Watchmen (review)

Graphic Marvel

I reread Watchmen, the graphic novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.], which I had not read in at least a decade, just before I saw the film the other night. I’m not at all sorry I did, but I can appreciate that my supreme enjoyment of Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the 12-issue series may have been impacted by my fresh recollections of the alternative universe writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons so brilliantly invented in the comic. Snyder’s (300, Dawn of the Dead) Watchmen is probably the best three-hour version of the story that could be made, but it’s undeniably a story that would have been better served by a 12-hour miniseries — it would have been perfect for the Sci Fi Channel as long as it got a smart Battlestar Galactica-style treatment, not a cheesy-Saturday-night-movie treatment. Inevitably, much has been left out or truncated in the film, and whether too much has been lost may not be something I can fairly judge, since my brain was surely filling in any vital missing pieces.
Still… I’m not sure if that’s the case. Because even though I knew much is missing from the film, there were moments, while I was watching it, that I was hard-pressed to figure out what had been deleted. (Some of it is obvious — the Black Freighter stuff, which is coming to DVD as a standalone story soon [Region 1] [Region 2]; the missing-artists subplot — but some of it is not.) It all feels seamless… and it all feels as smart and as vital and as relevant as the source material always did. Nothing has been dumbed down in David Hayter (X2: X-Men United, The Scorpion King) and Alex Tse’s script, and that was my great fear, that it would be. (Moore is uncredited, per his own request, but so much of the language and the structure of the storytelling is his that he might as well have gotten the only credit.) The film assumes the same intelligence on the part of the viewer that the graphic novel did, assumes that you are patient enough to wait for not only the plot but the detail of this alternate universe to unfold and don’t need to have it explained to you like you were a slow child. That was always one of the great pleasures of Watchmen the comic, that it teased you with the differences between its world and our own, and slowly doled out the information you needed just as you needed it.

There was a women sitting behind me at my screening who — during the open credits, which perfectly encapsulate the alt-history of Watchmen’s world — cackled out loud, “How can Richard Nixon still be president in 1985?” I shushed her violently. If you’re the kind of moviegoer who needs to have it bonked over your head from the get-go how Richard Nixon could still be president in 1985, instead of being able to wait and trust that answers will be forthcoming, you’re going to want to avoid Watchmen. Everyone else can sit back and revel in the joy of being treated as a grownup — even those who haven’t read the graphic novel. I think.

Also, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t understand that comic books can be grownup — like the annoying Anthony Lane in The New Yorker (the bastard also spoils the ending, for those who aren’t familiar with the story) — you’ll want to avoid this. Someone like Lane, who can decry Watchmen as merely the adolescent fantasy of someone who doesn’t understand reality, is entirely missing the point: Watchmen is its own refutation of such an idea. It is about people who have been so inspired by comic-book stories of caped crime fighters that they become caped crime-fighters themselves.

That’s the alternate universe of Watchman, for the uninitiated. It posits that those first stories of Superman and Batman are read by people who cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy, and figure that if Batman can clean up the streets, so can they. Lane makes a snide comment about Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl, being afraid of that he’ll be “sued for plagiarism by Bruce Wayne,” as if it weren’t entirely the point that Dreiberg is emulating Batman!

Now, to be fair to Lane and his ilk — who of course will never have read Watchmen, it being beneath them — it may be that the fact that the early “masked avengers” the Minutemen, in the 1930s and 1940s, were inspired by fictional superheroes is one of the details that is dropped from Snyder’s Watchmen. (I can’t remember whether that is covered in the opening credits that set up the world.) But it is unavoidably obvious that the world that we see in the filmed Watchmen is meant to be the “real world,” and not a fantasy abstraction of it. The “masks” and the villains are indisputably human: they’re complicated and deeply flawed and often not very likeable.

This is even more true in the film… and it’s one of the reasons the film is so thrilling that it actually sent chills through me at moments. Seeing flesh and blood actors bring these characters to life… they’re all even more frustratingly complex and unpindownable. The cast is, almost to a one, actual actors, not pretty-faced movie stars — which means they’re not familiar faces that can distract from the immersiveness of the experience. Tom Cruise playing a Nazi is always gonna be Tom Cruise-playing-a-Nazi… but a mostly unknown face like Patrick Wilson’s as Dan Dreiberg is simply only Dan Dreiberg. (The movie geek in me, who knows damn bloody well who Patrick Wilson [Lakeview Terrace, Evening] is enough to have been geeked to hear that he would be playing Nite Owl, is astonished to see that it’s possible to make this supernaturally handsome actor look dorky.) Billy Crudup’s (Dedication, The Good Shepherd) face may be the most recognizable among the cast, but it’s obscured by the CGI/performance-capture technique that transformed him into the glowing blue energy being Dr. Manhattan. (I’m relieved to see that the raw earthiness of Dr. Manhattan’s nudity has not been toned down for the film — that would have been an indication that other truths of Watchmen that may have been uncomfortable for some had been toned down, too. They haven’t.) Jeffrey Dean Morgan (P.S. I Love You) as Edward Blake, aka the Comedian — he looks so much like a beefier Robert Downey Jr. that early promo pix from the film once made me think that that actor, bulked up, was playing the part — really imbues with life a character that in the comic is hard to approach. And Jackie Earle Haley (Semi-Pro, Little Children) as Rorschach… Well, Rorschach in the comic is almost impossible for me to sympathize with. Rorschach in the movie, for all his sadism and extremism and volatility… half the time I found myself wondering whether he wasn’t the sanest character of them all.

This is the point, too, of Watchmen, a point that is even more pronounced up on the big screen: this world — this bitter, terrible world — is a result of vigilantism run amuck. It’s a fucking disaster, and it’s getting worse. To complain about the grimness of Watchmen is, again, to miss its point. It’s not supposed to be pleasant: it’s about what happens when base human drives are given free reign and hearty approval… and about how the sudden withdrawal of that approval doesn’t change human nature. (The “masks,” you see, have been outlawed for almost 10 years, not that that has stopped all of them from doing from they do.) Dan’s sexual impotence until he puts his Nite Owl costume on for the first time in years: even more so on the big screen, the connection between male aggression and male sexuality is not necessarily approved of, but neither is it denied, and in this case, it’s even more effective when it’s someone so apparently meek and sweet as Wilson’s Dan Dreiberg, who makes Clark Kent look cool.

More reality: the soundtrack, which features music by Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, cementing the story to a specific place and time (it’s not that alternate a universe). “The Times They Are A-Changin’” over the opening credits is supremely ironic; the rest of it isn’t, and makes you go, Damn, what kind of science fiction — and this is science fiction — draws on the mojo of Leonard Cohen? What kind of SF gets away with using “All Along the Watchtower”? (Wait, I take that back: we know what kind of SF gets away with that. And yeah, you can plop this Watchmen movie down into the same cultural space as Battlestar Galactica for its unshirking willingness to be harsh and honest and sour.)

Snyder’s Watchmen is extremely faithful to the source, but some things are different. The glowering sense of impending doom that fuels the graphic novel isn’t anywhere near as pronounced here: nuclear war with the USSR is still threatening, over the two weeks or so in October 1985 that the story unfolds over, but it’s probably appropriate that that feeling has been tamped down a bit — this is a movie for 2009 audiences, after all, not for one from 1985. Instead, slight shifts in emphasis play up dangers that resonate with us now: peak oil, corporate malfeasance, a promise of a brighter future being dismissed as “socialist.” And the ending is bit different, with a different heft. But it’s less preposterous than that of the graphic novel — especially when we consider the history of movies in the interim between the publication of the graphic novel and now. That aside, though, it’s stronger and more powerful, and leaves you with an even greater sense of unease about the morality of everything we see.

Watchmen is not a pleasant movie. It’s uncomfortable and jarring and pungent. Anyone who thinks it’s always easy to say what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” in every situation will not like this one little bit. It is not for children, or for anyone who sees the world in black-and-white. And everyone else will be left unsettled by it.

Isn’t that great?

(Go here for a spoiler-laden discussion of the new ending… We can chat away there without fear of spoiling anything for those who haven’t seen the film.)

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