Monday, March 09, 2009

Watchmen

I normally don't like to dedicate a single post to reviewing a film, especially one that I think a lot of people who read this blog have seen, but there are a lot of opinions out there on Watchmen, and I wanted to put in my own two cents.

Oh, you know, spoilers will follow, so don't say I didn't warn you. If you whine and cry to me that I ruined the filmgoing experience for you even after I warned you, or because you're just skimming my posts, your tears will taste delicious and nourishing to me.

I don't have any real problems with Watchmen, to be honest. I've been reading a lot of reviews, many of them frustrating, and I'm seeing that even a lot of people who liked the movie have been apologizing for liking it and desperate to point out that they know the movie's not perfect, lest some imagined reader take some kind of issue with them for taking something so over-the-top at face value. And then there are the people who didn't like it and who have been acting like not buying into it makes them some sort of genius.

I've been saying for many, many years that Watchmen could be made into a movie as long as the people adapting it had the courage to cut things out of it. There was no way every detail of the comic book was going to make it into the film; better to recognize that and just charge ahead with it instead of making yet another obsessively-detailed exercise in joylessness that groveled at fanboys for approval. And I think Zach Snyder and his writers, David Hayter and Alex Tse, did a great job of cutting where they needed to. About the only thing I would've liked to have seen make it into the movie that didn't were the scenes between the news vendor and the comic-book reading kid. (JA mentioned in his review--probably the best review I've read of the film--that the scene where the two hug before being vaporized by a bomb was really touching, but really only if you've read the comic.) But I will say that, as I was watching the film, I didn't feel like there was anything that was left out that was sorely missing.


I know a lot of people have lamented the loss of the Tales of the Black Freighter scenes or excerpts from Hollis Mason's Under the Hood to deepen our understanding of the characters and the world they live in. But those are comic book devices, and you have your graphic novels for that. I think one of the most bullshit criticisms of Watchmen has been that it doesn't use the same devices the comic book did to make these characters recognizably human. When it comes down to it, it sounds like these people are actually counting it against a movie that it doesn't use the comic book format to deconstruct the idea of the comic book. That's because it's not a comic book. It's a movie.

Movies operate under different laws. In fact, I think Snyder made good use of the film medium, by which I mean he didn't just try to replicate the look and feel of a comic book. He used the movement to his advantage. A surprising number of people are decrying the "sick violence" and the "too porny" sex scene. I think they fit the tone exactly. Borrowing again from JA, the love scene between Dan and Laurie is supposed to look that way; it's a take on the kinds of slick sex scenes we've seen in a thousand bad 80s action movies. The movie seems to know it's funny that Dan Dreiberg is a schlub, but when he puts on the Night Owl costume he's a sculpted, muscular god. I also like the way characters with no superpowers grab people and throw them around like rag dolls. It underscores a few things: first, that action movies revel in creative violence; second, that superheroes are inherently ridiculous because they casually break the laws of physics; and third, that these heroes are completely detached from a world they all profess to want to save.

That third point is something I found very interesting in the movie: it's bleakness. In the end, I think the bleakness is probably what people are getting distracted by. People have argued that one of the movie's problems is that there isn't enough time for regular people; that it doesn't get across the importance of the humanity that the masks are trying to save. But I think humanity is completely beside the point in this movie. The whole movie is a study in people who are so detached from the rest of humanity that they don't see the human race as a collection of individuals. The Watchmen, as they're referred to explicitly in the movie, have removed themselves from the ordinary people around them simply by putting on costumes and policing their behavior. I think once you've decided that people need extraordinary help from people outside and above the law, there's no question that you've elevated yourself above everyone else around you. Whether you mean it nobly or not, that's what you've done.

Take each one in turn. The Comedian is unapologetic about seeing human beings as animals to be herded and occasionally killed. Dr. Manhattan gradually loses his humanity, which is why he doesn't even consider clothes important. (And to the audience I saw the film with--I'm amazed that you went this far in life without seeing a penis, but stop giggling like a retarded monkey. You're embarrassing yourselves. And to people who couldn't stop looking at it: you really think that's what a big penis is? How cute.) Rorschach sees criminals as cancers to be cut out of society. Adrian Veidt ostensibly does what he does for the good of humanity, but he also sets himself up as the hero of a Classical epic poem; he's apart from humanity, watching it, even shepherding it, as much for his own glorification as for anything else. I think he sees mankind as nothing but a sea of faceless Homeric spear carriers. They've all lost their ability to see themselves as part of the human race. They are its betters.

But I think that Dan and Laurie, the two most obviously sympathetic characters of the story, feel the same way. Laurie feels like her life is a waste without her costume. Dan's only friend is a retired superhero. They seem to be annoyed with the world around them for not appreciating the ways they tried to help. Both of them are anxious, and it's no mistake that they can only make love after a daring rescue of people trapped in a burning building. I never thought for a second that Night Owl and Silk Spectre rescued those people because they cared about human life; they did it because it's a visceral thrill for them to do so.

So what it comes down to, for me, is that I didn't miss the "essential humanity" that a lot of people talk about existing in the main characters of Watchmen. I've never quite seen it. I think Alan Moore saw superheroes for their darker side; as people who had the audacity and self-possession to decide they knew better than humanity how humanity should conduct itself, and set about--consciously or unconsciously--to protect humanity from humanity. That's why the Comedian laughs at it all. He's the one who sees the joke.

I think the film handled this incredibly well and that it's smarter than people give it credit for. It's not the work of a man who thought Watchmen was a cool, slick action story that would make a cool, slick film. It's the work of a man who knew Hollywood would want a cool, slick action film and he parodies a lot of their expectations.

In brief, a discussion of the characterizations and performances.

The Comedian -- Jeffrey Dean Morgan is definitely the standout performance here. He takes an unsympathetic character and turns him into a fully realized human being. It's not lost on Morgan (who I don't think I've ever seen in anything before) that the Comedian not only gets the joke but, in the end, thinks it's terrible. I think this character could have easily been underwritten or one-note, and Morgan really humanizes him in a way none of the other characters are (although, as I said, I think this is part of the point). Honestly, I'd even go as far as to say that the film Comedian is played for much more depth and interest than the Comedian in the comic book.

Night Owl -- I'm so pleased that, for the first time since 2003's Angels in America, Patrick Wilson was actually in a movie I liked. He's a talented actor. I wasn't sure I'd like him as Dan Dreiberg, but he was spot-on.

Silk Spectre -- Malin Akerman is taking the brunt of the criticism when it comes to acting. I've seen her in a few movies and in The Comeback (a TV series I despised; she was the only thing in it I liked), and I don't think she's a bad actress at all. I, too, said months ago that she was too young and inexperienced for the role, but I see the point in casting someone that young. In fact, it makes Laurie's impatience more petulant, which kind of worked for the character. If anything, Laurie is underwritten, but I think Akerman does a good job with it. I found her believable even though I expected not to.

Ozymandias -- Matthew Goode is miscast. He doesn't have the grandiosity of someone who considers himself the heir to Alexander the Great, though he does have a certain arrogance that works. His accent is all over the place, too. I think taking the Aryan and having his accent progressively become more German is a little obvious, but it didn't break the movie for me. Goode is an actor I like, generally.

Dr. Manhattan -- Perfect. I could never picture in my mind what Manhattan sounded like, but I liked Billy Crudup's gradually-more-disinterested, lost, lamenting tone. I'm so glad they didn't try to do a cheesy sort of James Earl Jones boom. Dr. Manhattan is a god forgetting what it was like to be human, a Superman parody who deals with alienation by embracing his non-human characteristics. Dr. Manhattan is more perfectly realized than I would have dreamed.

Sally Jupiter -- Carla Gugino is a goddess. I like what she does here, with an almost cartoonish 1940s type of delivery. I think it really underscores the idea that she's from a generation that was so different and supposedly much more naive.

Rorschach -- The other standout performance is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. He was good beyond my wildest hopes for the character. The movie was especially good at showing the tragedy of Rorschach. As we meet him, he's a shell of a human being, a thing so uncomfortable with being a man that it retreats into an ever-moving, inscrutable mask. His journal entries are almost comically paranoid, blaming society's ills on liberals and intellectuals, wondering if Adrian Veidt is a homosexual, as though this is the key to his sinister side. In flashbacks, we see, briefly, the hurts that cause Rorschach to act on his anger, and the one event that finally breaks him from the human race completely--the real sadness of this is that the event in question is born of very human emotions, one of which is simple empathy.

As a side note, one of the changes from comic book to film is the way Rorschach dispatches of the man who killed the little girl, an event which changes Rorschach from costumed crusader to a punisher of the wicked. In the book, he handcuffs the man and sets his house on fire. In the movie, in a surprisingly brutal scene, he handcuffs the man and buries a meat cleaver in his head. Repeatedly. I see why they went with the cleaver. Setting the house on fire is a comic book scene, the kind of thing a comic book character does to make a point. I like the way it plays out in the film, where Rorschach essentially becomes a butcher who cuts out an infection. It's very emotional and desperate, and much more dramatic. It also makes Rorschach oddly sympathetic.

In the end, I like that Rorschach is the one character who regains his faith in humanity. Even Night Owl and Silk Spectre are willing to not reveal Adrian's plan for the good of the human race. Rorschach at least is willing to let humanity try and judge for themselves what's good for them. And when he knows they won't let him go through with it, he faces death unmasked, as a man, standing in for all of the faceless souls lost in explosions all over the globe.

About the ending. There's been a lot of talk for months now about the lack of a squid. But you know, I think the movie ending works better and is more believable than the comic book's. It makes a lot more sense to me that people fear Dr. Manhattan's judgment instead of joining together out of the goodness of their hearts over bewilderment. Alan Moore's ending is very pointedly a comic book ending. Snyder's ending is a movie ending. And it works perfectly.

I know I keep using the word "perfect" a lot. But there's a lot here that I think is perfect. Watchmen is a masterpiece, and it's weird to see some of the criticism its getting for not being realistic (duh, that's not the point). It's also weird to see so many people wondering if Watchmen will be appreciated by people who don't have a lifetime in comic books. Did you want Watchmen to be good, or did you want to use it to show people why we love Watchmen so much? Because if you want people to understand that, you do what I did a few years ago and buy everyone a copy for Christmas. A movie is not a comic book, and it's kind of pathetic to see people wishing the movie did a better job of validating their love of comic books to the outside world. Your opinions are yours. Mine are mine. Theirs are theirs. Be happy with your own.

Watchmen is masterful. No apologies here.

11 comments:

JA said...

Firstly, thanks for the compliment, Aaron. I was considering after I posted my review scrapping it and rewriting it because I didn't get into a lot of stuff I wanted to but it started getting long and blah blah blah I posted it and then wasn't sure f it had anything of worth, so your appreciation - especially coming in the middle of what I think is the best thing I've read on the movie so far - means a lot. Thanks.

Secondly, I'm starting to feel like a crazy person. I can't remember what your opinion of 300 was but I liked it a lot and ended up having to defend that opinion constantly and grew real tired of that... and now this. It's like... if Zach Snyder makes a self-conscious movie and nobody spots the meta, does it exist? I spot it, Zach! I see what you're up to! And I'm not crazy, mostly. I think there is a lot to the argument that Snyder took what Moore did to comics - that is, turned them inside out - with Watchmen the book, and did it to Watchmen the movie, only instead of it being comics he's turning inside out it's action and comic book superhero movies. Yet people seem to be incapable of distancing themselves where Snyder's concerned and seeing the fact that he's being funny or sarcastic and commenting on the movie tropes we've come to be so familiar with. That's what I wish I would've gotten into more with my review, and what I'm glad to see you bring up. The sex scene for one and YES the fact that Laurie and Dan suddenly once they're wearing their costumes have this awesome strength and kick-ass fighting ability, when really they're just humans... don't COMPLAIN about that, world! Revel in it! it's supposed to be ridiculous and funny and fun. Yet everything's so serious, nobody knows to laugh I guess. I don't know. I don't get it.

I'm going to go watch the movie again tomorrow night I decided after reading your review, Aaron. The movie's sticking with me andmy opinion shifts more and more to the good the more I think about it.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Amen brother, I could not agree more with you on this film. They did a hell of a job adapting it and the people who slag them off for being too slavish the comic are the same ones who would have bitched if there had been major changes to it.

Allen L. said...

All the negative reviews I have read seem to be commenting on the story of the comic book more than the movie. I was reluctant to see it.
I couldn't agree with you more. I do wish that Hollis' murder would have been included. Just because that character is dropped so quickly. But, just what do people want from this movie that they aren't getting?
Nah, don't answer. I don't care.
I, too, think this was a masterpiece. I believe that their ending is better than the original, regardless of the medium. In fact, I think that was the hardest for me to swallow in the book. But in the movie it worked, no problem.
Snyder did everything right.
Watchmen was everything The Dark Knight wasn't. And I would put my money on Rorschach against the Joker anyday.
Haley's last moment in the film was so resonant and sad and human and note perfect.
I will be seeing this again.

SamuraiFrog said...

JA: Thanks for your compliment. And I know how you feel about Snyder. I loved 300, and got so irritated with the way people were calling it on not being ethically "correct," as though that was the point. People are so born into political correctness without even realizing it now, that they get so blinded by every story not being reflective of modern PC attitudes.

Not only does nobody know how to laugh, but everyone's so damn impatient all of a sudden.

Dr. Monkey: I think you're absolutely right. There seem to be a lot of people who feel real fandom is constant complaining.

Allen: Everything The Dark Knight wasn't: exactly. I plan to see it again myself, at least once more.

Peter Lynn said...

I agree with almost everything you say, except that I though Carla Gugino was just terrible. Malin Akerman has been getting a bad rap, though. I thought she was fine.

SamuraiFrog said...

I've heard a lot of people say that about Carla Gugino, but I'm just not seeing it.

Tormentor said...

I don't know... i'm having a hard time going through watchmen in my head again and saying " all those ridiculous scenes? parodies. Zack Snyder is a comedy GENIUS." because they really didn't feel that way.

But let's say they are. I Don't see their purpose. In the midst of a pretty dark movie, who deals with a lot of tough issues a scene that goes " remember those dumb 80 movies sex scenes? this is just like them!". I mean, Snyder said that he wants to have a faithful adaption, how in the hell do scenes like these fall in the line of the watchmen comic?

I guess that the way you see the film as a part faithful adaption, part parody of studios expectations, is lost to me. It's lost to me because: A. It's doesn't have that parody or amusing tone around it, and B. why? i mean, he could have made a parody and he could have made a faithful watchmen, why mix?

I didn't like it. It had it's strong points, absolutely, but as an adaption it really felt like a stupider version of watchmen. But maybe, as a movie, it is a masterpiece, and if so, it'll take me some time until i agree with you on this.

SamuraiFrog said...

I don't know why you assume a parody has to be funny or amusing. Sometimes it's just ironic; I think Snyder is better at using irony than someone like Joss Whedon or Kevin Williamson who think irony is really just sarcasm or self-consciousness.

I stand by what I said in the review; it's not the Watchmen comic, it's the Watchmen film. I don't understand why people are penalizing something that isn't the comic for not being more like the comic. Is that the point of an adaptation? Just to see something you've already seen but, I don't know, moving? That's pretty cynical and joyless, I think. Different media work in different ways.

I think the movie is faithful to the tone and the point of Watchmen, which is more interesting and important. Watchmen was a comic book work that deconstructed the medium; Watchmen as a movie tries to do the same for the inherent silliness of superhero action movies. That is parody. It doesn't necessarily have to be comic or funny. It's not a spoof.

But like I said, I see where a lot of people are having trouble with the tone. I think they're getting something they weren't expecting, which is fair, but it's not a movie that I think can be written off as just "a stupider version of Watchmen."

Tormentor said...

i think that as an adaption of the story of watchmen, it worked on a stupider level. something got lost on the way. lines became downright silly on the screen. but as an adaption of the tone of watchmen, this is a far more complex point. I think that if you're right and both watchmen were deconstructing the medium, than i completely missed how the movie achieved it. What the comic did was take the scenarios and heroes we all know and make them somehow realistic. All watchmen the movie did, as you say, was point out that action comic movies are silly. well, A. i didn't sense that tone, but not the point,B. It isn't much deconstructing, is it? It sort of imitating a funny walk you saw on the street.You didn't deconstruct it, you observed it.

Just two points:

1. For all i care they could have slashed the whole comic to pieces. If it would have come out a good movie? i would have loved it.i say that it feels like a stupider version because i don't feel that the movie was aspiring to more than to tell the story of watchmen, and it did so kinda stupidly.

2. I don't think that any movie deserves to be written off in one line.

SamuraiFrog said...

Of course, like anything, it's all subjective. Personally, I've never bought that the comic turned its heroes into anything approaching realistic. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons do so much in the comic that's just making fun of the whole idea of the medium, using the medium against itself to expose and deconstruct the idea of costumed heroes. The characters are all entitled, maladjusted at best, psychopathic at worst; that's always felt like part of the satire to me. I think the fact that it's told with a straight face is part of the joke. I always have.

I think any lines that were silly on the screen are pretty dumb in the comic books too. They're just more acceptable in the comics because comic book lines are usually pretty dumb. If you take it at face value, it's all pretty stupid. Again, I think it's far more subtle than people are giving it credit for, because people expected a different kind of movie. Which I understand.

For your second point; there are lots of movies that can be written off in one line. I just saw Epic Movie last week. Have you seen that? One line is more consideration than it deserves. Some movies just don't try.

Tormentor said...

Well, i just can't see this tone you said, and i went through the comic again lately, so i guess we just pick completely different vibes off things.

Personally for me it was just the ways the lines were said the made them stupid, but I'll agree that in no way is that top-notch dialogue.

After this discussion i do want to see it again, though. I probably won't change my mind, but i want to try, damn it.

On the second point: I dunno..i think that either you reduce everything to one sentence (which can be done) or you give any movie the benefit of being written off by two sentences, or at least by one really long sentence. Even making cheap cash-ins take work.