Watchmen

For some, Watchmen: The Movie might appear to be The Incredibles taking itself “just a bit” too seriously – masked heroes outlawed, reaching middle age and going soft around the middle; plus, naturally, a monologuing villain – but when Alan Moore wrote the original graphic novel he – excuse me while I put on my other pair of glasseswas playing around with his readers’ expectations of what made a superhero story in about as many ways as he played around with what made a superhero. Undermining stereotypes of shiny flying quarterbacks, virginal playboy combat models, and powerful alien visitors attempting to comprehend the relationships of their human friends; instead we were presented with something which it would be hard to call more realistic, but which was certainly more earthy.

Moore’s supermen colour the visible spectrum of human weakness. His male heroes are either corruptions of the Übermensch – cynical fascists glorying in their superiority, totalitarian idealists so far-sighted as to overlook to lives of mere individuals – or maladjusted loners hiding their insecurities and/or psychological fractures behind their masks, and not very well. His female heroes go the other way; yes, they can kick ass, but really they are little more than tits and ass to keep the boys happy and sometimes they realise it, sometimes they don’t. Finally, Moore moves off that spectrum by transforming an ordinary man into something so alien that he is losing his grip on what it meant to be human, rather than trying to understand it.

As with the greatest stories, it is the characters that are vital. The most intricate narrative maze is worthless without someone interesting to penetrate it, while the simplest of mysteries can come alive when one does. Moore takes a relatively straightforward tale, dresses it up with distractions and diversions, then hands it over to Dave Gibbons to render; and through Gibbons’ fine pictures Moore’s interesting characters come to life, tie a simple knot and then untie it again, like the bow around a present.

Let me nail down my little simile (unless it is a metaphor): that bow is the plot, holding everything together but posing no real challenge; for wrapping paper the pictures, colourful and enticing and, we hope, concealing something we really want; but the actual gift inside is the characters.

Okay, while I switch my specs back: “twenty-odd years, no it can’t be done, Moore won’t like it, yadda yadda yadda.” So, now we’re ready to go.

Watchmen, the movie. What can I say, it’s a poor effort – sometimes for reasons common to the supergenre, sometimes for unusual ones. Watchmen is, somehow, a boring film. It drags like a corpse. It’s bloated. It beats such embarrassments as the Spider-Man or Hulk franchises hands down, but compared to Ironman it lacks spark and to Hellboy humanity. As a technical exercise, success. As effective storytelling, failure. There, there is no balance. Sooner or later I’m going to pay the thing a compliment or two, but I’ll try not to get ahead of myself.

Zack Snyder, the posters for Watchmen tell me, was the visionary director of 300. This is the wrong word. To correct this error would be simply to cause another, in much the same way that it would be a mistake to call Vladimir Nabokov, Dan Brown or any other writer a “textual” one. Snyder is not visionary, he is visual; or rather, he is solely visual. This is not a failing in a cinematographer. It is however the absolute crippling of a director, because as the person charged with orchestrating the telling of a story more than pretty pictures are required – and here he offers almost nothing but the glossily superficial.

What Snyder achieves with his pretty pictures is, to that limited extent, a near perfect recreation of the source. In the presentation of this world, it is flawless. Let us call that my first compliment, have a gold star, but to me it’s not much of one. Given the original comics, effectively a set of storyboards loved by all, Snyder and team managed to follow them. Far too pedantically if anything. Comics, like anything else, can be adapted to a different media; but they need to be adapted, not just aped regardless of form or content.

In the casting, and still speaking visually mind, only one key member stood out as poorly chosen – Matthew Goode seemed a far cry from the beautiful and charismatic Adrian Veidt, a strange decision given that Ozymandias represented Watchmen’s closest match to the traditional square-jawed Alpha Male in tights. Of the other principle players, every single one is like watching the pictures made flesh – but yes, only skin deep. Shuck off that skin and the cellulose-based punch lines come all too easy, and I’m doing disrespect to the source medium even using them. Sketchy characterisation, paper thin. Wooden doesn’t cut it. Back to the drawing board would that we could. Oh. Er. Don’t go to the cinema, watch it on paper view.

The acting in Watchmen is woeful. Actually, no: mostly there is no acting. In one case this is deliberate (and I’m being slightly unfair to Dr. Manhattan here, because pre-transformation Billy Crudup was okay – for all of five minutes). Otherwise this was on a par with watching two hours of mannequin soap opera only broken up by adverts for The Matrix – In Colour! There was one performance, that of The Comedian, which showed life and (though admittedly cartoonish) even a little depth – the rest had all the authentic immediacy of the live re-enactment of a boxing match, where the fighters have to pause to find out who lands the next blow.

Perhaps you are familiar with “the uncanny valley” – the notion that, when witnessing something artificial and yet remarkably close in appearance or action to a human being, the observer feels a sensation of revulsion. Many may be aware of the Japanese “actroid” robots and the reaction they tend to inspire at public expositions around the world. Now, if you imagine two of them fucking each other, you approximate the degree of sensuality and passion pumping through the sex scene at the heart of Watchmen. I’ve not felt such distress since that long repressed family film night when mum, dad, brothers and I had to endure “the sexy bit” of some on-TV flick, and the littlest one asked “why the lady has big muscles”. It is absolutely terrible, and it goes on for ages. The slow motion doesn’t help.

In truth, none of the slow motion helps, and Watchmen is sodden with it. I gave up on Snyder’s 300 after barely half an hour, so dulled was my interest by the apparent drops in frame rate. It is as though he seeks to recreate – and force upon his audience – the experience of really studying a frame of the comic to soak up every detail. I’ve done it, while reading a comic (I’ve also chosen to skim over frames as well, and both ways it was my choice). This is one of the joys of the medium, something to which even the purely written story cannot compare: to be able to take your time fully absorbing an image, in a way that one can’t while reading, say, a paragraph of text. Being forced to do this, repeatedly and at length, is not the same thing. It is a stylistic error, and in the absence of any other kind of directorial signature it says something painfully significant about Snyder’s artistic limitations.

So, aside from that one grudging admission up there somewhere, is there anything else I can say on a positive side – how about the script? Well, I found most of the dialogue uninspired, a few memorable lines excepted, although the almost universally shocking delivery may have influenced my opinion. Generally I detest the use of voice over unless it is well justified, and while I thought Dr. Manhattan’s worked rather well (he is borderline omniscient after all) Rorschach’s was a grind from word one. This was something I feared in advance, what with the content of his diaries forming a running commentary to much of the action in the original – but more on that detail below.

There is, of course, the matter of the film’s divergence from the source, and with regard to the revised grand finale I was surprised to find myself quite impressed. With the advantage of many pages and strands to develop his concept, Moore’s original plot works fine; even running as long as this film has turned out it would have been a struggle to make that work on screen. However, I thought the alternative was an excellent choice; it achieved the same exact goal, but it kept things tight in terms of the narrative and it newly incorporated a key character well; it also made perfect sense in a way which, I think, would prove more accessible to an uninformed audience member than one of the devoted. For merely this, believe it or not, I award a second gold star. Well done.

This, however, points me to another issue. In a way, truth to the source only satisfies the fanboys, and Watchmen has made very few concessions to those not of that brotherhood – the detail I skirted around just now being the only one I can think of right now. In the detail of that abysmal sex scene but also in the instances of bloody violence, it clings needlessly to the idea that the comic was of an “adult” bent and that this needed to be maintained; but what passed for graphic violence in the comic bears little resemblance to the moments of gore that occasionally poke their bone out here. Having said that, there are plenty of more glaring flaws to fill the intrepid newcomer with dismay.

Generally I felt there was a missed reversal of roles here: the comic seeks to develop a “realism” within an episodic medium founded on high fantasy and epic adventure; it was intended to explore arguably more weighty themes than the average and to do so it took it’s time and employed attention to detail. On the other hand, a single film of the same is only ever going to be a condensation, an “entertainment version” if you will, and as such would surely be ripe for a more universal audience. I doubt this will prove to be the case; and of the fanboyish claims I hear for Watchmen being “the new Blade Runner”, which with global hindsight is rightly recognised as an epitome of such adaptation, well, the less said the better.

So now, at last (and this has been a bit of a marathon, so thanks for sticking with it, anyone? Fry?), I come to the final stroke of the story. Rorschach’s fate, and the presumed ramifications of his actions, are critical to the tale Moore and Gibbons chose to tell; without Rorschach, the world of Watchmen would have lost its weirdly ethical centre, and the sour satisfaction that came from his absolute refusal to compromise – the taste of victory, in effect. And in the film, by contrast, I don’t think what he did would make the slightest bit of difference. Maybe it was in the hamminess of the acting in that final scene, or maybe it was in the weakness of the criminal plot; I’m sure, although I don’t have the book to check, that originally there were other details for Rorschach to bring to light, missing artists and scientists all waiting to be connected to an evil plan, and only one person to point the finger at. Not so now; if anything, the new plan devised for the film seemed too good – so, for me, with that one concession to feasibility and accessibility that I was so impressed by, Watchmen the movie had its sharpest tooth pulled.

Maybe I should take back a star.

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