When Watchmen came out in the mid-Eighties, it revolutionized the comic book industry. It gave us an angle on “super heroes” that had practically never before been investigated. It had nuance, complexity, characterization, pacing, and, most of all, it utilized the comic book format and played to the strengths such a genre allows.
After hearing Zach Snyder had been attached to direct the long-in-development film version of Watchmen, I liked it. 300, another comic book adaptation, had style, charisma, and seemed to honor the source material while displaying the director’s indelible talent. In fact, I lauded Snyder’s first Watchmen trailer here:
and I offered him praise when he released the first images of his Watchmen characters here:
However, I cannot avoid the fact that while I felt certain I would love Snyder’s Watchmen, I simply found it too mired in detail, silly, and even a little boring.
Now, before you declare me Satan, allow me to explain.
Snyder’s version of Watchmen is nearly identical to the comic book in terms of story, dialogue, and framing. We’ve all heard how Watchmen creator Alan Moore detests the idea of his works being adapted to film, and Snyder made it clear from the beginning that he hoped his version of Watchmen would please Moore and remain true to the source material.
Well, it remained true to the source material in terms of nuts and bolts, but Snyder forgot one very important fact – the source material is a comic book. You see folks, comic books are very different from movies. First of all, comic books require a lot more effort on the part of the audience for obvious reasons. Secondly, pacing, illustrations, word balloons, and narrative boxes play a crucial role in the comic book format as well. They all come together to create an experience. Also, the Watchmen comic book spanned twelve issues and employed incredibly complex layering.
In other words, what works in the comic books doesn’t work in the movies when closely copied.
Consequently, my biggest disappointment in Watchmen is that Snyder mistakenly tried to remain so precisely true to the source material that he seemingly lost all sense of self in the process. Everything I loved about 300 disappeared in Watchmen. Other than the slow-motion fights, I saw nothing indicative of Snyder. It literally looked as though the Watchmen comic book had, in a way, come to life, but without the passion of Moore’s storytelling.
Initially, I was excited to see Snyder’s take on Watchmen. I didn’t expect nor want a frame-for-frame interpretation of the comic book. The comic book is a separate entity that can never be translated to film simply because of the medium for which it originated. I’d hoped Snyder would take the source material, bend it to his own sensibilities, then inspire his audience to give the book a try if they liked Snyder’s adaptation and thus discover the brilliant writing of Alan Moore. Instead, Snyder literally endeavored to transform sequential artwork and dialogue to film and lost his own unique talent in the approach.
And because of Snyder’s unrelenting efforts to remain true to the comic book version, I felt his film became too reliant on detail and back-story and thus became – dare I say it – a little boring. Remember, Moore peeled away later after layer of his intricate story over a span of twelve issues – the equivalent of twelve months. Snyder took all of that and crammed it into two and a half hours. Unless you were well versed in the comic book, I honestly have no idea how you could follow the film, much less enjoy it.
Furthermore, I felt the film, at times, just seemed a little silly. Remember, once again, in the comic book, you’ve got essentially one artist drawing the characters, the backgrounds, the settings, and so on. So, in effect, everything “fits.” Everything looks similar to a degree. In the film version of Watchmen, I’m afraid these characters looked very awkward next to each other. A movie featuring one of them alone? No problem. Putting them all together, especially when set against a very realistic world just looked a little goofy to me. Other silly aspects included the in-costume sex scenes, Kung-fu Rorschach, and Dr. Manhattan’s muscles-upon-muscles. I’ll get to Ozymandias in a moment …
Now here comes a slight spoiler: the lack of any “real” villain caused this film to get lost along the way. Yes, I realize it’s a murder-mystery, but, unlike the comic book, I didn’t feel the “clues” were well placed, nor did I believe the realization of who the “villain” was held enough impact. Again, what worked very well in the sequential art medium simply didn’t convert to film. A movie such as this needs to deliver a “villain” much sooner in the story. I felt the “mystery” of the Comedian’s murder got lost in the mix somehow, yet it was the driving force in the comic book.
And now let’s talk about Ozymandias. Once he arrived in costume near the end of the film, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was willing to give the outfit the benefit of the doubt in the early still photographs, but he just looked ridiculous when captured in movement. I felt like we were back to the Batman and Robin costumes – those sculpted, rubber muscles. The grim and gritty violence preceding his big scene were all but negated by the sheer buffoonery of his appearance. And don’t tell me he was supposed to look asinine. They could have stuck to the original costume with its flowing fabrics and gold if they were trying to accomplish that – and it would have reinforced his Egyptian and Alexander the Great motif. You can’t have graphic sex and people’s arms getting cut off on one hand and sculpted rubber muscle suits on the other. They simply can’t coexist.
That’s not to say that the film didn’t have its moments of victory. Jeffery Dean Morgan as the Comedian could not have been more perfect. His undeniable charisma when coupled with the Comedian’s savagery created a character that repulsed me, yet I loved him at the same time. He looked the part, acted the part, and I believed he was the Comedian.
Jackie Earle Haley also nailed it with Rorschach. His natural face and size went a long way to convincing me he was the iconic character, and his voice, body language, and general creepiness in the film scored big in my mind. And thank goodness they got his mask right. I could have watched a movie starring Rorschach alone and been very happy. Again, I felt Kung-fu Rorschach pushed it a little, but I can overlook that due to Haley’s magnificent interpretation.
I think we can all agree Dr. Manhattan had to be just right for this film to work. I’m afraid he wasn’t. Yes, the unnatural glow, the eyes, the particles surrounding him, his “powers” – those all came off wonderfully and seemingly broke new ground in special effects. However, his over-the-top muscular frame distracted me, and Billy Crudup’s tiny, tiny voice simply didn’t fit the character. I understand the importance of Dr. Manhattan lacking inflection and emotion in his words, but Crudup’s voice was so small, so earnest, that it just didn’t sound right coming out of Dr. Manhattan’s mouth. And let’s not argue that his “Arnold” physique represented his achieving “perfection,” because the juxtaposition of his frail, self-conscious voice served as to much of a clash for that defense to succeed.
Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl failed to move me one way or the other. In the comic book, his was the main connection to the human condition – he was the one who represented us all. In the movie, he simply didn’t matter. Instead of coming across as modest and reserved, Wilson gave us tepid and inconsequential. And when his halfhearted character suddenly became a bone-breaking machine it slammed the movie to a halt and felt “wrong” in every way conceivable.
Which brings us to the movie’s other star – Silk Spectre played by Malin Akerman. I’m not familiar with Ms. Akerman’s previous work (though I’m told I saw her in The Heartbreak Kid), but until these moviemakers start treating women in comic book movies as more than sex objects, I’m afraid actresses like Ms. Akerman won’t have much to work with – not that I’m convinced she could have done better even if given superior direction. (By the way, I realize the irony of asking moviemakers to treat comic book women as more than sex objects when most of the comic book industry is guilty of the same indiscretion, but I truly thought Moore presented a well-rounded, multifaceted character in Silk Spectre that was not adequately reflected in the film.)
As far as Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, well, he was apparently doomed from the beginning. Wrong look, wrong costume, wrong “vibe,” wrong everything.
Now let me commit the ultimate act of sacrilege by admitting that I actually liked the film’s version of Ozymandias’ critical act against humanity better than the tentacle monster of the comic book. Everything about the comic book worked in my mind, except for the monster. I always found it too clichéd and beneath Moore’s sophisticated imagination. I felt the film’s climax made more sense and I applaud Snyder for at least putting his stamp on the story in that regard.
So while Watchmen was well-made from a production standpoint, and while its special effects were incredible, and though it surpassed my expectations in regards to the Comedian and Rorschach, it failed to capture the passion of the source material and Snyder committed the one mistake that I said would doom Watchmen – he denied his own cinematic sensibilities and unique talents in favor of attempting to create a literal translation of a work that simply cannot be exactly translated to film.
Wow, that was thick and chewy. Well said.
We found the squid!
In Watchment, the basic premise of all movies was missing, storytelling! I was lost during the first ten minutes of the film. Also, from a marketing perspective, who was the film targeted to? It had graphic violence and sex, yet was based on a comic book. I wouldn’t bring kids to the film, nor any elderly folks or even some more immature teens…yet, based on the marketing, I think most people thought it was family fare. It’s a marketing nightmare! (People were walking out of the theater.) Also, unless you were really into the comic books, most didn’t know the background of the characters and couldnt relate because the “stage” was not clearly set. Oh well, I am a mere marketing schlep, what do I know about movie making!
I think you nailed quite a bit of the movie’s problems, Kurt!
Really good article. I think I agree with you on everything you wrote, and I hadn’t even thought about how Snyder sacrificed his own cinematic instincts in the effort to stick to an exact replication of the comic book – even though this is not possible – and I think that you’re right on. And Billy Crudup’s voice? Agreed.
Thanks, James. I’m glad you found my article favorable.