Watchmen (Snyder, 2009) – First impressions

March 9, 2009 at 4:16 am (Uncategorized)


I’m hoping to see this again tomorrow so that I can further organize my thoughts. It’s funny – I saw this at the Thursday midnight showing, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I flipped through the graphic novel again, noting all the changes, and the remarkable faithfulness of Snyder’s vision. Regardless of the fact that I felt the film was a great experience, and thus would like to see it again many times, I’d be quick to dismiss its flaws when faced with the astounding realization of the beloved novel that is accomplished here. The ambition is staggering and it’s almost entirely uncompromising in its adherence to the violence, sexuality, narrative complexity, thematic threads, and outright weirdness of its source. Up until the end, which is when it becomes somewhat problematic. Even detractors of the film, whether dissatisfied fans or puzzled newcomers, can agree that the film starts out incredibly well. The beautifully choreographed opening fight scene, set to “Unforgettable,” finds just the right balance of brutality and grace that Snyder later struggles to locate, and I find his use of slo-mo breathtaking. Give me a slowed-down, clearly shot action sequence over the frenzied, over-edited, handheld scenes that have become a mainstay in modern cinema, any day of the week. With the death of the Comedian, the film segues into its opening credits, which are just brilliant. Funny, poignant, and chock-full of exposition delivered in clever near-snapshots, they are a detailed visual history lesson, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” In Alan Moore’s alternative American history, superheroes have become part of our pop-culture fabric, and Snyder inserts them into some of the most familiar moments of the 40s – 80s. He also cleverly sets up the backstories of several major characters with small details that would be easy to miss for inattentive viewers. The film captures this level of brilliance a few times later, but sets up a promise it can’t quite fulfill.

It pains me to say it, but the faithfulness is the film’s greatest strength and weakness at once. While the credits are a totally original way of presenting information from all over the novel (and some scenes which are entirely invented), the rest sticks very closely to the rhythm of the source. Reading Watchmen, it actually seems highly cinematic, but when translated to film, all the flashbacks, plot tangents, and extended scenes of dialogue weigh down any forward momentum that ever gets built up. The narrative is constantly veering away from the main “murder mystery” plot, which works for me because it allows me to see all of my favorite moments brought to life onscreen. And indeed, only a small handful didn’t make the transition, and might be waiting for me in the director’s cut. But I can see how this structure would be frustrating and confusing to someone unfamiliar with Watchmen. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing that the film probably takes a second viewing to figure out or that it demands attentiveness from its¬† viewers. But it does have a very strange pace that doesn’t always work.

Snyder does seem to pander to the audience at times, or at least to his own violent sensibilities. Having seen both of his previous films, I can say he’s the type of director to fetishize violence, and although his method of directing action made me appreciate the increase of fight scenes, I wasn’t a fan of all the bone-crunching. Snyder needs to suggest violence more often, because it is incredibly effective when he does do it. The credits scene with the hippies and the scene with Big Figure are mostly offscreen, but remain the most effective uses of violence in the film. One of the more interesting aspects of the graphic novel was the way it explored the consequences of violence on the psyche, and I think the film was aiming for that by amping up the brutality. I think it missed the mark. Especially in Rorshach’s origin story, the substitution of brutal murder for his cold, disturbing thoughts as he watches the building burn is a sore mistake. It’s better to see the effects of violence, than the violence itself – except in the finale, which oddly stays far away from the blood-soaked panels of the novel. These decisions, while not puzzling to me, are rather disappointing.

Back to the things I really did like. Most of the casting is just spot-on. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach really owns the film, yet without dominating the rest of the cast unnecessarily. Rorshach became one of my all-time favorite characters in literature after the first page and I’m so glad to see him make the transition even better than I hoped. Although I do miss two things: “American love. They don’t make it anymore, like Coke in green glass bottles,” my favorite line of his, which lends him a nostalgia and a romanticism that nothing else does. A little of his humanity is missing, as well as the origin of the mask. But those are nitpicks and as a standalone character he’s perfect. The other two really strong personalities – Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian – also are perfect. Manhattan is realized incredibly from a technical standpoint but the real winner here is Billy Crudup’s vocal delivery, which manages just the right balance of detachment and emotion. Such a tricky character, executed without a single hiccup. His backstory, set to one of my absolute favorite pieces of music by Philip Glass, was the film’s highlight. It’s dreamlike and tense at once, full of oddities, yet real emotional connection. I could watch that over and over. I’ve always¬† had a soft spot for the brutal and amoral Comedian, even though I have every reason to hate him. Morgan doesn’t have a lot of screentime but he makes a big impact. Especially impressive is how he gets the one emotional scene just right, and it doesn’t feel incongruous to the heinous acts he committed so callously in his younger days. All three of these characters are difficult but the film largely succeeds as more than just a technical wonder on the strength of these actors.

I’m holding out to see how I feel about Nite Owl and both the Silk Spectres after a second go-round. I was a little disappointed with their performances but I do think they look just right for their roles (if a little young). Ozymandias is so tricky… he’s terribly underwritten but I really loved Goode’s line delivery. So I hope there’s a lot more of his motivation and backstory in the DC. He’s a very interesting character but he always gets pushed aside in favor of the more “badass” characters, which I feel is a mistake.

Overall I think the film succeeds far more often than it fails. Zack Snyder is easily one of the most visually talented mainstream directors alive, and I love his compositions, color palette, and use of both real sets (which are astoundingly detailed) and green screen. He really goes boldly into the unknown here, by making a unique and strange epic with dizzying amounts of information and more male nudity than any major film, ever. I think what he accomplished is amazing even if he does need to mature a little in some of his directorial choices. Watchmen works better as a companion piece to its graphic novel than as a standalone film – for now. We’ll see what the director’s cut brings. But either way, I’m incredibly thankful it got made, and stayed so reverently close to the source. That would piss of Rorshach big time though. “Never compromise. Not even in the face of a six-hour running time.”


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