Monday, March 9, 2009

Who Watches the Watchmen? I Do!

Directed by Zack "300" Snyder
Screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse
Based on Graphic Novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Malin Ackerman (Silk Specter II)
Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan)
Matthew Goode (Ozymandias)
Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach)
Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian)
Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl II)

Watchmen (the book) is, on the surface, a murder mystery. But the real story of the graphic novel is not who killed The Comedian, but rather an intricate deconstruction of the conventions that define superhero comics. For years prior to Watchmen, comic writers had been trying to make their spandexed characters more realistic and relatable. Alan Moore took the idea to its logical extreme, and criticized both the fascistic bent of the genre and its obsession with physical, masculine power (one look at Dr. Manhattan and you'll get what I'm taking about). It presents a dark vision of the 1980s, where Richard Nixon has used the power of the unstoppable Dr. Manhattan to extend his presidency indefinitely, and where the "heroes" of the story are a mix of incompetent has-beens and violent sociopaths. Mixed into all this is one man's plot to fix the world through the greatest act of supervillainy in history.

(the movie) is not a bad flick. It competently adapts the graphic novel to the big screen, gives it a top-notch special effects budget, and doesn't hold back on either the violence or the nudity. There are also a few standout performances, especially Haley as Rorschach, who perfectly captures the character's antisocial personality and his unrelenting sense of justice.

There are some problems in the film. Akerman's performance is wooden, and her scenes with Crudup and Wilson lack any emotional depth. Goode, as Ozymandias, is supposed to be the embodiment of human perfection, but he's far too foppish to be taken seriously as either a genius or a physical powerhouse. The numerous flashbacks, which work so well in the comics medium, become a bit ponderous in a movie. All this being said, the strengths of the film outweigh its failings.

But strangely, while I didn't dislike the movie, I can't really say I enjoyed it either. Much of my response to the film was inevitably shaped by having read the book first. My reaction to most scenes was not "wow, that's cool," or "wow, that sucked," but "hey, I remember that." As other reviewers have pointed out, the movie is a faithful adaptation, but all that means is that the script ably transfers the plot (and in a few cases, whole scenes) from the novel to film. As someone already familiar with the story, the movie comes across as superfluous. The filmmakers don't really have anything to say about these characters or their world, nor anything useful to add to what Moore already wrote.

I'd be interested in the reaction of someone who'd never read the graphic novel.

UPDATE: After finally getting a chance to re-read the graphic novel, my opinion of the film has diminished considerably. I can't provide an exhaustive list of all the things the filmmakers fouled up, but here's the abbreviated version. Originally, I thought very little about the change to the ending, but after re-reading the book, the film version seems incredibly timid, lacking both the shocking violence as well as the unabashed absurdity of a giant fucking octopus in the middle of New York City. Plus, many of Ozymandias's scenes are no longer present, so the impact of his face-heel turn is lost completely. But no other character gets as screwed over as Silk Spectre, who loses most of her history, her real name, her conflict with her mother, her just shy-of-over-the-hill desperation, and her smoking habit. To sum up; forget the movie, read the book.

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