Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

11 March 2009

Watchmen (movie) — No pun review

First off: Watchmen was never going to live up to expectations. It was going to fail critically, commercially, or fanboyishly, because very few movies can satisfy in all three of those dimensions. The Dark Knight did to some degree, as did the first two X-Men and Spider-Man movies. But neither of them were crushed by the expectations Watchmen labored under: the greatest graphic novel of all time, written by Alan Moore, who disowned the movie. Can anyone live up to that? Fans will tend to nitpick, critics will compare its depth unfavorably … it’s easy to get the feeling this won’t end well.

And that’s the problem. I enjoyed this movie. Let me repeat that, so it doesn’t get lost in the nitpicking to come: I enjoyed this movie. It’s not Citizen Kane for the costumed set, but it wasn’t boring, it told a great story, it was rich in details … Watchmen does a lot right. It’s just that when compared to the original, any movie will fall short, and Watchmen is so seminal, so important that many will have trouble separating the movie from the graphic novel. Including me.

Second: The sort of slavish devotion to the text that director Zack Snyder has been accused of isn’t always bad. Take the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The movie version most of us know — the one starring Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Mary Astor, actually the third attempt to get the story onto film — is remarkably close to the novel. Snyder has been accused of using Watchmen’s art (by Dave Gibbons, who hasn’t disowned the movie and actually worked closely with Snyder) as a storyboard; Falcon director John Huston could have been accused of using Hammett’s novel as a shooting script, dropping only the metaphysical story about Flitcraft and toning down the references to Joel Cairo’s (Lorre) homosexuality.26

Part of the reason Huston was able to do that was because the performances of the actors involved. Bogart, despite not being the “blond Satan” Hammett described Sam Spade as, left his indelible stamp on the movie. Greenstreet, in his first movie role, made fat man Kaspar Gutman even larger than life. Astor was perfect as the manipulative femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and Peter Lorre — well, when someone cast Lorre in a role, the audience was always going to remember Lorre for being Lorre.

Watchmen does not have that perfect all-star team of actors. The standouts are Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, whose CGI-blue presence is muted by his soft voice and his distance from humanity, and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, who nails the numbed sociopath who wants to avenge mankind’s sins. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian is gleefully violent, which is all I needed from him. Patrick Wilson as Dan Drieberg / Nite Owl II was passable; it’s easy to argue Drieberg is such a non-entity, a normal guy, that there’s not much there for the actor to sink his teeth into. Matthew Goode, as Ozymandius, affects a bizarre accent, and as many (including my wife) have pointed out, seems a bit wispier than the role calls for. Malin Akerman is a lifeless bit of femininity who can’t keep up with her peers; her performance is easily the worst part of Watchmen.

Third: Snyder’s reputation precedes him. This movie is bloody — needlessly bloody — and Snyder goes out of his way to provoke action, which for a movie like Watchmen is asinine. Short action scenes are prolonged for no reason to try to “push” the characters and overstimulate the audience, with punches and kicks delivering unbelievably traumatic results. The fight between the Comedian and his killer at the beginning of the movie is barely a page in the book, with the older, tired, and already defeated Comedian being quickly dispatched, but Snyder develops a long set piece that is distractingly frenetic. Silk Specter and Nite Owl, while battling a gang of toughs, inflict wounds no unarmed assailant could inflict, and rather than have them use sonics to incapacitate the prisoners during a prison riot, as Moore does, Snyder has them punch their way through their difficulties.

I appreciate Snyder’s lack of quick cuts. I don’t like anything else he does with fights.

Snyder is not afraid of the human body and the things that it can do — or can be done to it. Besides the excessive violence, Dr. Manhattan is nude throughout most of the film (as he was in the graphic novel), with a full view of the front of his body. There’s nothing excessive about this, and given the amount of female nudity, it would be hypocritical to complain about it. There’s a sex scene that’s a little more intense (and long) than what I’m used to in a movie, even an R-rated movie; where most directors would have glossed over the physicality, Snyder revels in it. It’s an interesting choice, and I don’t mind noting that I was uncomfortable with it. (Although I thought it was a good choice to keep the female partner’s thigh-high, stiletto-heeled boots on for the scene, given the movie and graphic novel’s discussion of the fetishistic aspects of superheroes.)

Fourth: Snyder’s devotion to detail is remarkable, with the sets and costumes looking almost exactly like they were lifted from the graphic novel. (Nite Owl’s costume transformed him from a middle-aged lump to someone who actually looked like a hero.) It is astonishing to see the page on the screen. The opening credit sequence, where forty years of costumed hero history is compressed into a few minutes as Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are a Changin’” plays is rightly praised.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the overall movie, Snyder seems to be both note perfect and tone deaf. He can reproduce what is on the page flawlessly; ask him to improvise, and the result is leaden. Where Moore hints, Snyder points with a giant neon sign and hires a man to shout, “HINT!” The difference between Moore’s words and the dialogue added to the film is like the difference between Mozart and children banging on rocks. I also disapprove of some of the readings of the lines; Rorschach’s farewell to Nite Owl in their first scene seems too jaunty, for instance, and Rorschach’s final line came across as completely wrong for the character. This movie’s Richard Nixon is, as Lawrence Person says, “a spoof of a caricature” and comes across as more laughable than repulsive or powerful.

Don’t take my comment about “tone deaf” to mean there’s something wrong with the movie’s soundtrack. From “Changin’” to “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix (another Dylan song, used in the graphic novel) to Nena’s “99 Luftballoons,” the music was fantastic and fit the movie very well. Some of the songs — “Changin’” and “Unforgettable,” for example — are suggested by but not used by the graphic novel, but it really sounds fantastic.

Fifth: The source material is fantastic. Snyder doesn’t wreck it or sink it; his casting and fiddling with the text can’t do that. He just doesn’t live up to it.

Sixth: Don’t take my word for it:

Rating: DC logo DC logo DC logo Half DC symbol (3.5 of 5)

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