Zack Snyder’s flawed adaptation of the milestone graphic novel arrives on DVD, Blu-Ray, and in Director’s Cut format this week.
Watchmen is a film that wants to be more than it is – at least most of the time. Based on the highly-praised (perhaps overpraised) 1980s-era DC Comics mini-series and at least twenty years in its journey from page to screen, Zack Snyder’s epic vision of a parallel America where super-heroes have worked, thrived and perished for years arrives on home video this week – just in time for the San Diego Comic-Con – with loads of extra features and even an expanded director’s cut promising additional footage. But does the original film succeed? Well, like the ink blot tests at the center of one character’s obsessions, that largely depends on how you see the film as a work of adaptation and as a film in its own right.
On the one hand, Watchmen is slavishly devoted to the comic’s atmosphere, characters, and even dialogue. On the other, Snyder’s insistence on highly stylized violence – the same gimmick that made his previous 300 such a blood-soaked thrill – works against the intelligent-approach-to-superheroes leitmotif that has always served as the comic’s claim to fame and redeeming virtue. Snyder, unwisely, attempts to have his cake and eat it too, presenting haunted characters doomed by their humanity who nevertheless relish beating the shit out of other people. These two impulses work at cross-purposes to one another, and while the film never lags or suffers for pace, there’s often a sense of it getting winded, too. Superheroes don’t get tired – at least these don’t – but the emotional pitch often warbles and peters out.
The plot is faithfully byzantine, and fans of the comic series (who are going to enjoy the film the most anyway) will recognize dozens of visual and aural references to the world minutely created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. For the layman viewer such density of information will probably prove disorienting, but in broad strokes the world works as a nightmarish amplification of the worst excesses of the Reagan/Thatcher Era, including all the paranoia and shame that accompanied them. A noticeable problem sometimes emerges when the talented cast attempts to bring Moore’s pulp-inspired dialogue to life. Jackie Earle Haley, playing the haunted vigilante Rorschach, has the biggest task in this regard but nevertheless succeeds the most, bringing palpable feeling to his minimalist voice-overs. The rest of the performers don’t fare as well, often bringing to mind Harrison Ford’s famous admonition to George Lucas on the set of Star Wars: “You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.”
Amid the dogged loyalty shown by Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter (X-Men) and Alex Tse, the changing of the book’s ending comes both as a surprise and a relief, yet it still doesn’t entirely make sense. Watchmen the comic’s ending has long been a subject of debate and even derision (the book’s own editor, Wolverine creator Len Wein, fought with Moore but relented). To be fair, the original ending is both derivative (though openly so) and quite a bit dated by now. Hayter and Tse’s script turns the central mystery inward but fails to really examine the ramifications of its execution, and Snyder tries to ram the idea past the audience with bluster and speed. Neither tactic really works.
The film would work much less than it does if not for the performances that manage, often against overwhelming odds, to emerge from the special effects and tediously gruesome fight sequences. Billy Crudup (Public Enemies) finds the character of godlike Dr. Manhattan in the estranged superbeing’s lonesome voice, while Patrick Wilson (Lakeview Terrace) disappears inside the flabby self-loathing of the myopic Nite Owl.
Less commendable are the turns by Malin Ackerman (The Heartbreak Kid) as Laurie Jupiter, the second Silk Spectre, and Matthew Goode (Match Point) as Adrian Veidt, the hero turned media mogul. Moore wroter Veidt as a dispassionate, virtually asexual intellectual; while Goode’s glacial good looks fit the part he never brings any nuance to the character’s dark intellect. Ackerman struggles with a role that’s underwritten to the point of insignificance. Perhaps the delicate balance of family versus self and the struggle for a father figure at the heart of Jupiter’s character was beyond the screenwriters’ capability or outside their interest. Whatever the reason, her character was neglected most in adaptation, and the big reveal regarding her paternity doesn’t quite come off as a result.
The action sequences aside, there are finally other problems with Snyder’s sense of staging and scene construction, and even the most casual viewing reveals missed chances. One particular wasted opportunity involves a third-act reconciliation between Nite Owl and Rorschach, as the latter begs his former partner’s forgiveness for being obstinate. Though the scene screams for close-ups, to show the emotions bursting forth from beneath the masks, Snyder frames the moment as a static medium two-shot. Other visual counterpoints to character growth used so masterfully in the comics – a crystal castle splinters and falls as memories come to light, dirigibles hover over death, a perfume advertisement heralds a new future - are all curiously missing.
The cynical response, obviously, is that Snyder or the screenwriters just missed them when reading the comics. And it’s possible a repeated viewing might show that their understanding of the comics’ themes and still-timely message is in fact only skin deep. I hope not. After 23 years, the Watchmen movie shouldn’t feel like a waste of time.
- Michael Kabel
(Note: An earlier version of this review originally appeared for the film’s theatrical release.)