Friday, March 6, 2009
Now, so this review will have some larger historical context…
Watchmen a little over a year after its initial chapter was released in the fall of 1986. I read all 12 issues in pamphlet form in one go (as opposed to my usual “reading issues as they’re released, with that sweet, sweet one-month gap between installments”).
To say that the manner in which I regarded superheroes and comic books was forever radically altered by that mind-blowing first encounter would be a ridiculous understatement.
As Adam Rogers put it in his Wired article, “Filming the Unfilmable: Behind the Scenes of the Watchmen Movie”: After a lifelong diet of stories about garishly clad people with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, reading Watchmen changed the way I thought about comics. It was like a bar mitzvah—all my childhood stories acquired new significance and texture. It has been 20 years, and I've never read comics the same way since. None of us have.
So say we all.
Now, even as early as the initial stirrings of the protracted flirtation Hollywood has had with the piece, I’ve always had a bizarre mixture of apprehension and excitement at the prospect of seeing Watchmen in a live-action setting.
As with much of Moore’s comic work, Watchmen always seemed too complex and intricate and sprawling to be comfortably contained on the big screen, but when names like Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky would be mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen, well, the film geek in me would invariably squeal like a little Twilight-addled tween and try to distract the comic geek in me with promises of silver screen glory.
And just when it looked like Watchmen would continue to be “that notoriously unfilmable comic book,” in swoops Zack Snyder, who took David Hayter’s* reportedly 324-page draft (which updated the original 1980’s setting to the present-day) and, with the help of Alex Tse, did some major reconstruction, reinstating the Cold War backdrop, among other things, to give us the movie we have today.
So, after having blissfully lived in the shadow of Manhattan for some two decades, I’ve just seen the 2 hour 43 minute theatrical cut of Snyder’s Squidless adaptation, and the question of the moment is, So is it Watchmen, or has Hollywood skewered another perfectly fine comic book?
Well… it is Watchmen, and it isn’t.
I mean, we all knew the film wouldn’t be the comic, that it was virtually impossible to replicate that singular piece of art in an entirely different medium. Clearly, Watchmen was written as a comic book, it was meant specifically for that medium (as opposed to any number of more recent comic books which feel more like illustrated pitches meant for Hollywood bigwigs than anything else).
Perhaps the most ideal outcome would have been one of those cases where the movie isn’t the original work (whether comic or novel), but is equally stirring and effective, like a Silence of the Lambs or a Lord of the Rings trilogy.
And is that the case here?
Sadly, I’d have to say “No.”
But don’t get me wrong.
I love what Snyder’s done with the piece.
Do I love love it? Maybe not. But I do love it, and even if this isn’t the most ideal outcome, given its long development history (and its more recent legal entanglements), this is quite possibly the best Watchmen film adaptation we could have gotten.
And though that may sound like faint praise, I repeat: I love what Snyder’s done with the piece.
That initial sequence—which doesn’t exist in that form in the comic—and the opening credits, which effectively—and rather poignantly—compress key points in Watchmen’s alternate history (orchestrated to Nat “King” Cole and Bob Dylan, respectively), are just a couple of the bits that work in Snyder’s adaptation.**
Impressions of Snyder and his scriptwriters, taken from the original work and filtered through the elements of cinematic language, both general (the moving image, sound, music) and particular (much of the slow mo and ramping flourishes deployed in 300 are in attendance here), give rise to fresh and stimulating visions.
It’s when Snyder tries to cleave too closely to Watchmen, particularly Moore’s brilliant prose, that things get a tad sticky.
You would think though, given the truly astounding prose Moore employed in Watchmen, that the key to not screwing it up would be to take the words, not change a line, hell, not a punctuation mark, and you’d be good to go.
But part of the beauty of comics (as with film, in fact) is the interplay of word and image, and in shuffling around some of the prose, some sequences in the film don’t work quite as well as they do on the printed page; some of Rorschach’s journal bits suffer from this fate, having their visual context changed.
Certain key sequences also pale in comparison to their progenitors: Dr. Manhattan’s Mars reverie (an astonishing example of non-linear storytelling, and one of the comic’s stand-out issues), for one, is here reduced to a fraction of its former self, a pale, nearly listless spectre of the original, which was not only a crackling bit of narrative, but also filled in Manhattan’s pre-superpowered existence, and effectively painted his current experience of the temporal: that past, present, and future are all one, that this god-like being knows only a singular—yet all-encompassing—frame of reference: the Moment, where everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen, is Taking Place Right Now.
I really don’t think that comes across in the film, which then, of course, mutes by just that much, the overall effect the character of Dr. Manhattan should have on the audience.
The intercut sequence of Manhattan’s disastrous television interview and Dan and Laurie’s back-alley fight is also problematic, with the word-image interplay of the original skewed to accommodate the now-altered Manhattan section.
What we’re left with is a sequence that now seems to be intercut only because that’s the way it was done in the original, when, given the interests of the adaptation’s narrative rhythm, they may very well have been completely divorced, to arguably better effect.
But perhaps I’m bordering on nitpickery.
A more significant element of the film’s narrative that has me perplexed is the subplot used to replace the previously mentioned Squid.
Now, for the record, I love the Squid, but I also understand the nature of adaptation, and the need to change some narrative elements to better suit the medium into which the work is being translated (note the manner in which the look of the superhero costumes have been informed by the nearly two decades worth of evolution since Tim Burton’s Batman changed the rules of the cinematic spandex game).
Yes, I miss the Squid, but it’s what they’ve replaced it with that I’m not so certain about, the effectiveness of this new plot element in relation to the whole.
Actually, it may just be down to a few more moments at the tail end of the film’s third act, some lines here, some character bits there, just to properly flesh out the ramifications of said new plot element, which has some undeniable post-9/11 echoes.
(For those of you who haven’t read Watchmen, that previous passage will, in all likelihood, be meaningless, but frequent Iguana visitors will know I do my best to review films without spoilage. For those of you who’ve read Watchmen, you’ll know to what I refer.)
And I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as “It worked better in the comic.”
I mean, yeah, it—“it” being the Squid and all its narrative paraphernalia—probably does work better there, but this tack Snyder chose might have worked too, if there was a little more finesse used in the handling of it.
Which is, again, not to say that Snyder’s theatrical cut of Watchmen is without merit.
The cast of the film alone is commendable, in that none are household/tabloid names (and for someone who shuddered during that period of time when names like Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves were floated as serious contenders, believe you me, even with a few quibbles, I’m ecstatic with this line-up) who largely deliver the goods.***
I could point out Patrick Wilson (the first actor to be cast for the film, and who packed on the pounds for the role), or Matthew Goode (who’s gone from Match Point to The Lookout to this; wow!), or of course, Jackie Earle Haley (who has to act through the squidgy sock over his head, people), but that would take away from the likes of Billy Crudup (did we really see this as a possibility when he did his “I am a golden god!” bit in Almost Famous? I think not!) or Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who’s given the unenviable task of essaying the most unsympathetic lout of the costumed lot.
Nearly to a man (and woman), this cast fittingly embodies Moore and Gibbons’ cast of fractured heroes, and if they may seem perhaps “not exactly right,” I’d venture to say one should look elsewhere for the culprit.
It’s a paradox that for a medium that requires as active a participation as reading does, one has the luxury to linger, on a choice word or turn of phrase, or in the case of comic books, on particular details in the meticulously drawn panels as well, while in the passive medium of film, we are made to rush through the constantly moving stream of images without pause.
In film, we are only allowed to linger as much as the director (and his running time) allow us to. (Moore has also said something to this effect in the past.)
So, if Dan’s feeling of helplessness and impotence without his suit seems more potent in the comic, it’s not because Wilson—who so gets Dan Dreiberg—doesn’t capture the moment, I think, but rather that, in reading the comic, we’re allowed to linger, to savour that pain and taste of its ash, while in the film, it stays on the screen just long enough to register, but then is quickly pushed back, as another sequence comes on to keep up the movie’s narrative momentum so the audience doesn’t begin to squirm in their seats.
But that’s the nature of the beast.
Which brings me to this point: I may love Snyder’s Watchmen, but having seen what a 2 hour 43 minute running time does to the material, I think the only way to get closer to that ideal outcome I mentioned above, is to do Watchmen as one season of an HBO or Showtime series: 12 hour-long episodes.
An hour devoted to each issue. Even then, the material may still prove to be too complex, but that much more time affords the work a better chance to survive the process of adaptation, not so much intact, as true, to itself, and its original intent.
When all is said and done though, Snyder and company have done themselves proud. They’ve clearly brought Watchmen to the screen with a great amount of love and passion for the original comic, and as a humble fan of the work (and a massive live-action superhero nut), the best I can do is to thank them, one and all, and then to tell you, Go forth and, ahem, watch Watchmen, whether you have, or haven’t read the comic. (I am, actually, rather curious to hear what someone who’s never read the comic has to say about the film.)
And then, after you’ve watched the film, and if you haven’t read the comic, please do, because the film isn’t Watchmen, not really. The comic is. Borrow it from a comic geek friend, if you must, and read it.
Then see how it changes the way you look at superheroes and comic books… and quite possibly, comic book films as well…
* Hayter’s a minor personal god of mine. He may not be on my list of Best Screenwriters Out There, but he’s been Guyver, Solid Snake, and Captain America. In some circles, that’s way too much geek cred…
** There are also some other great musical moments in the film (the Comedian’s funeral, and Dan and Laurie’s first dinner, to name a couple), and great accompaniment to the end titles, courtesy of My Chemical Romance and the one and only Leonard Cohen.
*** Jude Law, I would have taken, gladly, as I would Kate Winslet, even if that had only been someone’s bit of wishful thinking so the Little Children reunion could be complete.
Parting shot: I’ve repeatedly stressed throughout this review that these are my thoughts on the film’s theatrical cut.
There will be two more subsequent cuts, both to be released on DVD, a 3 hour 10 minute cut (the version that Kevin Smith raved about, if I’m correct, and the version that Snyder had to trim down to reach the 2 hour plus cut the studio wanted for the theatres), and a 3 hour 25 minute cut, which integrates the animated Tales of the Black Freighter bits into the film itself.
The Tales of the Black Freighter (a vital thematic component in the comic’s narrative) is also being released separately as a DVD tie-in, which will also include the documentary based on Hollis Mason’s autobiography Under the Hood.
Also to be released on DVD is Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic, which is, I believe, basically the original comic, but with dialogue—done by actor/audiobook narrator Tom Stechschulte—and moving bits.
Now, aside from Under the Hood, it’s that intermediary Watchmen cut that I’m most curious about, how the viewing experience will be changed by those 27 minutes that ended up on the cutting room floor when the theatrical running time was brought into question. (I know a secondary character’s death—an emotional high point in the comic—is shown during those minutes, but what other bits are in there, I’ll have to wait and see; hopefully, that intermediary cut will bring us even closer to the ideal outcome.)
(Watchmen OS courtesy of cinematical.com; images courtesy of ew.com, latimes.com, nytimes.com, cinematical.com & io9.com.)