A Slice of Fried Gold

I Watched the Watchmen

Saturday, March 7, 2009

When talking about relationships, Amy always tells me that she's interested in guys that are interested in her, but not too interested in her. I always found that kind of silly, who doesn't want someone to be interested in them?

"They have to play the game David."

I always contested that people needn't play the game with me, they simply need to be interested and if I'm interested, it will work perfectly. Amy predictably scoffs, says whatever, and then I push her over because simply put, that is what Amy and I do.

Strangely, that little story perfectly explains how I feel about Watchmen.

Whenever I go see an adaptation of a favorite comic or book and I leave, I always think "man! why could they not just follow the source material? Is that so hard?" I've actually blogged about this a time or two, and at the time, I really believed what I wanted was a faithful adaptation of my favorite works. Otherwise you'll end up with some bastardization of the materials like what happened with Daredevil or Christmas with the Kranks (the latter wasn't even that great of a book - it was a cute one, but the movie was monumentally terrible so I had to include it).

However, similar to the relationship discussion, it really works a lot more like Amy thinks than I think. Don't follow the source at all? Failure. Follow the source so meticulously you're watching essentially a shot for shot remake of the comic? Not failure, but something doesn't feel right. It's like the Rolling Stones say, you can't always get what you want, but you'll get what you need.

I think the ideal adaptation is mostly faithful but kind of not like the Nolan Batpics, the Raimi Spiderpics (excluding the rise of emo Spider-Man), and the Singer X-Pics. They carry on the spirit of the source materials beautifully, pay tribute often with little moments, but dn't obsessively reshoot what happens in the comic, because then you'll capture everything that happens plotwise and character wise, but you'll miss out on the subtext and spirit of what happens on the pages.

Now, to speak less in generalities and more in specifics.

Watchmen, for all intents and purposes, is the single most faithful comic adaptation ever. Zack Snyder and team managed to condense a 12 issue maxi series into 2 hours and 43 minutes, reproducing shot angles, using exact lines, and never missing character beats. Nearly everything was exactly the same, save for changing the endings significantly (but seriously, a squid monster from another dimension psychic blasting downtown New York City? I know it's a comic movie, but that is ridiculous - good change Zack). Many of the characters were captured perfectly, or in some cases, even managed to improve.

For example, Patrick Wilson (of Little Children fame) managed to somehow turn one of the weaker characters in the story (Dan Dreiberg aka Nite Owl II) and turn him into arguably my favorite character in the entire movie. Dreiberg's weakness was still evident, but it was not his defining characteristic like it was in the comic. They managed to turn him into someone you really believe could win over Silk Spectre, and someone you really believe could be out there kicking ass on a regular basis.

Jackie Earle Haley has to be mentioned, as he managed to perfectly capture Rorschach. Rorshach, in my opinion, is the best character from the comics. He sees things in a simplified black and white while everyone else in the movie sees things in shades of gray, and his hyperviolent and fiercely vengeful representation in the film lit the screen with intensity whenever he came about. Some will say that Haley stole Christian Bale's Batspeak from the Nolan Batflicks, but to be honest, Alan Moore originally wrote the character to speak like that. No less, Haley's performance as Rorschach ensured the movie would, at the very least, capture the most interesting character well.

Really, Billy Crudup was excellent, Jeffrey Dean Morgan did a great job as the Comedian, Matt Frewer did a lot in his one scene as ex-villain Moloch, and a lot of the supporting cast was superb. Malin Akerman was definitely a weaker point in the primary cast, but to be fair, Silk Spectre was always a character defined by the men in her life, not really by herself, so in that regard she did a lot with her work by turning her into a more three dimensional (and badass character) who balanced the movie a bit from what could be perceived as misogyny from the rest of the film.

The biggest acting complaint: Snyder's decision to actually film scenes with Richard Nixon, who was acted by possibly the worst actor ever and given the single worst makeup job ever made. Every time he appeared on the screen, I wanted him to go away immediately.

On to Zack Snyder.

Zack did a bang up job in this movie. He managed to do the impossible by not holding back at all and filming this movie exactly like the comic, and successfully adapting the unadaptable. Very impressive. His obsession with overt violence and slow motion actually worked out very well in this (although come on now, slow motion sex scenes are just bizarre and hilarious, and then a little awkward), as what I believed would be the biggest downfalls of the film ended up being strong points. His usage of music (besides Leonard Cohen's truly abysmal rendition of "Hallelujah" in the midst of the aforementioned sex scene) was superb, with high points going to the opening expository credits being framed with Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

Some scenes Snyder nailed so perfectly I would find myself thinking "God! I can't believe I'm watching Watchmen. Who's watching the Watchmen? I'm watching the Watchmen!" One scene really blew me away, with the contrast of Silk Spectre and Nite Owl II getting in a alley fight AND Dr. Manhattan's ill-fated television appearance. It worked unbelievably well, and Snyder's passion for the project really, really came through in scenes like that.

Alright, so now I go into my biggest complaint, and why I can never call this a great movie regardless of what I've said in the previous seven or so paragraphs.

This movie is completely and utterly pointless.

Alan Moore, the writer and co-creator of the comic series, has often said in the past he doesn't want his comics to be adapted into film. For a couple reasons really, but the main reasons are that the comics that Hollywood has adapted have been terrible and because of one thing I really, really believe in. Comic books, in many ways, are the perfect storytelling medium. When done right, you can capture all of the power of the written word within their pages, and the visuals are limited only by the imaginations of the creators of the story. Film is limited by budgets and by the simple fact some things can not be digitally recreated.

Moore and Gibbons created Watchmen and it contains all of the power of the written word and all of the images exactly like they should be. Snyder managed to take the visuals and recreate many of them very well, and he took the characters and their words and applied them to the film to a truly monumentally accurate degree. Why though? As someone who has read the series multiple times, why was this a necessary exercise, short of Snyder's love for the story, Warner Bros. desire to make a boatload of money, or an attempt to share what many consider the greatest comic of all time in a more widely appreciated medium? It was truly exciting to see it all happening on the screen, but it just kind of felt wrong.

As New York Magazine said, this movie was embalmed. The spirit of this movie was choked out by Snyder's intense desire to get it right and his inability to follow through with what he started. Never was this more evident than in the films final parts, in the restructured ending. Ultimately, the ideas are presented in a similar fashion as they are in the comic, but the legendary moral dilemma the characters are put into - the ultimate "what would you do?" finish to a story - the crux of the entire storyline - pretty much falls flat. In a way, Snyder's desire to capture the characters and story so well sucked all of the real world tension from the story, making the ending not relatable and suffocating in application. When Rorschach screams "Do it! Do it!" at Dr. Manhattan (one of the absolutely most intense moments in any written form ever), you want to be screaming in your head in denial of that happening.

Snyder doesn't let that happen, as he uses Dan Dreiberg as a manifestation of the audience and lets him do the emoting for us, eternally robbing us of the bifurcated feeling related to this showdown between two men with two ideas of what is justice and what is right. You can't argue with God, but justice needs to be served. We never get that feeling as an audience. Ironically enough, in the one point where I really, really felt Snyder needed to follow closely (the last meeting of the Watchmen), he takes it a different direction arguably because the way it was originally presented is the least easy to translate to film. Yet it's that ending that ties everything that happened before it together.

To put it back in the relationship perspective, Snyder played the game, but when it was for all the marbles he decided he wanted to play a different game.

Perhaps the ultimate point is that the key to a successful adapation isn't meticulous recreation of the source material. It's cutting the story down to the core, keeping the characters correct in their representation, and making sure you catch the spirit of the story correctly. Snyder almost got it right, and as Jack Nicholson says in Mars Attacks, 2 out of 3 ain't bad.

Watchmen: B-


Amy said...

I didn't read this until today when I noticed you mentioned my name... Interesting relation to my love life :)

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