(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.