Watching (The) Watchmen Again

Posted by on February 4th, 2010 at 11:32 PM

My favorite Onion News Network clip is Iron Man Trailer to Be Adapted Into Full-Length Film,” which relates how “Fans are worried that the feature film adaptation of the beloved trailer won’t live up to the original 90-second story’s vision.”  This would more accurately describe what happened to Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, where millions of people dazzled by the trailers and TV spots showed up for the opening weekend, and then apparently turned around told everyone they know not to bother.  (Or to put it another way, “Who watches the Watchmen?  After the first weekend, nobody.”)  I suppose my generally favorable response to the movie had to do with my generally low expectations, but really it won me over with the credits montage and I stayed with it to the end.  I suspect a good/bad movie is about as good as you’re going to get from Zack Snyder, and I was satisfied with a good/bad movie and willing to be dazzled by the razzle dazzle.

I inveigled a copy of the “Ultimate Cut” Blu Ray from a relative as a Christmas present, and thus had a chance to give it another look.  First thought on opening the wrapper – 3 and a half hours, where the hell are Natasha and Prince Bolkonsky?  Unwarranted as its epic length is, I found it strangely watchable.  When the longeurs set in I’d look at the clock and see that it took them half an hour to arrive rather than ten or fifteen minutes, so I made it through reasonably bright eyed.  The things that worked the first time continued to work – the aforementioned montage, Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, the theme of superhero as fucked-up person (not just a little bit in the beginning to get heroed up , but from start to finish), the general spectacle, and, contrary to much of the criticism, the use of music.  The tunes Snyder chooses are clichés to be sure, but they’re powerful clichés, and it must have cost a fortune in clearances.  Things that don’t work:  The added footage does nothing but makes the movie longer.  The cut-in Tales of the Black Freighter is completely superfluous, a subplot that simply echoes the plot, and give the impression of somebody reading a comic book in no way whatsoever.  Matthew Goode as Ozymandias is just enough like Dana Carvey with a German accent to deflate the character.  The glimpses of an unmasked Rorschach as street crazy before he’s unmasked in prison were a mistake; the unmasking in prison was much more effective when I saw it in the theater, because the unmasked scenes hadn’t registered.

But the biggest problem was the one no critic failed to notice, the over-fidelity to the original, which is a defect about as hard to diagnose as an axe through the forehead.  This is the sort of adaptation where the character stands silently for a couple of minutes for the internal monologue on page 133.  You have to wonder what a viewer who came on to this cold would be thinking:  “Okay, there were these old time guys in clunky suits, and they all got killed, and then there were another group of guys called the Watchmen, and America won the Vietnam War, then they were outlawed, and so now they’re getting killed, too, and Nixon is still president . . .”  The step not everyone seems to have taken is to realize that even if the storyline had been simplified and streamlined, there are still weaknesses that would have been carried over because they were in the original.  I was reminded again watching the movie that when I was reading the comic book I never got a clear notion of what exactly the Watchmen did before they were outlawed.  In the wake of Reagan and Thatcher and George “The Evil of Banality” Bush, Richard Nixon has failed to maintain his potency as a devil figure.  But most of all, the entire movie depends on an idea that became obsolete within a few years after the book came out, which is that nuclear war was such an imminent absolute threat that the only decent course was non-resistance to totalitarianism.  What this in turn depends on is a failure to understand the difference between nuclear war and every other kind of war, which is regardless of who was left hobbling, the respective high commands could not hope to personally escape the consequences.  Even if they were sheltered during the blast, all the comforts and riches of their capitols would be blasted away.  But what really makes the whole idea empty is the belief that conflicts between peoples aren’t genuine, and that they could all be swept away by an imaginary bogeyman.  This is an idea as juvenile as any that ever appeared in a comic book.

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13 Responses to “Watching (The) Watchmen Again”

  1. Jeet Heer1 says:

    The “fake-alien-invasion-to-unite-humanity” plot is dumb, but to be fair Ronald Reagan also seems to have had thoughts along the same line: http://sanseverything.wordpress.com/2009/03/04/ronald-reagan-and-alan-moore-great-minds-think-alike/

  2. patford says:

    I tried to read The Watchmen. It reminded me of teenagers on prom night. Never saw the movie.

  3. Noah Berlatsky says:

    R., you seem to be assuming that Watchmen is on Ozymandias’ side. I think that’s not true of the book. I think it is arguably true of the movie.

  4. R. Fiore says:

    Ronald Reagan was dumb. Unlike a successor I could name, he had adult supervision. It was revealed subsequently that he even had the Russians thinking he had the capacity to start a nuclear war, and they had to be reassured diplomatically.

    While Watchmen is not on Ozymandias’ “side”, the clear implication is that his plan would work. It’s more along the lines of “we could make world peace this way, but it would be wrong.”

    When I sat down to write this I was seriously wondering whether anyone cared about this movie anymore.

  5. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Nope. The whole point of the end of Watchmen is that it might very well not work. All those master plans, and some idiot with ketchup on his shirt may undo them, likely as not.

    V definitely thinks one man can solve all our problems. Watchmen is much more ambivalent.

  6. marcsobel says:

    “Matthew Goode as Ozymandias is just enough like Dana Carvey with a German accent to deflate the character.”

    Exactly. Personally, I thought Aaron Eckhart would have been perfect for the role.

  7. R. Fiore says:

    Noah Berlatsky has undoubtedly read the comic more recently than I have. I still believe the assumptions about what should be done in the face of nuclear war are the same.

    Re: patford, well, you’re willing to go along with it or you’re not. The fallacy I think is that the superhero concept can be lifted out of the juvenile through psychological complexity. You don’t however have to be juvenile to enjoy something that’s on a juvenile level.

  8. patford says:

    Kids stuff as kids stuff I have no problem with, it’s kids stuff masquerading, thinking the “clothes” make the man that blow the whole thing up for me.
    It’s really the author, and not his intended audience that determine the true maturity of a work. If an excited teenager includes “adult” content in a story, is the result a more mature work than a Little Lulu story by John Stanley?
    It’s not that some things read like they were written to be read by teenagers, they read like they were written by a bright teenage mentality.
    Think of Tarentino for example.
    BTW I have no issue with adult content I have endless respect for Crumb, Henry Miller, David Lynch, and plenty of people who deal in “mature” subject matter.

  9. Sean Robinson says:

    Mr. Fiore,

    I’m not a big fan of Watchmen the comic (being it still involves improbably-small-headed men in their pajamas involved in various unlikely scenarios with each other, whatever it’s other charms), but I cannot disagree with you more with this capsule review. Watchmen the Movie has many of the same events, and almost all of the same dialogue, in the service of a completely different purpose. Whereas the comic seems to be telling us what violent idiots these people are, presenting the violence to shock and horrify our sensibilities, the movie shows us these same things lovingly, as if to say “look at this beautiful violence I have created for you.” Maybe it’s my own underexposure to recent popular movies, but I have rarely seen something so sure of its own disgusting, blood-dripping virtues, starting with the aforementioned credits sequence and moving on from there. Really? You were fine with this movie appropriating some of the most horrific imagery of the last century just so it can tag on its own character to the scene? You’re willing to watch the death of real life men digitally recreated for you just so a movie can prove how tough and cool it’s main character is?

    Wow.

    Beside that, there doesn’t seem to be any point in bringing up the incompetent staging, the bewildered acting or the “my first mix tape” aspect of the soundtrack.

  10. R. Fiore says:

    Personally if I’m going to read a book or watch a movie in an idiom devoted to vicarious violence I’m not surprised to find vicarious violence. If Alan Moore believes that such an idiom is an effective pulpit to preach sermons against violence, then it just shows that Zack Snyder is less deceived about the business he’s in than Alan Moore, which is a rare enough circumstance to remark upon. If the suffering of the past is too sacrosanct to treat with anything other than reverence then obviously you can’t have alternative histories at all. As for the use of music, I would point to the double barreled wittiness of using “The Times They Are A-Changing” both to underscore an alternative history scenario and to show times a-changing in a very different way from the one we remember. The accent in idiot savant may be on the idiot but the savant is still there. If it’s all too obvious to comment on then we all needn’t have bothered.

  11. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Hey R.

    “If Alan Moore believes that such an idiom is an effective pulpit to preach sermons against violence, then it just shows that Zack Snyder is less deceived about the business he’s in than Alan Moore, which is a rare enough circumstance to remark upon.”

    It’s because the idiom is about/obsessed with certain kinds of violence that it is an effective pulpit to talk about it — presuming by “effective” you mean “aesthetically interesting.” If by “effective” you mean “likely to actually end war and bring peace on earth,” then, yes, that’s not going to work. But then, nothing has, so it seems a little foolish, and perhaps even disingenuous, to fault Alan Moore for not ushering in the millenium.

    “I would point to the double barreled wittiness of using “The Times They Are A-Changing” both to underscore an alternative history scenario and to show times a-changing in a very different way from the one we remember.”

    See, I don’t see that as witty in either a single or double barreled way. I see it as obvious, simple-minded, and banal, using the most obvious cultural touchstone to say the most obvious things.

    But…do you even care at all about popular music R.? My impression (which may well be incorrect) is that you don’t — which is certainly your prerogative, but may help to explain why your reaction to the soundtrack is so different from other folks’.

    Oh, and you’re welcome to just call me “Noah.” Using my full name seems a little formal; we’ve had several conversations at this point, after all.

  12. patford says:

    R. says, “If Alan Moore believes that such an idiom is an effective pulpit to preach sermons against violence, then it just shows that Zack Snyder is less deceived about the business he’s in than Alan Moore.”

    R. makes an interesting point.

    Moore commented on the Watchmen in an interview,

    “it’s a more supposed physical realism rather than any kind of emotional realism. With some things like Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn” or a lot of these modern comics, they will show greater violence because they know that actually that is what a lot of the audience wants, for prurient reasons, not trying to show the emotional depth.”

    Moore himself admits that he did the same thing he is rightly accusing others of doing when he wrote a Batman story,

    “I was doing it at roughly the same time I was doing the Watchmen. I thought that it was very, very nasty. I’ve got no problem with nasty scenes as long as they are for a purpose. There are some nasty scenes in “Watchmen,” but “Watchmen” is an intelligent meditation on the nature of power so it is actually talking about something which is relevant to the world in which we all live. Whereas in “The Killing Joke,” what you’ve got is a story about Batman and the Joker, and while it did draw interesting parallels between these two fictional characters, at the end of the day that’s all they are, fictional characters. They’re not even fictional characters that have any bearing on anyone you’re likely to meet in reality.”

    In my opinion Moore is correct about most of what he is saying here, except that I saw the Watchmen in exactly the same way as he saw the Batman story he describes.
    I never read his Batman story, and I lost interest in the Watchmen after a 100 pages (about the time Mr. A was going on the couch) so I never finished it, but Moore’s description of his own Batman story captures exactly my opinion of the Watchmen.
    The fact is I didn’t stop reading the Watchmen because I was offended by it, the main problem was I had no interest in it at all, despite the fact that my sympathies tilt towards Moore’s views.
    I find it difficult to draw a distinction between Moore and his seeming polar opposite Frank Miller despite the fact that Miller might be labeled “right wing,” and Moore “leftist/anarchist.”
    Their work does nothing for me because it’s coming from the same place even if they live on opposite sides of the street.

  13. Gabe Roth says:

    I feel a bit silly defending ‘Watchmen’ (the comic) because it’s both overpraised and kind of silly, but I do disagree with your closing remarks:

    *But what really makes the whole idea empty is the belief that conflicts between peoples aren’t genuine, and that they could all be swept away by an imaginary bogeyman. This is an idea as juvenile as any that ever appeared in a comic book.*

    Human history is a non-stop succession of conflicts between groups that end when the adversaries join forces to fight some bigger mutual enemy. It’s how we got from individuals to tribes to villages to city-states to principalities to nations to our present loosely federated super-national institutions. That doesn’t mean the conflicts “aren’t genuine.” Ten years after World War II, France and West Germany were part of the same military alliance against Russia. That didn’t mean their 200-year conflicts weren’t real — it meant that fear of annihilation was a powerful motivator to end them.

    Obviously, to go from there to the idea that great-power rivalries can only be ended by inventing a planetary-level threat is a flight of fancy, and the way ‘Watchmen’ presents that idea is necessarily oversimplified. But it’s no more naive than any other speculative-fiction alternate-history gimmick.