You would see (or not see) this movie with or without two Lifting Fog reviews, but ours is still an important voice in American film criticism and worthy of scrutiny. Or so my grandmother says. Don’t worry, this review is free of bright blue genitalia!
A loyal patron of arthouse cinema, I saw Watchmen three weeks ago when it first opened. It hardly moved me, and I left fully prepared that weekend to offer a perfunctory “it is what it is” review with a clever title like “Don’t Watch The Watchmen” or “You’ll Be Watching Your Watches Instead.” As great as either of those would have been, I didn’t get around to the review.
One week later I sat down to watch the movie again, this time in IMAX. (You say “sucker”; I say “generous soul.”) It seemed right to offer Watchmen, a film so unavoidably tangled in decades of hype and expectation, a second chance. And sure enough… I sort of didn’t hate it. In fact… I kind of sort of liked it. Don’t worry – my fanboy license is already in the shredder.
Before you nerds get your glasses all fogged up with nerd rage, let’s set a few things straight:
1) I don’t want to fight you. I’d win.
2) Nothing is sacred, least of all a twelve part comic miniseries (or GRAPHIC NOVEL). To claim otherwise is to advocate the stifling of new creative expression. You’re not a fascist, are you?
3) Watchmen was never going to meet anyone’s expectations. The material is too intrinsically linked to its initial medium, too much a product of its time, and just too challenging – it was never going to totally “work,” whether in Snyder’s hands or those of someone else. Plus it’s too unfamiliar to be marketed as an action movie OR a comic book movie, given the archetype (see: hero defeating villain) everyone knows and loves. But…
4) You know what? IT EXISTS, and that’s something of a minor miracle. Be happy for that.
WARNING: Given that what follows is less a review than it is a response, I’m going to scrap any sort of plot synopsis. (I might also flagrantly spoil a bunch of shit.) So, Watchmen!
An easy criticism of the film is that Zack Snyder, given his relative inexperience with character-driven drama, was the wrong choice to direct. To that I say: who, then? Who could film this? You hire Spielberg and the project loses any rebel luster it might have had – clean and tight and technically “good”, but lacking the kind of roughshod, worn quality that’s so key to the story. Peter Jackson would have made an epic comic book movie. Scorsese? Paul Greengrass? Don’t even breathe the name “Judd Apatow.”
The fact is that Snyder WASN’T ideal. Watchmen lives and dies by its characters more than any superhero tale yet put to film; this movie needed an actor’s director. Complicating things, however, is the fact that successfully translating the already heavily stylized artwork of Dave Gibbons was only ever going to be pulled off by a truly visual filmmaker. In this arena, Snyder is king. He proved it on 300, capturing completely the original Frank Miller book in a way that had never before been achieved. Really! (While I personally don’t like the movie, that has less to do with Snyder’s competency than it does the story itself.) I feel strongly that Snyder is one of maybe three or four directors who could visually bring Watchmen to life.
Say what you will about the ways in which the story has been streamlined or “dumbed down” to accommodate a mass audience – Watchmen is undeniably the most challenging movie based on a comic book produced to date. YES, The Dark Knight. Calm down; I remember it, too. That film did everything right, elevating the superhero genre to its highest ever point. It may never be matched. But Watchmen from the get-go is a totally different animal, less a traditional superhero movie than a drama that HAPPENS to feature superheroes.
I think that’s what frustrates audiences so much. Everyone – even Watchmen SUPERFANS who have allegedly read the book 12-13 times – comes into this movie expecting it to blow them away the way The Dark Knight did, to leave them screaming in geek joy as the end credits roll. This just isn’t that kind of movie! Like the book on which this thing is based, it’s not like anything we’ve seen before. I don’t mean that in a revolutionary sense, necessarily – just that given the trajectory of superhero movies, we are totally unprepared to process this movie. Does it succeed? Not really, no. But for scope and ambition, you can’t give it anything but respect.
What I’ve found so difficult in trying to pick apart this movie is the fact that even its more poorly conceived moments – slow motion prison fighting, anything Nixon, THE SEX – stayed with me long after the closing credits. I spent a week thinking about them, wondering if my first impression (“bad”) was accurate… or if I had been so close to Watchmen that I couldn’t see anything but the book.
It’s a tightrope walk, really, for any director trying to tackle an exceedingly popular story. Push too much, and you haven’t “played by the rules” or “honored” the source material. Stay too true, and you produce nothing more than a lavish live-action representation of something already too familiar. Like the first Harry Potter movie, an exceedingly polished high school musical; “Dr. Manhattan, Superstar!”
This is when the movie truly fails, in those moments when it does nothing but recreate the panels on the page. What’s the point? If I’m going to invest in potentially my seventh or eighth time through the story, I’d like to discover something new – a fresh take. Remember the opening credits? Those worked so amazingly well (really, I could watch that sequence an unhealthy amount of times) because they stepped outside the confines of the book and dared to say “I’m someone else’s interpretation. And I’m FABULOUS.” Confident and strong and poetic, these should have set the tone for the rest of the film.
Of course, they didn’t – the credits might as well end with the sound of pages being flipped, crew members desperately trying to find their place in the book. That’s a real shame. In trying to placate legions of fans who wanted to see a precise replica of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ work on screen, the filmmakers wound up tying their own hands. Instead of producing something extraordinary (hints of that in the opening credits and Dr. Manhattan’s monologue on Mars), they simply made a better than average movie.
… Not discounting some inexcusable mistakes, which I will now list:
– The movie completely undersold the Cold War threat that was always so present in the book, reducing a climax that hinges entirely on that constant feeling of dread… into something we could care less about. “Squid” or no “squid,” they dropped the ball.
– The movie glorifies violence in a way that contradicts the themes of the book. I was fully expecting this, but still disappointed that there was never much reflection on the character’s actions. Watching Rorschach cleave a murderer’s head open? Just sort of sickening, and it detracted from an otherwise important dramatic moment.
– And the makeup! So far as I know, this movie cost upwards of $200 million dollars – you couldn’t have bumped the makeup budget higher than $18.50? Where’s that Benjamin Button’s shit?
– And the music! Like DJ Steve, I was rooting for them to get it right the entire movie; that harmonic convergence, though, just never arrived. “All Along The Watchtower” as Rorschach and Nite Owl descend on Karnak? “Hallelujah” as two characters have KINKY SEX IN A FLYING SHIP? (That scene will never be anything less than totally ridiculous.) Oops, you should have fired your music supervisor.
– And the… You see how easy it is to complain?
At the end of the day, no – Watchmen is not a good movie. And Snyder was less than ideal to helm a character-driven movie when he’s clearly not so good with, you know, people. And the signature sex scene is unintentionally funny. (Three-peat!) But I give everyone involved in this film – from Snyder to Malin Akerman to the caterer – all the credit in the world for bringing this thing to life. You know what f*cking balls it took to make this happen? To get a major studio on board with a comic book movie that violates every rule of its genre? To motivate yourself to keep going when the book’s misanthropic prick author is ACTIVELY SPITTING VENOM AT YOUR PROJECT? Let ’em hang low, Snyder. Let ’em hang low.
Maybe my love of the underdog has clouded my judgment on this one, but I stand by my general opinion. Are you done with Watchmen? Or will you come back to it somewhere down the road, inspired to reevaluate the movie on its own terms? Decide as you please – I leave it entirely in your hands.