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.


Leland Purvis said...

Really nice character sketches!!

I haven't seen the movie yet, but there's been a lot of talk about it at the studio among those who have. One criticism I wonder how you feel about, is that the audience never really cares about the characters. And that there really isn't any room for character identification. We then wondered if there was any of that in the book anyway.

Dan is really the only sympathetic character in the book. But even he doesn't really carry the center of the thing and is in many ways just too weak.

One criticism of the book is that despite its complexity and cleverness, it never really involved the reader intimately, which is something I'm hearing in terms of how people are reacting to the movie.

Just saw Coraline3D last night. You should go with Edie.

Bunche said...

Kev, these sketches are excellent. particularly Dr. Manhattan (which I'm going to crib for when I post a link to this review).

Kevie said...

Leland, I think there's a glaring void of audience sympathy centered around the axis of Laurie 'n Dan. Oddly enough the characters who successfully evoke sympathy are Manhattan, Rorschach and the Comedian.

This is a big misstep because Laurie and Dan need to be the human heart oft the piece, and not enough thought was put into generating empathy for their plight, and wayyyy too much to them getting their hump on.

Bunche said...

The reason why the sex scene worked so well in the book was that we had gotten to know and care about Dan and Laurie and when it happened there was emotion involved. Plus we didn't see the "action" per se because we didn't need to be privy to the mechanics of it and the storytelling allowed it to be a moment filled with private gravitas and intimacy between the pair. In the movie we got that ridiculous wannabe-Skinemax soft core crap that felt totally out of place from the rest of the movie.

Kevie said...

You're absolutely right Steve. Both Laurie and Sally got short-changed in that regard: little character development, and an unfortunate excess of grunt & thrust.

Satyrblade said...

I wouldn't have minded the grunt & thrust if it hadn't been set to Leonard Cohen in a manner that had the audience laughing before the "flaming" finale, and had Wooden Doll... I mean, Silk Spectre been able to act. I really liked Patrick Wilson's portrayal of Dan, but Malin What's-Herface totally let her end down. She looked the part, gods know, but her thespianic chops were simply not up to the task.

Good review, Kev, and lots of very true observations. My sentiments about some of the complaints (I've heard folks complaining because they cut the squid, for cryin' out loud!) resemble those I felt when fanboys bitched about "Arwyn, Warrior Princess" or Sam Jackson's black Fury: Christ, kids - it's a movie, not the friggin' books, and the those media work by totally differnt rules.

I, too, felt that Watchmen was amazing in its loyalty to the source: my issues with the film were based on casting, acting, pacing, odd soundtrack choices (although I recinded my WTF moment at "All Along the Watchtower" when a friend pointed out that the sequence in the graphic novel employed the same song), and badly-timed slow-mo. I felt the liberties taken with fidelity were almost always the right choices, and thought the film, overall, was far better than it had a right to be. Its moments of brilliance - to me - just made the awful Nixon and jarring Juspeczyk more glaring.

And yeah - I second Bunche. Your artwork rocks!


Anonymous said...

Finally got around to seeing WATCHMEN today. AND, coincidentally, saw SIN CITY for the first time last weekend. AND got online. I much prefer WATCHMEN to SIN CITY, I'll be the first to admit.

And I have to agree with the human element appearing only occasionally, but have to put some faith in Mr. Snyder's tales regarding studio pressure to edit the whole thing down to a < 3 hours running time. I'll keep my fingers crossed that the director's cut DVD release will include a lot of the bits in there.

One thing that I noticed was that SSII threw up when she was 'ported to CA and then never again. Yet, she was visibly shaken by the teleportation. I suspect that the upchucking will be intact on DVD.

And if fake vomit will be restored, let us hope that some emotions and humanity will be, as well.

All in all, I enjoyed the flick. I wonder if, as it percolates upstairs, I'll lower my initial assessment, as well.

daveed said...

Outstanding review.

I've been warning people that they'll either love or hate Watchmen. Since I was completely blown away by it, it's gratifying when other people respond so positively.

To me, it's an art film, not a superhero movie. I think Snyder courageously reached for the unknown and (accidentally?) created an American masterpiece.

It was like watching an American Kurosawa film -- a darker side to Seven Samurai should the villagers rise up against their Ronin saviors. Or the cosmic sadness and futility of conflict in Ran.

daveed said...

Ebert has a longer essay about the film here.