watching watchmen

Mon Mar-23rd-2009 // Filed under: Celluloid,Word Balloons

I first read Watchmen when I was a kid. I’m not quite sure how old I was — probably somewhere around 13 or 14 or so, so it was around 1990. One of my best friends, a fellow comics geek, got me the trade paperback as a birthday present. It pretty much blew my mind… even if I didn’t quite get it, at first.

The language barrier was a part of it; at that age, my English was getting pretty good, but Watchmen didn’t make it easy on my vocabulary. More importantly, though, I was a kid, and it was Watchmen. That’s a kind of a challenging combination — a lot of the American politics, for example, went right over my head at that time. But I got the gist of the story, and as I read it over and over again — and I don’t want you to think that Watchmen was somehow special in that, actually, because that was the way I read all of my comics back then — I got more and more out of it as I got less stupid over time.

Also, there was a blue guy with his dick hanging out, which was an obvious bonus. An early lifetime of reading European comics ensured that this certainly wasn’t my first penis sighting on the printed page, but even so, I was a kid reading a superhero comic with a nekkid blue guy in it. You bet it left an impression. I still read it once or twice a year, because not only is it a great story, its storytelling techniques are groundbreaking, something that you couldn’t really do in any other form.

Anyway, they were talking about the movie even back then. I remember reading a Sam Hamm interview at the time, in which he discussed it — he wrote Tim Burton’s Batman, and he also did a Watchmen screenplay. I was kind of excited, because I loved the Burton movie, even though parts of it rubbed me the wrong way — not that I was articulate enough to say why, back in the day.

The Silver Screen Then and Now

Hamm’s screenplay was never produced, of course, and it’s not a great loss; it had a couple of moments, but it wasn’t a very good adaptation, and it really went in a whole new direction. (See for yourself, if you like.) That’s no surprise; this was back in 1989, and what Hamm did was kind of representative of the way superhero films had been made to date and would continue to be made for another decade or so — very much Hollywoodized, paying lip service to the original, and commissioned by people who had little understanding of or even interest in what made the original tick.

It’s only now that the new superhero movies have made it a point to respect and utilize the original material and recognize the elements in it that turned those properties into enduring hits in the first place, and subsequently make a shitload of money that the attitudes have obviously changed. In the current Hollywood climate, it appears that the urge is no longer to change things a lot to make the original property work as a movie, but rather to find and preserve the core of the original property.

And whatever else you dislike about the movie adaptation of Watchmen, it’s hard to deny that it goes to great lengths to respect the source material. Sure, there are a few changes, but that’s no surprise. Anyway, I don’t have a problem with adaptations changing things. I know there’s the hardcore comics nerd tendency to go into conniptions over Spider-Man’s organic web-shooters or something, but there’s a difference between changing details and changing the spirit of the original property.

(Uh, spoilers ahead!)

Therefore, I don’t really have a problem with the way they changed the story’s ending to involve a faked attack by Dr. Manhattan rather than a faked huge alien tentacle vagina monster. If anything, I thought that was a really, really clever way of cutting a huge chunk of what would have been unavoidable and very heavy exposition from the storyline without sacrificing the core concept of Ozymandias’ plan. (Probably made it a little more believable to the mainstream audience, too — not that I really care a lot about that.) Most of the changes are in the same vein.

But the biggest problem with this is that, well, Zack Snyder just isn’t a particularly visionary director, the film poster’s claim to the contrary notwithstanding. He’s all style and no substance; he clearly has a lot of love and respect for the source material, and he follows it as closely as anyone could be expected to, but I don’t think he understands it very well.

These People Aren’t Really Cool

Stylistically, the movie is a far cry from the original work. I think one of the movie’s biggest failures is that it makes everyone way too slick and cool. When Nite Owl breaks Rorschach out of prison in the movie, for example, he’s kicking fifty kinds of ass and looking like some kind of a demi-god. In the original story, he’s a paunchy guy in an ill-fitting costume, he disables most of the opposition with sonics and generally pulls this whole thing off by taking full advantage of his experience and the surrounding chaos. Dan and Laurie are shown punching out two guys during the entire break-in, and those guys aren’t even resisting.

In other words, the prison break doesn’t succeed because Dan and Laurie are so tough and cool and pose a lot, it succeeds because they’re competent and smart. And that’s the difference between the movie and the original book in a nutshell, really.

Likewise, when Dan and Laurie fight the punks in the alley, it’s a pretty short and brutal affair in the comic — they’re fighting hard and fast, and when it’s over, they’re completely out of breath and have to lean on each other for support, or they’d fall down — they couldn’t have kept on fighting for much longer. The point is this: it wasn’t a situation where they encounter a bunch of street criminals and easily fuck them up. Instead, they almost got killed. They’re good, sure, but they’re only human. And I realize that may be kind of disingenuous and perhaps even a little dumb, when they’re still doing superheroic things, but that’s precisely the point of Watchmen — it’s a deconstruction of the superhero genre, after all.

In the movie, it’s just another slick fight. It’s a well-choreographed scene, more graphic than the one in the comic, and also one with a higher body count. And sure, Dan and Laurie are a little flustered at the end, but if three more guys were to charge at them, there’s no question how it would end. The purpose of this scene is to demonstrate how good they are at kicking ass.

After they’ve had their way too long and embarrassingly plastic-looking sex scene aboard the Owlship, Dan’s a new man. “Yeah, it’s dangerous to spring Rorschach, but it’ll also be fun!” seems to be the attitude he’s sporting now. Which is an approximation of what he’s like in the comic, but again, it seems that Snyder doesn’t quite get the point. It’s not that now Dan is fun and cool again, it’s that he’s just come out of the closet. In his original words: “I feel so confident, it’s like I’m on fire. And all the mask killers, all the wars in the world, they’re just cases — problems to solve.” There’s a drive in Dan that he’s denied because he’s scared of it, and now he’s accepted it and going with it.

It’s a passion, but Snyder really doesn’t do passion, so he settles for something less. “Now this guy is ready to kick some ass again! Woo!”

Miss on the Bullet Catch

Another example, and perhaps the one that best illustrates the point: the bullet catch. They set that up in Rorschach’s narration earlier in the movie, and while that gets the job done, it doesn’t really convey the fact that Ozymandias isn’t like these other guys — he’s not superhuman as such, but he’s not just another guy in a costume, either. The other characters are far closer to normal humans — skilled, brave and lucky, sure, but they aren’t ninjas.

In the original story, it goes a little differently. Adrian is explaining his plot, and has just revealed that he’s already completed it. Rorschach is enraged by it, but Dan isn’t buying it. He starts to argue against it: “Rorschach, he’s kidding you. His story, it’s full of holes. Adrian, your assassination attempt. You couldn’t have planned it! What if he’d shot you first instead of your secretary?”

And Adrian answers, deadpan, “I suppose I’d just have had to catch the bullet, wouldn’t I?”

And Dan goes, “You…? Nahh. Come on. That’s completely… you couldn’t really do that?”

And Adrian just smiles a little.

In his original notes, Alan Moore describes Adrian Veidt as “a perfectly evolved man who takes human capability to its most extreme limit”. In the film, his gauntlet is armored. In the original Watchmen, Ozzy catches the bullet with his bare hand. It’s impossible, sure, but that’s the point of the character; he has just averted World War III, and catching the bullet is a kind of a symbolic exclamation point that accentuates that feat. He really is on another level than these guys, and he demonstrates it in undeniable and concrete terms.

In the film, everyone is already so hyper-competent that Veidt’s no longer amazing — he’s just another guy in a costume, pulling off nifty circus tricks. There’s no contrast, and thus the distinction is lost. In the film, it’s not so much that Veidt is physically and mentally completely superior to the others, it’s just that it’s his turn to win the choreographed fight sequences. That distinction may be subtle, but it’s telling.

Low on Substance, Plenty of Wang

I could go on and on, but I’m kind of whining about details here, I know. Still, this same pattern is evident throughout the film. The original work has a lot of pretty interesting social and political commentary, for example, and that’s a part of what makes it an important work. In the movie, most of that is ignored — we see some pretty exaggerated Tricky Dick make-up, but the significance of having him as a president is pretty much lost. In general, Snyder works in a lot of cameos, but again, there’s no substance to them — in his version, Arthur “Weegee” Fellig took the famous Minutemen photo, but so what? Does that serve any purpose other than giving people the opportunity to go, “oh, I caught that! Woo! And there’s David Bowie in the background! Woo!”

I’m not trying to say that the movie completely sucks, either. It’s just that it strikes me as a missed opportunity, because the movie got so much right — it wouldn’t have taken that much work to make it a really good adaptation. To me, it disproved the idea that you can’t film Watchmen, because it’s too complex. I think the movie hit most of the important story points well enough, and while the end result was an uneven mess a lot of the time, I think a more competent storyteller would’ve been able to organize the content in a way that would’ve had a much better flow without significantly impacting the movie’s running time.

And, honestly, despite all this complaining, I think the movie hit a lot of notes really well. As far as the acting goes, Rorschach — arguably the most difficult character in the story to do well — was just about perfect. In general, I thought the cast was okay; I’m pretty sure the character direction was kind of, uh, Snyderized, so I’m not sure it’s fair to judge them too harshly. I mean, you act with what you’re given.

And Archie was awesome. (Although again — the original version had water cannons for dealing with fires, because that’s a practical thing to have. This version had, uh, miniguns for shooting water towers. Snyderized! Woo!)

The wonderful credit sequence was perhaps the best single part of the movie, and in general I liked the way they portrayed the previous generation — that alone makes me interested in the DVD release.

And, hey, it had the blue wang — although for some reason, they had to make it much, much bigger than it is in the comic.

That kind of sums up the adaptation, really.


  1. Hmm, although I really really liked the movie, it felt a bit hollow – in here you summed up the reason for that pretty well.

    The fight in the alleyway bugged me the most. Too slick & superhero, compared to the original. You really didn’t get the feeling if these guys are supposed to be costumed ordinary people or do they have some genuine superpowers & the current mix in the movie didn’t really work.

    The alterations to the plot itself were pretty brilliantly done. The revamped ending made a much neater package in modern context, plus it was in keeping with the times. The threats to world peace don’t seem to be external, but kind of internal and non obvious, a move from The Evil Empire to, say, terrorists.

    Comment by Janos — March 23, 2009 @ 1237819659

  2. Good points and a wonderful deconstruction of the movie. I tried to really like the movie, but although I managed to enjoy it, as Janos put it, it left me also feeling hollow.

    The one thing that bugged me the most was Dr. Manhattan. While the history sequence of the character had all the right events in it, they made no sense together. The whole “at all times at the same time” element was almost completely missing.

    In the comic you really get that he is totally uniquely alien and almost god-like. In Snyder’s version he just has these cool powers that are shown just for reason of showing what he can do.

    On an tangential note, it would be interesting to read a separate post on which super-hero movies in your view have succeeded. On top of my head I can only name X-Men 2, Iron Man and The Dark Knight nailing the material near-perfectly.

    Comment by Henri — March 23, 2009 @ 1237824002

  3. That’s another post, yeah, and it’s one I’d like to write, but we’ll see if I ever get around to it.

    In short, though: those three, sure. I mean, I’m a grumpy motherfucker, I can complain about all of them, no problem, but on the whole? I was smiling when I came out of the theater. Spider-Man 2 was great (and the first one wasn’t bad, either). The first Superman film hit a lot of the right notes, especially when you put it in the context of the era. The Incredibles — but that wasn’t an adaptation, of course. Umm, what else? Unbreakable was surprisingly good (and just about the last good M. Night Shyamalan film), although of course that wasn’t an adaptation, either. Oh, and the Bruce Timm animated film, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker was pretty damn awesome. (Heath Ledger was a great Joker, but before that, I’d have paid fucking good money to see Mark Hamill drop a bit of weight, magically lose ten years and play the Joker. I don’t know if he could pull it off on screen, but the voice? He’s got it down cold.)

    Comment by Mikki — March 23, 2009 @ 1237827624

  4. you totally summed up everything that left me hollow at movies. I love the comic and the film was so good – but..I just felt hollow. detached. and it was exactly for those reasons. It’s great to have friends with such exellent taste and skillful writing. :-)

    everyones been saying how “bold” and untraditional hero Dan is and I’ve been like wtf? he is sooo sleeked up in the film!!! he like…does roundhouse kicks and stuff. ;-)

    that aint the Dan I read about. :-)

    like Teemu said in his comment this is one of the first films that sort of made me hope they had done it even worse. That way I could have hated it. ;-)

    Comment by Sarrig — March 23, 2009 @ 1237832232

  5. I agree with you and . Snyder has tried to be faithful to the comic, but clearly did not understand what it was about. It’s a rather annoying movie experience, because he keeps getting these small things wrong one scene after another, and the comic is built from these small details, not the big plot.

    Comment by Syksy — March 24, 2009 @ 1237936100

  6. The previous post should read (shall we agree here and now that I’ll never try to write html into your blog again?):

    I agree with you and Exile,

    Snyder has tried to be faithful to the comic, but clearly did not understand what it was about. It’s a rather annoying movie experience, because he keeps getting these small things wrong one scene after another, and the comic is built from these small things, not the overall plot.

    Comment by Syksy — March 24, 2009 @ 1237936214

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