Watchmen ★★★★

In recent memory, I cannot recall having a more complicated reaction to a movie than I did with Watchmen, the new blockbuster superhero extravaganza from director Zack Snyder. On the one hand, I thought it was pretty great to the last drop. On the other, it left me wondering why it wasn’t better. I guess that’s a logical reaction, because I felt the same way when I read the famed “graphic novel” (I hate that term) by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons last year.

Yes, last year. Despite being a comics nerd of sorts since high school, I never read Watchmen. To be fair, I never really read any of my comics at length. I was a Wizard subscriber for close to ten years, and knew all about the big characters, plot lines and movie deals of the ’90s and on into the early part of the next decade. I had a subscriber’s box down at a comic book store, and bought about 10 titles a month for a while. Yet I never really read most of them. I had them for the art. For their collectible nature. Just to have them.

So just as the Hollywood-spurred comics renaissance began, I was phasing my way out of that world. No more trips to the store, no more Wizard in my mailbox. Despite that, my love for the stories and the characters remained. I’ve seen all the heavy hitters over the years—Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men, the Hulk, Daredevil, Iron Man, Fantastic Four—and some of the lesser-known stuff too, like Hellboy, V for Vendetta, Sin City, Road to Perdition, Ghost World, Snyder’s 300, etc. I’ve loved some and loathed others.

In a few cases, the love for a movie has been based on my love for the source material (ex: Batman Begins). In others, I was only familiar with the original work on a Wizard-summarized level, and heartily enjoyed the film (Sin City, Ghost World). In still others, I never cared much about the source but still found the movies quite engaging (X-Men, Spider-Man). Watchmen, as I said, was a book I just read, about six months ago in fact. Having now read the book and seen the movie, I’m fairly certain that it fits into none of the previously described categories.

Lauded as one of the finest works of fiction of the decade (the book was released in 1987), and even of all-time, Alan Moore’s opus had a lot to live up to. I found it thrilling and unusual, but most of that praise was reserved for its place in history rather than an appreciation for the work itself. As a huge fan of LOST, I saw in Watchmen a blueprint for the flashback and flashforward storytelling that is the show’s trademark. I also saw a wonderfully diverse cast of characters intertwined in ways that sometimes even they couldn’t understand. Finally, I saw an early form of meta-fiction, with Moore’s use of “supplementary materials” like pages from the New Frontiersman or excerpts from Hollis Mason’s tell-all Under the Hood. This alternative storytelling (strengthened even further by the comic-within-the-comic Tales of the Black Freighter) set the bar for LOST and so many others to tell their tales tangentially, with the internet, video games, works of fiction from within the world, and more. For that alone, Watchmen is a landmark achievement.

For the comics industry, too, Watchmen was a harbinger of sorts for more dense storytelling. Along with Frank Miller (Sin City, 300), who published his own major work in 1986 with the seminal Dark Knight Returns, comics as a medium were suddenly thrust into a “maybe we can take these seriously after all” mode. This is not to say that the years that followed were filled with works of this caliber (anyone who remembers the ’90s in comic book land can attest to that), yet these books did open up “alternative” comics and “graphic novels” to a wider audience. It’s taken 20 years and a slew of respectable, Hollywood-manufactured movies to do it, but now the medium is seen as more than just something for kids—a conclusion Japan came to decades ago. But whatever. America has always had a strange identity crisis with things we loved when we were children: animation, video games, comics… even as these mediums grow and evolve with us, their childish stigma remains, unfairly.

I therefore take great pride in the fact these geeky subcultures are now fulfilling their destiny and finally reaching the masses. Since X-Men‘s release nearly ten years ago (has it been that long?), the “comic book movie” has become an increasingly viable art form. Action pictures not based on comic characters are slipping in popularity. Non-superhero comics are now given a chance to be made (they made American Splendor into a movie!). There have been numerous missteps—The Punisher. Catwoman. Elektra. Ghost Rider.—but when the genre succeeds, it does so remarkably. Just last year, two of the finest (and maybe THE finest) ever in comic book history broke even more barriers. Iron Man and The Dark Knight now stand as the model for all future comic-to-film adaptations, and in my eyes, they do so for one important reason: these movies approached their characters with a grounding in realism.

Not every movie can do this of course. Some require a wildly unlikely approach. Sin City worked against realism because in a world where everything is (literally) black and white, there are no shades of grey to bring the characters back to our level. They are comic cutouts and stereotypes for a reason. Other comic stories, like Hellboy or Men in Black, are far too (intentionally) wacky to really take seriously. So we have fun with these movies and embrace them for their inherent silliness or hyper-reality. Yet even the costumed, super-powered hero pictures succeed most often when they are able to bring their characters’ struggles back down to earth. X2: X-Men United and Spider-Man 2 outpaced their predecessors with deeply emotional and relatable plots. The eye-popping visual effects and marvelous set pieces remained, but they sat in deference to the story.

The same would most certainly be said for Iron Man and The Dark Knight. With multiple scenes shot in IMAX, and with grandiose sequences like the Lower 5th chase, The Dark Knight was not without eye candy. Director Christopher Nolan, though, strove to limit visual effects to a minimum, doing things with sets and props as much as humanly possible. So, too, did Iron Man director Jon Favreau root his movie in a tangible world. The Iron Man suit itself became a focal point of the story, because Favreau rightly saw that we needed to believe that it was possible for a man (granted, a man of nearly unlimited means, but still, Tony Stark was just a man) to be mobile in that metallic armor.

This whole backstory predicates my actual thoughts on Watchmen, because one of my main issues with the movie is that it largely ignores the reality of its masked heroes. Something entirely lost in Snyder’s Watchmen is the fact that, with the notable exception of Dr. Manhattan, none of these characters have special powers. They are all just normal people who decided one day to dress up in a weird costume, give themselves a quirky name, and go out and fight crime. Snyder’s unique visual style—with its rampant use of slo-mo, overly bloody action sequences and super-strong pugilists—is thrillingly comic-booky, but unlike in the hyper-reality of Sin City or Snyder’s 300, it betrays the heart of Watchmen and its characters. What made the story of the Watchmen (and before them, the Minutemen) so dramatic and ultimately sad was that these were real people. Sure, they were living in an unreal world, a world of naked blue men, a third-termed Richard Nixon and so on, but they were real people we could identify with. Snyder lost sight of that in his adaptation.

The other element of the movie that I just could not stand was its use of music. Song choices were fairly solid, if predictable (I’ll admit, you do kind of have to use “All Along the Watchtower”), but putting Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” over Dan & Laurie’s sex scene just struck me as unintentionally funny; if it was constructed that way ironically, that almost bothers me more. Even worse than the soundtrack, the score was especially hammy and arch, distracting me at all points throughout the film from what I saw on screen. And what I saw was absolutely stunning.

If there’s one thing Snyder does remarkably well, it’s the visual aspect of a picture. The technical aspects of this film were astonishingly on point. Visual effects were huge and exceedingly well-utilized (Dr. Manhattan was brilliant), the costuming was terrifyingly accurate, and most of all, the art direction impeccable. Much like Sin City, Snyder’s almost slavish adaptation style lent itself well to anyone who had read the book. Shot after shot, I marveled with a fanboy’s glee (even if I am not one) at the fidelity to which the movie adhered to the book, visually speaking. Snyder has said that he even casted the film based upon an actor’s relative similarities to the book’s characters. This approach paid off in spades with Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian, yet failed miserably with Malin Ackerman as Laurie/Silk Spectre II. Others have pointed out Matthew Good’s Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias as another weak point in the acting, but I didn’t have much issue with his performance, mostly because I always found that character overtly and cheesily villainous in the book, a mystery novel whose mystery is easily solved by everyone but its characters.

Watchmen was called “unfilmable” by its creator Alan Moore—a mad scientist hermit so disenfranchised with the Hollywood system (does anyone remember From Hell or League of Extraordinary Gentlmen? Didn’t think so.) bastardizing his stories that he took his name off this one—and he may have been right. Even with large sections of the story excised (gone are the newsstand sequences, most references to the New Frontiersman (until then end, when it pops up almost unexpectedly), and the entirety of the Black Freighter subplot, the movie is extraordinarily long at more than two and a half hours. The story of the Minutemen, too, is condensed into a montage during the opening credits (featuring a creepy but can’t-take-my-eyes-off-it “moving still photo” cinematographic style). All of these omissions didn’t bother me as someone who had read the book, but I wonder if I hadn’t read it how lost I might be. So much of the beauty of Watchmen as it was written is about how all these pieces intertwine so intricately. Maybe it is that reason that has me so excited to see Snyder’s director’s cut, which is said to put back a full hour into the movie, which would make it nearly four hours in length.

It makes you wonder then why someone couldn’t convince a studio head to release this in two segments, a la Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill or Steven Soderbergh’s Che (or even the upcoming seventh Harry Potter adaptation). I almost think it would be easier for newcomers to stomach two parts of a four hour movie in a couple sittings if it meant that the story might be rounded out a little better in the process. Or maybe not. Maybe the wildly polar reviews would be just the same. As for me, I think my pendulum swings more towards the “it’s great” end of the spectrum, even with all its flaws. I applaud the people who made this movie (somewhat begrudgingly, in the case of Snyder) for tackling such a beast of a story, and for bringing it to a wider audience, both in the theaters, and in print (everyone seems to be picking it up these days). I liked Watchmen a lot, and can’t wait to see the full version, which I think I’ll like even more.

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