Friday, March 6, 2009

Watchmen

I saw this movie Friday afternoon with my girlfriend Shannon. Shannon has never read the original comic (or any comic, for all I know), and while she enjoyed the movie, she had a lot of questions... many of which I couldn't answer.

"So what exactly happened at the end?"

Um... I couldn't really answer that. I told her the truth, that the ending in the comic made almost no sense, while the ending in the film made completely no sense. I was going to tell her about how the comic ended with an genetically engineered squid that was teleported into New York City to... but I didn't, for the same reason I'm not going to talk about it here. The less said about the ending of Watchmen (and the over all story structure, for that matter), the better.

"So did they blow up New York or not? Because they showed it at the end and it looked fine."

Yeah, that confused me too. I mean, if you're going to blow up New York, blow up New York, at least show some kind of lasting impact. Don't end with the main character's midtown brownstone looking completely intact and none the worse for wear.

But we both liked it.

As a comic book, Watchmen was a vexing piece of work, at times brilliant and at times maddening. In my opinion, it's neither the unparalleled work of brilliance that some have claimed, nor is it exactly overrated as well. What it is is an epic, convoluted, comic book mini series that spanned the length of 12 issues, some of which were brilliant, and some of which... were not.

In that respect, the new film by Zack Snyder is stunningly faithful, capturing both the moments of brilliance from the comic and the same problems with the overall storyline, though it also contains its own unique strengths and weaknesses as well.

Let's talk about the strengths first:

To being with, this is a Watchmen movie. That might sound silly... of course it's a Watchmen film, you're saying. That's the title, for pete's sake!... but let me explain myself. You can put George Clooney in a rubber cowl with horns, but that doesn't mean you actually made a Batman film. You can have Tobey Maguire jumb around and shoot webs from his wrists, but that doens't mean you made a Spider-Man film. Most comic book adapations take a familiar name from the comics, a few similar details, comparable powers, and a similar costume (though sometimes not) and splap it on the screen and that's that.

But Watchmen is Watchmen. It isn't just a film containing similar characters to the comic, it's the same story, with the same tone, look, and feel. That's a good thing and a bad thing, as I said, since the overall story from the comic has too many structural weaknesses intrinsic to the overall plot, but I still appreciate the fact that they made the attempt. And, in their defense, they made an attempt to fix some of the story problems from the comic, but we'll get to that later.

Visually, this film is incredible, and on par with the comic. Many of the scenes and visuals are ripped straight from the pages of the comic, and it looks awesome. While Snyder's direction couldn't quite match the masterful pacing of comic artist Dave Gibbons, he did an admirable job taking the book and making it look nearly identical on the big screen. Unlike Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City, Snyder's takes visual cues and moments from the comic, but doesn't attempt to translate the entire comic panel by panel and word for word. While I liked Sin City, it felt static and wooden while Watchmen is actually able to breathe. This film couldn't have looked better, in my opinion, and it's almost worth watching just for the cinematography alone.

The casting was also great, even though it was filled with some relatively unknown actors.

Jackie Earle Haley was best known, to me at least, as #3, Kelly Leak from the original Bad News Bears, so it came as no surprise that he could play a total badass better than anybody. He was amazing. Rorschach is one of the best, most interesting characters from any comic book, and it was portrayed perfectly here, with Haley giving stealing every scene he was in, even though he had a thick mask on for 99% of the time. I just wish he had driving his motorcycle around on the baseball diamond at least once.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan was already well known to geeks like me as the dad from Supernatural. Morgan's rare appearances on that show were always exciting and usually let the viewer know something crazy was about to go down. When I heard he was cast as the Comedian, I was floored, and he didn't let me down at all. Another perfect casting choice that brought the characters from the comic to life.

And everybody else was pretty good to ok. I really liked the guy who played Dan Dreiberg, but he came off as more likable and sympathetic in the comic, or at least as more of an everyman. They made him into too much of a superhero here, but the actor who played him was very good. The guy who played Ozymandius wasn't as bad as you'll here from some other reviewers, but his performance was still a bit odd, and he came off as creepy and alienating when he should have seemed kind and intelligent. But the actress who played Laurie was incredible, at least in the looks department. Where did this Malin Akerman come from and how come I've never heard of her before? Those bangs were killer. And her acting was fine.

While I've read a lot of negative things about the film's soundtrack, I thought it was fine. In fact, I thought it was quite good in most places. The opening montage played to "The Times They Are A-Changing" was brilliant and set the mood for the rest of the film perfectly. In fact, the film probably never quite topped that sequence, but that's ok. Some people have criticized the use of "Hallelujah" during the sex scene, but I didn't mind it. I thought it was fine.

So what didn't work?

Well... the overall story, just like the comic, just doesn't work and completely falls apart at the end. But, to a certain extent, that's ok, since the murder mystery is little more than a pointless macguffin used to deconsturct the medium and take a closer look at these characters. So you can't fault the film or the comic for having a denoument that makes no sense, because it was all about the journey and not the destination. But, having said that, it's a flaw that is ok for the comic, because it was so long and told in individual issues that worked well on their own if not when put together as a whole, but the film didn't have that luxory. If a film tells a murder mystery, it damn well better wrap it up in a way that makes sense and doens't leave the audience confused. This film failed on that account.

I defy most viewers who haven't read the comic to tell me why the Comedian was killed, what his killer was actually attempting to do, or why anything in the denoument made sense at all.

Snyder looked at the ending of the comic and, quite rightly, realized that it was deeply flawed, unsatisfactory, and completely illogical. But his solution wasn't to come up with a better, well set up ending that would satisfy the viewers... he came up with an ending that was just as absurd (if not more so) and still left everybody confused an unhappy.

Or was it just me?

Also, what was with those fight scenes? Considering how perfectly Snyder managed to capture the overall tone and feel of the comic, why did he go so over the top with the action sequences? Don't get me wrong, a lot of them were very, very cool and well done, but they still took the viewer too far out of the film. The opening fight was awesome, and worked because it showed the brutality and stubborness of the Comedian, and the over the top violence let the viewer know they'd better look out. This ain't exactly Spider-Man you're about to watch.

But the scene where Dan and Laurie got attacked by some thugs in the alley and they flew around in slow motion and ripped people's limbs apart? That just made no sense. These aren't superheroes. They're people playing at being masked vigilantes. They can't fly. They don't have superhuman strength. They shouldn't be ripping a guy's arm in half. That scene was just moronic. The jailbreak scene was better, though it was still too much. It would've worked better had the first scene in the alley been more realistic while the fight with them in costume been more stylized, but as it was, the alley scene was even more over the top.

And don't get me started on the fight scene at the end. Would anybody who hasn't read the comic book watch that scene and be expected to understand that none of these comic book characters actually have superpowers? Especially considering how one character managed to stiop a bullet in midair, which was perfectly set up in the comic, but not so much here. In the film, it just looked stupid.

Consistency of tone was also a major problem for the film, perhaps because it tried to emulate the comic a little too much. As I said, the comic was a huge story that spanned 12 issues, but it didn't just contain pictures and word ballons. It had prose stories, entries from a a fictional autobiography, stories from a comic book within the comic book, business reports about new perfumes, and much more. It didn't all work, and I skip most of that stuff whenever I reread it, but it just shows writer Alan Moore's incredible attention to detail and attempt to show what could be in a comic that no other medium could do.

So when Dr Manhattan when to Mars and the film suddenly slowed down for 15 minutes to show his origin, complete with his dispassionate, clinical narration, it just didn't work. It was a very cool scene, but it was too far removed from everything else in the movie. Watchmen #4 was the best, single issue of a comic book I've ever read. More than that, it's one of the best short stories I've ever read from any medium. And while this segment did an admirable job trying to adapt it to the screen, it just went to show how much better the story worked as a comic. The narration just didn't work, nor did the quick cuts though time, the juxtapostion of images, or the overall feel of the scene.

And why show a character's origin if you're not actually going to attempt to explain it or give it any real significance?

And that's really the film's main flaw: It's a Cliffnotes version of Watchmen, with all of the big scenes told in loving detail, but forgetting the little details that actually lended support and weight and character development.

But I liked it.

3 comments:

Justin Garrett Blum said...

I've never really had a problem with the ending to Watchmen--even the giant squid ending. The point was that in order for humans to put away the petty, ideological differences that were bringing them to the brink of nuclear holocaust, they required an outside threat to put everything into perspective. Whether you buy into that is up to you, but I think Moore's intention was always pretty obvious. Even if you didn't pick it up along the way, Ozymandias is nice enough to spell it out for you in the climax.

I disagree with something you've said here; specifically, when you say that the ending in the film made even less sense than the ending from the comic book. I think you've got that reversed. Making Manhattan the scapegoat was actually a pretty brilliant change that didn't require compromising anything from the original story while at the same time being, by yards, an easier story to swallow than the notion of some Lovecraftian tentacled monstrosity arriving from somewhere out of time and space and immediately dying with a wave of psychic destruction.

I do agree, however, that it was confusing to see New York apparently utterly destroyed without following through on the scope of that destruction.

Justin Garrett Blum said...

Ah, I thought that the post I initially read didn't seem finished, so I checked back, and sure enough, you added a lot more.

I actually do agree with a lot of what you've said. I hold the original work in much higher regard than you seem to, but on the flaws in the film, they were all, for the most part, flaws that I identified, as well.

You've made an astute point when you point out that structurally, the series had the luxury of arriving at what some people might perceive to be a lackluster or confusing denouement, because it was written, in a way, so that each individual installment almost functioned on its own as a little vignette within this larger plot. That sort of pacing would have been impossible in a live action adaptation short of producing this as a miniseries rather than a feature-length film. And yes, it's poorer for the fact that it's compelled to arrive at the same strange ending without the benefit of the more perfect and often tonally different installments.

I did enjoy the Manhattan origin story, though. That has always been a highlight for me from the series, and I enjoyed the way it was brought into the film. Though I've seen a few other people making a criticism similar to yours, I just don't agree. I thought it was great where it was, and it's crucial to understanding the character.

Anyway, I wouldn't go so far as to say this was Cliff's Notes, but as I said on your Facebook page, I did want it to be longer so that they could have brought in some of the supporting players and maybe fleshed out Silk Spectre's character (I didn't think the film demonstrated enough her resentment at being groomed for the role of Silk Spectre by her mother, who wanted to live vicariously through her). Also, I wouldn't have minded if the script belabored the relationship with the Comedian just a little bit more to give more impact to the scene where she has her revelation.

Anyway, this is the first movie in a long time that I actually want to see again, though, and that must say something.

sds said...

In the book, the threat Adrian created was extraterrestrial, causing the entire world to come together in peace to fight the perceived threat. In the book, he framed a superhero who was always the symbol of America's might and world power.

I'm not sure it's believable that the world would come together in peace to fight off an American, even if we claimed he had gone rogue and destroyed NYC.

But I dunno. Neither ending satisfied me. But I think the book's ending annoyed me more because, overall, the series had more brilliant high points that countered the lackluster ending.