Watchmen Film Straddles Fine Line Between Loyalty, Heresy, Hope

The greatest comic book ever written has finally made the leap to Hollyweird. But will Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece receive the cinematic justice it deserves? Or will it just get served? I pondered the film for a coverage blitz on Wired. Here is the first salvo.

One could call bringing Watchmen to the big screen a thankless job. In finally adapting the greatest comic ever written, director Zack Snyder has triumphed under pressure where true visionaries like Darren Aronofsky and Terry Gilliam have failed. He has successfully turned Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ brilliant comics mini-series into a must-see movie for every Watchmen fanboy in the land.

If only it were that simple.

As a devoted fan of the comic and its writer, it is hard for me to call Watchmen a great film. Caught between its loyalty to the source material and a desire to carve out its own legend, the R-rated epic is a bloody mess with its still-beating heart in the right place. But its head isn’t in the game, unless that game is all about marketing blitzes, product tie-ins and raking in Dumpsters full of cash. If those are the stakes, then it’s game over: Snyder has locked down the championship win.

Turning Watchmen into a fan-pleasing film was undeniably a daunting task. It could be argued that no one could make a movie that would live up to the comics’ dense, metafictional, intertextual triumph, which effectively deconstructed the superhero genre through its tapestry of flawed characters and bold political themes.

Films are simply too small to do justice to Moore’s detailed world of costumed crime-fighters, social unrest and Cold War paranoia. Characters like Dr. Manhattan (played by Billy Crudup, pictured), a blue superhuman who manipulates time and space at will, defy cinematic treatment.

When it comes to fan reaction, Watchmen disciples can be nurtured by loyalties to their sacred text, just as they can be angered by the slightest changes. Snyder’s movie contains more than a few deviations from the beloved original, and the alterations and additions straitjacket the film’s ostensible purpose — to honor the comic — and dumb it down for a modern movie-going audience that seems to have fallen in love with torture porn.

The first, and most obvious, change is the ending, which has been altered from a faked alien apocalypse to a faked Dr. Manhattan assault on Earth’s power centers like New York, Moscow and so on. Fair enough: After the attacks of 9/11, it takes more than the devastation of New York to work up a 21st-century crowd. Even Watchmen’s author would probably concede this point. Moore said as much in a 2004 interview: “I’ve heard some people who were apparently in New York during 9/11 say that it felt like the last episode of Watchmen, that they were expecting some giant alien jellyfish to turn up in the middle of it all. Because it all felt staged somehow.”

Much has been made of the movie’s missing squid, but Snyder’s changes in less spectacular scenes do more damage than the altered ending. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, pictured), the hard-edged detective with the shape-shifting mask, suffers the worst.

His psychiatric evaluations with the doomed Dr. Malcolm Long fly by like lightning, and leave as much of a trace. Whereas Snyder gives The Comedian’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) back story plenty of screen time, replicating the comic and its panels almost literally in many scenes, Rorschach’s origin story is glossed over all too quickly or, worse, invented. Instead of having Rorschach handcuff 6-year-old Blair Roche’s murderer to the scene of his crime before torching the place, a pivotal moment in the character’s transition, Snyder has him dispatch the killer in a horrifically violent way. The show-off misses the point of Rorschach, and dehumanizes the character beyond what Moore exhibited in the comic.

Conversely, Snyder gives Rorschach too much humanity in other scenes. During his psych evaluation, he breaks into a half-smile or a sneer when painful memories arise. In the comics, the shrink notes that Rorschach’s dispassionate stare creeps him out most: Without his mask, what Rorschach calls his “face,” the vigilante is an emotionless void. That should have remained.

Instead, Rorschach is turned by the film’s momentum into a monster, a move that somewhat negates the unjust bloodlust of The Comedian (pictured), which is explored earlier in the film. A paid political assassin who shoots a woman pregnant with his child, The Comedian emerges from Snyder’s Watchmen an accidental human compared to Rorschach.

Further deviations ripple through the film, diluting its impact. Rorschach’s abusive mother gets mere seconds of flashback, although perhaps that is because Snyder cast his own son Eli as a young Walter Kovacs. (Man, that could leave a mark.)

Ozymandias is transformed from the comics’ adored paragon of humanity to the movie’s defiant whistleblower. In an extraneous, added scene, captains of the fossil-fuel industry heckle Ozymandias about his hopes for an oil-free future, before a faked attempt on his life. (And it is not his secretary who takes a bullet for him in the movie, but famed auto executive Lee Iaccoca.)

Such minor tweaks have a tendency to annoy as much as tickle. A post-catastrophe scene featuring a plug-in vehicle is a nod to the comic’s mention of an electrified future, but it narrows the scope of the graphic novel’s sociopolitical nuclear dystopia, which is what inspired Ozymandias to fry Earth in the first place.

Same goes for the character in general, who is lamely photographed in front of Studio 54 with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger in the film’s opening sequence. From that opener to the revelations of what he calls his “master stroke” of destruction, the film’s Ozymandias (played by Matthew Goode, pictured) is, literally and metaphorically, too thin to pull off the comic’s more statuesque vision of the scheming superhero.

Snyder peppers his film with cultural allusions just as Moore did his comic. Some are great and some are just too convenient. The McLaughlin Group’s moronic roundtable on nuclear war is hilarous, as is Nixon’s war room, which is directly lifted from Stanley Kubrick’s immortal Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The insertion of Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'” and The Road Warrior are similarly fun, but instigate much easier Easter egg hunts than the ones Moore and Gibbons created.

It is obvious that Synder reveres the comic; if he didn’t, Dr. Manhattan’s blue penis wouldn’t be visible for much of his time on screen. (That takes, literally, balls to pull off.) Manhattan himself is a triumph of CGI and compassion, easily the most sympathetic character of the bunch in the film, just as in the comic. While his alienation on Mars is shorter in Snyder’s hands, it is still, as in the comic, a wonderful respite from the total mess of humanity.

But humanity is what Snyder’s Watchmen needs. Moore had many ways to infuse his characters and story with it, from metafictional biography excerpts from Hollis Mason’s Under the Hood to subnarratives like Tales From the Black Freighter (the pirate story that was utterly excised from the movie but will show up as a stand-alone DVD and possibly be spliced into a director’s cut).

Snyder pushes, ironically enough, in the opposite direction in his R-rated movie, leaning heavily on gore and excess in ways that Moore and Gibbons did not. In the process, the film too easily becomes a horror spectacle rather than a social text, more Dawn of the Dead than Dr. Strangelove.

The Watchmen film is shot through with deviations that seem calculated to connect with an audience of diminished intelligence, whether those viewers have read the comic or not. Perhaps we are dumber than we were when Moore and Gibbons first created Watchmen, and deserve such a fate.

To be fair, Snyder has, with his ambitious version of Watchmen, laid waste to every previous film built upon Moore’s work: From the rancid The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to the too-pretty V for Vendetta and the underwhelming From Hell, the comics writer should be able to sue Hollywood for dumbing down his brilliant stories. No matter how much venom he feels like spitting on Snyder’s Watchmen, it would be fair to say that he probably shouldn’t. Snyder did the best job that he could.

That does not make Snyder a visionary, as trumpeted by the movie’s marketing, but rather the right guy in the right place at the right time. Where Aronofsky and Gilliam have failed, he has brought to the screen an adaptation that overreaches, often violently, as much as it honors its source material. For that, he should be congratulated.

Sure, Watchmen is two-and-a-half hours of homage that too often lapses into camp and whose main theses are lost in gory translation, and time likely will not treat the movie as well as it has the comic. But if it brings more people to Moore and Gibbons’ original, then mission accomplished.

This review appeared at WIRED

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