All Along The Watch(men) Tower

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It’s been written and said elsewhere, but it bears repeating: Watchmen the film is about five years too late, and that’s being generous.  Wikipedia and countless geek websites inform me that the comic was groundbreaking when it was published in the 1980s, not least because it shook up comic book conventions approaching characters and morality.

The ideal window for Watchmen would have been 2003 to 2006, when comic book movies began to exhibit deeper scripts and more complex characters.  Up until X2 (2003), the comic book film was squarely for geeks; X2 was the vanguard of a movement in comic filmdom that brought Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Batman Begins (2005), two films that blew the doors off of what comic book movies were capable of, especially in their richly layered characterizations and balance of thrills and emotion.  Post 2006, comic book movies began saturating the movie market, and deconstruction began in earnest.

In a post-Dark Knight world, deconstruction past this point is becoming less and less fresh an approach.  Upon its release, much was made about The Dark Knight’s maturation of the comic book genre.  It is perhaps considered the most realistic of the comic book movies for several reasons: its stripped down visual aesthetic, its deeply conflicted characters, the unglamorous use of a city as a setting.  Christopher Nolan’s characters ventured into morally grayer territories than any other previous comic book film, and the weight of those forays was a major part of The Dark Knight’s overall impact.  As a comic-book film, The Dark Knight accomplished a great deal of stylistic and characteristic deconstruction on a sub-level, even while engaging the genre’s hallmarks of outlandish action, costumes, and plots. 

Watchmen’s characters are all morally gray in some way, and while that may have been a new development in the 80s’ comic industry, it’s nothing new in film, or comic book film.  If Watchmen had been released pre-July 2008, its moral quandaries and conflicted characters may have had a greater impact on filmgoers’ psyches.  But it wasn’t, and unfortunately, a great deal of Watchmen’s potential impact as a deconstructive piece has been blunted.  Its long awaited thunder hasn’t been stolen so much as siphoned while waiting through those long years of torturous development.

I have read the graphic novel, and spent months digesting it.  I enjoyed my read through, and I was surprised at how engrossing the story became as it moved along, though in hindsight, it doesn’t add up to much more than a collection of episodes ranging from the extremely compelling to yawn inducing.  Watchmen the film is about as faithful an adaptation of the source material as can be made (despite the changes to the ending), and so it too doesn’t add up to much more than a collection of episodes ranging from the extremely compelling to the yawn inducing.  Zack Snyder loves Watchmen the comic so much, he kept most of it painstakingly intact while transferring to celluloid; so much that he forgot that movies, like any kind of storytelling, benefit from unifying threads.  The film plays in an episodic manner both in plots and themes, but lacks that overarching structure to tie it together.

In the end, the greatest irony (and failure) of Watchmen is its transformation into a true cartoon; perhaps in the hands of a more documentary-oriented stylist, the material would have retained the weight found in the original comic.  Instead, Zack Snyder’s sensibilities render the proceedings into an escalating array of over-the-top fight scenes, and while Snyder’s slo-mo obsession saw more use in 300, it is no stranger to Watchmen.  After a while, all of that deconstruction and soul searching and moaning and real-life problems gets shunted aside so we can enjoy wire-suspended bodies kicking ass.  The comic was hailed as groundbreaking for the way it broke with comic-book traditions in its presentation of complex, morally questionable characters, and for it’s unusual depth for a medium widely viewed as shallow.  In that sense, it’s disconcerting that the long-awaited film adaptation of Watchmen is neither groundbreaking nor very deep in a meaningful way. 

Perhaps it is this realization of ideological impotence that caused Snyder to amplify the comic’s most violent moments into even greater displays of savagery.  I’m not sure what is gained by having Rorschach embed a meat cleaver in a criminal’s head; the novel’s less-graphic portrayal is actually more cruel and chilling, and a more effective summation of Rorschach’s character.  It is in moments like these where Snyder shows his true colours: he doesn’t have anything new to bring to the table, and what he does bring is just unnecessary grotesquerie.  Consider also the attempted rape of Sally Jupiter: a valid argument may be made for its inclusion (in order to set-up the horror of Sally’s revelation later on), but the amount to which Snyder subjects his audience smacks of a little boy trying to get away with as much as he can without being paddled.

In addition to its descent into irrelevance, Watchmen fails as a document of the passage of time, save for one chapter: the history of Dr. Manhattan.  Scored with Philip Glass’ music from Koyaanisqatsi, it is a stunningly beautiful mini-film that imparts a true sense of the movement of time around an individual.  Nostalgia runs rampant through the whole film, but it finds its best place within the framework of Manhattan’s ruminations.  I was astonished by the simple poetic nature of this sequence, a satisfying tonic of anguish, hope, and sorrow.  A month after viewing the film, it is this scene that stands out most in my mind, and the one portion that I would gladly see again and again. 

Despite that sequence, the rest of Watchmen fails to capitalize on its decades-spanning potential.  Part of the reason for this might lie with the large roster of characters; it’s easier to convey a sense of time-passage and its accompanying emotions when focused around a single individual.  Truly rewarding character growth takes time, of course, and Watchmen divides its attentions amongst many individuals.  I don’t think that’s the real problem though; the real issue lies with the broad characterizations.  God bless Patrick Wilson for doing a good job with Nite Owl, but he can’t overcome his character’s tedious range: when he isn’t in action, he’s dumpy and nostalgic; when he is in action, he’s alive and vital.  It doesn’t get more complicated or interesting than that.  The Comedian was a bastard for the vast majority of his life; the revelation of his tear-stained retirement and remorse doesn’t have as much impact as it should.  Laurie Juspecyk spends the whole film in various states of drifting.  Rorschach remains a mostly one-note cipher until his final moments.  There is no cumulative effect over its 163 minutes to match the opening credits or Manhattan sequence for their respective impacts.

The implementation of classic tunes is puzzling, and more often than not, unsuccessful.  The happy exceptional moments are truly inspired: the opening credit montage gets a major boost from “The Times They Are A-Changein;” while the aforementioned use of Phillip Glass’ work provides a deeply meditative backdrop for Dr. Manhattan’s back-story.  The rest of the soundtrack ranges from uncompelling to downright inappropriate; by the time “All Along The Watchtower” was clanging away over windswept Antarctica (inserted, I presume, because of two lines from that song quoted in the comic), it became clear that Snyder left his iPod on shuffle in the audio suite.  I won’t say the appropriation of Leonard Cohen’s original “Hallelujah” was necessarily inappropriate to its respective scene (if a bit over-the-top, but then everything in the scene was), but I do wish they’d left it alone, if only to save me the memory of frantic thrusting every time I listen to that song.

Reading back over what I have written, it seems as though I did not enjoy the film.  This is false; I enjoyed my experience of watching it.  For a film of its length, it hurtles along at an admirable speed, commanding attention.  It is rarely boring, though having read the book, I had a bit more invested in the outcome than a Watchmen virgin.  It goes without saying that Zack Snyder knows how to manipulate visuals to their full potential, and he makes Watchmen easy on the eyes (at least, aesthetically); though really we won’t know for certain how much of a visual genius he is until he produces something without already existing art to reference.  While I don’t think it particularly succeeds, I do think it’s a significant film that bears discussion.  It is a victim of mis-timing, but that doesn’t preclude its rise as a noteworthy film and text for future viewings. 

My immediate reaction to the film was mixed, and after a month of reflection, I still find myself conflicted.  This is infinitely preferable to a disposable entertainment, and while I would not call Watchmen a good film, it is indeed important.  I will say that its inherent nihilism prevents it from becoming a “great” film in my eyes, but I will save that piece for another day.  I sense that Watchmen — a failure, yes, but a fascinating one — will bear more useful fruit from its flawed self than if it were a perfect work.

-Nathan Douglas

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5 Responses to “All Along The Watch(men) Tower”

  1. I won’t argue with the majority of your analysis of Snyder’s WATCHMEN. Your comments regarding the structure and character development strike me as very much on-target. A cinematic WATCHMEN required more subtlety and depth in its characterization, and more imagination in the transfer from an episodic series to a feature-length production.

    But I’m not sure I agree with your comments about the source. The appeal of Moore’s WATCHMEN, for me at least, was never in its deconstruction of superheroes, but in its handling of its themes. In terms of sheer thematic complexity, WATCHMEN still has no peer in the realm of superhero-based comic book narratives (not that it deserves the title of “Greatest Graphic Novel of All Time,” as many seem to pin on it – it’s not even Moore’s own greatest work; his FROM HELL far exceeds WATCHMEN on every level). In that way, WATCHMEN still had something to bring to the table, even as late as 2009. In the wake of THE DARK KNIGHT, it wasn’t going to be revelatory, but in the right hands, WATCHMEN certainly could push the medium further than it had ever been taken before.

    Unfortunately, Snyder’s handling of such thematic material in his adaptation was hit-or-miss. The right move was in making the major storyline changes to climax, which adds to WATCHMEN a very intriguing commentary on humanity and God (something the original comic only faintly touched on). Other themes don’t work as well. Snyder fought with the studio to keep that content in place, but it doesn’t seem to be Snyder’s primary focus, or at least he seems easily distracted by the “coolness” of slow-motion fighting sequences.

    Anyway, I do think Snyder’s WATCHMEN benefits from repeat viewings, and will be more favorably viewed in years to come. The Director’s Cut comes out in July, and that too may help the film by adding more connective tissue and allowing certain scenes to breathe. Snyder did express that he was unhappy with how tightly he had to edit scenes for the Theatrical Cut. Then again, Snyder has also commented that the Director’s Cut will be both “sexier” and “more violent,” so perhaps any hopes for a less flawed version of WATCHMEN are misplaced.

  2. Ryan, I agree with you that the film’s ending added more depth to the God/humanity thread. Funnily enough, upon finishing the comic I felt that Moore had (probably unintentionally) made a subtle case for the hand of God at work in small ways, by allowing Rorschach’s diary to be found by the newspaper editors. But at that point, foremost in my mind was seeing Veidt brought to justice in some way for his crimes. Being a book that one may put down and take up at will, I was also picking and choosing certain themes to focus on which coloured my impressions of the conclusion.

    The film’s ending had the opposite effect on me; compressing all of those themes and events together concentrated them into a single stream of communication, and as the film concluded, I was struck by how Veidt’s victory of peace was about to be horribly undone, or so went the implication. That also brings up questions about Manhattan and how he left Earth despite seeing its (destroyed?) future, which is where the commentary on God and humanity gets interesting, but alas that’s also where the film ended.

    I think you have a good point about the thematic complexity being one of its claims to fame as a new addition to comic book filmdom. I wasn’t alive when the book was released and my reading about the comic before actually reading the book itself was very much focused on its influence as a deconstructive piece, by those who felt its original impact.

    For all of its complexity, though, it didn’t seem to do nearly as much as it could have. Here’s hoping the Director’s Cut fixes some of that.

  3. Well, I don’t think the ending of the film (or graphic novel) with the Rorschach journal necessarily implies that Veidt’s plan will be revealed as sham, or that Veidt will be brought to justice. (In the graphic novel, Veidt makes a perceptive comment that Rorschach’s testimony will be less than reliable given his status as a lunatic, and is seemingly unconcerned when Rorschach leaves. It’s Dr. Manhattan who seems to care.) I think it simply implies what Dr. Manhattan said in the graphic novel and Laurie says in the film: “Nothing ever ends.” There’s always loose ends of one sort or another, and we can’t say where they will take us. As WATCHMEN suggests throughout its entire storyline, the world is out of our hands.

    And I’m not sure the Director’s Cut will bring in too much thematic complexity. Just extra connective tissue (i.e. more stuff with Hollis Mason, including his death, as well more Rorschach material making him more of a central figure).

  4. Re: Manhattan’s history.

    Conclusion: Billy Krudup = Awesome.

  5. Irrelevant Says:

    I don’t know if this will be of any interest for you, but it is my understanding that the reason for changing Rorschach’s method of execution of that criminal was rooted in film history: Saw I-1billion. It was very much a Saw style of execution “Do this unthinkable thing or die. You have a time limit.”, and even though Watchmen came first, all your average moviegoer will remember is Saw.

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