Here it goes. I love the original Watchmen graphic novel. But it has some problems. It really does. And Zack Snyder’s film, while flawed, manages to fix many of the source material’s more obvious problems.
I’ve come at this whole thing from a different perspective. While some fans of the graphic novel have been waiting for 22 years to see this movie, I haven’t. I first learned about the novel from Shep who is an insane die-hard fan (find his review HERE). By this time, images were already popping out and the movie looked cool. I figured maybe I should stay totally uninitiated with this one…just come at it from a complete outsider’s perspective.
But as all my friends read the novel and talked about it at-length, sometimes threatening to spoil key plot points, I caved. I picked up Alan Moore’s Watchmen around Christmas and read it in a couple of days. I loved it. I loved the ideas. I love that the ending (SPOILER) renders who we thought of as our heroes impotent. I love what it says about pragmatism versus morality, and I adore the idea that good intentions can lead to a worse world. This is a novel of ideas, about philosophies, and concerned with tearing apart political institutions. While many “comic books” may have stopped with “nuclear war is bad,” Alan Moore had the balls to say, “yeah, but is there something worse? And does it really matter, anyway?”
But the novel, as I said, had some flaws when it came to the narrative. If you are uninitiated, this might be a good time to stop reading, but I feel like most of you already know the basic Watchmen story. The big squid monster always rubbed me the wrong way. I realize it was a bit of a sendup of sci-fi comics, but in the novel it felt somewhat forced and, even in the heightened reality of this world, unrealistic.
I also had a huge problem with Veidt. He didn’t seem to have anything to do in the novel except wait around to reveal his true plans. As such, I saw his “villainy” (or heroism, depending on who you ask) coming a mile away. If he wasn’t behind these attacks, there was no need for him to even be in the novel. It was frustratingly sloppy storytelling.
Now, as I said before, Zack Snyder’s film fixes some of these key problems. Is it better than the book? Hell no. Not really. It is, as would be expected from a big-budget Hollywood film, a lot more mainstream and action oriented. It’s a lot more fun, and a lot more funny.
I’ll start with how Snyder attacked the above problems with the novel. (SPOILERS!) By excising the squid and replacing that MacGuffin with a series of explosions containing Dr. Manhattan’s power signature, Snyder kills two birds with one stone. First, the big climax feels organic. It now centers around the characters we have spent over two hours getting to know. Dr. Manhattan becomes central to the plot instead of being just an innocent bystander who has to be alienated for Veidt’s plan to work. Also, it gives Veidt a central role in the rest of the movie as he is actively working with Dr. Manhattan to replicate Manhattan’s energy signature. So he’s around, he talks about his plans, and it makes the story more cohesive. Besides, Manhattan just makes more sense as a common enemy than a “giant alien squid monster.” Half the world is already afraid of him…Veidt just taps into that.
Okay, so we’ve gotten the specifics out of the way. What about the film as a whole? Well, it is something that I wholeheartedly didn’t expect, and that is why I think it’s getting a lot of bad press. It’s not the overly dark and brooding socio-political satire of the novel. It’s a superhero movie (GASP!).
These characters don’t have any overt superpowers, just like Snyder’s warriors in 300 were supposed to be ordinary men. Both worlds, though, are different, and the characters are more strong, fast, and dextrous than we can expect any human to be. They take more punishment. In this world these are simply individuals who dressed up as costumed heroes, but they’re like Batman in that they have gadgets and training and the ability to make themselves something more than a man in a mask. It’s not realistic, but it’s also not the real world. Snyder has created a full-on comic book world much more detached from reality than Moore’s original novel. And this world is bloodier, more action-packed, and more fun. Snyder’s film doesn’t take itself quite as seriously as the novel. When I realized this, I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank God. This is going to be a lot of fun.”
Things that are 100% serious in the novel are played in a more funny way, like Dreiberg’s impotence and Rorschach’s penchant for over-the-top violence. The action in the movie is extended and stylized, allowing audiences to get more hopped up on adrenaline than they would reading the novel. I’m convinced this is an approach Alan Moore would hate (if he ever deigned to see the film, which he won’t), but I think it was the only way to make this material work. By stylizing this reality and not taking itself too seriously, the movie allows itself to be entertaining and non-competitive with the brilliance of the novel–all without losing the thematic elements inherent in the source material.
It reminds me, honestly, of what Gus VanSant did with the universally panned Psycho remake. His question was this: if you make a movie shot for shot like the original but direct it to your own sensibilities, will it be the same film? His movie was an unmitigated (but interesting) failure. Here, Snyder stays insanely faithful to almost every frame of the graphic novel, but takes liberties to connect the frames. He puts his own spin on how scenes should be played, and the result is a film that is at once wildly faithful and completely its own work.
From the first moment of The Comedian watching television, we understand that this is different from the graphic novel. Historical figures are caricatures, violence is over-the-top, and locations truly reflect the hyper-realism of an alternate 1985.
The movie isn’t all a success. Carla Gugino’s aging Sally Jupiter takes the comic-book-goofy element too far, pulling us out of the movie, and her daughter (played by Malin Akerman) has some very awkward acting moments. Also, Veidt is played with the mannerisms, speech patterns and dialogue of a weaselly evil genius from frame one, undercutting the “all-American” tortured hero character from the novel that I found so interesting.
These flaws, though, are offset by great performances by Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, and, most strikingly, Jackie Earle Haley whose emotionally starved and violent Rorschach must go down as one of the screen’s most interesting and well-played anti-heroes.
Overall, I feel like a lot of those giving this movie negative reviews are either taken aback by its length and complicated plot or are upset that Snyder allowed himself to work the material into a more fun-loving tone. I think it works great. In fact, it might have been the only way to make such a dense and dark novel work on screen. Here’s hoping this one makes several truckloads of money so Hollywood will continue to adapt source material that is interesting, challenging, and fun.