There’s a scene in Watchmen, the graphic novel “co-created and illustrated by Dave Gibbons”, where we learn just where the sociopathic vigilante Rorschach obtained the fabric for his ever-changing black-and-white mask. He speaks fondly of the material, perhaps the only time we hear him do so of anything : “Black and white. Moving. Changing shape… but not mixing. No gray. Very, very beautiful.” The scene isn’t in Zack Snyder’s film, but that’s something of a shame - not just because it’s a perfect encapsulation of Rorschach’s moral character, but because it also does a pretty good job of summing up the dichotomous nature of the movie itself. There’s very little that’s “grey” about Watchmen - elements that work perfectly sit side-by-side with those that edge close to disaster.
Indeed, it almost feels like two separate films, with a clean slice somewhere around the middle of its running time (although I couldn’t give you a specific moment when the shift takes place). For its first half, it’s an admirable attempt to almost directly translate vast swathes of the original book onto the screen. And staggeringly… it just about succeeds. Leaving aside a slightly ill-judged cold opening (of which more later), it kicks off in spectacular fashion with an opening titles sequence that can be justifiably described as a work of art. Set to Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, it’s a trawl through the history of costumed adventurers in the movie’s world - hell, it’s more than that, it really is the book’s world - telling a few decades’ worth of story in admirably concise fashion. And it looks terrific. And it sets the tone for the half an hour or so that follows, as Blake’s funeral and the associated flashbacks are superbly rendered. It’s as close to seeing the book actually projected onto a film screen as you could possibly want, and against all expectations, it’s marvellous.
But even while it’s being slavishly faithful to the book, it’s clear that the first half of the movie just doesn’t really work… as a movie. The opening five or six issues of Watchmen are incredibly episodic - and in his devotion to replicating the source material, Snyder neglects to consider how it will work for an ordinary filmgoing audience. So we get “the Comedian bit”, “the Rorschach bit”, “the Dr Manhattan bit”, “the Dan and Laurie bit” and so on - but they appear successively, rather than being spliced together to run concurrently. As such, there’s not a single easily identifiable narrative thread - Dan, Rorschach and even the Comedian all threaten to become the film’s protagonist before disappearing for lengthy stretches - and if you’re used to the book you’ll barely notice, but if you’re used to films that are made like films, you’ll be baffled.
There’s a slightly jarring shift, then, to a second half which caters far more to the “film” side of things, to the detriment of both the fidelity to the book and - it must be said - the overall experience. Having settled on the aspects of the plot considered to be important, and fully established Dan and Laurie as the characters we’ll follow for the remainder of the narrative, the adaptation becomes looser, and fits into a standard “filmy” structure to a greater extent. But even while it’s doing this, departing more significantly from the book deprives the film of some of its spark - and having failed to really play up the conspiracy or murder mystery elements when spending so much time on the characters’ backstories, it’s found wanting when it’s consequently forced to push those elements to the fore. Furthermore, its misinterpretation of certain elements of the book ends up becoming the very thing that hampers the story’s attempts to convince - although the changes made to the book’s ending, in order to replace the ongoing “island” plot with one more easily and concisely planted earlier in the film, get a cautious thumbs up. I’d discussed in my article on the “films that never were” the issues I had with the idea of this alteration - but I’m pleased to see that the tone, and the world’s reaction to the “event”, are played largely correctly.
But while Snyder can be applauded for certain plot elements that he demanded stay faithful (including ditching one particular - frankly terrible - idea from co-writer David Hayter’s original draft), he frequently comes up short when judged in his actual role as a director. The art direction is almost uniformly beautiful - superbly conceived and realised, packed with attention to detail, and unerring in calling to mind the book’s more famous panels while successfully translating them to the film’s distinct look and colour palette. But despite the visual tools at his disposal, Snyder is frequently maladroit in how he employs them. Almost every action or fight sequence is ruined either by excessive use of slow-motion shots, some frankly bizarre overloud “punching” sound effects (the only possible explanation is that they’re intended to be a satire of the Adam West Batman, but if that’s the case then they’re horribly ill-judged), or both. Nowhere is this more glaring than the opening scene of Blake’s murder, which simply goes on for far too long. That said, Snyder’s favouritest directorial “trick” does actually find a natural home whenever he’s placing arty panel recreations before our eyes - on those occasions, it’s nice to actually have a chance to sit back and gorge upon the luscious imagery. But when Dan and Laurie are fighting their way through the prison in an interminable Kill Bill-esque sequence? You’ll be wishing for a fast-forward button.
There’s also barely a moment in the film that could be said to be handled with anything approaching subtlety - which isn’t always a problem, but does leave any viewer with a brain feeling patronised every time Snyder takes the opportunity to beat you around the face with something Moore had made you work for. All-too-often, there’s a sense of “look at us! Look how clever we are!”, and the use of the soundtrack feels particularly pleased with itself - not that song choices are necessarily bad (with the exception of the appalling use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” over the staggeringly tacky sex scene), simply that they’re far too prominent in the mix. As with the Spitting Image-esque caricature of Richard Nixon, you’re just not allowed to ignore these things.
The characters themselves are, as you’d expect, a mixed bag, but on the whole they’re something the film generally gets right. The heaviest plaudits will go, rightly, to Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, who successfully banishes memories of a slightly weak introduction (the opening narration is far from perfect) with an absolutely spellbinding performance from the moment of his unmasking right through to his bitter end. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, too, inhabits the Comedian with a perfect mixture of charm and vileness - and his character is also aged far better over the film’s course than, say, Carla Gugino’s Sally Jupiter (great in the flashbacks, less so in the present). Patrick Wilson’s Dan Dreiberg is perfectly-pitched out of costume, perhaps resembling his Gibbons-drawn counterpart the most, but becomes a far less interesting character as soon as he dons his Nite Owl outfit. Like James Marsden’s Cyclops, he’s the wishy-washy good guy about whom you know little and care even less - and that really does a disservice to the Dreiberg that Moore wrote.
The remainder of “the Watchmen” (as we’re obligated to call them… sigh) have more varying degrees of success. It takes a long time for Dr Manhattan to have any real impact on the narrative, and although his origin sequence is beautifully rendered (and Billy Crudup’s best moments are as the pre-transformation Osterman), he otherwise drifts in and out of proceedings making far less impact than a giant glowing blue naked man should really be able to. Malin Akerman, meanwhile, is admittedly given little to work with - I don’t recall Laurie taking action of her own volition or that doesn’t serve the ends of another character’s development until at least halfway through the film - but that doesn’t excuse her utterly flat delivery and apparent lack of interest in investing her character with any of the substance the script denies her. It’s Matthew Goode, though, who’s hampered with the script’s most glaring misstep. Far from being the Richard-Branson-in-the-body-of-Brad-Pitt “superguy” of the book, his Adrian Veidt is sinister and unlikeable from his very first appearance (that appearance also coinciding with a baffling shift that sees Dan, rather than Rorschach, visit him - thus suddenly dropping Rorschach out of the “investigative” side of the conspiracy plot). And this simply doesn’t work, considering the role that Veidt must occupy in the story. Still, Goode’s performance isn’t inherently bad at what he’s trying to do - he’s just trying to do the wrong thing (and he can be blamed for the ill-thought-out addition of a German accent).
It’s worth stressing that it’s not really constructive to dwell on aspects of the book that weren’t included. The odd line of dialogue or flashback moment aside, the “main” plot is intact. And really, that’s as much as you can hope for from a film. No, it’s not just the main plot that makes Watchmen the book it is, it’s as much the incidental characters, detail and subplots. We know that. But they simply wouldn’t translate to a film (or indeed to the “twelve-part TV series” that people have long been claiming would be the preferred format for an adaptation). We don’t need Dr Long’s home life, or the newsvendor’s opinion on things, or the Black Freighter analogy, or the story of Max Shea on the island - they add to the book’s density, but it’s a density (or rather, to avoid patronising the medium, a type of density) that doesn’t work in film. That said, certain scenes and characters really could do with a little more explanation (chopping out a few of those unnecessary slo-mo shots might have allowed for a few more expository moments to sneak in, such as the aforementioned explanation of Rorschach’s origin and mask), because I can’t imagine just how confusing certain things must be for those entirely unfamiliar with the book. And I really would have liked to have seen more of the Minutemen - almost every glimpse we get of the 1940s numbers among the film’s absolute highlights, but there simply aren’t enough of such moments.
The problem, really, is that while the concessions the film makes are justifiable in the context of succesfully translating the book’s narrative to a different format, all they really manage to do is highlight the inherent pointlessness of such a venture. Watchmen the film is simply not Watchmen the comic. It doesn’t do for films what the book did for comics. Yes, it does turn out to be a well-made - if deeply flawed at times - and visually engaging experience, and a brutal, murky subversion of a genre that is particularly en vogue in the film world right now. But if that was their only intention, why did it need to be this adaptation? An original story could have had the same effect without being so bloody-mindedly impenetrable for the uninitiated, and without being hamstrung by its over-reverence to an original form that is simply not structured the way films are. As such, it’s a mess of contradictions - when it’s faithful to the book it’s not a suitable theatrical feature, and when it takes liberties with the book it’s simply not as interesting a story. The only time Snyder successfully juggles both considerations is in that opening titles montage, inhabiting the book’s world perfectly while doing something original and appropriate with the storytelling. The director has made his mark (in comics lore if not in screen lore) by successfully filming the unfilmable - but he’s also simultaneously demonstrated just why it’s always been thought of as such.
So, this is by the same guy who wrote that V For Vendetta film, is it?
As someone who, despite a decade of intermittent comic buying, had never got round to reading Watchmen, I was taken along as Seb’s guinea pig to see what those unacquainted with the plot would make of the adaptation. As you’ll gather, my views are somewhat mixed.
The first half of the film was, frankly, poor. My impression was that of a story too grand and important to worry about such trivial details as plot and sustaining audience interest. The Dark Knight was able to achieve a feeling of weight and importance in just a few minutes, thanks to nothing more than sharp dialogue, convincing characters and the progression of multiple plot threads simultaneously. Watchmen feels like it’s asserting its worthiness too loudly, and soon begins to grate. The CG smiley badge, poor execution aside, gave me nightmare flashbacks to watching David Lynch’s Inland Empire: “Look everyone. SYMBOLISM!”. After the halfway mark, things improve dramatically, with the story placed in the driving seat, and the characters actually interacting with each other, instead of being presented for the audience to admire as separate exhibits in an art gallery. Although the mystery’s resolution was somewhat obvious (it turned out that the Bond villain did it), it provided a focus and drive that the opening of the film had sorely lacked.
Zack Snyder’s action sequences are frankly ill advised, ruining the seedy credibility he tries so hard to achieve. While the feats of strength performed by the various Watchmen are (just) within the limits of human ability, they could only be the work of figures considerably more muscular than the actors cast. I found it hard to avoid laughing when it was revealed that the slightly-build Ozymandias was supposed to have repeatedly picked up and thrown the Duke Nukem-like Comedian in the opening scene. It’s an extremely odd approach for the director to have taken, although a dilemma must have been posed by only one of the Watchmen actually having super powers (although Nite Owl’s magic basement arguably comes close). That said, there are a few random and unexplained bits of sci-fi on display, such as the question of why Ozymandias hasn’t been reported to the RSPCA for his cross breading of a tiger and a goat, as well as Rorschach’s pointless changing mask. In the latter’s first scene, I thought that the appearance of moving patterns on the mask the result of some brilliant use of shadow on the part of the director, but it soon became apparent that the effect was achieved through CG, adding nothing to events. I’d been advised beforehand that much of the novel would have to be cut to enable a reasonable running time, so was surprised to find that the film adhered to the Garth Merenghi school of padding, with any moment not featuring dialogue obviously considered for slow-motion.
Most of the roles seemed well cast, with the strongest performance coming from Patrick Wilson, who brilliantly conveyed his character’s inadequacies. The fractured nature of the story made it had to draw any overall conclusions, although the theme of humanity’s varying reactions to violence was felt strongly through. The two flies in the ointment over plot and message are the unconvincing nature of the Comedian’s breakdown (would a man who shot the pregnant mother of his child really care about a forthcoming holocaust?) and the somewhat dodgy gender politics of the venture. There are only two female characters in the film, who are there to either raped by the Comedian or worshiped by Dr Manhattan, as opposed to exist as rounded creations.
Aspects of the film bored me, but there was much to prevent me walking out of the cinema. Watching Watchmen has introduced me to some characters that I suspect I’m not going to forget, and a story that I already have.