Went to see Watchmen last night and it underwhelmed in the ways I expected it to. Prior to the viewing, my friend Jenn and I discussed that potentially, this film is inseparable from its viewers’ preconceptions. Those prejudiced against its various adaptive liberties would remain so, and conversely those stoked to finally see it on the screen would probably be invigorated by the whole shebang. This seems to hold water with reviews (held up to preceding levels of enthusiasm expressed) on a few of the blogs I follow . (And with those individual prejudices guiding judgment of the film, there’s a terrible joke about viewings of the film being a viewer’s own Rorschach test.)
Jenn has been ecstatic about the movie’s opening, so much so that in making plans to see it, I talked her down from waiting in line for the midnight opening showing. She loved it. My girlfriend who only read the first dozen pages or so of the comic and with little to no preconceptions, liked it mostly okay. Her biggest problem was a general sense of missing something about the plot and characters. Rather than getting a sense for Moore’s wrestling with uncertainty and conflict, she walked away with Snyder’s tableau of vaguery. And overall I’m pretty ambivalent about what I saw on screen, with some strong dislikes about its style balanced with some parts and performances that I genuinely enjoyed. So my judgment and assessment falls into a few different categories:
- Watchmen The Movie™ as adaptation = Mixture of success and failure
- Watchmen The Movie™ as action movie = Okay
- Watchmen The Movie™ as merchandizing cash cow = What the fuck is wrong with people?
In a lot of ways this movie is like Paula Abdul’s “Opposittes Attract,” in terms of directorial choices being made, for every two-steps forward– there’s two-steps back. The visual design of the film is phenomenal. I can’t imagine a better looking adaptation of Dave Gibbons’ art, but the flaw isn’t with how it looks so much as how it moves. The slow-motion scenes were excessive and dull, that they took me right out of the scene (although I think the exception is the Comedian’s jump into the rioting crowd), that places the film unironically back into the mold of so many terrible superhero action movies.
Jackie Earle Haley (Moocher!) gives a pitch-perfect performance as Rorschach, but occasionally has to share the screen with the vacuum of personality that is Malin Ackerman’s Silk Spectre. The rest of the cast is mostly fine to unremarkable, but as a whole lacking in cohesion and consistency. It often feels like everyone is in their own separate movie with conflicting tones and feelings1.
Like just about everyone else, I like the opening credits w/ Dylan’s “Times They Are A Changin.'” The opening was indeed great, but sadly for many of my friends, it was their favorite part of the entire film. But after that, all other uses of popular song in the film were uniformly awful. The songs should’ve elevated the scenes or provided an ironic subtext, but in nearly every use, song choices deflated meaning, mood, and tension. Worse still was the original soundtrack, which telegraphed far too much and much too cheesily. There’s something to be said for restraint, and whatever that something is, Snyder certainly never heard it.
Overall, I think he got it wrong. The movie on its own terms is okay, and functions as an average to better action movie. But I was never a fan of the Watchmen for its action-movie qualities. I liked the original’s subversive themes and character deconstructions alongside layers of mystery, conspiracy, and meta-commentary. So, it’s hard to get enthused about it being an o-kay action flick, shitty thriller, and totally unsatisfying exploration of legacy/history/identity.
I know that as I’m complaining about the lack of understanding it shows to its characters, that I’m potentially falling into the archetype of wounded-nerd, hater, super cynic, etc. I like to thinks2 I gave it a fair shot, but as a counterpoint to my largely negative opinions, funny-man Patton Oswalt’s posted an impassioned defense of Watchmen The Movie™, offering that in most nerds’ eyes– no one could’ve gotten it right. And maybe he’s right, but then again he mentions in that blog post how great the show Burn Notice is and that show’s leads are possibly the only people I can imagine being less capable than Malin Ackerman of using their acting talent to escape from a paper bag. (This show also makes me incredibly sad for Bruce Campbell, and the inversion of his tendancy to appear in crappy but awesome projects, into acting in an awesomely crappy project.)
More than anything about Watchmen The Movie™ itself, the thing that’s skeeving me out the most is the attendant merchandising. Specifically the commodifying of the Comedian (aspiring rapist and nationalist stooge) and Rorschach (paranoid sociopath and racist/misogynist/homophobic triple threat) into action figures, potential Lego™ playsets, and adorning the walls of both the cluelessly misguided and the outright assholes. Of course, there’s the societal benefit that anyone wearing the shirt pictured at left is easily identifiable as an unpitiable shitbird to be avoided at all costs. Yes there are other villains like the Joker that get turned into toys and Hot Topic shirts— but part of what makes the Comedian and Rorschach marketable now, is the superficial sanitization of their characters3. Like the subtle editing of Rorschach’s opening monologue4, the streamlined film versions aren’t wholly inaccurate but in smoothing over their edges and making them more palatable for public consumption– the movie misses so much of the point of Moore’s original work, that it’s hard to find much solace in Snyder’s fidelity to the dangling blue wang of the original.
1 It almost makes me wish that Haley’s castmates from Breaking Away could’ve joined him, imagine: Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher) as Adrian Veidt, Mike (Dennis Quaid) as Dr. Manhattan, Cyril (Daniel Stern) as the Owl, and Rod could be the Comedian (b/c they’re both dicks, gettit?). Almost.
2 Originally a typo, but methinks I should try to popularize this ala the British pluralizing of the “maths”
3 In my reading, the two represent extremes of conservatism taken to its most villainous ideological ends. On one hand, the Comedian as the cynical über-nationalist, whose faith in Manifest Destiny and America’s moral certainty justifies any excess. Rorschach conversely is the extreme isolationist whose xenophobia and fear of influence can’t allow any cracks in his own moral certainty.
4 In the film, Rorschach says, “The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the politicians will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’… and I’ll look down and whisper, ‘no.’ All those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers… and all of a sudden no one can think of anything to say.” Whereas in the original he says:
“The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout, ‘Save us!’… and I’ll look down and whisper, ‘no.’ They had a choice, all of them. They could have followed in the footsetps of good men like my father or president truman. Decent men who believed in a day’s work for a day’s pay. Instead they followed the droppings of lechers and communists and didn’t realize that the trail led over the precipice until it was too late. Don’t tell me they didn’t have a choice. Now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers… and all of a sudden no one can think of anything to say.”
The editing diminishes Rorschach’s sexual dysfunction and larger sense of paranoia, instead tailoring him into a more recognizable but still somewhat extreme conservative ideologue. It’s a separate question whether any editing of the dialogue would have a similar diminishing effect, but in this case the omission in subject and change of emphasis (from universal to specific) does have an impact on the overall meaning and characterization of Rorschach.