Friday, March 6, 2009
I Watches The Watchmen
I first read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen ages ago after first getting into Moore’s work through his legendary run on Swamp Thing. Like so many comic fans before me, I was utterly gripped by the deep sociological and philosophical strokes spread throughout the series. To me and many others, Watchmen is a benchmark for quality comic books, if not the benchmark.
And, like so many other people, I found Watchmen to be virtually unfilmable. Maybe if they made it into an HBO miniseries. Maybe if they let some nutjob make a 5 hour movie. Maybe if the skies parted and some genius figured out a way to make it palpable. It just didn’t seem like a reasonable expectation that anyone could make this thing into a popcorn movie. A bunch of people tried to do it. Scripts were written and thrown away. Directors were attached. But decades later, a Watchmen movie just seemed a ridiculous concept.
Eventually, Zach Snyder happened. His success directing 300 opened up the wallets and minds at Warner Bros and he was given full reign to take a stab at the impossible. His 300 was an interesting affair. He took a relatively slim tome (and, admittedly, not one of Frank Miller’s finest works) and expanded it into a full-blown popcorn movie. It wasn’t brilliant by any stretch of the imagination, but it worked. Even if you hated 300, at least it was interesting.
Thus, we arrive at a Watchmen movie. A real, live, breathing Watchmen movie. And, as expected, people are freaking out. It reminds me of a bit of the lead up to the Harry Potter or Lord Of The Rings movies. It’s sort of like, “you’re making my Watchmen into a movie? No way!” Readers of Watchmen have invested so much in the series. It really does belong to the fans in a lot of ways. So, what could Snyder do?
First off, Watchmen is a pretty decent movie, taken on it’s own merit. Is it condensed? Of course. The “Tales Of The Black Freighter” vignettes are completely excised in the film, relegated to an animated DVD. A few bits and pieces are changed. The ending has, essentially, the same thematic strokes, with some rather dramatic plot differences. A few characters come off a little underwritten. A few get new life.
So, what worked? I quite enjoyed Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach. The intensity was there, and I think he took a character that could have come off very, very poorly and made him a virtual screen legend. At the very least, the midnight screening audience loved him. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian was also quite vivid on the big screen. And what can I say about Billy Crudup as Doctor Manhattan? Instead of a larger than life God, we got a cold scientist losing his humanity. Doctor Manhattan could have been severely misplayed, but Crudup kept things really in control.
I was also quite thrilled that they stuck to the “alternative US history” of the book. The film takes place in 1985, in an alternate America where Richard Nixon has been elected to a third term in office. The temporal touches were there and appreciated.
What didn’t work? I thought the “condensed soup” version of the character back stories worked for quite a few characters, The Comedian in particular. But Ozymandias suffers in this scenario. It’s hard to quite get a grasp on his character when he gets so little screen time and explanation. His motivations become a bit foggy on screen without the character details from the book.
Ultimately, I did quite enjoy Watchmen as a film. Of course it isn’t as good as the book. It simply never could be. Maybe it helps to think of it as Zach Snyder’s Watchmen, and not Alan Moore’s. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever seen, but I definitely want to see it again. At the very least, for people who’ve never read Watchmen, it’s going to serve as an idea of how different a comic book movie can be, compared to the usual superhero fare.