The internet is abuzz this week, reacting to the long-awaited, much anticipated release of the Watchmen movie. Emily and I went to go see it on Friday with our pod of nerds and this blog post has been percolating around in my head since then. This post isn’t so much a review of Watchmen as it is a review of the critical response to Watchmen, which is nearly as varied and complex as the film itself, and which seems to have created a perfect storm of nerd gassing on the tubes.
First, here’s a little personal background.
In 1986 I was 15 years old and a dyed-in-the-wool comic book nerd. I’d already had my comics-aren’t-just-for-kids awakening, shunning my old Spider-Man books for Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and the burgeoning indy comics scene. Watchmen, with its visions of a fascistic dystopian alternate-reality America and cadre of anti-super heroes was like crack cocaine for this too-smart-for-his-own-good comic nerd. I was (like many adolescent nerds) pretty sure I had an angle on how the world really worked, philosophically and politically. I believed that most of the other squares were too sheepish to see what was really wrong with the world. Watchmen (along with Moore’s other dystopian alternate reality tale, V for Vendetta) fed that counter-culture egotism perfectly and it did so subversively – as a super-hero comic book. It was like secret code to the nerds – the establishment would never catch on – and we esoteric dweebs got to enjoy our well-kept secret all the while complaining about how mainstream media didn’t ever take comics seriously.
In the 23 years since Watchmen’s publication, comics are in better shape, public-opinion wise. When Frank Miller’s comics work started having big-screen success (Sin City, Batman Begins, 300, The Dark Knight), it seemed like the time had finally come for a serious adaptation of Watchmen.
The fans have been stunt-casting a potential Watchmen movie in arguments in comic book stores for years and several attempts have been made to adapt the graphic novel to film (even Terry Gilliam took a swing at it and famously gave up). The result of all of this anticipation and hand-wringing by the fans, combined with the general disdain that critics have for films based on comics, not to mention the majority of the movie-going audience who has never even heard of Watchmen and who don’t care, is a wide swath of critical reactions to the finished film.
I have identified (so far) six distinct groups of people who are reacting to the Watchmen film in varying ways:
1. General audiences – these are movie goers who are not fans of the GN and who’s main reasons for going to see Watchmen are tied to the marketing campaign and just want to see a cool movie. Example: e_to_the_em, who tweeted earlier today, “Here’s Watchmen: boring, boring, gross, boring, blue wang, boring. good fight scene, sex, boring, end.”
2. Film critics who are nerds – these are the professional movie reviewers who are nerdy enough to be hip to the significance of the Watchmen GN without having to have it explained to them. Example: A.O. Scott at the NYTimes.
3. Film critics who are snobs – these are the professional movie reviewers who don’t read comics because comics are not worthy of their sophisticated eyes. For these auteurs, the fans of comics are to be disdained and mocked. Example: Anthony Lane of The New Yorker.
[NOTE: all film critics fit into one of the two above categories. There are no other kinds of film critic.]
4. True Fans (uncritical) – these are the fanboys (and fangirls) who are just so excited to have their nerdy fantasy coming true (that fantasy being that a nerd like them actually got to make a big budget version of Watchmen) that they lose all sense of discriminating taste. The film is FUCKING AWESOME to these folks and nothing you say can sway their sycophantic opinions. Example: Wil Wheaton (this is actually harsher than I ought to be to Wil, who’s opinions I generally greatly respect, but his review is the highest profile unrelentingly positive one I can think of. A quick Google search will result in countless examples of far less discriminating OMG-Watchmen-is-so-awesome wank sessions). [NOTE: if you still think Battlestar Galactica is the best show on TV, you are one of these fans.]
5. True Fans (critical) – this is the category I put myself in. These are nerds who have been fans of Watchmen for a long time and who have been waiting with as much anticipation as the rest of the fans, but for whom a lot is expected before they give any film adaptation an upward-pointed Wolverine claw. In fact, depending on the level of positive vs. negative expectations going into the theater, you can almost guarantee that any filmed adaptation will get at least some negative response from this crowd. These are the folks who ought to be asking themselves if it was even a good idea to attempt an adaptation at all in the first place, since any change to the original will likely be seen as some sort of heresy. Example: Gerry Canavan.
6. Alan Moore – He’s really in a category all by himself on this one. His notion that his work is somehow unfilmable is just egotistical nonsense. If successful film adaptations exist of Shakespeare’s work, I’m pretty sure Moore’s oeuvre is not out of reach. Sheesh.
I think it’s good to keep this list in your head as you read all of the various reactions to Watchmen. Nobody who has read the book comes to the movie without prejudice. Expectations are really important to the film-going experience – so is the audience you’re with.
And with that rather lengthy caveat, here are my reactions (after the jump)…
It’s basically a good, faithful adaptation, though the film is not without its flaws. In being so very faithful to the source material, director Zack Snyder was basically attempting to fit a round peg into a square hole. Comics and movies are both visual media, but they are quite distinct where pacing, acting, action and POV are concerned. An exact one-to-one comic to film adaptation is impossible for many reasons, but Snyder tried his level best anyway. The result is an awkwardly paced movie with lots of voice over narration and too many super slow-motion comics frame recreations that fetishistically construct specific Dave Gibbons panels on film – that’s pretty cool the first dozen or so times it happens, but it gets to be a little much.
The changes that Snyder did make, I approve of for the most part. Some of them are understandable filmic shortcuts (cutting the Black Freighter comic within the comic, for example) and some are actually improvements on the GN (e.g., replacing the squid with a narratively tighter ending). There were some irritating (or too on-the-nose) soundtrack choices, and I was annoyed that Snyder had the ill-fated super-hero team literally call themselves “The Watchmen” (it was purely allegorical in the book). I have the feeling that if Zack Snyder directs music videos, he’s one of those directors that literally interprets song lyrics – so if the song has a lyric that goes “I’m drivin’ in my car, turn on the radio,” he shoots the singer driving his car and turning on his radio.
When evaluating the adaptation of a beloved work, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Ask yourself if the adaptation captures the feel of the original work. Are the central themes and meaning of the work preserved? Do the characters seem like the characters from the original? Applying these questions to Watchmen, I answer with a resounding yes. This film, as awkwardly paced, poorly acted/directed in places, and as cheesy as it gets at times (the sex scene is a bit much), it definitely has the spirit of the original at its heart.
Still, I’m not sure that general audiences are going to care all that much. Even though the themes of the GN are all here and the central message is intact (some softening of the American fascism angle notwithstanding), for whatever reason this film simply won’t have the paradigm-changing power for super hero movies that the GN had for super hero comics. That’s partly because the film is merely a reflection/recreation of the GN rather than being its own stand-alone work of art (compared to other adaptations like, say, The Godfather). It’s also likely due to the fact that the GN really spoke to the political/cultural reality of the 1980s and this is a different time. Plus, the whole postmodern superhero thing is nothing new these days and in 1986 it was a revelation.
That’s the end of my review, but I’d like to spend a few paragraphs directly addressing some of Gerry Canavan’s specific complaints. Gerry was MUCH more critical than me and I disagree with most of what he wrote about the film. Gerry writes:
The first half of the film, as I put it to our group shortly after leaving the theater, is not even terrible. It’s just completely unremarkable—a perfectly slavish adaptation of the comic that holds about the same level of critical interest as a high school theater club production of Watchmen might. (This is, of course, a little too glib—there are numerous things about the first half that are in fact actively terrible, most notably the soundtrack and most of the acting, but let those slide for now.)
This seems overly harsh. Snyder went to bat for the integrity of the film and while you and I may question the efficacy of pursuing a “slavish” recreation of the comic, frame-by-detailed-frame, the result was a resounding success. Snyder did an acrobatic job of faithfully recreating whole sequences from the GN, right down to the way The Comedian’s plate glass window shattered. If nothing else, it’s at least a technical marvel.
The effort to recreate panel-by-panel the experience of reading the comic is impressive in its dedication but doubly wrongheaded, because (a) it will always fail to achieve perfect fidelity, and therefore fail to satisfy and (b) films are not comics, they are films. The point (if Watchmen must be made into a film at all) is not to “make the pictures move” but to translate from one media to another. Translation in this case would entail studying and appreciating the moves Moore and Gibbons make in the comic and then finding analogous moves that speak to/against cinematic form; it’s not about doing a shot-for-panel remake.
I mostly agree with this assessment, but we’ve known for at least a year that this was Snyder’s intention. Given that, I think what he achieved was remarkable. And as I said in my review, there are some changes from the GN and most of them were smart in that they did exactly what you’re describing – they translate the GN to film.
One of the best shots in the film is therefore a shot of a door slowly swinging open and closed, allowing us momentary glimpses inside a closed space the camera does not enter. It’s a shot that nicely evokes comics without using the already hackneyed slow-everything-down-to-the-speed-of-panels technique, while at the same time being something comics cannot themselves do. Sadly, there’s hardly anything else like this moment in Watchmen, as Snyder relies almost entirely on slo-mo and failed attempts at direct quotation throughout.
Good call-out on that shot. I noticed it too for similar reasons. I hate to pull filmmaker rank on you here, but there are lots of other examples of this going on throughout the film. The camera is actually remarkably fluid for the slavish panel-recreations. If the camera is moving, then by definition there’s some sort of filmic translation happening. The slo-mo intro sequence is basically as you describe, but from the death of The Comedian on, there are examples of this in every scene.
The second half—beginning approximately at the moment of a laughable sex scene during which (among other things) the film’s bad soundtrack completely jumps the shark—is terrible, precisely because it ventures away from inoffensive slavish fidelity to plot changes and directorial choices that completely misunderstand the very point of Watchmen.
The sex scene was bad. The soundtrack didn’t bother me nearly as much as it did you. In most cases, I approved of the needle drops – most of which were taken from lyric quotes in the GN. The Muzak “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” during a scene with Veidt was a little on-the-nose. You mentioned “I’m Your Boogieman” during the prison riot – I didn’t even notice that.
I disagree that the plot changes misunderstand the very point of Watchmen. You give examples…
the replacement of the Schmittian friend-enemy logic in favor of very poorly explained God-is-watching-you-so-be-good silliness;
Laurie makes a reference to Jon watching them, God-like, but it’s Nixon’s reaction that seems more important – the one where he says that the US and the USSR have put aside their differences so they can focus on defending the world against their new common enemy. That seems an awful lot like the exact same thing as the reaction to the squid in the GN. Moreover, the squid was kind of a silly ending in the book and one that required a greater suspension of disbelief than the mere existence of Jon’s powers. It was convoluted and unlikely and always left a bad taste in my mouth in the book. This ending makes more sense and doesn’t require any additional technology aside from the single universe-shifting existence of Dr. Manhattan’s powers. Plus it’s tighter in a narrative way.
the inability of the filmmakers to let the characters fail as the theme demands they must, most notably in the case of the filmic Nite Owl pointedly not signing on to Ozymandias’s scheme (but for some reason being allowed to leave Antarctica anyway);
I don’t think we’re supposed to think Nite Owl doesn’t sign on to the scheme (once it’s clear there’s no stopping it) – I think we’re supposed to think he hates Veidt for doing it. It was clear that he agreed not to break the news and add nuclear war to the mess. I didn’t like Nite Owl witnessing Rorschach’s death – it seemed unnecessary. I do like how messy Jon’s kills are – it sends home the horror of his detachment to the deaths quite nicely. I also very much liked the bloody Rorschach ink spot in the snow left by his disintegration. I’m just not sure what you mean by characters not failing as they must. All of the characters in the film wind up just like their comics counterparts. Nite Owl protests Adrian’s scheme but realizes he has to stay quiet, just like in the book. I just don’t see your point here.
a general (if inevitable) dumbing down (instanced for example in the switch from “Robert Redford” to “Ronald Reagan” in the last scene, almost certainly because it was feared that the audience wouldn’t get the reference).
I think there are very few instances of this, but regarding the example you gave, so what? How does that “completely misunderstand the very point of Watchmen?” That example seems to preserve the point pretty well, despite the change.
Even “I did it thirty-five minutes ago” is bungled; the line is delivered, at which time we jump to a countdown-in-progress. The anti-simultaneity was the entire point. This isn’t hard.
Not to be all Annie Hall on you, but I happen to have Watchmen right here. In fact, in the book Adrian delivers that line and then the scene cuts to scenes in NYC just before the squid appears. Then the destruction happens. The movie actually fixes this inconsistency by showing multiple cities that have already been hit and focusing on the next one in the sequence – New York.
If Watchmen the comic deconstructs the superhero, does Watchmen the film? Not at all. The characters’ rough edges have all been sanded away, leaving little more than generic action movie badasses that (in our theater at least) were getting cheers in all the wrong places. Both Rorschach and Nite Owl, in different ways, remain uncomplicatedly and conventionally “heroic” in word, deed, and presentation—with plot and dialogue changes shoehorned in whenever necessary to keep it that way—and if you were going to make a Watchmen in which such a thing were possible, you really shouldn’t have made the film at all.
I disagree. Rorschach and Nite Owl (despite some bad directing/acting moments) were very much the characters they were in the book. There are ass-kicking scenes in the book that are satisfying with those characters and they are in the movie too. The ugliness of the characters is all there – Rorschach’s monomaniacal devotion to twisted, violent justice, his intolerance of intellectuals and deviants. Nite Owl is literally impotent and ultimately totally ineffectual, despite his few ass-kicking moments (all of which were in the book). There are shortcuts and directing decisions I disagreed with, but none of them changed the fundamental nature of the characters or the meaning of the story. If Watchmen the film fails to deconstruct super heroes, it’s because we’ve moved past the need to do so as the GN did 23 years ago, not because the material isn’t present in the film.
Some other reviews worth mentioning: