Sunday, March 15, 2009

The League (Finally) Watches: Watchmen

Editor's Note: This is a shared post with Comic Fodder. Its too long for me to try to do this @#$% twice. This is generally the format in which I write my longer pieces at Comic Fodder, so the "broken down in chunks" format is replicated here.

This is really, really long, Leaguers. I apologize.


In high school, as my extra-curricular activity, I partook in drama. This meant attending and reading a pretty good number of plays, including work by ol' Bill Shakespeare. Like anyone who has read and seen Shakespeare performed, I quickly noted that not all performances I attended of the exact same material were equal. The translation from the page doesn't always go according to plan, even when the material is exceedingly familiar. I've seen both hilariously bad Romeo & Juliets, and I've seen performances where Lady Capulet was utterly heartbreaking in her calls for revenge. But either way, its Shakespeare, and so you wind up invested in the play, even if its as you tick off the bad acting and directorial decisions you observe throughout the performance. Or you wind up so engrossed in the performance that you forget this is the fourth time you've seen it and that you've read it twice.


There's a notion that I've seen repeatedly rehearsed, including from Patton Oswalt on his MySpace page, that comic fans dissatisfied with the adaptation should buck up. They've still got their precious comic book, and it still exists outside the movie, etc...

Upon reflection, I say: horse hockey.

It's no surprise or secret that the vast, vast portion of the population will much sooner sit through a three hour movie than pick up and read a 12-issue comic. As far as "mass-media" goes, comics are a tiny subset, whose audience numbers in the 10's of 1000's, not the millions who will eventually see the movie in the theater, on home video, etc... Even as Watchmen races to outpace all other comic sales (and is hitting #1 rankings at Amazon again), its still a tiny fraction of even the least successful of studio films. For that difference in audience between those who saw the movie but did not read the book, "Watchmen" will always be the movie. And those folks will most likely will never give the comic a chance.

For those who've seen both, you can't unsee the movie. And short of some head injury, its unlikely you'll ever be able to read the book again without the movie bouncing around in your brain in a parallel "compare and contrast" cycle. I don't turn off comparisons, and I highly suspect most people don't either. So I'm not really sure where that comes from. You can only be glad you read or saw one before the other.

Not too long ago, Time Magazine published a list of greatest novels since 1923, and among these novels they included "Watchmen". As the movie is increasingly poorly received, how is it not likely that Watchmen the Comic will not be taken down with Watchmen the Movie, for at least a generation? Simple guilt by association.

And here our troubles began

Anyhow, yes. I saw the movie. And my wife, being wiser than I, when we walked out and I was still sorting through the thing said it right:

It's not that bad. But then again, they stuck to the story, and the story is very good, so it was kind of hard to screw it up completely.

Much has been made of the fidelity the movie showed the comic, pulling exact frames from the comic for the movie. But one of the earliest scenes is telling of how director Zack Snyder was almost unable to help himself. At the beginning of the movie, masked vigilante Rorschach investigates a murder of a person thrown from a high rise window. To reach the window, Rorschach fires his grappling gun and follows the zip line up to the window.

The movie follows the sequence, with Rorschach performing the action of the comic, frame-by-frame, popping out the grappling gun and alighting on the window sill like a bird of prey before leaping to the floor like a Chinese acrobat. And it all looks pretty "awesome".

In the comic, Rorschach is pulled up, but he does not land like a bird of prey. Instead, he slides through the window frame as a man would. Any person. There's heft and effort. Despite his gadget and mask, Rorschach is not Spider-Man, he may be many things, but he's not superhuman.

And that's where Snyder's reading of the comic and my reading diverge. And why I never thought a general audience would be particularly into the subject matter.

Two Roads

I won't belabor what is a lengthy post here with a plot synopsis, but in re-reading Watchmen and seeing the movie, its fascinating to note that we should be starting our second generation at this point who has no concept of the Cold War as a fact of life, and how and why it influenced so much of culture. I, for one, fully believed I would be nuked at some point in my life, probably before I was old enough to drink. The very specific fear of a terrorist driving a plane into my office building seemed rather small in comparison. I do not know if the Cold War means anything to those in their twenties or younger.

It should be noted that a lot of my divergence came from the tone Snyder took versus how I'd long read the novel. And I am willing to accept that my reading, which has been largely unfiltered by any interaction except between myself and the printed page, may not be what Moore or Gibbons had in mind. But I always read Watchmen as a much more quiet book than what Snyder put on the screen. Despite the context of a world on the brink, I'd always read it as silent as if the world of Watchmen were holding its breath, listening for the ticking of the clock. Snyder's world is... not that one.

Snyder's characters are superhumans rather than humans. His fights are superhuman fights in which the characters feel amazing afterward, not the mix of sick and still full of adrenaline that Moore and Gibbons had suggested. His Drieberg isn't out of shape and messy, he's still toned and looks good in the owl suit. His characters are simply not the very human people behind the mask I came to know circa 1992, and every time they appeared in a costume, I was reminded of that fact.

Some other movie will determine whether or not Zack Snyder is a good director rather than a great plagiarist/ mimic. I've seen his by-the-numbers remake of a zombie movie. I saw him translate Frank Miller's "300" to the big screen (and was disappointed) even as the movie lovingly recreated Miller's artwork, speeches and characters. His reverence for the material is never a question, but whether or not he actually understands the nuance of what he's directing is another question.

For as many moments as Snyder recreates from the comic that works, every decision he was forced to make himself seems... off. Where Moore has made a career out of implicit story after the ellipsis, Snyder is intent on explicit insistence that the viewer not miss a beat, like your weird Uncle Harold who has to repeat the punchline to the joke you just told, or feeling the need to follow up with an explanation of the punchline. It's not enough that we get what's a brilliant summary of the history of the world our characters inhabit, but he's got to drive it home with "Times, They Are a Changing"? We can't just see that Dr. Manhattan was using lethal means to stop underworld characters, we've got to see their guts splayed from the ceiling? And, yeah, I got that they were going to have sex, thanks... Welcome to the world of inappropriate laughter at the movie theater.

And even scenes like the first time Rorschach and Drieberg meet again in Drieberg's house, that's lifted exactly from the comic page, seem curiously misread, with none of the cold stillness that Moore and Gibbons originally injected in the work. Where Drieberg's slump into the chair in the comic makes complete sense after the transaction, it feels like just a bit of blocking in the film.

Perfunctory movie review stuff

This viewer was mostly not impressed with the performances, but isn't sure that a lot of it didn't have to do with either Snyder's direction or lack thereof. I don't think anyone will argue that Snyder has a Lucas-esque attention to detail in his movie fascimile, or that he can't direct a fight sequence (of which he added at least two sequences which weren't in the book). But in many of the standard, face-to-face, we-have-to-talk-about-this discussions, it just didn't click. Particularly in scenes with cookie-cutter Hollywood starlet Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter (note that Snyder also excised the Jupiter/ Juspeczyk character point), Akerman seemed to prove herself ready for Smallville or a stint on One Tree Hill, but I'm not sure she was exactly big-screen ready.

And there are character moments that were changed that let me know that perhaps Snyder wasn't quite there. For example (spoiler, I guess): When Rorschach describes the case where he felt Walter Kovacs died and Rorschach began, the ending of the story is changed. He does not split the murderer's head in two. In the book, Rorschach leaves the murderer chained to the oven with a saw, giving him a chance to escape the house which he's set on fire. It's a subtle but telling distinction, and I was left wondering if Snyder understood the difference. And, if so, why he made the change.

Like so many in Hollywood these days, the craft of moviemaking for Snyder is a technical issue rather than one that stems from the footlights and greasepaint. And while Watchmen may not be Shakespeare, its also a comic where people sit around and talk for 12 issues, with a few scenes of action when absolutely necessary to the plot. The skills Snyder demonstrated with his zombie movie and 300 just weren't applicable.

Most of the effects were as cutting edge as anything else in Hollywood, and I can't fault the production design team. Nite-Owl's HQ and townhouse were lifted exactly from the comic, and Archie (Nite-Owl's airship) was beautifully convincing. As was the decision NOT to follow the comics and have Archie rise from a converted warehouse, which seemed a little conspicuous in the comic. The costume design is actually pretty nifty, even if I did miss the huge cowl apparatus on Nite-Owl. Obviously Rorschach and Manhattan were true to their original appearances, as were the Minutemen and Sally Jupiter.

The snake eats its own tail

It's difficult, too, to know what blanks I was filling in as someone not just familiar with the book, but who just read it. Its impossible to know if I was making connections that the average viewer might not. Moore's original series is an intricate piece of clockwork (pun unintended) with all the cogs fitting one way or another to tell the complete story. As a movie go-er, you receive the broad strokes, but you're going to know what time it is, and maybe be aware of the gears, but not see how they pull together in quite the same manner as the book.

Further, the movie does lose a bit in translation. Moore and Gibbons' use of the medium isn't really possible on the big screen, lest you tempt the wrath of movie go-ers the way Ang Lee did with his interpretation of "The Hulk" and his panels. Watchmen's largely 9 -nale per page structure told the story as mucha s words and pictures, with interchanges of color in some sections, or even the breakdown of the panels such as in "Fearful Symmetry" (the chapter of the movie that told Rorschach's past). It's not a loss you'll notice in the film, but its impossible to say that there's no loss moving from one medium to the other.

This may surprise some readers at this point, but as per the huge change at the end of the script, I wasn't sure, once I'd accidentally stumbled upon the change online, how that would work. But in the end, it changed very little and tightened up plot elements that might have become too cumbersome in even a 3 hour movie. It was far less of a change than, say, turning Galactus into a cloud and never actually interacting with the Fantastic Four (although these movies were on two completely different levels).

The movie isn't terrible. It's just that its a single volume story, so given the choice, every time I would suggest picking up the comic rather than watching the movie. The three hour run time means that they had to greatly reduce the content of the comic, dropping several elements that aren't going to make the cut in a WB picture concerned with budget and narrative economy. Snyder claims he'll reinsert some of the stuff, like the Black Freighter, in the DVD, and I'll probably actually give it another shot at that time, just to see how it works. After all, we do get a few shots of the news vendor and the comic-reading kid, so perhaps that whole subplot will be restored?

We did have at least one couple walk out. Maybe more, but with waiters coming and going at the Alamo, its hard to tell. We do know the couple next to us had enough, and left during Jon's background story. Some small part of me wanted to dash out after them and ask a series of questions. What did you think you were going to see? What was the first inkling that you were going to leave? What broke the camel's back?

I have a new fear.

When Watchmen was released as a comic, paired with other comics in the 1980's that parlayed the kid's medium into a a market with an adult readership such as Dark Knight Returns, Elektra: Assassin, American Flagg!, etc... it was seen as giving license to a lot of bad ideas that were welcomed under the idea that comics were no longer just for kids.

Sadly, I think Snyder may have ridden dangerously close to the direction those comics decided to go with his adaptation of Watchmen. From the insert shots of gore, to the lingering shots of superhero lovemaking, this comic fan who survived the 90's isn't looking forward to a repeat of the excesses of the post-Watchmen era played out on the big screen. It took a wide-proliferation of Kingdom Come for that scene to finally die down at the comic shop. And the comic racks are still full of ideas that are "awesome" and totally extreme.

For every Rolling Stones you get, you're going to wind up with thousands of lousy bar bands cranking on twelve-bar-blues and identifying with Keith Richards.

I also have a new hope.

It's that Watchmen can become the Frankenstein of comics. Not as in "sewn together creature of used parts". We'll leave that to the Sci-Fi channel originals and Nicholas Cage flicks. Rather, where Superman, Batman, etc... are a fixed origin and then open-ended serial stories open to anything, Watchmen is actually self-contained. And just as Frankenstein has seen all kinds of adaptations (or Dracula, Moby Dick, I don't care...), maybe Watchmen will survive the dent it takes from its first foray into cinematic adaptation? Maybe in fifteen years, if we haven't toally forgotten about the 1980's by then, we can give it another shot, maybe even as that HBO mini-series every single fanboy thought would work better than a movie (except Zack Snyder)?

As I said, I saw a lot of adaptations of plays. I've seen some really terrible productions of "Midsummer Night's Dream", and I've seen the weirdest "What is It Girl, there's a fire down by the well?" version of "Children of a Lesser God" that a man can stand. It's my hope, that if Watchmen the comic is what I think it is, then maybe we'll get around to a better version one day. In the meantime, enjoy Snyder's popcorn-flick take on Watchmen. Or, better yet, just get on Amazon and buy a copy of the comic. But do not, under any circumstances, buy that frikkin', shameful animated comic version.

Whether this means we'll be free of the adaptations when returning to the source material, its up to someone younger and smarter than me whose going to come to all this fresh.

As an after thought to all that, I should mention... well before I ever read Watchmen, the first I knew anything about Watchmen was an article in "Comics Scene" magazine when I was in middle school. At the time they were talking to Arnie about painting him blue. In the context of the late 80's, this sort of makes sense, and is why, no matter my grief or gripes, why I am still grateful in some small way that its post Raimi's Spidey, Singer's X-Men and Superman and Nolan's Batman that we get Watchmen.


J.S. said...

Just one quick point. In your post you label the quality of the acting as perfunctory, but I think that for the non comic reading moviegoer this is going to be one of the things that leaps out very quickly and very prominently, and it's one of the things that will prevent this movie from being as well received as it otherwise might have been by the general public. I think you're right when you say that Snyder's probably not great at giving direction to actors, but some of the problems started when they cast some of the people.

Anonymous said...

I feel like such a simpleton for enjoying this movie.

The League said...

Actually, its easy to focus on the negative. I didn't NOT enjoy it. It wasn't that bad.

Unfortunately, I think I spent the duration writing this post in my head instead of just watching the thing. I kind of knew that would happen and I was dreading it.

Michael Corley said...

I must agree with rhpt. Of course, Watchmen did not have the same earth-shattering impact on my teenage years. Yes, I read it (bought it for JAL for his birthday, if I recall) and yes, it was mega-awesome. There's no but here, I'm just saying I really liked it when I read it and called it good and moved on.

After years of watching fanboy movies I've lowered my bar. Way, way down. I drop it right on the floor. Any movie that raises it up a little is a good comic book movie. That's unfair and too simplistic but what's my other option? Hate everything save the first Spider Man movie and Dark Knight?

I enjoyed Roarscach in the film. I enjoyed Dr. Manhatten. I giggled when R called Owl "flabby" in his thoughts and the actual actor was anything but. But on the whole? Yeah, I liked it. Could it be done better? Hell yes! But when R is shoving midgets in toilets, I'm good, I'm good.

The League said...

Part of the issue, I think, is that super hero fans have held up Watchmen for 20 years as the best in the mega-genre (I'll touch on what I mean by that at some other point). The public opinion is decidedly now against Watchmen, dropping significantly in ticket sales this weekend over last. A subpar demonstration of what even Time called one of the best books of the last 75 years does nobody any favors.

The line where Rorschach refers to Drieberg as flabby is a pretty good example of where Snyder went wrong. It's lifted from the comic where it's accurate, and Drieberg has let himself go. Here, it just sounds pithy. Similar to Rorschach's comments on the "1985" Carla Gugino ("bloated wh***"), who never looks bad in any sequence in the movie, even under the make-up.

Yes, I'll accept a less than amazing comic adaptation, but I'm also not going to be one of the fanboys who is so happy to see his favorite characterin a movie that they run around claiming the last two FF movies were great, for what they were, or that Nic Cage really nailed Ghost Rider. A bad movie is a bad movie, and when they hit, they set back the franchise. Watchmen may have possibly just set back an entire industry.

NTT said...

I enjoyed it and thought Snyder did a pretty good job. Was it great? No but it was good. There were a number of things direction-wise, music-wise and dialogue-wise that Jason nailed in his review but at the end of the day Watchmen wasn't a bad movie.

Frankly, this will not set either the franchise back or curtail challenging comic book movies. It was the number one movie over the weekend and it lost market share just like almost every action movie during the summer season. It will make more than triple its budget once overseas and ancillary sales are accounted for and it will generate thousands of new readers for the graphic novel. You can see the immediate effect already especially in the younger generation of readers who did not grow up during the 80s.

It's better than Spiderman 3, the first Singer X-men and definitely better then the dreary Singer Superman. Now that was a travesty.

The League said...

If I'm to argue anything, its that SNyder did a pretty terrible job as a director. He did, however, manage to hire cinematographers, editors, set designers, etc... who could carry him. His other jobs: from DIRECTING actors, to musical selection, were all iffy.

Saying Watchmen is better than Spidey 3 is damning with faint praise. And Singer's original X-Men was unlike anything seen from comics to movies to that point, so... I'm not even sure what my point is there. But I don't think its a comparison that matters too much other than that X-Men sort of prepped audiences for team-book movies and allegorical themes in their superhero movies.

I will always say Superman Returns was underrated. Yes, it failed as an action movie, but in carrying forward the themes and world of the Donner franchise, it completely succceeded. It just wasn't the right Superman movie for the right era, and was beholden to movies that few people remember. And if you want to have that argument, I'm your huckleberry.

I would argue that Watchmen will do two things:
1) Will convince studios that all franchises need to be "dark", but have no idea what that means. IE: The 90's effect on superhero comics. This will have more to do with what studios feel they have the license to do now more than the effects of Watchmen informing what sort of storytelling is possible.
2) The notable drop off in performance in comparison to Iron Man or Dark Knight will NOT encourage studios to take chances on projects that do not follow something of a standard action formula. Flat out, Watchmen is underperforming and was expected to be a much larger phenomenon than it has turned out to be (see: Superman Returns).

I agree that it already has generated those thousands and thousands of new readers of the comic. And will continue to do so for a few months. I am very happy for Austin Books and their Watchmen sales.

Hopefully the movie will not deter longterm interest in the comic, should potential readers shrug it off having had seen the movie (like any other book). I do not think it will. Instead, I think eventually it will become "yeah, I know you saw the movie, but there's a lot more to the book. You should read it" at comic shops and on campuses. But, as I said, many will either dismiss the comic, and it will be difficult not to impart Snyder's direction upon the still images of the comic.

Please note: while I did criticize Snyder's directorial efforts, I'd say the movie itself is probably a B- or C+. Note my quote of Jamie at the beginning of the post. It was watchable and had there been no comic prior to the film, I would have had a completely different conversation here. But that's not really the intention of the post.

While Box Office means something to the suits, it doesn't affect my reading of the film. Other than lookinga t trends of Box Office Mojo, I've no crystal ball or dog in this fight.

In the long run, isn't really how a movie is measured anyway.

Anonymous said...

I am in agreement with most of your comments. The film also suffered from gross miscasting in all but a few roles and an over-reliance on CGI, choreographed violence, and soundstages. That said, I wouldn't call Snyder's "Dawn of the Dead" a "by the numbers" zombie film. Sure, it was a remake, but it was not a typical slow zombie genre flick. It, along with 28 Days Later, actually advanced the genre a bit by taken decades old conventions and tweaking them a bit.

Further, although I agree the reaction to Watchmen has been negative, the drop in box office is typical for genre films like this where the nerds and geeks go in droves the first week but not again. The film has suffered from bad word of mouth and walk-outs due to misperceptions about the nature of the film.

The League said...

You say tomato, I say t-mah-toe when it comes to Snyder's zombie flick. I didn't get too much out of it other than a post-28 Days Later Zombie rehash with some nice camera work.

I agree that Watchmen has dropped off just as many genre films drop off. However, from the hype machine around it, I believe that WB was hoping that Watchmen would catch on as a movie the way the comic caught on with book and comic readers and have a greater theatrical shelf-life than, say, Speed Racer. Like with Superman Returns (although they aren't really saying this publicly), I think they were hoping for... nay... counting on an atypical reaction to Watchmen. And like SR, they were disappointed.

The goal of WB has to be to be able to create the tentpoles such as the Harry Potter movies that last weeks in the theater, but don't cost that much to produce. Watchmen wasn't it. Its not about what the actual box office is these days, its what they were hoping for/ projecting for box office.

J.S. said...

I think we should have a Watchmen viewing party at The League's house when this thing comes out on DVD in a few months. That way we can drink beer and argue about the movie in person. With any luck, The League will have RHPT in a headlock by the end of the the evening, and NTT will have knifed someone.