This review, for reasons quickly to become apparent, first appeared in 2009. I’m posting it now because my long-awaited Sucker Punch review is going up next.
NOT THAT INTO YOU, WATCHMEN.
Naw, I dug the Watchmen movie a fair amount, actually. I just saw the above mash-up title [He’s Just Not That Into You + Watchmen] on a marquee somewhere in Yonkers back around the time both movies were in theaters, and I had to finally share it. Unfortunately, it seems to accurately describe the opinions of a significant percentage of moviegoers and most of the fans of the Watchmen comic too. Today I want to talk about whether that’s fair, or whether people should give the movie another look.
The Watchmen Director’s Cut DVD is now among us, so this is a good time to start thinking about where this long-awaited, somewhat tepidly-received film adaptation of a universally-acknowledged comic book masterpiece fits in to the pantheon of comic book cinema. When the movie version of Watchmen was finally released a few months ago (22 years after the original 12-issue comic series), people fell over themselves to make public their earliest thoughts. I think the movie demands just a little more time to simmer. Personally, I at least had to wait to see Tales of The Black Freighter.
So now, at this point in time, I’ve seen Black Freighter on DVD twice, and Under The Hood once, and I’ve now seen around 9 hours of the filmed Watchmen. That means 3 trips to the movie theater (so far). By my estimation, 3 times is once more than Jackie Earle Haley, twice more than Billy Crudup’s [probably shocked] family, and thrice more than original comic series writer Alan Moore. Although I did enjoy it every time, I didn’t see it that often out of some insane love for the movie – it just works out that way sometimes. (Promised three separate groups of people I’d see it with them, didn’t mind the repeat trips, etc.)
But I’ve definitely had ample opportunity to give fair consideration to Watchmen, a movie that was widely-reported to be by its makers, and remains very obviously upon every viewing, a labor of love. It’s a thoughtful and intriguing interpretation of source material that was virtually impossible to approximate, and as such, of course it was unfairly and [usually] wrongly slammed from many quarters.
I think one of the big problems I observe with the world at large today, and certainly in the realm of pop culture, is that everybody needs to appear as if they know everything. The truth is that everybody does not know everything. Nobody knows everything, and almost everybody knows a whole lot less than they think they do. I’m no different. I have some inside knowledge on some things, but I’m no insider. I have some expertise in many things, but I’m no expert. I’m human. I change my mind sometimes. I’m wrong sometimes, and I try to admit it when I am. No matter how hard I try, I’m not perfect. But I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying REAL hard.
So you can take my opinion of Watchmen or you can leave it, but at least understand that I took plenty of time to think about it, and now, with all that said, here’s what I came up with:
Ultimately, I have come to agree that Watchmen was worth doing as a movie, but ultimately, I also believe that – and I don’t want to be the kind of prick who says this, but all the same – of course the book remains better than the movie. The difference between Watchmen the book and Watchmen the movie is that the book is unquestionably a masterpiece, and while the movie does its level best and usually succeeds, a masterpiece it ain’t quite.
Let’s look at all of the individual elements and how they add up:
- The opening credit sequence is likely some kind of a landmark. Its mixture of posed and moving elements, to the tune of “The Times They Are A’Changing” by Bob Dylan, set the stage perfectly.
- Arguably the best chapter of the book turns out to be definitively the best sequence of the film – the segment where Dr. Manhattan ditches Earth for Mars. It’s a marvel of storytelling and a thrill to see realized on film so perfectly [scored, edited, acted…]. It might be the single best reason to see the movie.
- About The Black Freighter: I had no problem at all with this parallel text from the comic being excised from the movie. I might eventually take a look at the cut of the film that re-integrates the Black Freighter footage out of curiosity, but I’m glad it wasn’t in the movie. Film and comics are often compatible, but they are very different media, and a running pirate sub-plot would have been insanely distracting within a filmed superhero movie. But how cool that they took the time and money to animate it anyway for fans to see! We’re lucky to be in the time of the DVD extras.
- The change made to the ending was an interesting solve, one which makes a ton of sense for the story, only… the movie entirely drops it once it’s introduced, otherwise sticking entirely to the original text and showing no new repercussions. Rorshach, Dr. Manhattan, everybody – all of the major characters react almost exactly as they did in the original script. I’m cool with the climactic change, I think it’s even a little bit great, but it should have had more of a ripple effect in the storyline than it did.
- The cinematography by Larry Fong set the right mood – dark and shadowy and frequently greenish, it instantly evokes the memory of so many 1980s sci-fi action movies.
- The score by Tyler Bates was a good fit – like so much else that was right about Watchmen, it was pitched somewhere between Blade Runner and The Dark Knight, which feels to me like the right sonic choice.
- The songs featured on the soundtrack, however, were occasionally distracting. Many of the choices seem to be geared towards some of the references from the chapter breaks in the book, but some are out of nowhere, distractingly out of time period, and [intentionally?] laughable. “The Sound Of Silence” playing at the Comedian’s funeral feels more like a joke that falls flat. Some of them work terrifically, though. I’ll be totally honest – I’m partial to any movie of this scale that plays Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” throughout its end credits. That song sounds like a perverted French aerobics video from 1983. It sounds like Ozymandias, having just conquered the world, now out on the town, in search of your unwilling butthole. Creepy and weird. And great.
Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II
All haters can go screw. She was fine. In fact, she was better than fine. She was fine in the acting sense, and in the other sense of fine, she was super-hot. Who could have played that role better? Kate Winslet? Don’t think so. The role of Silk Spectre calls for sex appeal, a smile that can draw dudes as diverse as Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl 2, a convincing physicality, some insecurity, and just a dash of naiveté. What about that did Malin Akerman not provide? She not only sold the part, but she brought the sex to it also. I love how some comic book fans refuse to admit that part of the history and the adolescent draw of superhero comics is the weird sexual fantasy aspect of it all. I wonder if the legions of droolers who went to see Transformers 2 cared about the convincing acting of Megan Fox. I wonder if everybody in the world who loved The Dark Knight were into it more because of Maggie Gylenhaal’s acting. I wonder if it would have hurt that movie to cast hotter. Actually, I argue it could only have helped. Weird sex has more to do with superheroes than anyone likes to talk about. That’s why Batman Returns is half a good movie, by the way. (The other half stars The Penguin.) It’s also the entire reason why Alan Moore originally wrote those scenes into Watchmen.
Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan
I’m definitely on the Billy Crudup bandwagon. I’ve seen the guy on stage and in a bunch of movies and it’s clear he’s a hugely talented and adventurous actor. As Dr. Manhattan, he’s convincingly otherworldly and detached, while strangely vulnerable and searching. He’s just right. And there, that’s an entire paragraph passed without any easy blue-balls jokes.
Matt Frewer as Moloch
Unexpectedly nice to see this M.I.A. 1980s character actor on screen again, and he gives one of the more believable, affecting performances in the entire magilla, even saddled as he is with rodent-like makeup and big fake ears.
Matthew Goode as Ozymandias
Very talented actor; probably miscast. Or at least, misdirected. This character is maybe THE major misstep Watchmen the movie makes. Matthew Goode can convincingly play a charismatic, intimidating, impossible-to-beat villain – see The Lookout for proof – but he doesn’t come off that way in Watchmen, which is a sizable issue. Here, he comes off like the world’s richest Prince fan. In the book, Rorshach makes a crack about Adrian’s possible homosexuality, a crack that the movie makes overt by having him have a folder on his hard drive labeled “Boys.” Problematic; particularly coming from the director of 300. I understand that they were going for the Alexander the Great parallel, but it’s totally unnecessary and a distracting divergence from the point of Ozymandias. In the alternate-universe re-cast, they could try to go with Paul Walker or the long-rumoured Jude Law. Again, no offense to Matthew Goode – I just don’t think the chemistry here was right.
Carla Gugino as Silk Spectre 1
The Carla Gugino bandwagon is another one I happily ride. She elevates every under-written role she takes, and legitimizes every inferior movie she makes. She’s a convincing actor with a subtle sense of humor and she’s also incredibly fun to look at. Perfect casting here; solid performance.
Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach
Speaking of perfect casting: Holy hell, what a face. Damn, do I ever wish that more interesting faces like this would get back into American movies. Not only that, but the guy’s scarily perfect as the un-pretty, inexplicably-lovable sociopathic vigilante. Everybody agrees that Jackie Earle Haley is amazing in Watchmen, and everybody is right. I’d love to write more about it, but there’s really not much more to say. The guy’s one-hundred percent.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian
This fella is totally right for his role too. For some reason, all discussions of Jeffrey Dean Morgan in this movie began with which other actors he supposedly resembles: Robert Downey Jr. multiplied by George Clooney, or an Americanized Javier Bardem, blah blah blah. That makes sense. That skewed resemblance to better-known leading man types, the way he suggests other actors we all like, actually really works to make this character work, as does the actor’s own charisma and talent. It’s a hard job he’s got here; to make a racist, rapist asshole compelling enough to hang a two-hour murder-mystery on, but he pulls it off, in my opinion.
Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II
I was initially skeptical of Patrick Wilson in this role, because I was probably confusing him with his callow Greek-god character from Little Children, and also I always looked at the comic-book Nite Owl as a much shlubbier nebbish than Patrick Wilson could ever portray. Despite the too-obvious athleticism, he turns out to be a solid choice for the part. He undercuts his action figure blandness with an appropriately convincing self-doubt and a sly sense of humor – it’s like Kevin Costner all over again (in his good roles, that is).
Robert Wisden as Richard Nixon
Misfire. Forgive my language, Mr. President, but that was some truly shitty Richard Nixon. Would it have been tough to get Frank Langella to fill the role? He’s all warmed up for it these days. On first glimpse of the leader of the Watchmen world, my cousin turned to me and said “he looks like Dan Aykroyd from Nothing But Trouble” and I entirely agreed. Actually, Dan Aykroyd coulda played a better Nixon. If you get the Nothing But Trouble reference, you figure that’s not what they were going for. In fact, most of the old-age makeup in general in Watchmen was less than great. (Guess Fincher hired out all the best makeup artists for Benjamin Button.) Bad Nixon is an unnecessary distraction, especially considering how close to the beginning the character first appears.
Danny Woodburn as Big Figure
I’m a big fan of Danny Woodburn, and not just from Seinfeld. I think he’s a good actor and I appreciate his resemblance to Billy Joel. Anybody who’s read my earlier pieces knows that I support the casting of little people in pivotal roles in huge-budget non-comedy pictures. But I feel like in this case, Big Figure is an element that was lost in translation from comic to film. In comics, little people are shorthand – Alan Moore could depict a gang boss who is also a little person because superhero comic book readers understand the reference to characters like the Penguin, etc., who could lead physically larger henchmen due to their intellect and superior cruelty. By contrast, film audiences, through no fault of their own (I blame hack comedies), are conditioned to laugh whenever a little person appears. And that’s exactly what happened in every audience I saw Watchmen with. While there is plenty of jet-black humor in the prison-break sequence, none of it is intended to be at the expense of Danny Woodburn’s stature. This is one place where the filmmakers could have (and probably should have) diverged from the text and cast Big Figure differently. The sequence really would have worked as intended if, say, Michael Clarke Duncan or Ron Perlman or Tommy Lister or The Rock were standing outside that cell, ominously stalking Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorshach. As it is, the jailbreak sequence, a highlight of the book, doesn’t hardly rock on film.
THE FINAL TALLY:
Everything’s good except Big Figure, Gay Ozymandias, and Bad Nixon. Everything else either surpasses expectations, or confirms them. By my math, that’s a success. The credit goes to Zack Snyder and his team for making the movie work as well as it does, and to the people at Warner Brothers who let him make the movie his way. It really was as good a Watchmen adaptation as anyone could have asked for. Personally, I never asked for it, didn’t feel it was necessary. But if it had to happen – and apparently it did – then it’s best that it went down this way. The flaws are significant enough that the movie still pales in comparison to the book, but then again, most things do. That’s how Watchmen, the movie, should stand in the estimation of comic book fans. I can’t say if it works for the laypeople, but it probably wasn’t made for them, honestly. Zack Snyder was really talking directly to fans of the original comic here, and the fans should be thankful. This one is.
P.S. Alan Moore, lighten up a little. This movie was intended as a compliment to you.
P.P.S. Dave Gibbons, you’re still TOO fresh. What a great artist – if only for the spotlight it has returned to the virtuosity of Dave Gibbons’ art, the Watchmen movie was a worthy experiment.