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Tuesday, March 10, 2009 

A stronger world, a stronger loving world

[I normally don't care about spoilers, but if the Watchmen movie left me with any impression, it's that people need to read the book, and ideally they need to read it the same way I did - knowing as little as possible beforehand. Normally I'd just say "hey, spoilers, watch out" and move on, but in this case I want to stress that you really are ruining something great for yourself if you don't get go grab a cheap copy of Watchmen and read it. Especially if you go watch the movie first.]

Before anything else, I have to agree with Patton Oswalt: You have to give Zack Snyder credit for actually making a Watchmen movie, and furthermore for making one that's about as downbeat, messy, disturbing and otherwise conforming to the spirit of the series as we could expect. Like a lot of people getting pre-emptively defensive about the movie, though, Oswalt misses what it is about Snyder's Watchmen that is likely to piss fans of the series off. For the record, I hold the 'Nerd Mafia' in about as much contempt as Oswalt does. I'm not bothered by the cuts, really, or the alteration to the villain's plan (actually, like a lot of my friends who've seen it, I kind of wish Moore had taken things in that direction more, even if we would have lost the scene with the writer and artist on board the ship). Most of the cuts were intelligently chosen and executed, and like Oswalt says, "When you adapt a book, you cut things out, combine and conflate, streamline and linger."

That I have no problem with. The problem I have, and the reason I'm vaguely horrified by the prospect of people coming to Watchmen for the first time via the big screen, is the stuff they've added. Some additions are a natural, unavoidable side effect of turning it into a movie; it's perfectly natural that having a human being speak Dr. Manhatten's lines makes him sound less dispassionate, and Billy Crudup does a fine job. It's a perfectly legitimate choice on his and Snyder's part to have Jon sound kind of smug most of the time, and one that works - but everyone I know who's read the book agrees with me that the comic Dr. Manhatten is more dispassionate than anything else. It's easy to read the book, get that impression, and then watch the movie - but I think watching the movie stamps that interpretation in your mind such that you may well start reading stuff into the book.

I feel bad for Malin Akerman and Matthew Goode; both did better jobs than I was lead to expect by others, but Akerman doesn't quite have the chops for Laurie's single most important scene, the revelation of her father's identity. But that scene is also a perfect example of the ways in which Snyder was the wrong guy to adapt Watchmen. I have no problem with the device of Jon briefly allowing others to experience time non-linearly, it's a great way to speed things up for the movie. My problem is that when he does that for Laurie, instead of her piecing things together on her own (and allowing the audience to do the same), she's straight out told the truth. She was just repressing the memory, rather than the more realistic and moving portrayal in the series of someone finally putting the pieces together. So maybe she does have the chops - we'll never know.

Goode, meanwhile, who was so satisfying in The Lookout, does as good a job as can be expected given the way he's directed to play Veidt. Again, though, the key to why his character is unsatisfying lies not in the way he acts but in what he's allowed to say. As in the book, once everything has fallen out he tells Jon that he's made himself feel every death he's caused. And in the movie, he asks, "do you understand what I've done?" Goode does what he can to sell the line, but it's still a question asked out of arrogance and pride. The smartest man in the world wants the only being who he respects intellectually to admire the leap he's made.

In the comic, of course, the question is "Jon.... have I done the right thing?" For all the certitude he shows Rorshach and Dan, the book's Veidt has to live with the fear that the monstrous things he has done were pointless, that he's caused immense suffering for nothing. In the movie, more than anything else he seems put out that no-one will realize what a genius plan he had. Just as Jon goes from inhuman remove to amused smugness, Adrian goes from sickeningly even-keeled to arrogantly patrician. Even when he's beating up Dan and Rorshach, he seems nice in the book, in an odd way. That confrontation in the movie is stretched out, repeated a few times and is mostly an excuse for more slow motion violence. Watchmen still isn't an action movie, but it's a lot closer to one than it was before, and that's kind of sad.

More than anything else those fight scenes that Snyder added in, mostly with Dan and Laurie, made me a little sick to my stomach. Each of them kill at least a few thugs (snapped necks, fatal beatings, etc etc) and neither of them seem to care. When Rorscach kills the Big Figure in prison, they stand there and wait, and intentionally or not it's filmed so that it looks as if they can see what is happening. Leave aside for a second the fact that everyone in the movie seems to have super strength and inhuman durability - I don't like it, but it seems to be de rigeur for superhero movies (which this isn't, something Snyder to his credit grasps to some extent). That doesn't change the fact that as written Dan and Laurie are not murderers, let alone people who get sexually excited by murder, and altering that makes the movie grotesque and morally unpleasent.

Snyder still leaves in at least some elements of the impotence theme, as well as foregrounding some of the elements of Watchmen that the kids wouldn't pick up on their own, like the nuclear annihilation stuff. Huge credit to Snyder as well for leaving in or even expanding on two of Moore's implicit points: That the America in Watchmen is sick precisely because they can't lose (Eddie Blake saying "I think if we'd lost Vietnam it would have driven this country crazy"), and that as horrible as the Comedian is, he can't fathom or live with the kind of thing Veidt will do, because through all the killing and raping and so on Eddie still sees people as people; for Veidt, on some level, they're an abstraction. Each of them are horrible people, in their own way.

There are plenty of things the movie does right: Considering his character on Grey's Anatomy was/is one of the worst things to happen to that particular slice of melodrama, people might wonder if Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the right guy to play Eddie Blake, but more than anything else he comes across on Grey's as a likeable guy, and he nails Blake - effortlessly charismatic, even when he's gunning down rioters. The always excellent Patrick Wilson does a similarly good job as Dan, even if he can't make himself as schlumpy as he really should be. And Jackie Earle Haley manages to actually improve on Rorschach's last moments - it's enough to wish that they'd Kill Billed the movie and given him a chance to really stretch out in the prison/psychiatrist scenes. Visually it's a gorgeous movie for the most part, although again Snyder's continued obsession with slow-motion, pornographically shot violence is the worst thing about his movies (since this has more going on than 300 did, though, it's easier to ignore). The soundtrack is awful, just incredibly ham-handed (it's use of Cohen's "Hallulujah" is, as a friend pointed out, as predictably OTT as Control's deployment of "Atmosphere"), and that's really the problem with Watchmen as well - Snyder has crafted about half of a really great adaptation of a great series, and then his nerve failed and he spends the other half of the movie putting prose even purpler than Rorschach's journal in the mouths of his characters and making sure the audience has everything spelled out for them.

I couldn't resist pointing out to my friend Julia, who's read part of the book, which lines/parts/blood spurts weren't in book, mainly because every line or moment that rung false in a cheesey, melodramatic way were new inventions. I felt bad for whispering during the movie, but when I asked her what she thought of it after it was done, she said "I was really glad that every time something stupid happened you leaned over and went 'that wasn't in the book,' because the part I read didn't seem like that sort of story." I hate to be That Guy, but there you have it. Watchmen is both a towering achievement and a miserable failure. It's worth seeing, and it's worth seeing in the theatre, but please please please read the book first.

Like any fan of the novel (and, yeah, damnit, I'll just call it a novel) there's no way we're not going to be torn. They get some stuff right, some stuff terribly wrong- it's that problem of being too close to the material. We would like more movie reviews from Ian!

Well, I'd have to watch more movies first... thanks!

I waited to read your thoughts until after I had seen it; now that I have, I think I liked it more than you. It has major problems, but I can't remember the last big budget extravaganza that didn't. I think it will be a few days before my thoughts on it coalesce, but I did have a question regarding this post:

How is Watchmen not a superhero movie? And how does Snyder grasp this?

"Superhero movie" meaning not a movie with superheroes in it, but something like Spiderman, Iron Man, even the Dark Knight. Watchmen is a book/movie about heroes, not a superhero book. It's like the difference between the limited series and a random run of Green Lantern or what have you.

Ok, thanks for the clarification. Though I have to disagree; it is inherently a "Superhero book/movie". Watchmen may transcend some of the typical concerns of such, but is working firmly, and purposely, within the tropes.

I haven't seen it yet. I have an oddly weak stomach for slo-mo gore. I'll see it at the local drive-in if I can. The music direction was heartbreaking, given how important the selection was to the novel. At least it was Cohen's Hallelujah instead of one of the Cale-derived versions.

But the novel is much more than its plot, largely due to its lite-PoMo exploitation of its medium. The loss of its medium can't help but hurt it. I guess I'd have to see it to see how much.


p.s. not enough words not enough words ;P

I'll get back to it soon, I swear! It's not like you're exactly a font of productivity yourself.

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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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