable as it was transitioned from page to screen, two of which concern unintentional periods of circumstance. The original storyline was conceived and set during key periods of the Cold War between the US and Russia, owing much to Moore’s radical fatalism. While much of the original story’s anachronistic, alternate-reality has been faithfully retained; one key – and extraordinarily vital – exception betrays much of the novel’s most effective and plausible narrative. Of course I’m referring to the much-ballyhooed substitution of the original’s most defining moment. In a post-911 world the change isn’t superficial, as within the context of this reality, this radically shifts the film’s ultimate conclusion back to one of its principle participants, missing the original’s “ultimate justification” entirely. Fans of giant calamari will likely protest its excision, but I suspect more from the loss of potential special effects and less from its more nuanced justification.
The second period concerns the modern-day superhero film, which has only recently come into its own with audiences and critics alike. Audiences may be expecting Batman-style heroics, and instead (thanks to clever marketing and indiscriminate geek culture), but instead get an entirely different animal. Many of the action scenes have been expanded considerably, as have the novel’s most adventurous sexual encounters, with results that often betray the original’s intent. The unrelenting violence of Rorschach’s vigilantism, which was marked ‘excessive’ in the original, seems to have been co-opted by the second Nightowl and Silk Spectre characters during one particularly violent scene. It’s ironic that much of the novel’s most sublime commentary on the genre was compromised to help create a more cinematic, marketable film.
Through no fault of its own, a similarly filmed Watchmen may have been more effective at some future point when the comic book film has merited a similar deconstruction the novel leveled on comic books.
Director Zach Synder has become the most recent go-to guy when it comes to adapting existing material, having made his mark with the surprisingly watchable Dawn of the Dead remake and hitting the big-leagues with his first comic adaption, Frank Miller’s 300. For Watchmen he employs every digital trick and effect of those two films, some of which are more welcome than others. The most spectacular and inventive moment is probably the opening sequence, which helps compress a good chunk of the novel’s history and characterizations into a three-minute piece that’s most visually dazzling and loaded with Watchmen trivia, set to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Time’s Are A-Changing”. It’s also the exact same sequencing he used to open Dawn of the Dead, only substituting Dylan for Johnny Cash.
From 300 we get the same near-devotional adherence to the original’s framing and storyboarding, with Synder almost unwilling to deviate from the script (so to speak) in bringing the novel’s visual brilliance to the world of moving pictures. The only problem (as with 300) is the relative lack of motion, as so many scenes use slow-motion and quick-speed effects they often lose their ability to shock and surprise, losing much of their effectiveness and charm. Often the film feels like it might have benefited from softer, gentler handling and less to such a bombastic display of kinetic movement.
But otherwise the film looks and feels absolutely gorgeous, with rich and vivid digital cinematography that’s fun to watch and experience, once again proving that nobody does the soundstage green-screen effect (ala Sin City, The Spirit) better than Synder. Also worth mentioning is the (typically) superb collection of popular (and some mighty unpopular) tunes that set the mood much better than expected. It’s a curious musical pairing that pits KC and the Sunshine Band with Jimi Hendrix, Nat King Cole, and even Leonard Cohen. A prop for using the original version of the latter’s superb “Hallelujah” instead of a trendier cover, and its scene-specific inclusion is sure to put a smile on fellow longtime Cohen fans.
With two well-earned distinctions the performances are almost uniformly awful, giving the impression the actors were picked for their visual approximation to the novel than for their acting ability. If the Watchmen adaptation is to be considered successful at all, much of that credit belongs to the astonishing work by Jackie Earle Haley as the savage and effectively ruthless masked avenger Rorschach. Wearing his titular mask and sporting a pitch-perfect growl that would make Christian Bale jealous, he more than anyone brings what’s necessary to make this work, understanding not just his character but its place within this universe of crime and (severe) punishment. I kept thinking of William Defoe in the original Spiderman, who like Haley was so menacing with (and perhaps more so) and without the mask it renders much of the film’s special-effects less special in comparison.
Patrick Wilson also does admirable work as the second incarnation of Night Owl, injecting a sense of fun and stark realism missing from most of the film’s lesser performances. It also doesn’t hurt that he looks tremendously like a slightly flabby Christopher Reeve when unmasked, and his refusal to compromise when suited up keeps the character from becoming a throwaway Batman joke. When matched with Haley’s Rorschach (blissfully following the novel’s narrative) the effects are electrifying, and it shouldn’t come as any surprise that much of the audiences’ enthusiasm and cheering come from these two.
Apart from Haley’s Rorschach and Wilson’s Nightowl II, the rest of the cast fluctuates between serviceable and downright awful. Kudos to Billy Crudup for doing the best he could with such a limited (and limiting) vocal performance, injecting the necessary pathos of Doctor Manhattan’s otherworldly quality into the all-CGI performance. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is fine as The Comedian, easily the most controversial of all Watchmen personalities, yet never truly reaches the character’s most disturbing and necessary level it needs to be convincing. The double-whammy of Carla Gugino and Malin Åkerman, playing mother/daughter and crusaders Silk Spectre I & II respectively, are among the most unpleasant performances in the film and extremely disappointing, particularly given how vital their roles are. Gugino’s “old-lady” make-up and passionless performance ruins whatever emotional heft her character might have had, while Åkerman (who to be fair looks great in spandex) looks lost, and seems horribly miscast as one of the novel’s most sexist roles.
Speaking of bad prosthetic work, the film features what could conceivably be called the worst impersonation of Richard Nixon ever, who with his bulbous nose and lack of subtlety bears no resemblance to the former-president whatsoever.
The less said about Matthew Goode’s Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias the better, as his overtly effeminate and campy take on this most important and defining character seems to confirm the original novel’s suggestion of homosexuality and plays to stereotype. It’s a highly unlikable performance that somehow manages to keep out of step in a film that’s already struggling to juggle its complexities.
Watchmen is not a perfect adaptation of its source material, although familiar with Alan Moore’s original might have suspected that was inevitable. Still, much of what made the novel so unique has been translated into its nearly three hour running time, its mission (largely) intact and for the most part quite entertaining. Although Moore’s name is nowhere to be found, those who will dismiss the film on what its not, rather than what it is, will do so at their own loss. Taken purely on its cinematic merits, Watchmen is less spectacular and more a spectacle, and will most likely leave those not obliged to worship the source material wondering what all the fuss was about. For that, try the book.
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