I was sold after the set visit. I knew that Zack Snyder ‘got’ Watchmen, that he wasn’t turning it into 300, that he and his team were paying an obsessive amount of attention to detail and fidelity. After talking to Zack on set (and at a couple of other events – I must have interviewed this guy about 20 times on the subject of Watchmen) I knew that he was attempting to service the graphic novel and not trying to bend it to his style or his will. I also knew that he wasn’t just making a slavish adaptation – his film would attempt to live on its own.
I was sold on the intentions and on the approach. My mantra was ‘If Watchmen is bad it won’t be due to a lack of love and effort.’ My new mantra is ‘Watchmen won’t be bad.’
That’s how good the 25 minutes that Snyder screened for the press was. From the scenes we were shown I feel comfortable saying that Snyder has nailed it. Watchmen looks amazing.
First we were shown the opening of the film, where a mysterious stranger breaks into the apartment of Edward Blake, aka The Comedian, and beats him to a bloody pulp before tossing him out of a window. Snyder has taken a couple of panels from the comic and expanded them, while using this opening as a way to let audiences into the film’s alternate 1985 – Blake is watching The McLaughlin Report, where Eleanor Clift and Pat Buchanan debate recent Russian nuke build ups and military moves towards Afghanistan and how the presence of Dr. Manhattan affects the situation. President Nixon delivers a speech aimed square at the Soviets – do not fuck with America, or our big blue protector, is the gist of it.
Then the door breaks open as a Veidt Nostalgia commercial comes on the TV. The song Unforgettable plays over the brutal battle, amped up from the simple fisticuffs of the comic but still feeling in line with the source material. This is obviously a match between two incredibly skilled opponents, but the mysterious man is faster, quicker, and more brutal. Snyder uses speed ramping here, but it doesn’t feel gimmicky or ‘cool,’ like it did in 300. It feels like a comic book.
One of the most interesting things I took from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics was an appreciation for the strange way that comic books use time. Each panel captures a moment, and movement occurs in the gutter between panels, but there’s no set rule for how that works – three panels can span a decade or a second. For the first time ever I felt like I was seeing that in action on a big screen. A punch lands and the film slows down to almost a full stop – there are elements of Raging Bull in the style but more than that it feels like way that a comic book panel will crystalize and hold a moment in time, making a split second turn into an eternity. Comic book filmmaking has been used to describe garish, four color imagery or ludicrous, campy content, but Snyder seems to be redefining that phrase, making a comic book film that captures the experience of reading a comic, of experiencing moments in time as unique entities.
After Blake slams into the pavement, followed soon after by his blood-spattered smiley face button, the film goes into its opening credits. Again, Snyder is taking frozen moments in time and bringing us through them, setting up living dioramas of important scenes in the history of the costumed heroes of this world. His camera glides through tableaus familiar – Dollar Bill dead, his cape caught in a revolving door – and new – the Enola Gay dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, except in this world Silk Spectre is painted on her nose – to the sounds of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’. Who would have imagined we’d live to see the day when a Bob Dylan song is the opening theme for a superhero movie?
The credits are pretty amazing, and they tell a complete story on their own, filling in some gaps that will either leave hardcore fans furious or exhilirated. I burst into laughter (the good kind) seeing Silhouette in Times Square on V-E Day grabbing a young girl and kissing her, making an alternate reality lesbian version of that famous picture of the girl and sailor kissing. I don’t know that I would want to accept that moment literally – that instead of the girl and sailor photo a Silhouette and girl photo has become famous – but it puts the audience into the exact right frame of reference as to how these superheroes are part of the pop culture landscape, as does Andy Warhol unveiling a painting of Nite Owl II. And showing the Comedian as the shooter on the grassy knoll – something alluded to in the comic but never shown or spelled out – underscores the role they played in this alternate history. There’s a lot to digest in the few short minutes of the opening credits, and I’m curious to see how virgin audiences will take to the sheer amount of information thrown at them in silent, often still scenes.
The next scene that Snyder showed was Dr. Manhattan going to Mars and looking back at his origin. During an interview at this year’s Comic Con Snyder said this was his favorite part of the movie because it’s the most Watchmen-esque segment – seemingly completely digressing from the main plot, but integral to understanding the characters.
Perhaps the biggest shock of this scene was learning that Billy Crudup’s voice is totally unprocessed as Dr. Manhattan. Asked about it in the Q&A, Snyder said that he figured since Manhattan could do anything he would keep his voice normal so as to not freak people out, but also that Crudup’s voice, which is so calm and soothing, would be freaky and perfect coming from this god.
I have to admit that I got goosebumps watching this segment. While Snyder cuts down on some of the time-hopping that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons played with in the original comic (since Manhattan experiences all time at once, his ‘memories’ of his origin are very non-linear), this segment captures all of the important plot beats of Manhattan’s origin, but more crucially the emotional beats. This ten minute segment is essentially an adaptation of one issue of the comic, and the fact that Snyder captures everything that he needs to capture in those ten minutes are the boldest testament to the fact that Watchmen is doable in a feature length film. Could this segment have been a 40+ minute episode of the mythical HBO series that fans have clamored for? Sure, but it works just as effectively in this format.
Where the opening scene was expanded from the comic, this scene was necessarily truncated. Still, Crudup’s voice over captures so many of the specific lines from the comic that the experience feels complete. And even with some unfinished effects, Manhattan looks simply awesome – and fear not, there’s big blue dick on display. Snyder et al have said again and again that it would be there, and now I can report back to you that it is in fact there, just not always so in your face.
The final full segment that Snyder showed was Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II breaking into the rioting prison to spring Rorschach. Part of this, where Spectre and Nite Owl advance down a corridor, beating on inmates, happened to be what I saw getting filmed while I was on set, and it was thrilling to see it fully realized. On set I wondered how this would work – it’s an extra action beat that’s not in the comic, but one that feels natural to the story – and again Snyder uses the speed ramping technique to pull out and emphasize certain moments – a kick, a punch, an impact – although this time it does feel like it comes closer to the ‘cool’ visuals of 300. Still, it’s a restrained bit of action in a film that will have very little of it.
I’m such a nerd that I noticed a small joke was cut during the end minutes of the scene; Spectre and Nite Owl find Rorschach, who is following the Big Figure into the bathroom. They wait outside, thinking Rorschach simply has to pee, and Dan’s observation about using the bathroom as a crime fighter is missing. I don’t know if this indicative of larger tonal issues – is Snyder looking to pull some of the humor out, thinking that it might take people outside the story? – but I will say that the joke being missing was one of my few complaints about the footage I saw.
This was the only real look we got of Rorschach in motion, and while I wish there was more of him, I liked what little there was. Jackie Earle Haley’s voice and his delivery of Rorschach’s stilted lines were perfect, as was the mask. The ink blots look like blood seeping through bandages, and the mask itself looks soft and moves easily when Rorschach speaks, unlike the Spider-Man mask, which obviously has a rigid structure underneath it.
After that we were treated to a quick montage, the vast majority of which was footage from the trailer. When that was over Snyder did a half hour Q&A; I filmed that and will be making the video available on the site starting later today (Thursday).
The film looks beautiful from a simple cinematographical point of view, but beyond that it looks thrilling and, for want of a better word, right. I think this is the film that will convince skeptics that they don’t understand Zack Snyder, that his output so far has not defined him as a filmmaker in the ways they think it has. Yes, Snyder is a self-admitted non-naturalist, but his wildest instincts seem reigned in here. The film isn’t endlessly stylish shots but seems to be made up of solid (and stylish) visual storytelling. And despite the fact that Snyder appears to have made an almost preternaturally faithful adaptation, the film doesn’t feel slavish. It gets everything right while also being its own thing. Snyder hasn’t simply dramatized the panels, he’s created his own take on the material while sticking very close to what is on the page.
The film’s current running time is two hours and forty five minutes, meaning that the 25 minutes I saw was a minor sampling. But based on what I saw, I have to say that I’m filled with nothing but confidence. Snyder did it. He didn’t drown the movie in his style and he didn’t allow the holy status of the text to intimidate him into being an anonymous filmmaker. I was hoping for a Watchmen movie that would be ‘okay.’ It looks like I’ll have to settle for one that’s great.