Friday, March 6, 2009


In advance, I expected that I'd be giving the Watchmen adaptation all kinds of leeway to please me. After all, everyone agrees that the book isn't the most adaptation-friendly material so for it even to get Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic partly right would seem like a really neat feat. But while the first sight of a black Warner Bros. logo against a yellow background had me feeling that I was in for something special, as it turns out whatever slack I was willing to cut director Zack Synder and co. evaporated awfully quick - like by about the twenty five minute mark. There's so much I disliked about this movie, it's hard to pinpoint what turned me off the most but ultimately I just never felt involved with anything happening on screen. It felt more like a comic book than the comic book itself, a work so artificial and stylized that it was impossible to see its characters as real. And in condensing the comic's sprawling storyline, Watchmen the movie becomes too cramped with incidents to have a natural flow to its narrative and because of that, nothing that happens ever has any weight to it - not even the threat of doomsday.

Among the bigger issues I had with the movie was its violence. I'm all for gratuitous cinematic bloodshed but the adolescent glee that Zack Synder shows here for bone-breaking and meat cleavers to the head only points to why he was the altogether wrong choice for this film. He gets off on the fight scenes (every hero here is some kind of kung fu master, by the way - which might make some viewers unfamiliar with the comic wonder if all of these costumed characters are supposed to have superpowers) and the gore - but whenever someone isn't being beaten, dismembered or scalded, there's a lack of conviction. Even worse, for all the violence in the film he's unable to portray any of it as being truly harrowing. Rorschach's origin, which should close on a true heart of darkness moment, instead ends with a splatter gag that belongs in a Friday the 13th movie (a damn good Friday the 13th movie, yes, but a Friday the 13th movie nonetheless). Synder even caps the climatic death of a major character with a gore punchline. Several reviewers have cited the reflective Dr. Manhattan on Mars sequence as proving that Synder has more up his sleeve than just an eye for stylized violence but outside of the fact that this sequence is recreated almost verbatim from the comic - leaving little room for Synder to contribute his own vision - I feel that sequence missed capturing the original life-affirming poetry of that celebrated issue. Like the rest of the film (save for Jackie Earle Haley's indelible performance as Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan's equally strong turn as The Comedian), it feels wooden.

And although one of Moore's key points with Watchmen was that these self-styled superheroes were actually pathetic (as Dr. Manhattan remarks at one point: "...friendly middle-aged men who like to dress up..."), Synder is unwilling to be totally true to that. It may be hip to love Watchmen now but it's always been a story about uncool people and I don't think Synder understands how to do uncool. Under Synder's direction, a character like Laurie Juspeczyk aka Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) is portrayed as being what her comic book counterpart can only imagine she is - slick, sexy, dangerous. As Moore wrote these characters, they didn't turn into conventional superheroes when they put their costumes on. Moore showed psychological acuity, revealing his characters to be ridiculous in how they used their super ID's to compensate for their (sometimes literal) shortcomings. One of the lines of the comic that always stuck with me was the observation of a policemen while Rorschach was being arrested that "the runt wears elevator shoes!" - it showed Rorschach's arrest to be a personal humiliation, tearing away his mystique as a fearsome vigilante. It's those moments that made the book and it's the absence of them that keeps the movie from coming to life.

Before seeing the movie, I thought everything about it looked terrific, that Synder clearly understood the book. But his take on the material is a limited one - the work of someone who is in love with the surface of Watchmen as a book that was racier and more violent than other comics of its era. While the graphic novel was a leap forward in maturity for the comic medium, the movie - for all its technical proficiency - is a case of arrested development.


Steve Barman said...

My thoughts exactly. There was no emotional arc for any of the characters.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, it just felt very flat. I've watched it a second time now and have rewritten some of my initial thoughts. But even with a more tempered view, it's still a lousy movie so no big change of heart for me.

Cheap Beer said...

I caught "Watchmen" yesterday and thought it stunk on a level I never thought it would. I never read the book, but think a movie should be able to stand on it's own. The scene when they saved the people in the burning building was cringe inducingly bad with how cliche it was. It's hard for me to explain exactly why it didn't work for me, but it just didn't. Maybe I'm missing something....

Jeff Allard said...

I don't think you're missing anything. It's a botched, uneven movie at best. And I doubt if a longer cut would alleviate the critical problems the movie has with tone and performances. The major web critics who fawned over this movie should be ashamed. They should've called this one out from the start.

Marty said...

"The major web critics who fawned over this movie should be ashamed."

That's a bit harsh, don't you think? I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, concluding that it's strengths far outweighed its (admitted) weaknesses. Could it be that these critics (and I assume you're talking about Harry Knowles and his group) simply liked the movie? A statement like yours suggests that your opinion is somehow more enlightened then theirs. Just because you didn't like it doesn't mean that others should be 'ashamed' for not sharing your opinion.

Having said that, I should admit to not having really read what they have to say, and to admitting that... sure, they could just be the corporate shills that, in reading between the lines, you're suggesting they are (if that is, indeed, what is between your lines).

Whatever the case, I enjoyed 'Watchmen', having seen it twice now. With the exception of the song selections (which were unbearably obvious) and the latex-heavy makeup (Greg Cannom should be ashamed!), I think all involved did just fine.

There's been a great quote by Brian K. Vaughan floating around, "its like making a stage play of Citizen Kane. I guess it could be OK, but why? The medium is the message."

So... I guess what I'm saying is -- if there HAD to be a 'Watchmen' movie, then I'm fine with the one they made.

Jeff Allard said...

Marty, as someone who's known you for many years now (over twenty, can you believe it?) and listened to you discuss films of every stripe among friends, family, co-workers, and the general public, I hope you'll appreciate it when I answer your comment of "a statement like yours suggests that your opinion is somehow more enlightened then theirs" with "pot, meet kettle."

But on to the rest of your comments - if I had suggested these web critics be shot, then I'd agree that was harsh. To say "ashamed", to me, means that they should reflect on why they were so eager to give this movie such an outrageous amount of slack. Measuring the honest pros and cons of this movie is one thing but based on some of the rhapsodic advance reviews from some of the higher ups in the web community, I can't help but feel their enthusiasm for the movie was stoked by their insider status.

That someone would like the movie is not an impossible notion to me - every movie has its admirers - but the post-release reaction to Watchmen has been noticeably more tempered, with even those who like the movie being inclined to qualify their enjoyment of it with "eh, they did about as good a job as they could."

Personally, I do think a better job could've been done but I believe that even a much better Watchmen film still would've been a seriously compromised work. This is a story that was told perfectly within its own medium and no matter how it's adapted, I don't think it works when removed from the comic book page.

Marty said...

Oh, I admit to being guilty re: my opinion meaning more than others. I am and it does. And no, I can't believe we've known each other for over 20 years. Jesus.

The truth is, I had time this morning to bitch, and being I usually agree with your blogthoughts, I decided to bitch your way.

It's semantics I guess -- what constitutes 'shame', and the suggestion that they somehow should have 'called [them] out'; and in your response, what constitutes 'rhapsody' and an'outrageous' amount of slack... and an impossible-to-determine need to maintain 'insider' status with a studio -- that prompted my comment(s). Wow, Faulkner-esque sentence, that.

I agree wholeheartedly with your take that ANY adaptation would be flawed -- our disagreement is simply on how flawed was THIS adaptation.

And on that front, you're just wrong :)

Jeff Allard said...

Well, it's definitely a flawed adaptation and I think running down the various things Synder got right or wrong just points up how totally unnecessary it was to make a movie of Watchmen in the first place. There's the argument out there that fans should just be happy that Synder was able to keep as much of the book as he did but it's kind of like a miss being as good as a mile. I hope Jackie Earle Haley gets a big boost out of this, at least.