Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Who hates on the Watchmen?
I remember one day in the late 80's when I laid out the cash for those insanely expensive, leather-bound collector's editions of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, only to get them home to the thudding realization I was never likely to spend much quality time with either book. I'd so thoroughly reread, parsed, and deconstructed them both in my dog-eared newsstand editions that there was no thrill in curling up with the collected editions on a wet Sunday. I knew Watchmen backwards and forwards. (No, seriously, I read it backwards: there's a big section--the Rorschach-centric issue--that's constructed as one big mirror image.) I realized I was pretty much done reading it. As much as you may love a book, at some point you just know the fucking story well enough.
So I haven't looked at that book much in 20 years, and while I still remember it in great detail, I have enough emotional distance from it to say this: The Watchmen film is a towering achievement, a staggering piece of work, and I can't at all understand the reaction of people who see it as a big compromised pile of 'meh'. I didn't go in looking for a filmed edition of the book, I was looking--hoping--for a film that maintained the integrity of this well-loved story, and made it surprising and affecting all over again. But I really wasn't expecting to be so knocked out by the strange, terrible beauty of it. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it, and if I had as much time on my hands for moviegoing as I once did, I would definitely go a couple more times. I would absolutely love to witness the Mars sequences again, or hear Billy Crudup's surprisingly vulnerable delivery of Dr. Manhattan's lines. Or Jackie Earle Haley, for the love of God, if ever there was a perfect convergence of actor and role.
I've read a lot of mixed-to-negative things about this film, and I really can't understand being so dismissive of it, particularly if you're a fan of the book. As comic adaptations go, it's a minor miracle. The odds of an adaptation of this book having been made that respects the source so much, that recreates the fictional universe so fanatically, that so refuses to dumb down the core ideas, that doesn't even break the spell by using bankable actors; that makes so many ballsy decisions and goes to so many dark, wonderful places, are roughly the same as... well, fuck it, Patton Oswalt says it better than I can here. "The fuel of the Nerd Mafia is disappointment and exclusion," Amen, brother.
I'm even willing to go along with the heightened-reality elements, like the ramped-up hand-to-hand violence. Yes, it doesn't make any sense that out-of-practice Dan Drieberg is throwing ganbangers left and right like so many used Kleenexes. But you know what? It also never made sense that Dan singlehandedly invented and built all that unique, futuristic technology--his mothballed hovercraft is still presumably well ahead of the Defense Department's R&D--in his basement, with his two hands. But we accept that he did, because he's a superhero and that's what superheroes do. Despite Laurie's protests that she and her compatriots are nothing more than idiots running around in ass-revealing spandex, we know there's something more to them. They're not just a pervy social club standing around the North Pole deciding the fate of the world, they are (as Roger Ebert suggests) a pantheon of fallen, fractured minor gods.
Then there's the opposite complaint, that the film never finds its own voice because it's too busy using the source book as a storyboard. Apart from that being a really hacky comment that everyone repeats because it sounds smart, it actually applies to Sin City, not to this film. As someone who tends to be somewhat tuned into the differences between a storyboard and a finished piece of film, I feel comfortably certain that the shots that match the panels are well in the minority. A filmed version of Dave Gibbons' panels would have resulted in a more static, perhaps Kubrickian, visual sense. Zach Snyder was not cribbing excessively from Gibbons. (He kept the Gibbons book open in front of him while he cribbed from Michael Bay, Stephen Norrington and the Wachowskis.) Snyder made this film its own rough beast, and I'm pleased to say I no longer have "300" reasons to hate him. He's one talented dude.
UPDATE: After some interesting discussions I've revised my assessment down a bit. Snyder demonstrates an unfortunate disregard for the human relationships that give the story its heart. Put it this way: If the Dan-Laurie romance or the relationship between Silk Spectres I & II was your favorite aspect of the book, then you likely found the movie a failure, and you're not a foot soldier in the Nerd Gestapo for thinking that. If you're more fascinated with the fringe characters (Manhattan's existentialism, Comedian's amorality, Rorschach's psychosis), then you're in agreement with the director, and the film is therefore a success.