We're All About Coulda, Not Shoulda
Watchmen / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | March 6, 2009 | Comments ()
Adapting a comic book into a film — not just a character or group of them, like Batman or the X-Men, but a full-on book — is a confusing thing. Comics are already a visual medium, and though their beats and styles differ from movies, they are both still ways to tell a story that rely on what the reader/viewer sees. Saying a comic book would make a good movie is like saying a newspaper article would make a good magazine feature; yeah, okay, sure, but wouldn’t that be just a little redundant? How this all relates to Watchmen will only really be known with time. Director Zack Snyder, in only his third feature, has confirmed that he’s a filmmaker obsessed with detail at the expense of emotion, and while that worked pretty well for 300 — based on Frank Miller’s slick but flat graphic novel — it doesn’t always jibe with Watchmen. The comic book from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was remarkable for its depth and nuance of character, and any film version must out of necessity excise whole chunks of psychological development in order to come up with something that plays like a feature. Working from a script by David Hayter (X-Men, X2) and Alex Tse, Snyder is devoted to the source material, creating the most fastidious and loyal re-creation possible, but he’s also hampered by the fact that no amount of love for the book can make it a good movie, and in fact the closer it stays to the original, the less cinematic it becomes. As adaptations go, Snyder has created an often beautiful pop opera, a soaring and visually stunning series of images that are capable of striking a chord. But as for making a cohesive, flowing narrative that stands as its own film and not a live mimic of a comic, Snyder comes up short.
The film opens with the murder of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an aging superhero long since retired. It’s 1985, Nixon has been reelected several times after American victory in Vietnam, and professional heroes have been outlawed. The Comedian is watching TV when an assailant breaks into his apartment, at which point they have the typically bone-crunching fight you’d expect from Snyder that results in the Comedian being tossed out his window, dying when he hits the pavement. Snyder’s study of the source material is evident from the beginning, right down to the details on the Comedian’s ratty robe, but he’s also still endeared of the gimmick he overplayed in 300 where action will suddenly slip into slow-motion before snapping back to real time. He’s attempting to create visual pauses in the film that ape the way a reader is allowed to study details in comics, but it comes off as half-hearted when the rest of the scene is allowed to pass in a blur. The best part of the film’s opening, actually, is the credit sequence that manages to beautifully sum up the backstory of the Watchmen universe, tracing the rise and fall of the heroes of the 1940s, bleeding into the alternate history of the nation, and finally winding up with the resurrected Watchmen themselves in the 1970s. Snyder assembles a series of living pictures that elliptically fill in the blanks, and the sequence is set against Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” in a way that underscored Snyder’s background in music videos. There’s a real beauty and tragedy to the sequence that, more than anything else that follows, gets at the heart of the sense of loss that Snyder is trying to capture, that sense that the old days were better than these. The rest of the film wanders onward and never manages to drive home the emotion of the opening.
The Comedian’s death kicks off the main plot when his murder is investigated by Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a hero living outside the law who wears a mask with constantly changing inkblot patterns. Rorschach is somewhere between criminally insane and just really motivated in his mission, and he was created to show just one of many different possible moral compasses to which people could adhere; Moore, rather than offer a parable, mixed together characters with disparate belief systems, each flawed but redeemable, in order to create a more densely layered story. But Snyder’s film makes both too much and too little of Rorschach’s ruthlessness, content to portray him as a slightly wacko guy who loves to break people’s fingers on the road to what he perceives to be justice. Rorschach believes that someone is intentionally killing superheroes, so he sets out to warn the remaining Watchmen: Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), revered as the smartest man alive, whose hero persona was Ozymandias and who’s now turned to private enterprise; Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), formerly the Nite Owl, who goes about his lonely life afraid of success and failure alike; and Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), aka Silk Spectre, and Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup), aka Dr. Manhattan, still doing contract work for the government. Dr. Manhattan is the only one of the group with actual superpowers, having been turned blue and iridescent in an atomic blast that made him indestructible, allowed to perceive the past and future simultaneously, and teleport himself and others anywhere he wants. The bulk of the graphic novel’s plot, summarized for the film, involves the relationship between the drifting members of the former crimefighting group and the imminent nuclear war between the U.S.S.R. and the United States.
Key to the novel’s complexity is the way it examines the lives of the heroes and digs at what made them decide to put on silly costumes and capture bad guys in the first place, as well as the plaguing question of what it means to live a moral life when the very definitions of morality are being stripped from the world. Snyder makes a brave attempt to capture this on film, and in moments examining the characters’ individual backstories, he comes closer than anyone could have imagined at creating tiny glimpses into their motivations. But it’s that tangential nature to the story that makes it such a good book and weak film. Snyder is almost fetishistically faithful to the source material, going so far as to maintain the feeling (if not literal demarcation) of chapters in the story. And some of the scenes with Dr. Manhattan manage to convey the damning isolation of free will that haunts the character and the book. But while Snyder stumbles upon compelling moments — Osterman’s narration of his life, death, and resurrection is so well done that the effects never detract from the heartbreak — he never maintains momentum, losing his way in the transitions from one part of the story to the next. And at a running time of 163 minutes, Snyder definitely needs to know how to handle himself. “Epic” should carry with it grandeur of impact, not just length.
The film roams from plot point to plot point as Rorschach’s investigation of the Comedian’s murder brings him closer to the truth, while Dan and Laurie find themselves working together again and suiting up to save their part of the world. Snyder and company have definitely cast for look over skill in many cases, because while Wilson is good at being charming and nerdy, Akerman is often painfully wooden in a role that should help anchor the main narrative. (Her mother, Sally Jupiter, is played with equal camp by Carla Gugino; whether the hiring of two bad actresses with similarly clumsy styles of delivery was a fluke or amazingly high-concept is something we’ll never know.) This is also where Snyder’s film makes a rare diversion from the book that nevertheless harms the movie even more. We’re meant to believe that Laurie is the grown-up daughter of an old woman, and that Dan has gained weight and gone soft since hanging up his cowl, but there is no way Wilson and Akerman are anything other than beautiful people, both several years younger than their comic book counterparts, looking more like heroes in their prime than alter egos long past it. Wilson at least has legitimate theater and film credits to his name, but Akerman launched her career by going topless in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. If this is the vehicle meant to showcase her dramatic range, she’s going to have to wait.
Of his seminal work, Moore said, “I didn’t design it to show off the similarities between cinema and comics, which are there but in my opinion are fairly unremarkable. It was designed to show off the things that comics could do that cinema and literature couldn’t.” Snyder isn’t the first filmmaker to see this as a challenge, but because he’s the one who brought the film to fruition, he’ll have to be the one held responsible for failing to ask the larger question: not whether Watchmen can be filmed but whether it should be adapted in the first place. The graphic novel is rightly considered on the best ever written — it ranked on Time magazine’s 100 best novels of the 20th century — and as such a film version can only ever be that: an emotionally abridged take on a story already told. Snyder’s film is a technical marvel that’s nevertheless cold and somehow unapproachable, as if the characters’ sense of being alone in the face of the apocalypse bled into Snyder himself and tainted his work. It’s sadly ironic that Snyder was so devoted to a story that deals in part with global superpowers’ decision to annihilate each other that he never stopped to think of the consequences of making a movie that can’t survive or be fully explained without its source novel while at the same time losing whatever in that source was special. Snyder wants to save the village, but he just winds up destroying it.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.