It was groundbreaking then, and it still holds up today: a formally innovative, intricately structured story, with a visual design that was painstakingly detailed and a backstory even more so. Self-referential, ironic, dark, and multifaceted, all its elements working together, both de- and re-constructing super-hero tropes in the context of real-world politics, psychological realism, and complicated moral themes. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons set a high-water mark for what comics can accomplish.
And now, after a long and circuitous process of development stretching over 22 years, Watchmen has finally made it to the screen. I saw it last night.
Where are my socks? I think they got knocked off somewhere…
This was a fantastic, gripping, engrossing movie experience. It had me right from the opening credits, which very effectively (and atmospherically) summarize much of the long-term background (presented only in text “backups” to the book’s main story) as a series of tableaux… overlaid by a period song that sets the mood perfectly, in a nod to Moore’s epigrammatic use of lyrics in the book.
There are similar nods throughout the film, as it evokes the book in a loving and attentive way, but without trying slavishly to imitate it. Director Zack Snyder has said he and the cast used the graphic novel as an unofficial storyboard, and it’s easy to tell. They’ve brought the book vividly to life.
For the record, like any movie, it’s not above criticism. I’ve heard the complaint that it lacks the subtext of the book, and that’s true to an extent: it’s a movie, and even at 155 minutes it just doesn’t have the time for all the layers and careful stage-setting that Moore and Gibbons included. It’s a bit more linear than the book. But the central throughline of the story is there, as are the backgrounds and motivations of all the core characters, as are the troubling and thought-provoking themes.
While we’re criticizing, I would add that while the book does have its violent aspects, at several points the film amps up the level of graphic bloodshed depicted on-screen, a creative choice I could have done without. Also, while the cast of (relative) unknowns are all consistently good (and in particular Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach is absolutely spectacular), avoiding the distraction of recognizable “stars,” the one performance-related exception in my eyes might be Matthew Goode as Ozymandias: he’s not bad per se, but he just doesn’t quite capture the sense of overpowering charisma the character needs.
There are a few bits from the book that don’t play quite as well on-screen; some of the voice-over narration, for instance. On the other hand, there are other areas where the movie exceeds its source material—notably including the action sequences, filmed in a lush and acrobatic style that is IMHO far superior to the sort of quick-cutting murkiness that marred, for example, Chris Nolan’s otherwise excellent Batman films.
Really, as criticism goes, that’s it. I’ve heard and read reviews complaining that it’s too long; that it’s visually flat; that it’s too caught up in flashbacks and non-linear storytelling… and I honestly have no idea what movie these critics saw. This movie has texture, both narrative and visual. Every scene contributes to the whole. It’s an elaborate construct, just like the book, and as the pieces are gradually assembled it’s a joy to watch them come together. There are moments that make you laugh, moments that make you cringe, moments that make you pump your fist… and every one serves a purpose. It builds a whole reality, as Moore did in the original (and as all the best SF does, really), around one central conceit that makes the world a different place.
Snyder, his screenwriters, cast, and crew have done for Watchmen what Peter Jackson and company did for Lord of the Rings… which was also long considered unfilmable. It’s a case study of how to translate a work from one medium to another while maintaining the utmost respect for the source material. (The film does change the book’s climax a bit, but in all honesty it improves on it.) Judged strictly as a film, it may not be quite the masterpiece the LOTR trilogy was… but that’s praising with very faint damns indeed. And it’s worth noting that LOTR works better in the Director’s Cuts than in the truncated theatrical releases, cut for time just as this was… which leaves me looking forward with anticipation to this July’s DVD release of Watchmen‘s extended edition.
In the meantime, let me echo this woman’s advice: you are totally going to see it. Don’t waste any time, just get to a theater. And after that, if you haven’t already done so, go buy and read the book. No excuses. You’ll thank me later.Tags: DC Comics, movies, super-heroes, Watchmen, Zack Snyder