It is the comic book movie equivalent of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho: a technically accurate but dramatically inert copy of its source.
Speaking recently with Wired, Watchmen writer and co-creator Alan Moore described the process of adapting comic books to film as “a waste of time.” To his mind, “the only possible point for wanting to [make a film of a graphic novel] is to make a lot of money out of it.” Now it’s put-up-or-shut-up time for director Zack Snyder and his cinematic Watchmen. Could the point to all the years of development hell and gnashing of fanboy teeth and remarkable special effects be anything but fiscal?
Yes and no. In two and three quarter hours, Snyder packs in nearly all of the book’s labyrinthine plot and myriad characters, and enough of the dialogue and images from the Moore/Gibbons original to suggest many scenes were shot using the graphic novel as storyboards. If this is all you require of the Watchmen film—seeing the characters brought to life onscreen, moving through their world convincingly, and hearing them say their lines—you will be delighted. But if you want a Watchmen movie that moves you or challenges you in the way the original graphic novel did over and over again, you will be disappointed. Snyder’s version values replication over entertainment. It is the comic book movie equivalent of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho: a technically accurate but dramatically inert copy of its source. As an exercise, as an experiment, as fodder for a conversation about the positives and negatives of fidelity in adaptation, it’s an achievement. As a movie, it’s at best an exhausting but visually stunning mess and, at worst, a piece of cinematic karaoke.
If you know the book, you know the plot. If you do not know the book, it would help to get a primer, because the characters’ various stories and back-stories come at you hot and heavy. Watchmen, easily the most celebrated English-language graphic novel of all time, tells the story of a murder mystery set in an alternate reality 1985, in which the introduction of masked heroes to society during World War II altered the landscape of the twentieth century. By the mid-80s, President Nixon (still in office because term limits were repealed after he won the Vietnam War with some super-powered help) has outlawed costumed vigilantes, and the United States is on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
It’s then that one former caped crusader, a cynical mercenary named The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is found murdered and another, an uncompromising and mentally unstable detective named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), suspects his assassin is specifically targeting the super-hero community. Rorschach’s investigation leads him to all the remaining former crime fighters, from the world’s smartest man turned world’s greatest businessman Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), to lonely and frustrated gadget-eer Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), to a man given God-like powers by a nuclear accident named Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and his discontented girlfriend, The Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman). The film follows the novel’s structure with a watchmaker’s precision, establishing the mystery plot and then allowing its twists and turns to reveal the various characters’ histories and motivations. Narratively speaking, very little is left out and very little is changed beyond an ending that jettisons a very complicated “how” for a much simpler one that maintains most of the original’s “what” and “why.”
What little Snyder does add feels at odds with his slavishly faithful approach to the rest of the material. The fight scenes are a much bigger focus in the film than in the novel, and their presentation as hyper-stylized fisticuff ballets seems like a concession to mainstream audiences that actively contradicts Moore and Gibbons’s work, which undercut the traditional representation of violence in comic books, critiquing the idea of frivolous escapist thrills. Snyder also significantly expands the on-camera role for President Nixon (Robert Wisden), who has several unnecessary scenes with Henry Kissinger (Frank Novak) in the war room from Dr. Strangelove—perhaps a vain attempt to lighten a mood that is otherwise unrelentingly bleak. The movie’s only truly successful invention is an opening credits sequence, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin,” that tells the history of the 20th century and the influence costumed heroes had on it: Dr. Manhattan shakes hands with President Kennedy; The Comedian shoots him on the grassy knoll in Dallas, and so on. Since most of the individual shots (rendered in Snyder’s beloved slow-motion) are punctuated by the pop of a photographer’s flash bulb, the sequence also suggests a nice metaphor for the director’s overall project: bringing movement and life to iconic still images.
But many of those still images lose something in the translation. On the printed page, Rorschach’s signature inkblot mask is a sinister, arresting image. On film, it conceals Haley’s face completely for seventy-five percent of the movie, keeping us from seeing what was likely the best performance in the film. Crudup gives the emotionless Dr. Manhattan an appropriately disaffected delivery, but he sounds so convincingly bored, particularly as he narrates his lengthy origin story, that the air of disinterest is downright infectious. The flashback structure, so crucial to the narrative’s success in book form – whose design as a serial was much more forgiving of interruptions and digressions – keeps tripping the film up, stopping any narrative momentum the second it begins to develop.
In other words, it is not enough to simply transpose from one medium to another; there has to be a level of interpretation. The greatest super-hero adaptations – The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2 – do exactly that. They take what is great about the comic book medium and apply it to what is great about the movies. The one truly exhilarating shot in all of Watchmen is a brief glimpse of Rorschach rapelling silently down a wall, and it astonishes us not because it looks just like something Dave Gibbons drew in the comic book but because it provides us with something Dave Gibbons couldn’t – graceful, fluid movement and a sense of what it might be like for these people to exist and to move through three-dimensional space. If only there were more moments like those, that built on the foundations of the source, instead of picking the foundation up piece by piece and reassembling it at another spot.
It’s as if Snyder, desperate for Moore’s approval, set out to make something so obsessively faithful that the author would suddenly reverse himself and anoint the movie as a legitimate successor to his work. But that approach is a dead end. Moore rejects any cinematic Watchmen on basic principles, and nothing is going to change his curmudgeonly mind; the only way to truly adhere to his vision of Watchmen would be to not make the movie in the first place. Too bad Snyder didn’t instead take a page from his own filmmography, and approach Watchmen the way he did his superb remake of Dawn of the Dead, where he managed to distill the essence of what made the original work great while also giving it a unique and creative spin. Instead, he made something so starched with accuracy he inadvertently proved Moore’s point.