Sunday, March 8, 2009


It’s hard to know where to begin with Zach Snyder’s Watchmen. This film has nuclear mushroom clouds, Martian landscapes, a shimmering blue Ubermensch in full frontal CGI, and probably the only sex scene you’ll see this year that takes place on board an Owlship. Snyder has a cinematic style that seems fatally dispossessed towards the reptilian brain functions of an adolescent boy, and Watchmen is the R-rated Citizen Kane of his peculiar sensibility. As an adaptation of an acclaimed comic book, it carries a lot of baggage to the screen, and many reviewers have expressed diametrically opposed perspectives on its relationship to the source material. For some, the movie is a slo-mo drenched dumb-down; to others, a victim of its own slavish fidelity to the Moore and Gibbons original.

First and foremost, I think it needs to be pointed out that Watchmen is a pretty close translation, and many of its biggest problems actually stem from Alan Moore’s writing. I read Watchmen when I was about 15, and yes, I thought it was absolutely amazing. It’s a wonderful book for precocious kids. However, revisiting it as an adult was a bitter disappointment, and I could barely get past the third issue. Watchmen displays a knowledge of American history that seems to have been gleaned from looking at a documentary about the sixties and a few Time/Life magazine covers. Its politics, while in no way objectionable, are extremely platitudinous and simplistic. Republicans, the Vietnam War, and nuclear genocide, it tells us, are all Very Bad Things. I’m not arguing against any of this, but I think I acquired about as penetrating a grasp of American history and politics via Oliver Stone’s The Doors movie.

Worst of all, Moore’s characterisation, which Rolling Stone bewilderingly called “staggeringly complex”, is a small step above soap opera, and his dialogue is among the most wooden and contrary to human speech I have ever read. (Back in the sixties, Stan Lee wrote more natural sounding dialogue for the Thing than any of Watchmen’s plodding soliloquies.) I think that Watchmen’s stature as some kind of masterpiece is an inexplicably virulent cultural myth. It’s both denigrating to superhero comics as an art-form, and brazenly hypocritical, to suggest on the one hand that Watchmen elevates the super-hero to the status of literature, while at the same time overlooking literary inadequacies in it that simply wouldn’t fly in any medium other than superhero comics.

Anyway, I guess that rant serves to begin this review with a note of sympathy for Snyder. Yes, some of his stylistic excesses mar the tone and intent of Moore’s original, but Watchmen is nevertheless a very faithful adaptation. Snyder translates Moore’s abysmal dialogue directly to the screen, but what else could he do? Had he embellished it, the fanboy purists would no doubt have declared a fatwa, and critics would have had further fuel to accuse him of dumbing Moore down. It’s a tough gig for poor Zack, patiently staking a path through the differing tastes of rabid fanboys, general cultural pundits who believe the myth that Watchmen is the Ulysses of funny books, mainstream critics who are leery of caped crusaders, and studio execs who are even more leery of blue cocks and Fox lawsuits. Give Zack a break - it’s a miracle this strange shambles made it to the screen at all.

Ok, having given Zack a break, lets move on to the Watchmen movie proper. Is Snyder really a hack director? Well, he pretty much is, but in a kind of semi-inspired, Ed Wood kind of way. Only a superhuman hack would score a Vietnam scene with Ride of the Valkyries. (Snyder has a weird habit with musical cues of either a) picking something completely inexplicable and unexpected, or b) picking the most mind-numbingly obvious thing you could possibly think of. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah belongs in the former category, Valkyries in the latter.) On the subject of music cues, Watchmen features more Songs that Should Never be Heard in Movies Again than almost any other soundtrack I’ve ever come across. All Along the Watchtower doesn’t even belong in a Hendrix bio-pic, at this stage of the game.

Zack’s biggest Achilles heel, however, is his treatment of action. At the slightest suggestion of physical activity, the adolescent/reptilian brain takes over. Many people were wondering if eighties Cold War paranoia would have any relevance to this generation; ironically, it’s probably less of an anachronism than Matrix style bullet-time trickery. Snyder is so fatally addicted to this kind of thing that he actually shots an attempted rape sequence with slo-mo and “awesome” whoosh sound effects. The fight scenes in Watchmen feel like Adam West’s Batman choreographed by the Wachowski brothers, and are like nothing else on earth. They are so divorced from actual physical combat that the final smackdown between our heroes has the ambience of a 21st century reboot of the Three Stooges. (Nolan should direct that; he could really make it gritty and “grounded in reality”, by filming it in Chicago.)

So what does Snyder do right? Watchmen’s set designs and digital effects are often quite stunning to look at. I think he actually has a genuine talent for creating eye-popping comic book tableaux. The justly celebrated credit sequence, the first shot of Dr. Manhattan against the Martian landscape, Nite Owl’s dream of embracing Silk Spectre in the shadow of an atomic explosion – these compositions have a surreal, Pop Art majesty that really lifts the movie out of its fog of expository chatter and slo-mo marathons. I thought Tyler Bates’ersatz-period score was a great idea, and I couldn’t get enough of it. (As a Michael Mann fan, I’m probably incapable of disliking ambient, synthesizer-based soundtracks.) Despite the harsh comments earlier, I didn’t really hate Watchmen. I don’t think Snyder’s ineptitude is on a par with someone like Bret Ratner or MacG; it’s quirky enough to be endearing and almost interesting. A good case in point is the instantly notorious Hallelujah-scored sex scene, easily the most weirdly camp sequence committed to celluloid in god knows how long. I’m almost certain that it’s deliberately played for comedy, but that just makes it all the more incongruous. Amid all the scowling earnestness, it’s like the film suddenly morphs into Team America for a scene. Little oddities like that, combined with a sincere and quixotic ambition, accumulate to give Watchmen a certain kitsch appeal, and a hell of lot more character than the interminable conveyer of "awesome" Iron Man-type movies Hollywood keeps feeding us. And Billy Crudup does some of the best voice acting since HAL in 2001.


  1. "Worst of all, Moore’s characterisation, which Rolling Stone bewilderingly called “staggeringly complex”, is a small step above soap opera, and his dialogue is among the most wooden and contrary to human speech I have ever read. (Back in the sixties, Stan Lee wrote more natural sounding dialogue for the Thing than any of Watchmen’s plodding soliloquies.) I think that Watchmen’s stature as some kind of masterpiece is an inexplicably virulent cultural myth."

    I have to respectfully disagree with you there. Moore and Gibbons' (after all, he is as much a co-creator as Moore) WATCHMEN is a masterpiece for several reasons:

    1. For how it took several of the costumed superhero archetypes (Superman, Batman, etc.) and deconstructed them, played with by sometimes parodying them and paying homage to them. WATCHMEN was intended as a death knell of the genre but of course it spawned countless imitators.

    2. It is also a marvel of structure and technique. The layout of panels in any given issue often resembles the rhythm of a ticking clock, which fits the whole impending Armageddon/nuclear clock motif. Also, look at the ingenious layout of the FEARFUL SYMMETRY (I believe) issue where the first page panel layout mirrors the last page and so on until it meets in the middle.

    3. The staggering amount of detail that Gibbons crams in so many panels that flesh out this alternate world - the shots of zeppelins in the background, electric cars, Gunga Diner fast food chains, pop culture references like the NOVA EXPRESS magazine (a reference to William S. Burroughs), the supporting characters, etc. Also, the repeating visual motifs like the smiley faces that keep popping up. It is this kind of detail that invites repeated readings of WATCHMEN because other things begin to reveal themselves.

    4. Characterizaton, which is actually quite developed and fleshed out. The issue that deals with origins of Dr. Manhattan is incredible for the sheer fact that it deals with a POV that is post-Einsteinian... pretty high-falootin' stuff for a comic book. The way it sets up Manhattan's POV, that he can see the past, the present and the future, is pretty incredible and something you didn't really see in comic books before. Also, the issue dealing with Rorschach's origin is also fascinating, the book's heart of darkness that skewered the cool violent vigilante archetype (see Batman, The Punisher, et al.) and shows what would really produce something with that kind of psychotic attitude... that someone like Rorschach didn't become what he is overnight that it was a slow burn over the years until one particularly nasty case finally eradicated the last shred of humanity he had left.

    5. The dialogue works quite well and as the film points out on several occasions plays better on paper than it does being spoken... at least by the cast that Snyder assembled (with the exception of Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Billy Crudup who were very good). Rorschach's Journal voiceovers give his character a Sam Spade/Travis Bickle kind of vibe while Dr. Manhattan is like a walking, omnipotent HAL 9000.

    At any rate, that's some of the reasons why I think WATCHMEN is a brilliant comic book and holds up as well today as it did back in 1986.

    For the record, I thought the film was pretty good but Snyder made some major goofs that you covered quite well in your post.

  2. Hey JD, thanks for the feedback. Would actually agree wholeheartedly with your points 2. and 3. Watchmen is "a marvel of structure and techique" and it does do revolutionary things with comics as formal/visual story-telling, which does, I guess, kind've justify the Citizen Kane of comics label. Its content bugs me, but like you say, agree to disagree on that front!

  3. I think Snyder is in a different league from Ratner or McG. Take 300 - a ridiculous idea for a film, one that should have been a disaster. He made it work. And for all that its bombastic and silly and laughable, theres something almost magnificent about it.
    Dawn of the Dead, too - who needs an action remake of the Romero original, which is perfect in its way? Nobody. But Snyder did it anyway, and its pretty good, taken on its own terms.

    Watchmen is much the same, a sort of crazy, magnificent mess. You make a good point about his use of music - the only song choice in the entire movie that works is the use of Philip Glass over Dr Manhattan's origin - but its often true of his visuals, too. for somebody who is so plainly adept with framing and cutting, he chooses an awful lot of incredibly obvious shots. That is when he isn't translating the comic's panels directly.

    But you're right about his facility at catering to an adolescent boys mindset; in that way he's just about the perfect Director for modern Hollywood. He does it better than anybody else, but with the suggestion of potential. I want to see a film from him that isn't an adaptation, and see what he's really made of...