Movie Review > Watchmen


(WARNING: This review assumes you’ve seen the movie, so if you’re avoiding spoilers, don’t read it.)

In what context should I review Watchmen? Do I compare it to the book (which I admire, but don’t personally love)? Do I try to review it as if I weren’t familiar with the book, as a film that stands or stumbles on its own merits? Does a superhero flick like Watchmen even deserve a review that begins with such pretentious metaphysical mummery?

These are the questions that kept me up for about five or ten minutes last night, before I woke early the next morning to see an 11:30 a.m. showing of Watchmen at the Jordan’s Furniture IMAX theater in Natick. (Yes, you non-New Englanders, for some reason a regional furniture chain owns and operates not one but two IMAX theaters, built right next to the furniture showrooms.) I think Dr. Mrs. Ghostal was more excited to see it than I was, as I intimated a few days ago.

However, as the movie started, I got pretty into it. At first. Seeing Rorschach in the flesh, walking down a filthy wet street with blood pooling in the gutters, I was put in the same magic frame of mind as the first time I saw the 1989 Batman, or Dick Tracy, or X-Men–watching a world I’d only seen on paper rendered in three dimensions (emphasis on the word “rendered,” as Watchmen is as heavy on the CGI as you’d expect).

In terms of the visuals, for the most part I think director Zack Snyder did a good job transferring Dave Gibbons’s classic sequential art to film frames. He’s less successful in getting across Alan Moore’s story and characters.

I never felt much empathy for, or engagement with, the characters in Watchmen, but to be fair, that could be something that was in the original novel itself. I’ve always felt that while Watchmen was a brilliant work of deconstructionism, it also felt somewhat like an imaginative essay, like one of Plato’s Dialogues. Because Moore wasn’t allowed to use the Charlton characters, but rather had to invent a new world with characters based on the Charlton characters, something about Watchmen feels a little detached to me when I read it. Moore usually writes with both his brain and his heart, but Watchmen seems all brain to me.

Because Snyder’s film is so faithful, even slavish, to the original work, I had much the same response to it. The characters seemed flat and the story frequently bordered on pretentiousness (though this was often punctured by cheesiness like the endless sex scene in the Owlship).

I don’t want to review Watchmen as a story. I do like and admire the graphic novel very much, and I think Snyder has given us a very faithful, if not completely faithful, adaptation of it.

(Before I go any further, I’d like to mention how much I loved the effect of Rorschach’s mask as the black came and went like blood seeping through cloth. It was easily my favorite effect in the film.)

What I’d really like to discuss are the changes Snyder made and whether they affect the messages and themes Moore wrote into the graphic novel.

I mentioned the sex scene–can we please have a moratorium on all use of Leonard Cohen on TV and film, particularly “Hallelujah,” in sex scenes? Never again, please. I also thought the scene dragged on too long, but what bugged me most was that it dragged on at the expense of the post-coital discussion from the book, where Laurie and Dan discuss how the suits affected the sex.

Then there was the way Dr. Manhattan’s teleportation worked. In the book, Manhattan and the people he teleports simply pop from one place to another without the big blue Quantum Leap-style light show. Initially I thought this was just Snyder being unwilling to use one of cinema’s oldest special effects when he had a budget of $150 million to play with, but one of my friends pointed out that it might have been intended to tie in with the new ending, where Veidt blames Manhattan, and not extradimensional squid aliens, for the destruction of New York (and in Snyder’s version, many other cities). The blue blasts, and their energy signature, is what identifies Manhattan as the presumable culprit.

Then there’s that tweaked ending itself. My friends and I had a lively debate about whether there was a significant difference in blaming an alien threat versus blaming Dr. Manhattan. I was on the side of the aliens making a better scapegoat, and here’s why: at the very end of the film, Laurie wonders aloud whether the newfound world peace will really hold, and Dan replies that it will “as long as they think Jon is watching.” I found that line chilling, because you can so easily replace “Jon” with “God.”

Suddenly I envisioned that rough beast slouching toward the ruins of New York, where a new religion would be founded on the belief that one of the Watchmen is indeed watching us at all times–God exists, and if you misbehave he’ll kill you all.

That’s the difference with the Dr. Manhattan ending. With the alien squid, humanity realizes the insignificance of their own petty squabbles and has something greater than themselves to deal with–an alien threat, yes, but also the implication of alien life and the limitless possibilities that go with that. People and nations then cooperate with one another voluntarily to examine both this new threat and the wider universe it represents.

On the other hand, if the world thinks Dr. Manhattan is responsible for the destruction, it seems to me an implied sanction has now been placed on free will–Dr. Big Brother Manhattan is watching us, so behave. And while you might point out that President Nixon announces a plan to work with the Russians on a way to combat Dr. Manhattan, I still think Dan’s later line about Manhattan “watching them” trumps that thematically.

(And even if all the nations of the world did start working together on a way to deal with Dr. Manhattan, is there really anything they can do other than start throwing people into intrinsic field separators and hope they recreate the accident–and probably recreate the problem, too?)

My friends disagreed with me on some of these points, particularly the idea that a new religion would be founded worshipping Dr. Manhattan. But I still think there’s a troubling element regarding free will in the new ending.

My only other problem with the movie was the long, dull fight scenes. Every fight scene drags on for at least three or four minutes and is often gratuitously gory, such as when Dan breaks a thug’s arm so bad it spurts blood. I suspect this is simply Snyder catering to some of his lesser instincts (and those of his audience).

Don’t take the above comments to mean this is a thumbs-down review of Watchmen. It isn’t. Since it’s so faithful to the book, it’s nearly as good, and most of the changes–with the exception of the ending and the dull fight scenes–simply helped the story work better as a film. Watchmen is a beautiful spectacle and an impressive feat of adaptation; but I’m sure in the future, I’ll re-read the comic more often than I’ll re-watch the film.

Oh, and as for why you won’t see any Watchmen figure reviews from me: the answer is twofold. First and most importantly, when it comes to figures based on movies that are based on other things–comics, books, and so forth–I usually prefer figures based on the original work. There are exceptions, particularly when the movie isn’t so much an adaptation of a particular graphic novel but something that exists in its own universe, a la Hellboy or The Dark Knight.

Second, the DC Direct figures are pre-posed McStatues. No thanks!

If Mattel were to make Four Horsemen-sculpted Movie Masters Watchmen, though, I’d probably be unable to resist.

24 thoughts on “Movie Review > Watchmen”

  1. As one of the "few" that didn't worship at the feet of the original Comic I didn't feel the need to be first in line to see this and having now done so I have to say I would rate it as ok and no better.

    It was visually very impressive (but then so was Speed Racer) and slavishly close to the scource but seemed overlong and had whole scenes where I drifted off and planned out most of my week – not usually a sign that something has me gripped.

    And I have to agree about Leonard Cohen – wasn't that last years motif?

    The Blue wang really was there just to ensure the cheapest of reactions – the moral outrage that might rear it's head when a few more people have been to see this. Or maybe not, if box-office continues to dip.

    Not an equal for the Dark Knight, not even on a par with Iron Man. Alan Moore might actually be happy about that….

  2. Interesting thoughts on the changed ending. I actually prefer this version, not because of aliens vs God, but because trying to do a giant squid in any way not laughable on screen would have been more than Snyder could have handled.

    I also always had a problem with the alien ending since it wasn't any sort of stop to our problems. Using aliens meant you had to KEEP having them attack – one attack ain't going to do it. Oh, it might do it for a few years, a decade maybe, but people have short attention spans, and if there's no alien sending us nasty videos calling us the scourge of the universe on a regular basis, or worry would eventually fade.

    This new ending is just like you said – as long as they believe God is watching, they'll act straight, and perhaps stick together to try to find the ultimate protection against said God. As to free will – doesn't the Gods we already have pretty much do that too? It is an interesting discussion though, and I think your vision of some sort of religion growing up out of it is not off at all.

    I didn't have any issues with the fights – in fact, I thought they were terrific. Yea, they were violent, but the willingness to do violence – hell, the getting off on it – that these characters exhibit was the point.

    The sex scene was atrociously bad, but I crack that up to two things – Snyder hasn't got the touch for directing sex, and the two actors playing Spectre and Night Owl were pretty bad in general. I thought the acting for Rorschach and Comedian was terrific, and Ozy and Manhattan was good enough, but Nite Owl and SS were the weakest acting link.

    The song selection for the sex scene was also the only misstep on the sound track, too. The other songs selected played perfectly, and actually added to the scenes in which they were included.

    Another favorite aspect for me was the opening sequence. Great stuff.

    So yea, it's not a great movie, it won't rival Dark Knight for me, but it was certainly well worth watching, and I'll pick up the DVD when it hits.

  3. I haven't seen the film yet, so I'm not reading the review yet. Just wanted to say, only in New England can you shop for furniture, see a film in IMAX, and get a delicious roast beef sandwich all in one stop! 😉

  4. As to free will – doesn’t the Gods we already have pretty much do that too? It is an interesting discussion though, and I think your vision of some sort of religion growing up out of it is not off at all.

    I don't think the Old Testament God who jumps in and causes disasters when humanity goes wrong has been the traditional conception (at least among Christians) for centuries. There's a big difference when you have concrete evidence of said God having existed and having meted out such punishment.

    How is the way in which Veidt has positioned Dr. Manhattan in the world's consciousness that much different from Anthony Fremont, the omnipotent kid in that Twilight Zone episode–other than the degree to which he exerts his control?

    To be clear, I realize Veidt's plan from the comic was probably way too weird and obscure for non-fanboy audiences, and Snyder's ending may have been the best and simplest solution. I just think its implications are drastically different than those of the comic's ending.

  5. That's funny, PJ!

    Dr. Mrs. Ghostal and I were wondering how many people we didn't know were in the theater that we'd been in the same theater with before for other movies, given our preferred genres and viewing habits.

  6. For me this film has confirmed that I really hate nerds. I don't mind when people have well thought out opinions of why they don't like something, but I'm so beyond sick of the knee jerk reaction I've been seeing on forums and the like. It's nothing new, but I'm just so sick and tired of it.

    Anyway, I loved the film. Yeah it's not 100% perfect, but I really really liked it.

  7. I was never a reader of The Watchmen and when I saw the movie, I had came in with low expectations due to reviews that revealed Dr. Manhattan without shorts throughout the movie, rape scenes, dull action scenes.

    However, I got out of the theater pretty satisfied. The rape scene wasn't that bad and didn't even really happen and the actions scenes were pretty long.

    What I didn't like was this:

    1) I don't think anyone really needed to see Dr. Manhattan's Manhattan Jr.'s ALL over the place REPEATEDLY. I was like GEEZ create some damn ENERGY PANTS or a THONG at least. MOTHER OF CHRIST!

    2) The gory fightning style of someone like Owl Man. Owl Man would react all shocked when The Comedian or Rorschach would use brutal force but then break arms bloodly without question. I was like…what the hell?

    3) My favorite character Rorschach dying in the film. Not just because he died but because I don't think his death fit his character.

    Rorschach was pretty intelligent. His ability to use his smarts was a part of his personality. So I felt this type of person didn't match Rorschach's decision in telling Dr. Manhattan to kill him.

    If anyone had Rorschach's certain level of survival instincts…why didn't he just "ACT" like he wouldn't reveal this made up ruse in order to live to fight another day? He knew he would be no match for Veildt or Manhattan so his survival instincts should have come up with a way to survive.

    Lastly, I thought it was funny how Manhattan told Veildt that his intelligence was that of a termite's compared to his. But then it was Veildt who still was able to manipulate Manhattan in the end. I felt it was perfect illustation that there are different types of intelligence. Manhattan may be the most scientificifally intelligent being but he doesn't know even the basics of manipulation and decit. Deception runs strong among human beings and Manhattan loses his human side more and more as years go by.

    Then lastly, I thought it was funny how both types of intelligence were Null and Void after we learn Rorschach had sent his Journal to a newspaper company. So I take it that it's back to square one? Rorschach had the last laugh.

    All in all, a satisfactory movie except for Rorschach dying and the constant images of a nude Manhattan running all over the place.

  8. Jim-

    Sorry, being God means no one can make you wear pants if you don't feel like it.

    Also, the confrontation between Rorschach and Manhattan is important. (at least it is in the book.) It's the first time in a long time Rorschach is made to feel utterly powerless (not even incarceration could do that to him) and they made a point in the book of how his worldview leaves no place for a higher power. (He's based on objectivist Steve Ditko's character The Question, with just a dash of Mr. A.) Confronted with one, he reverts from the persona he's created for himself to Walter Kovacs. All the same, he dies standing up.

    Also, losing the squid was one of the changes that bothered me the least. The squid worked for the book because the book ended with a comic-y solution to the problem after spending 11 issues establishing that their world is far more like ours than Batman's. It was a bizarre bit of irony, and the monster itself looked like something out of a 50-s era monster book. A movie is a different beast than a comic book, and while I'm not entirely satisfied with the new ending I'm not sure how the squid would have played.

    That said, I am among those who thought it never should have been a film, and while it doesn't diminish the book at all I didn't care for it. I did give it a fair shake, but things like the overblown soundtrack and the tweaking of certain aspects of characters sort of bothered me. I just don't get people who read a comic and think "Boy, I can't wait until this is a movie!" because I like all the things comics can do that movies can't. Sin City worked because it was very cinematic on the page, while Watchmen wasn't especially laid out like that.

  9. while i admit i attempted to read the book twice and could not get into it , i was excited to see this movie simply because it was one of dc comics few attempts to do something other than superman or batman

    i thought it was different and cool…very cerebral , thought that the soundtrack was amazing and my best friend who is a huge watchman fan was really happy which made me happy

    thing that got to me the most was the people who walked out during the rape scene and the mother who brought a boy in a batman hat that had to be about 6…they walked out when kid walter ate the bully…not too long before the sex scene

    just kinda thought they should have educated themselves a little bit before seeing this… to the unaware ( like my girlfriend who kept looking at her watch ) this has to be the worst comic book movie ever

    we ( the comic geeks ) usually wind up hating everything else

    kinda nice to be on the other side of the fence for once

  10. while i think the dr. manhattan angle made more sense on film, and gave a certain substance to his feelings of alienation (making him more believable as the culprit), i think the comic ending resonated a lot more with me. seeing all those dead bodies and a big ol' monster squid lyin there, coupled with veidt talking about all the gory details, really had more of a visceral impact. but i agree with others that it was a bit too comic booky to work on film.

    i think the film was as good as it could have been, and i'm glad it was made. but i think the book is and always will be where the spirit is.

    and leonard cohen's hallelujah is a rare example of a song where the original isn't the definitive version of a song. listening to cohen's version after hearing jeff buckley's rendition makes cohen's almost laughable. after john cale picked through all the 19 verses cohen had written and chose the least absurd among them for his version, he created the definitive lyrical version, which buckley expounded upon musically and vocally. listening to cohen's now just sounds goofy, especially during such a goofy sex scene.

  11. and any parent who would take a child to this movie deserves what they get. it's quite clearly rated r, although i guess they could be fooled by the mcstatues on sale at TRU.

  12. monkeyboy-

    It's not so rare. Consider Dylan vs. Hendrix on "All Along the Watchtower," or (arguably) Bowie vs. Nirvana on "The Man Who Sold the World," or The Ramones vs. The Heartbreakers on "Chinese Rock," or even Nine Inch Nails vs. Johnny Cash on "Hurt." Then again, Cash could do that to a whole lot of songs, considering I like his versions of "The Mercy Seat" and "One" better than the originals.

  13. Gotta agree with Paul, this overabundance of venom, this nerd-on-nerd outrage that just burbles about is just inane.

    The complaints that the film was too faithful, where more often than not "fan-centric" films are gross departures from not only the sometimes vast source material but also the basic concepts, is just ridiculous.

    Enough is enough, if nerds keep sh*tting on the entertainment they're given they need to get their sh*t together and do it themselves or make sure this stuff doesn't get made at all.

    @Poe: None of this was targetted at you, I liked your review and well thought out "God-Osterman" Religion idea.

    @Other Commenters: No beef with ya'll either, just venting.

    Also, I cringed at times, ie when 99 Luftballoons and Halliejuah came on, the balloons song for being so epically random and Halliejuah for being used 194 times in movies, trailers, and tv shows in the last 18 months alone.

  14. Great review, Poe. You're fast becoming my favourite reviewer guy for your fair and even-handed reviews. I was worried, very much, that you would fall in with the crowd and bash the film. Sure, you pointed out areas of the film you didn't like and felt weakened the work as a whole, but it didn't have the caustic, vitriol for vitriol's sake that's becoming all too common amongst our various hobbies these days.

    I think the notion of using Dr. Manhattan as an end to nuclear war is pretty clever and to a certain degree ironic, given his affect on the world in the novel, and all of the godlike imagery they used for him. There's a scene in the last chapter in the book where he walks on water, and one of the supplemental materials features someone saying "God exists, and he is America." Or something to that effect.

    "why didn’t he just “ACT” like he wouldn’t reveal this made up ruse in order to live to fight another day?"

    I don't know if this line made it into the movie, but I think it really says more than an explanation of Rorschach's objectivism ever could. At the Nite Owl's suggestion that the group compromise and tolerate Ozymandias's plot, Rorschach says:

    No. Not even in the face of armageddon. Never compromise.

  15. i gotta say, it would be totally against rorschach's character for him to just lie and continue living. he sees things in black and white, that's his whole persona. he is absolutely uncompromising. of course he couldn't just 'act' and say he wouldn't reveal it.

    and i must disagree with motorthing on his appraisal of the ubiquitous blue wang…it was there to be faithful to the book, unlike movies like sin city, where nancy the stripper wears a bra (although that was jessica alba's fault). dr. manhattan has grown beyond clothes (although apparently not at press conferences and funerals).

  16. "manhattan has grown beyond clothes (although apparently not at press conferences and funerals)."

    Those were events that most likely would have his government non-controllers begging him to put on clothes, remember they needed him for PR purposes and I think he knew that.

    As far as the end where Rorschach dies, it works perfectly well from a story stand point. I can understand if it is upsetting, but life isn't full of happy endings. That's one reason why I love Watchmen, it dared to not give you that happy ending that you come to expect from these sorts of stories.

  17. I don't know…i don't think "acting" would be out of character for Rorschach…even though u guys are more of an expert than me (never read a single Watchmen issue).

    I'm not saying Rorschach should go on living a lie but just "act" for that specific moment so Dr. Nude can leave the earth and Rorschach can go back to the city and do his think (even though he did make a journal).

    I think "acting" to save yourself from a tough spot would be helping his cause. Because he would turn around and have that NO COMPROMISE attitude and figure out a way to take them down. If you guys had Rorschach's personality knowing what you know from the books, doesn't that seem to fit more? That's what I would do anyway.

    Also Frowny McBeard…

    Sorry, being God means no one can make you wear pants if you don’t feel like it.

    HAH HAHA funny

    Lastly, the hell…Dr. Nude was actually naked in the comics…man…just goes to show I know nothing of Watchmen.

  18. yeah…no. rorschach keeping his mouth shut on the issue would be like batman pulling a gun (oh wait he did that…)… it would be like snake eyes from GI joe ripping off his helmet and yakking like deadpool. just ridiculously out of character. the whole core of his being is that his sense of right and wrong are absolute; he's willing to kill for them and damn sure willing to die for them.

    alan moore actually didn't plan on killing him off, but he ultimately realized this guy was too dedicated to his beliefs to sit by and let veidt get away with the mass murder of millions of people, even in the name of peace and the greater good.

    nobody ever claimed that rorschach was rational or sensible. in fact much of his personality is that he's an antisocial psychopath, insanely driven by his sense of justice. he's not sneaky. when he's got a problem, he acts.

    and frowny, while i definitely agree on hendrix and johnny cash (the man did wonders with soundgarden's rusty cage) i still think it's a pretty rare occurrence for a song's definitive version to be one other than the original. i definitely think bowie's man who sold the world is eons better than nirvana's (and truly think most people just like the nirvana version because they were of the right age and heard cobain sing it first). i'm not saying cohen's hallelujah is by any means the only example, just that it happens rather rarely…and i really can't think of an example that's more striking in how bad one is vs. how good the other is. cohen's hallelujah has potential which was somehow against all odds cultivated by cale and perfected by buckley, and really god bless them, because i could never for the life of me have found a good song in cohens' drawling monotonous vocals and over-the-top gospel choir chorus. a gospel chorus singing hallelujah? that's innovative. also, the verses cohen uses in his studio version are meandering and weak…the verses found in buckley's (via cale's) version are taken from various live performances (from what i've read cale asked for all the lyrics cohen had written for the song and cohen faxed him something like 19 verses). no disrespect to the memory of leonard cohen, but without buckley's version (which really is one of the most beautiful songs ever) i think the song itself would have been long forgotten, even by leonard cohen fans.

    the contrast of the original's absurdity and gaudiness against the stripped down soulfulness of the buckley version is pretty remarkable.

  19. …much more so than, say, cobain's take on bowie's song (in which both versions differ very little), and i'd even say dylan and hendrix's watchtowers lack the disparity you find with hallelujah.

    ooh! i just thought of another song where a cover trumps the original: joe cocker's with a little help from my friends. that's more in the neighborhood of hallelujah, where the cover just absolutely crushes the original and makes it look ridiculous. cocker turns a throw away ditty written for the least vocally talented beatle and turns it into an epic anthem (where the gospel type vocals actually work, unlike cohen's hallelujah).

  20. I still don't get it. Rorschach….ahhh whatever. Just whatever. Sigh. He was my favorite character. The other "heroes" were crap. Especially that Dr. Hey Look at my Flacid friend guy.

  21. monkeyboy-

    I have to largely agree with you. I said arguably in the case of Bowie and Nirvana because it's been my experience that you're more likely to hear the latter than the former. Another couple examples that comes to mind are The Damned's version of Jet Boy, Jet Girl over Elton Motello and Ram Jam's version of Black Betty. Though, to be fair in that case it's probably because the original recording of Black Betty by Leadbelly is pretty rough in terms of sound quality.

  22. something that stands out to me about Watchmen is the amazing character development; they do a great job making each person in that movie a whole, unique person

  23. Pingback: Watchmen :: OB1og

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