Watchmen: The Movie

I should start by saying that I don’t regard myself as in any way an expert on movies. I’m not here to talk about scene construction, editing, lighting or even acting. As a viewer I thought that Watchmen was a little long, but aside from that I’m going to talk almost entirely about the relationship between the movie and the original comic series.

I also hope that I don’t come over wholly negative. I don’t watch many movies, but seeing Watchmen was a reasonably enjoyable experience. I thought that V for Vendetta was a much more powerful movie, and I suspect I will also like Coraline a lot better. I wouldn’t put Watchmen in the same category as, say, City of Lost Children, or anything by Kurosawa, but at the same time I didn’t regard the few hours in the cinema as wasted and I will be buying the DVD when it comes out.

That said there are a few specific things that I particularly regret about the movie. Firstly I have already seen people complaining that the only LGBT characters in the movie are killed off in the opening credits. That’s Zack Snyder’s doing, or maybe Hollywood’s, not Alan Moore’s. In the comic gay rights is a recurring issue throughout the narrative. Yes, Silhouette is thrown out of the Minutemen and murdered, but the whole point of that was to make a “that was then, this is now” statement, not to simply write LGBT people out of the story the way that Snyder and/or his bosses have done.

Next up, the funeral of The Comedian is a gaping plot hole in the film. In the comic it is the clue that leads Detective Fine to crack the secret identity of Nite Owl. In the film the absence of that consequence is glaringly obvious. And finally, I regret the absence of the murder of Hollis Mason from the film, as it is one of the most poignant elements of the original story. However, once I have explained the real problem with the film, you’ll see why it vanished.

The real problem? Well yes, there is a reason why a whole bunch of people are unhappy with this movie, and it is nothing to do with the squid. Snyder has stuck slavishly to the original plot, and has used great heaps of the original dialog. The revised ending is, in some ways, an improvement, and it certainly no less believable than the original. If anything the film is too faithful. Rorschach’s dialog, in particular, is very clever when you see it written down and have time to reflect upon it, but appears horribly pretentious when you hear it live. The only bit that really works well is “you’re locked in here with me.”

So, not much in the way of changes, and yet fans of the comic are unhappy. Why? Because the movie manages to excise just about everything that is good about the original, leaving only the silly comic book story at its heart.

There are three things that are exceptional about Watchmen, the comic. The first is Moore’s mastery of the medium of the traditional 9-frame-page comic book format. That’s something that simply cannot be transferred to screen because it is a technical issue that applies only to comics. Even simple things like the way Moore cuts between the TV interview with Dr. Manhattan and the attempted mugging of Dan and Laurie can’t transfer to the screen. The second is the relationship between the Watchmen characters and the history of comics up to the point at which Watchmen was written. Movie goers will doubtless recognize something of Batman in Nite Owl, but how many will, for example, recognize elements of Nick Fury in The Comedian? And that’s not even going near the really subtle stuff such as the way that the relationship between Hector Godfrey and Seymour at the New Frontiersman riffs off the relationship between J. Jonah Jameson and Peter Parker.

The main glory of Watchmen, however, the thing that makes it a graphic novel and not just a comic book, is the way in which the story is set in the real world. In the comics, the textual sections, the interrelationship with the Tales of the Black Freighter comics, and the host of minor characters such as the comic book kid, the newspaper seller and Joey the dyke cab driver are essential to the narrative. We don’t see the murder of Hollis Mason because it is carried out by minor characters who have been excised from the movie, and also because it would be very hard for the movie to reproduce the cutting between Mason’s memories of his time as a crime fighter and his helplessness as an old man confronted by a mob that makes Moore’s original so powerful. In the film, because there is never enough time to transfer an entire novel to a movie, almost all of supporting material is lost, and we are left with nothing but a silly story about superheroes.

So yes, Snyder has produced a film that faithfully follows the story of Watchmen, but by taking it out of context and removing all of the extraneous detail he has eviscerated the original. It is like making a series of cartoon sketches of panels from the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel and showing it to someone who has never read the Bible. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad movie, because after all there are plenty of worse superhero films out there, but it does explain very clearly why Alan Moore claimed that his work was “unfilmable”.

I’d like to finish by giving the movie a bit of praise, because there were some parts that worked very well. Lots of people have remarked on the opening credits, and they are indeed very good. They are a part of the film in which Snyder felt free to tell the story in his own way rather than be shackled to the comic as storyboard and script. I also loved the costumes. In the original Dave Gibbons makes a brave stab at contrasting the amateurish look of the Minutemen costumes with the somewhat more modern Watchmen, but he is still stuck in the 1980s. The stark contrast between the Minutemen and Watchmen costumes in the film makes the same point in a much better way. The only complaint I have is that the original Comedian costume riffs off Captain America as well as Nick Fury, and the movie loses that reference.

The other thing that is really great about the movie is the soundtrack, and that is because if Watchmen is “about” anything it is not disillusionment with the superhero comic, but about using that disillusionment as a metaphor for the way in which the public attitude towards government and nationality changed between the 1950s and 1980s. (That’s one of the reasons it keeps riffing off themes about time.) Watchmen is, in many ways, a period piece, and I very much wish that I’d had a chance to interview some of the teenagers who saw the film with me to find out what they made of it. Personally I think that if you hadn’t lived through the 1960s and 1970s then the emotional impact of the story will be considerably lessened. I understood, and consequently I was able to enjoy the film. For younger people it may just be an historical curiosity.

9 thoughts on “Watchmen: The Movie

  1. I just saw Watchmen yesterday. I feel exactly the same you do. It was a good aesthetical experience, but it failed to excite me – it did make me read the graphic novel again, though, and at least that is a good thing it did to me.

  2. For me, the penultimate (mother/daughter) scene killed the movie for me.

    There were elements I liked, and Rohrschach was one of the brightest of them.

    I haven’t read the graphic novel, don’t intend to, and don’t intend to buy the movie — despite there being some really great moments in it — because the movie treated female characters so reprehensibly. I don’t know (or care) if the book did, frankly.

    I agree that the soundtrack is awesome. Using music from Koyaanisqatsi had that extra layer of cool to it (given what that movie was about, sort of a parallel in many ways).

  3. You missed a big one…Adrian/Ozymandias is suspected of being gay in the comic by Rorschach, in the film…he clearly is. We first see him with David Bowie, Jagger, the Village People!!! He has a file on his computer labeled “Boys”…the actor is more effete than he’s depicted in the comic. But my big gripe of both the comic AND the film…why are the baddies ALWAYS GAY!!! I’m so sick of evil gay villains!

    As for the temp track score…no no no no…using Phillip Glass does not give the film an extra layer of cool. Stealing the score from another film is not awesome. There’s no original score as such…and found music is a lame excuse for a score. Every song just tugged me out of the film.

    All of the above notwithstanding…I thought the film was remarkable. It certainly looked and felt right. I wish I could understand Rorschach better…I’m over the gravelly comic book hero voice…think DARK KNIGHT.

  4. I really disliked the way the costumed characters were made way tougher, cooler, superhuman for the film version. That was something the graphic novel got right. Except for Dr. Manhatten, and to a certain extent Ozymandias, these are all just dressed up vulnerable humans which the film ignores to remake the Matrix and a host of other films.

    Still better than nearly all other comic book movies.

  5. Nick:

    Totally with you on being sick of evil gay villains, though saying so has got me into very deep trouble in the past.

    Have to disagree about the music though. I thought some of the choices were superb. Then again, I’m a critic, I always outside looking in.

  6. Ha Cheryl…

    It gets me into trouble all the time too.

    I liked the music choices…the Simon and Garfunkel is appropriate and the Glass is great in Dr Manhattan’s scenes, but I have a thing about “temp” tracks, and an even bigger thing about a film using an original score from another film. If it had been original Glass, it would be a different story. I tend to agree with Quentin Tarantino’s philosophy in that if a film uses a song, then it belongs forever to that film.

    I think of the score as a film’s soul, and this film doesn’t seem to have it’s own…but a borrowed one.

  7. Nick:

    Fair point. As someone who generally doesn’t see more than one or two movies a year, the whole “song belongs to a film” thing really doesn’t impact me.

  8. I would agree that the film adds nothing to the original book. At its heart, this is a grade B film of a grade A book.

    There is too much depth to the book to be captured in a film. Perhaps a miniseries would have been better.

    I disliked the simplification and distortion of Rorschach’s character. Since the psychiatrist scenes were so truncated, the power was lost from Rorschach’s scariest line: “I don’t like you.”

    It was a shame that the movie lacks the pivotal scene when Rorschach traumatizes his landlady’s child just as he was traumatized as a child. It detracts from the character’s tragedy when you don’t see how, like many abused, Rorschach does not have the character or awareness to break the cycle of abuse.

    I also felt that, at the end of the movie, Rorschach was almost begging Manhattan to kill him. In the book, I found him to be more characteristically defiant and uncompromising.

    I’m glad I saw the movie. It had not have seen the trailer before the “Dark Knight,” I would never have read the book. Because of the film, probably another million people have bought the book. That’s the main value of the film in my opinion.

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