Friday, March 6, 2009

In case you're wondering what I thought about Watchmen

I did not like it. In fact I thought it kind of sucked. Going by various movie ratings systems, I'd give it one and a half stars, a D, a frustrated frowny face, or one thumb down and one thumb sideways but about to be capitulated by the weight of Watchmen's mediocrity.

(And yes, Virginia, there will be spoilers).

Basically, for people like us (that is, comic book fans), Watchmen is going to be judged two ways: as an adaptation, and as a movie. I'll try to talk a little bit about each.

As an adaptation, one can look at how the film follows either the letter and the spirit of the book. It's obvious that the Watchmen film doesn't do too hot in the "letter" department; it is not really close at all to being a perfectly-copied transcription from comic to screen. Curiously people involved in the creation of the film keep insisting it is--why?? It would be pretty impossible, in the feature film format, to translate every detail of Alan Moore's tome, and I didn't expect the movie to... I'm just flummoxed that so many people are saying how faithful the film is when it really isn't. Certainly some scenes are truly right out of the book and often times these are pretty cool; mostly I loved Rorshach's scenes, especially the early ones, which seemed to treat the Watchmen comic as a shooting script. That was nice to see. But as the film progresses, scenes begin to deviate more and more wildly from the source material.

However, that is not necessarily a criticism of the movie so much as a remark on its press. I have always believed that what's really important in an adaptation is how accurately it captures the spirit of the original work. When it comes to the Watchmen movie, I'm not sure I'm ready to comment on this point yet. Seeing it last night I was fairly certain the movie missed a lot of important elements of the comic, but thinking it over a little... I don't know. I was trying to think about the thematic implications, for instance, of the fact that Dr. Manhattan is the enemy Ozymandias turns the world against instead of some manufactured space-alien threat. And I think that works. What it does, in my opinion, is neatly emphasizes the otherness of Dr. Manhattan in a way the book didn't yet in a way that is still keeping with the feel of the book. Similarly last night I was pretty convinced that the movie didn't understand Dan Drieberg--in the book the dude is pretty much a sad sack apologetic loser with a costume fetish, whereas the movie seemed to make him out to be more of a regular Joe caught up in a crazy world. But the more I think about his scenes I think it's possible that his schlubiness is just played subtlely and is not absent. At the very least, the movie preserves his costume fetish quite clearly. I really don't like Dan's outburst against Adrian at the end... that seems out of character... but I would need to see the movie again to really get a grasp on this character. So I'm gonna leave the "spirit" question open for now.

Where I think this film fails, then, is not as an adaptation but as a movie itself. And my key argument here can be summed up in one word: "pointless." But let me go back to all the press about Watchmen for a minute. I can't tell you the number of times I have heard the phrase: "Watchmen the movie will do for comic book movies what Watchmen the comic did for comics."

It is here, my friends, that the movie fails.

You see, Watchmen the comic came at a time when superhero comics needed a swift kick in the ass. It brought levels of realism to a medium that few had ever taken seriously before--be it political, scientific (kind of) or emotional. Watchmen did better than make a comic-book universe ala Marvel or DC ... it made a world, a world that seemed incredibly real, with characters so well developed and situations so complex we might as well have been hearing about them on the nightly news. Simultaneously the book also achieved a new standard for comic storytelling as art by crafting an impossibly dense, symbolism-laden literary narrative that put graphic novels on the same grounds as their prose brethren. This is what Watchmen did for comics... it, along with Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Art Spiegelman's Maus (all three in 1986), forced people to see comics as a valid and powerful art form.

And then we have Watchmen the movie, a movie which purports to do the same thing to comic-book movies (and it's important to note that it is doing this of its own accord, not because it is an adaptation of a story that also did this... that's why I'm talking about it down in this section). And the problem is that the context for this movie's release has kind of doomed it already. Watchmen the movie tries, like the comic, to give us a world that asks "what if superheroes were real?". In doing so it shows us a terrible world, horrific images of violence, and soul-crushing hopelessness... it shows us more of these, in fact, than the comic originally did. And one might assume from how Zack Snyder talks (he has said as much, in fact) that his goal here is to get us to think about superheroes and their films a little harder than we have been... instead of Alan Moore's "what would a good superhero comic really look like?" we're to ask "what would a good superhero movie really look like?"

Unfortunately for Zack Snyder, we know what a good superhero movie really looks like. In fact we know what a superhero masterpiece looks like. It's called The Dark Knight. It has all the psychological/emotional realism and character depth that the Watchmen comic has, and an excellent story to back it up. It is not only, in my opinion, the best of the comic book movies but it is also a fantastic movie in its own right. It is also, incidentally, better than Watchmen by leaps and bounds.

See, my primary thoughts during the Watchmen film were: "this is really violent" and "this is long and boring." The violence I see as Mr. Snyder trying to wake us up from our superhero malaise like Moore did in 1986. But, dude, that happened last summer. In fact if superhero movies have a "1986" it would pretty clearly be "2008"--besides Dark Knight there was Iron Man, which was completely different in tone from the Batman film but also a fine flick that showed more lighthearted superhero adventure movies could also be done quite well. Of course there were awful comic book movies too, but, hey, it's not like every comic that came out in 1986 was worth reading.

As for the "long and boring" part... I realize that for me this is the real sin of the Watchmen movie: I did not enjoy watching it. That could be and probably is a comment on me, but it also, I think, reflects on the movie. There is not that much fun to be had here. Dark Knight, although two and a half hours long, was a wild ride that you didn't want to be over. Watchmen, although only about 15 minutes longer, felt like much worse.

I think that works hand-in-hand with its pointlessness. At no time did I feel like the Watchmen movie needed to be made. Fans of the comic probably did not get the fun of seeing a beloved work adapted in a satisfactory fashion, and more importantly, I feel like casual comic-book-moviegoers will be hit with a sense of redundancy, because Watchmen the movie does nothing to inject life into the superhero movie genre that Dark Knight and others did not already do better and more entertainingly.

I guess the true lesson of the Watchmen movie is this: even after 2008, superhero movies can still be strikingly mundane.


Anonymous said...

Suffice to say, on basically every point you made, I completely disagree.
"Fans of the comic probably did not get the fun of seeing a beloved work adapted in a satisfactory fashion..."
I am certainly a fan of the source material, and I def. had fun watching the movie. I knew going into it that it would be as faithful to the source as it could be, while trying to still be a movie. The real issi=ue here is Alan Moore's masterpiece stands as the single best created representation of what a graphic novel could be. And no movie, however well made it be, could be deemed a "movie to end all movies" based on this material. The point of the watchmen was as much a discussion on the state of comics as it was a comic itself. And don't cite the hype of this movie to bring it down Eric. Zack Snyder was given funding to do essentially, a dream project. So if he boasts or misrepresents himself and this film to appeal to the masses, he's no different thank Frank Miller going on about the Spirit (a movie more deserving of your marks for this one I believe.)

Ultimately, you're entitled to your opinion, and I'm saddened to see that you didn't enjoy the film. I personally have said "The movie met my expectations, and to be honest, given the source material, I never figured my expectations could be more than met."

You say you didn't have fun, but if you read this book, you know that the watchmen was never about fun. Not to say the film was perfect--it's not. And the dark knight was better... because face it. You didn't know what to expect there. Here, you had the book in hand not a week ago, and here on screen, things don't play out as they did in your head. Characters don't sound like they did on page, and the tweaks made for the "hollywood folk" did take the story and certain characters in directions we the fanboys did not necessarily vibe with.

Ultimately, I enjoyed it, and am sad to see it didn't do so much for you.

Eric Garneau said...

All I can say in response to you, Marc, is that for me it's not about the tweaks Snyder made... I was actually okay with most of his changes. It was about the tone of the movie. It was hyper-violent and incredibly long and slow and I don't feel like it needed to be either. Someone on the Beat made an interesting comment that the film is a faithful adaptation of the book's panels but not of its story, and that may be pretty close to how I feel.

Also, I don't believe judging the film on what it set out to do is so wrong. Numerous people have said that it would do for superhero movies what the comic did for superhero comics. You hear that a lot. I heard it so much that I assumed it was the "mission" of the film. If the film failed in its mission, which to me it 100% did, then I feel like it is fair to call the film, at least in that respect, a failure. It would be like if one of Will Eisner's instructional army comics from the 50s did not actually succeed in telling someone how to put together a gun or tune up a jeep... I'm sure the pictures were pretty but the whole point of the thing was something else entirely. Granted, an instructional comic is not the same as a comic book movie, but I think my point stands.

Anonymous said...

To judge a movie by it's mission may be... unclear. Snyder may have said that his Watchmen film set out to "do to superhero movies what the book did to superhero comics..." but in reality ALL movies at this level of release have 1 goal, and 1 goal only. That goal is to make a profit. Movies are given accolades, and awards, etc. but at the end of the day the only thing that matters to the industry (including it's directors, actors, writers, producers, etc.) is that the films make profit. Any loftier goals, including the scope of the film, it's artistic merit, or how it resonates with fans... is all afterthought and really up to opinion.

At the end of the day, I think it's up to the interpretation of how you read the source, and how that provided you with a desire for how the film might turn out. Those didn't match, and because of it, you didn't enjoy it.

For what it's worth, I felt the film captured exactly what Moore had intended on the page, and it matched the tone in the book in its story extremely well, which is why I enjoyed it as I did.

Eric Garneau said...

Unfortunately, Marc, you and I come from two different schools of criticism... in my world economic concerns like profit don't get to factor into the final analysis of a film as art. You have to let a movie stand based on what you see, not what you hear about its box office numbers, and I feel like Watchmen fails to stand on the one thing it wanted to do more than anything else (and again there is evidence of Snyder's hopes for the movie IN THE FILM, most notably the excessive amounts of violence). So, yeah, I feel like Watchmen is a failure. I'm glad you enjoyed it though. Quite a few people did. Facebook is showing me not quite as in the minority as I thought I was, though, and there is a pretty slick discussion of the film's merit/lack of it going on over there on my imported version of this blog.