Watchmen (2009)R

CapeCapeHalf a capeBalding headWrecking ballHalf a tent

After 22 years, who will watch the Watchmen? Mostly, it seems, those who are attached to the book and have no patience for how a film version doesn’t get it right.

Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel finally comes to the big screen. And for those who want to find mistakes and shortcomings and misjudgments, there are enough. Judging by trailers and publicity stills, I myself was expecting nothing but a trainwreck — something long on form and short on substance, something that could resemble the original but not understand it. I am surprised and gratified to report that this film, despite its shortcomings, succeeds far more than I ever could have expected.

The shortcomings are mostly in areas where they depart from the book... yet the biggest departure, which alters the bad guy’s plot that gets revealed at the end, works more or less adequately for me, though it’s a bit illogical. And even the film’s length — three fucking hours in the director’s cut — didn’t really feel excessive or bloated to me, but then I do have more tolerance than some for “unnecessary” length.

The thing that had me feeling the most trepidation was when I heard that Zack Snyder, the director, wanted to update things to be a commentary on superhero movies in the same way that the graphic novel was a commentary on superhero comic books. This led to things like putting bat-armor with fake muscles in it on, among others, the character of Ozymandias... something that really makes very little sense in relation to how his character is written. And having Rorschach speak in Christian Bale’s patented Constiptated Bat-Voice. And this is definitely an area where the film is less successful; these bits of homage have the form of commentary, but not the content — they don’t really carry any meaning other than “hey look, this is how Hollywood does superheroes now”. Often these bits have the side effect of putting the story’s various protagonists out of character. The worst misstep, I think, is the scene where Silk Spectre and Nite Owl beat up a gang of muggers, grinning as they fracture people’s arms and stick knives into their owners’ necks, adding clear — and unnecessary — fatalities not present in the book. I guess this is an attempt to say “gosh, fights are violent”.

Snyder’s superficial mockery of superhero films is accompanied, unfortunately, by some blunting of the book’s deeper and more mournful satire of comic books’ easy self-righteous violence. This may in part be because the leftist Moore was specifically bagging on right-wing vigilante characters, particularly some created by Steve Ditko which Moore creates direct mockeries of, such as Rorschach as a spoof of The Question. Snyder’s view of comic book values is apparently a lot closer to Ditko’s than to Moore’s... to the extent that he even takes the subject seriously. In fact, it sometimes seems — and this is suggested by interviews as well as by the film itself — like Snyder thinks the Watchmen characters and story are cool rather than tragic. To combine satire with tragedy rather than farce remains rare to this day, and I guess it's not too surprising when some people manage to miss one or the other entirely.

There are lots of other references to assorted Hollywoodisms, homaging everything from Dr. Strangelove to The Matrix. I can’t say it adds much. It’s when it sticks to the story that the movie works well.

The cast is a mixed bag. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Eddie “The Comedian” Blake, Patrick Wilson as Dan “Nite Owl II” Dreiberg, and (aside from the constipated voice) Jackie Earle Haley as Walter “Rorschach” Kovacs, are all plusses. Malin Akerman as Laurie “Silk Spectre II” Jupiter (the movie does not use the name Juspeczyk) is okay. But Carla Gugino as her mom (Silk Spectre I) keeps reminding me unpleasantly of Janice Dickinson, Matthew Goode as Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt is miscast, and Billy Crudup as Jon “Dr. Manhattan” Osterman does most of his dialog with a voice that sounds as flatly computer-generated as his blue body is.

Speaking of the Wagging Blue Cartoon Penis of Doom (which I notice they couldn’t help lengthening over the one in the book)... given this film’s scope and budget, I was really hoping for a better quality of computer animation. Dr. Manhattan may look like a reasonably well rendered human body when standing still, but as with most bad CGI, as soon as he moves he looks like he’s underwater. And don’t get me started on Ozymandias’s mutant cat. It looks like it should be standing next to Halle Berry. And there are many moments where computer effects are used when practical ones would probably have looked better.

But then, one could charitably assume that bad CGI is just part of the commentary on other superhero movies. And anyway, the prosthetic makeup they use to try to recreate real-life characters sometimes ain’t so hot either.

All of these shortcomings, and the thing’s possibly excessive length, are there for the mocking by those who want to hate on the picture... but what remains behind it all is the story. And despite what anybody says, that story remains essentially intact and unharmed. The telling of it respects the viewer’s intelligence and does not reduce any of it to a less adult level. It also respects your tolerance for gore; this is a very violent and bloody film, not at all suitable for children.

This movie was not a hit, but I have a suspicion that in the long term, it’s going to find an audience that shows it some lasting admiration. The credit for that belongs entirely with the book.