Directed by Zack Snyder. Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino. Warner Bros.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Recurring graphic, often murderous violence; some sexuality including a lesbian kiss and an extended sex scene with partial male and female nudity; violence against women including an attempted rape and a murder of a pregnant woman; profanity and much obscene and coarse language.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, also released in the late 1980s, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel Watchmen redefined what comic-book art was capable of being and accomplishing. I was an art student studying cartooning when Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns first appeared; heady times for comic-book enthusiasts.
In my review of Miller’s ill-advised recent cinematic take on Will Eisner’s The Spirit, I wrote that The Spirit had been the Citizen Kane of comic-book art, and The Dark Knight Returns had been The Godfather. Watchmen does not suggest a similar cinematic analogy, but reading it one might be at turns reminded of Dr. Strangelove, Bonnie and Clyde, Dirty Harry, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Taxi Driver.
It is a work of remarkable density and sophistication, a deconstruction of the superhero genre rather than, like Dark Knight Returns, a reinvention and a deepening of it. Subversive, cynical and nihilistic, Watchmen paints a universe in which Heath Ledger’s Joker from last year’s cinematic The Dark Knight would feel right at home — in fact, he might just find it a world in which there was nothing for him to do.
In this world, the amoral Comedian, who regards life as a meaningless joke, is one of the so-called heroes. The psychotic Rorschach schizophrenically sees the world in morally black and white terms while simultaneously regarding morality as a projection of human meaning onto meaningless patterns. Dr. Manhattan, the only figure in the story with obvious super-powers, is so detached from humanity by his godlike status and quantum perspective that he has a hard time seeing a meaningful difference between life and death. Then there’s an Olympian figure who sets out to save the world by an act more monstrous than the Joker’s wildest machinations.
On one level, Moore sought to craft a narrative exploring what masked vigilanteism might look like in the real world, with flawed and marginal characters rather than the altruistic do-gooders of traditional comic-book mythology. On another level, although he made some effort to imbue his characters with varying outlooks, Moore’s anarchic, atheistic worldview clearly informs the narrative as a whole.
The story could be called a critique of super-hero hubris, of those who in setting out to help mankind set themselves above the rest of humanity. The title alludes to the Roman poet Juvenal’s pointed query, “Who watches the watchmen?” (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) The climax threatens to rip the rug from under traditional heroism altogether — until a final twist rips the rug from under the climax, and the story seems to end as it began, with a meaningless, deadly joke.
Why have I spent six paragraphs of a movie review talking about the source material? Because Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is not only the most faithful cinematic comic-book adaptation ever created, it is possibly the single most faithful cinematic adaptation of any source material, ever.
No medium other than comic book–style sequential art could ever inform a film adaptation to the same degree, since movies and comics are uniquely fusions of visual and literary art. The most faithful imaginable film version of a novel could never owe as much to its source as Snyder’s Watchmen owes to the graphic novel, since composition, visual point of view, set and character design, even physical details of casting choices have all been influenced to a degree beyond the novelist’s art.
This isn’t to say there was no opportunity for creative choices on the part of the filmmakers. To begin with, the book is a work of such density that choices had to be made what to include. The need for compression has led to new images and sequences, especially in the striking title sequence. Adjustments have been made here and there, sometimes to good effect — most notably regarding a climactic device, where the spirit of the original is honored in the breach by a clever twist. In a word, Watchmen is the anti-Spirit, and that can only be a good thing.
Some choices are less welcome than others. The creative title sequence, offering iconic snapshots of the movie’s alternate history set to the strains of Dylan’s “The Times They are A-Changin’,” restages the famous Life magazine V‑J Day photo of a sailor kissing a nurse with a masked hero in the sailor role, but makes it a lesbian heroine named Silhouette who never appears onscreen in the book — and then depicts Silhouette and a female lover murdered in bed with the words “lesbian whores” blazoned on the walls.
This psycho-homophobia motif is original to the film (the novel refers to the unseen Silhouette as a lesbian and mentions her murder by a revenge-seeking enemy). For a moment it seems Watchmen might go the way of V for Vendetta, another Alan Moore adaptation in which persecution of homosexuals was a major theme — but it ends there, with maximum gratuitous effect. Wasn’t Rorschach’s bloviating against homosexuals and liberals enough for Snyder?
While casting choices are generally excellent, some of the comic-book characters are actually more ordinary-looking than their movie counterparts. As Nite Owl, Patrick Wilson is fitter and more conventionally handsome than Gibbons’s slightly dumpy rendering of the character, and Matthew Goode is both prettier and more lightweight than Gibbons’s Ozymandias/Veidt, who’s supposed to be the world’s smartest human (my friend Lawrence Toppman cracks that Goode’s Veidt is only the smartest runway model). On the other hand, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian and Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre seem to have walked off the comic-book page, and Jackie Earle Haley makes a splendid Rorschach, growling like Clint Eastwood by way of Christian Bale’s Dark Knight, which is just what he should sound like. (He actually sounds better than Bale, darn it — doesn’t sound like he’s trying, or digitally enhanced.)
Billy Crudup provides the tranquil voice and motion-capture physical performance for the computer-generated Dr. Manhattan, who’s a splendid special effect — light-years beyond, say, the second Fantastic Four’s Silver Surfer — though his bulging, ripped CGI muscles go beyond even the perfect physique of his comic-book counterpart. More crudely, the movie vulgarizes Manhattan’s habitual nudity; where Gibbons’s rare full-frontal shots are as matter-of-fact and “understated” (Gibbons’s word) as classical statuary, in the movie the doctor lets it hang out all over the place — and he’s endowed like a blue CGI porn star, in marked contrast to the comic book.
Other comparatively subtle choices in the book have been coarsened in the film. Where sex in the book is all offscreen, the film offers an extended, fairly explicit sex scene in Nite Owl’s flying ship. The violence, too, has been tarted up for the screen. The graphic novel has a horror-stricken young Rorschach, snapping after making a grisly discovery, chain a human monster inside his apartment, splash kerosene around, drop a match, and walk away, leaving him to burn to death offscreen. In the movie, after chaining him up, Rorschach splits his skull with a meat cleaver, then continues to whack at the skull again and again, all in closeup. Another scene in which a thug’s throat is slit in the comic book becomes a double amputation with a buzz saw.
Last year’s brilliant The Dark Knight showed how effective implied violence and menace could be without spurting blood or unnaturally draped limbs. The R-rated Watchmen is more explicit, but much less effective.
Snyder’s direction is professional but uninspired, especially when it comes to action scenes. Two big scenes, a rescue from a burning building and a prison break, could have been thrilling, but merely go through the motions. A much built-up sequence in which convicts attack the imprisoned Rorschach in his cell peters out in anticlimactically rote action rather than building to a kinetically stunning finale.
Though an impressive achievement on many levels, Watchmen doesn’t connect emotionally. Characters and situations remain distant and uninvolving, a problem not entirely absent in the source material, but aggravated by the compression of the film which necessarily leaves out some of the human detail of the original.
More elusively, as reverently as Watchmen treats its source material, what was groundbreaking in a 1980s graphic novel is old hat in a 2009 action film. Dystopian apocalyptic scenarios, violent antiheroes, graphic violence (and here sex) and so forth had never been seen in mainstream super-hero comic-book art — but there’s nothing new about seeing it on the big screen.
I admire Moore and Gibbons’s work in the graphic novel. I can’t say I like the work as a whole. It’s a super-hero story without heroism — not a story of ambiguous or flawed heroism, like The Dark Knight, but simply non-heroism. A key character in a key scene debunks what he calls the “obvious,” “schoolboy” heroics of a simpler time — but then his own vision is debunked as well in a closing conceit that seems to depict humanity lurching randomly toward meaningless annihilation.
The movie is an impressive work of transposition, but I can’t recommend it. Excessively brutal and sexually graphic as well as nihilistic and and antiheroic, it’s a thoroughgoing deconstruction of humanity as well as heroism, one that takes its world apart without putting it back together again. There are things to admire here, but Watchmen doesn’t make me care. If you can’t care about characters facing the end of the world, perhaps it’s time to turn back the clock and move on.