10th March 2009
I had decided not to write about the Watchmen movie, partly because I’m the kind of Watchmen fan that many of you will dislike, in that I only read the original comics a few months ago.
Does that mean I love the story any less than you? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t really care, because I found myself giddy with anticipation for this film, and I know the details enough to care deeply about it. Anyway, I decided to blast through my thoughts on the film version to help me understand whether I actually liked it or not. As you’ll discover, I’m still not sure.
Figure 1: Jackie Earle Haley plays Rorschach.
I’m not a comic book geek, and I’m not going to pretend I read the original 12 comics when I was thirteen years old. I didn’t, as I was not that “cool”. I loved the celluloid and tv-cartoon superheroes, and I did collect comics, but not Marvel, DC or anything “cool”. I collected Battle (Action Force), Warlord and other gritty war comics. I also had some odd Star Wars adaptations and bizarrely a lot of Hanna Barbera stuff. Darker, more interesting stuff like Watchmen was not on my radar, nor that of my friends, and I hadn’t even heard of it until two years ago.
My colleague Greg however knows his shit, and has not only introduced me to the incredible work of Joe Sacco, but also the cooler, grittier Batman comics, such as The Killing Joke, and Alan Moore classics like V For Vendetta, From Hell, and other comics or graphic novels that I only knew through hit and miss film adaptations.
Anyway, I finally purchased Watchmen last year, and read it within four days (another “no-no”, as most will tell me I should have read one chapter a month etc - yeah, whatever). I’d never encountered such a mesmerising, brooding, thoughtful, twisted comic that span my head around in so many directions, or held my gaze across panels that I’d revisit continuously throughout my time with the book. This epic comic lived up to all expectations. What a fantastic piece of work.
So, you can imagine my excitement as the massively-hyped movie trailers began to appear over the last six or seven months. Sure, my time with the Watchmen is more brief than that of many of you, but still, I found myself itching to see Zack Snyder‘s film of the unfilmable film. Deciding I couldn’t wait one more day, I booked tickets for the team to go see the earliest Nottingham showing, full of anticipation, a nervous Greg and an excitable Malarkey in tow.
I reckon the movie is two-thirds brilliant, one-third ill-judged, or even awful. I’m still not sure exactly what theose thirds are made up of. Its not as though the last third is naff, or if all the music is great etc. I guess I’m content to be quite lazy about my exact views until I watch it again and with less giddy excitement.
When this film succeeds with its adaptation, it does it with incredible, unexpected brilliance. I’m not concerned that some think its a too literal translation of the comic, and its a joy to revel in Snyder’s meticulous attention to detail as he recreates key passages. You want to pause the film and just stare at it sometimes. My favourite set-pieces included the gathering of the Minutemen, Blake doing the deed in Dallas, and anything involving Rorschach.
Figure 2: The Minutemen
Sometimes (but not always) the use of music is superb. Not everyone will agree, but the opening credits with Dylan’s The Times They are A-Changing, and Blake’s funeral soundtracked by Simon and Garfunkel made for scenes very reminiscent of their respective eras. I’m not sure why The Sound of Silence makes sense as an anthem of the Cold War, but it does to me.
The biggest success as far as I’m concerned is the way Rorschach has been brought to the screen. Everything, from the voice to the costume, to his short and stocky build, and especially (incredibly) when unmasked as Walter Kovacs, is a triumph. Whilst I wasn’t too keen on the chopping off of arms, most of Rorschach’s violence was, I suppose, justified, and (I admit) brilliantly brought to the big screen. Dogs gnawing at children’s bones though. Yikes. I could have done with a lot more Rorschach - maybe 2 hours and 30 minutes of his story alone would have been a more ambitious but achievable proposition.
I also enjoyed the back-story between the original Silk Spectre and The Comedian. Much of what makes Watchmen successful is the intertwining past of the latter-day masks with the original Minutemen, plus the influence of politics, the Keene Act and that mass of everything else going on. Must be a mind-fuck for anyone who hasn’t read the comics.
When it fails, it fails massively. Krudup’s Dr. Manhattan is way too soppy for my liking. He’s got a lot on his mind of course, but blimey, did he have to be that boring? It got worse when the Doc and Silk Spectre were fannying around on Mars. This is some of the most thought-provoking and engaging storytelling in the comics - but even in that medium it got a bit long-winded. With the film, I couldn’t wait to get off Mars. Stylistically it was brilliant, but would have benefitted from snappier editing, or just a basic overview of what they did up there.
Ozymandias is too important a character to be played by some long-lost relative of Niles Crane. I did not like him one bit. I suppose that’s the point with that character, but even so. I was also disappointed by the lack of reference to the Black Freighter storyline (though I knew that wouldn’t be there) and the doom-mongering news vendor, and the alternative ending removed the need to say anything about missing writers, islands and giant squid. To be fair, Snyder did an OK job with the apocalypse stuff. It made a lot more sense on film.
The utterly unforgiveable juxtaposition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and awkward, space-ship-based shiny sex still makes me feel like I’m an arse for even caring about this movie. One dreadful scene like that can leave a bad taste that no amount of real ale (you can drink in our local cinema) can wash away. This scene was the equivalent of the faux-Tarzan shit that marked the point where Indiana Jones #4 lost all integrity and became a Carry On film. Did the production team honestly sit back and view that scene and think “Wow, we’ve done something incredible there.”? Shite as a bag of dead mice.
Figure 3: Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
I could moan about much more, but I’ll leave it there. I heard somebody say that Watchmen would have been better if it’d been a 12-part HBO series, and that’s possibly true. It certainly needs more time, room to breath, and better opportunity for changes in pace. That said, whilst still probably an unfilmable story, this is a pretty remarkable stab at it. Many of course, would rather no “stab” had been made at all.
Like I said up top, I’m a recent convert to Alan Moore‘s stuff, so I dare say I’m not best qualified to declare the movie a triumph. That’s just as well, as it isn’t a triumph. What it is is a stunning, terrificly entertaining, deep and satisfying movie that does not tarnish the original comics. It does something new with them, but I’m still not sure what.
I’d argue that the original comics are still by far the best way of experiencing the story, but I’ll admit that I simply cannot wait to watch two-thirds of this movie all over again. At least one of those at the cinema with me, would rather saw their own leg off than watch it again, so I’ll let you decide,
Decent write up mate - it’s probably better for me to read others’ opinions about films like this, rather than trying to talk about them.
A part of me wants to see it again, to give it another chance, but another part is telling me a second viewing will only cement my disappointment. Oddly enough, this is the only Moore comic-film conversion that I was actually pissed off about. League of Gents was so bad it was funny, V For’s concept remained intact and was stylish enough to be entertaining, and From Hell was so wildly different from the book that it turned out to be a decent enough whodunnit.
As I think you said earlier today in the office, Watchmen tried too hard to follow the comic books, and as a result (especially so considering the vast difference between the two types of media) I thought the whole focus/pace/use of plot was awkward and in many places boring.
On a lighter note,I think maybe I would have preferred a feature length version of this.
“Silk Sceptre”? That’s a whole other comic, surely? Think you mean “Silk Spectre”, mate. Nice review.
# Simon Collison responded on 10th March 2009 with...
Greg: Yeah, we agree on a lot I think. Definitely some boring bits in that composite third of the movie that I don’t like. I too am now thinking that if Snyder had the balls to change the ending and chop big bits out, why not divert even more and make the film something different? Never mind. I’ll lend you the DVD anyway.
FullCreamMilkMan: D’oh! I knew I’d blow my cool and make a glaring error. Twat twat twat. I had to edit it to avoid attracting any further dents. Good call.
I’m pretty much like you mate, only just discovered Watchmen on a recommendation last year. My point of view was that the movie was a good companion to the film, and looks fantastic, but it wasn’t the film I expected.
That being said, the people I saw it with hadn’t read the book and aren’t comic book fans, but they really enjoyed it.
That hallelujah sex scene was a travesty, it seemed like they put that in there just because they could get away with it. And the way they changed the ending slightly really miffed me.
Great write up!
Great review! As you, I only read the comic recently (after the trailers started airing). I actually liked the way they tried to stay as close as possible to the comicbook version. About the new ending: This made a lot more sense than the giant squid version.
Why didn’t you write anything about Dr. Manhattan’s blue lightsaber? He looked very realistically, but in all seriousness: No way it dangles like that!
# John responded on 10th March 2009 with...
I’m sick of rabid fanboys saying that my opinion is not valid because I only read the graphic novel in the last year. Bollocks to that.
I never read the comics and this movie was my introduction to The Watchmen. That being said, I liked the movie.
However, I disagree with the space ship sex scene being a travesty. Yes, it could have been shorter and not so dragged out, but this movie and comics are about melding fantasy with real life. As we get older sex scenes are perhaps a bit over rated and unneeded, yet they do add that bit of obtainable realism.
The initial seduction scene between Laurie and Daniel was pivotal to the relationship building of them. What made the Hallelujah scene important was the symbolic consummation between Silk Spectre & Nite Owl.
As unrealistic as most of the comic and movie may be, it shows us that no matter what happens in life, there will always be true emotional achievements and very unforgiving and unfulfilled lives.
Nevertheless, thank you Simon for your write up.
# Simon Collison responded on 11th March 2009 with...
William Lawrence: I’m a fan of many movies that blur our reality, and I agree about the importance of the seduction scene - I’m all for a bit of celluloid sex and “symbolic consummation” - and the scene served to lighten the dark mood of the movie at a time when the audience needs a break.
Still, I thought that whole sex scene was bloody awful, and that’s almost entirely down to the decision to use Cohen’s Hallelujah - a great song of course, but pretty much used purely because Snyder must have giggled at the “...remember when I moved in you” suggestive lyrics. That song is about much more than just sex.
He got two song choices so, so right (as I described in the review), so why he was so misguided as to use Hallelujah and All Along The Watchtower in the ways he did is very disappointing. I mean it - something that simple can ruin a movie for me. Just my opinion.
# Simon Collison responded on 11th March 2009 with...
Tim Van Damme: Mine dangles a bit like that. I guess the longer it is, the more it dangles like the Doc’s does. Never mind, mate.
Look at the Minutemen photo (2nd pic in post)
Is it just me or is the guy on the far right kinda racist looking? Im just saying…
Simon dont worry I never heard of The Watchmen until the movie hype machine started up. And I used to comics when I was younger….
That was a thoughtful review and you made several excellent points.
Unlike you, we did read the comics back in the 80’s. My kids were in middle school then and well into comics, Dungeons & Dragons, and everything Atari or Nintendo.
I think today we are so cavalier about all things space in the movies and on TV. But back in the 80’s it was all a very exciting new frontier. I think the movie would have been well received back then as cutting edge, but now we are all so jaded and judgmental that it disappoints. It’s disheartening sometimes.
Just thought I’d share the perspective of an older fan.
# Billy Bovanich responded on 16th March 2009 with...
I think your summary of “2/3 good, 1/3 bad” is right on!
I never read the book, and went out of my way to not learn anything before seeing the movie. I was blown away by how cool it was at first, but then there were those parts where it was just embarrassing. Several people with younger kids walked out, and while you can blame the parents for bad judgement taking their kids to see it - something is wrong if you go to see a “comic book” movie and it ends up being borderline soft-core porn.
# Simon Collison responded on 16th March 2009 with...
Jillian: I agree that we’re collectively a much more expectant, difficult to please audience these days. Bit of a shame really, as many are still more than happy to bang on about how great those old B-movies are, yet they’re even more ridiculous.
Billy Bovanich: What?! People were taking “younger children” to see the film? Stupid thick people. They should have more sense, and its a Certificate 18 anyway.
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