If nothing else, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen demands praise as an awe-inspiring achievement. Snyder has done what many considered impossible – he took Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s seminal comic book, Watchmen, and turned it into a movie. And not just a movie; Snyder hasn’t created some processional of images or a living audio book. He’s made a film that feels like a living, breathing thing all its own while also being – almost completely – the book. Snyder’s Watchmen captures the themes and the meanings and the characters that Moore and Gibbons created but makes them his own, turning the movie from being simply an adaptation into something that feels closer to collaboration.
Had he only done that, Snyder would have earned a positive review from me. But he does more; Snyder had crafted a movie that flirts with honest to God greatness, that doesn’t just capture the events of the comic but also the humanity and the emotion. It’s a remarkable film, and an uncompromising one. It’s the sort of movie that major studios are simply not supposed to be making now that the 1970s are over. Watchmen doesn’t hold your hand and walk you through the story; in fact Snyder’s movie dares the audience to keep up, demanding something much, much more than the passive viewing experience so many expect when watching even the best superhero movies.
The first thirty or forty minutes of Watchmen may be among the most dizzingly dense minutes in film history. After the first act ends the movie settles into a more traditional narrative structure (I said more traditional, not completely traditional), but for that first thirty or forty minutes the film keeps throwing information at you – at a rate that may overwhelm first time viewers. But Snyder shows remarkable faith in the audience, and he has a remarkable mastery of visual storytelling. Even if the details slip through your fingers on the first viewing (and like the book, the movie of Watchmen simply demands revisiting), the big picture remains crystal clear thanks to the way that Snyder brings the action to life. A note to the first time viewer who has never read the book: let some of the details just wash over you, and trust in what’s happening on screen. You’ll understand the main characters and the sweep of the story the first time through; savor everything else on future viewings.
In many ways Watchmen reminds me of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. This, I know, is a big statement to make, and it’s not a statement based on simple equivalency of quality (I don’t want to make grandiose claims about the quality of Watchmen at this point. I want to see it again. And maybe again. But it’s a goddamned good movie, and I suspect an even better one in Director’s Cut form), but on theme and storytelling and audacity. Like The Godfather, Watchmen is a story about power in post-WWII 20th century America, except that the Corleone saga is about acquiring power while Watchmen is about using it. Both films are generational epics that subvert expectations about genre pictures; The Godfather approaches mob movies from a completely new point of view while Watchmen turns all of your preconceptions about superheroes back on you.
But most of all both The Godfather and Watchmen tackle their sprawling narratives without hesitation. A soulless Hollywood scriptwriter might look at The Godfather and blanch at the Sicily sequence, where the movie seems to suddenly take a vacation from the main plot and sort of meanders. ‘You could get this picture another showing a night if you cut this scene!,’ the script shark might say. ‘You can get through all of this stuff in a five minute action sequence!’ Except that it would miss the whole point, and it would rob The Godfather of its elegant pacing. It would rob Michael’s arc of much of its emotion.
That same script shark would probably shit his pants over Watchmen. The film’s pace is not that of a propulsive action movie, although the film is always moving forward, and even at two hours and forty you can feel where Snyder had to trim the “fat” to keep things going. The reason the pace is not that of a propulsive action movie is the same that The Godfather‘s wasn’t that of an Edward G Robinson gangster picture – it’s not that. And that pace, the way that the story and characters unfold in their own time, is part of the power of the film. This is a movie where ideas and emotions take center stage far ahead of action scenes, where the best moments don’t feature people hitting and kicking each other but feature characters in conflict with themselves and the world around them.
The best sequence of the film is probably the extended ten minute Dr. Manhattan origin scene; the only legitimately super-powered character in the story, the nigh-omnipotent Dr. Manhattan abandons Earth halfway through the film, retreating to Mars to contemplate what his next move will be. Dr. Manhattan was once a man, but a comic book-y science accident turned him into something approaching God; he experiences the world and reality in ways that we cannot even begin to comprehend, and over the decades he has slowly begun to lose his ability to comprehend us. Coming to Mars, Manhattan remembers his origin and his life, and it’s here that the film showcases everything that makes it great. Scored with Philip Glass music, the scene uses strong, vibrant visual storytelling to weave the strands of Manhattan’s origin and the history of the Watchmen world’s superheroes together while also creating gorgeous tapestries for the viewer. Snyder’s every frame is packed with information, ranging from the tiniest details that only obsessives will note to bigger things that supplement the story in a glance. And over it all is the narration of Billy Crudup, bringing a sense of disconnection as Dr. Manhattan, but not coldness. It’s an arresting performance filled with grace and subtlety; on the surface Manhattan believes that he has left behind his human emotion but we can see that it’s still there, hidden just under the icy blue exterior of the man who has forgotten how to be a man. And Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have the good sense to allow Alan Moore’s original words to be mostly what Crudup speaks; from script to post-production, where the incredible illusion of this atomic man was created (Manhattan isn’t simply a blue, glowing guy. There are… things happening inside of him, swirling reactions and hints of other cosmos just beneath his skin, which is still recognizably that of a human being), Snyder has brought together every element in nearly perfect harmony to create a scene that is stirring and moving and awesome, in the most old-fashioned sense of that word.
Of course there are nits to be picked. There are changes that have been made – Manhattan’s watchmaker father has been reduced as a presence (although the script does manage to take the information lost here – that the father quit being a watchmaker in the wake of Einstein – and move it somewhere else. Elements are rearranged, but rarely completely lost), for instance – but if you’re sitting there comparing the film to the graphic novel’s frames you’ve already been lost. By this point the movie has established itself as its own thing, a truly cinematic experience.
The other notable thing about Manhattan on Mars is how little it has to do with your preconceived notions of Zack Snyder’s filmography. There’s very little speed ramping (while Snyder does play with film speed in some scenes, especially flashbacks, you’ve probably already seen every moment in the movie that uses 300-style speed ramping) and there’s almost no physical conflict. All of the action is emotional, but that doesn’t mean Snyder is simply sitting a camera down and shooting people yakking. Those ads declaring Snyder to be ‘the visionary director of 300‘ may be a bit much, but there is no question at all that Zack Snyder is a man with vision, a director who is uniquely attuned to the very visual demands of screen storytelling. And he understands the subtlety of it; going in I thought that Snyder, in his self-admitted near slavishness to the book, might try to recreate the actual visual motif from the comic book version of Dr. Manhattan’s origin – a slowly falling photograph. He doesn’t, which indicates a serious understanding of where the visual storytelling of comic books and motion pictures diverge. That sequence is perfect in a panel-driven medium, but in film it would be ridiculous and distractingly stylized. While Snyder opted for an overly stylized approach to 300 – based on overly stylized material – here he reigns things in, bringing style but not distraction*, making every scene gripping to look at but not putting directorial affectations in front of storytelling. Every moment in the film looks great, but not to the point where you spend the movie marveling over how great it looks.
Crudup isn’t the only actor to give an incredible performance. Jackie Earle Haley seems born to play the role of Rorschach; most impressive is the way that he understands the dichotomy of the character, and how he plays him in and out of costume. In costume there’s an ease to his physique, and Haley captures the way that Rorschach is both at home in and sickened by the city’s diseased underbelly. He hates the pimps and whores and thieves, but he walks among them like he belongs, and it’s because without them he would be literally nothing. Violence flows naturally from him, requiring all the effort of an exhalation. When the mask is removed Haley becomes a coiled weapon, a switchblade about to be triggered at all times. A caged, furious animal, he has smoldering hate in his eyes… but behind that a vulnerability. He’s naked without that mask, exposed. And Haley finds levels beyond that, especially in Rorschach’s ‘origin’ flashback, when he stops being just a costumed crimefighter and turns into something uglier, more violent. Wearing the mask that utterly obscures his features, Haley sells the change from a hero to a twisted vigilante all in his body language, aided by expressive FX in Rorschach’s ever-changing mask. His final scene in the movie is his most powerful, a heart breaking, gut wrenching moment when the actor brings all these pieces together – wounded boy, hero, sociopath – in one truly explosive moment.
It’s likely that Haley will get most of the attention – Rorschach tends to hog the spotlight – but the revelation for me was Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian. There are some flaws in Snyder’s film and I would say that the biggest is one that comes from the book – The Comedian essentially drops out of the narrative after the first act. In the book it wasn’t that big of a deal for me, but the lack of Morgan’s presence is intrinsically felt in this movie. He’s huge in personality, but never feels over the top. Morgan fills the screen, and The Comedian takes on new aspects for me; there’s a roguish charisma that’s undeniable, and the dynamic energy of The Comedian – he’s the only character who seems to ever really be into what he’s doing – is palpable. But since the movie opens with his murder, the structure demands that he eventually disappear. The first act’s flashbacks – the dense, information heavy act where we get an info dump on the world of Watchmen – focus mostly on The Comedian, and just like in the book when his funeral is over he moves out of the story, showing up rarely. And it’s a shame; if there’s any argument for changing the structure of the book it’s that losing The Comedian sucks some of the air out of the film for a brief while. For Morgan this is a huge role, one that shows that he has actual movie star quality, even when raping superheroines or shooting pregnant women to death.
If there is a hero at the center of Watchmen, it’s Dan Dreiberg, Nite Owl II. In the modern day of the story he’s a retired schlub; in many ways he’s the audience identification character in the comic. He’s also the character I was most worried about in the movie; if there’s anybody whose scenes beg to get cut in order to make Watchmen faster and more action packed, it’s Dan, who spends half the movie walking around in a fuddy duddy sweater. But Snyder gets it, and he keeps almost all of Dan’s stuff totally intact. What’s more, he made an amazing casting decision, bringing in Patrick Wilson to, in many ways, reprise his role from Little Children. Wilson perfectly captures the guy whose glory days are behind him, but who even at the best of times wasn’t quite as much of a jock as the rest of the guys on the team. Dan’s a fan who had the ability to play dress up, and while the movie doesn’t have time to linger on that concept, Wilson nails it. He brings such a humanity to the character that there’s never any chance of losing Dan as the beating heart of the story. Like Haley, Wilson captures the dichotomy of the man in and out of the suit, but he does it in a way that’s much more subtle (which isn’t a slam on Haley but simply a reflection of the different characters), and which almost makes the impotence plotline – Dan just can’t get it up when he’s not in the suit – almost redundant. The comic uses that plot element to comment on Dan’s existential impotence as a retired civilian; Wilson gets that across very simply as an actor.
I try not to pay attention to other people’s opinions before I write my own review of a movie – I’m afraid of being contaminated by other people’s thoughts and ripping them off without meaning to do so – but there’s been negative buzz around Malin Ackerman’s performance as Silk Spectre II that I’ve found more than a little baffling. I don’t think Laurie is the strongest character in the book – she’s too defined by her relationships with men – but I think that Ackerman does great things with her. On the surface, Ackerman is blazingly hot and sexual, almost personally embodying the kink that informs the subtext of all superheroes. But what I like about Ackerman’s performance is the way that she plays the power dynamics of her relationships; she begins the film as Dr. Manhattan’s girlfriend, a role that is inherently submissive because of his omnipotence. She then moves on to Dan and Ackerman exactly gets the way that Laurie moves into a dominant position, one that represents growing up and out of the shadow of her mother (an old school superhero played by Carla Gugino. If I dared turn this review into a 10,000 word treatise – and this movie deserves such an examination – I’d talk more about the way Gugino plays pin-up pitch perfect). It’s subtly played, but it’s there. I do think that some elements of the relationship with Silk Spectre I are lost, and the movie’s greatest misstep happens in Laurie’s story (this is a major spoiler for those who haven’t read the book, so swipe to read it: the reveal that The Comedian is her father loses a huge amount of impact due to the fact that a key scene leading up to the reveal – The Comedian trying to talk to Laurie after the aborted Crimebusters meeting – isn’t shown until the flashback montage where Laurie figures it all out. This scene needed to be in the movie earlier, and it’s played perfectly so that people who don’t know the book wouldn’t understand what The Comedian is talking about until the final reveal happens, when his dialogue takes on a whole new meaning. I feel like this scene was a victim of the attempt to shorten the running time, and while it will likely be back in the longer cut, its absence undercuts Laurie’s whole arc), but Ackerman’s performance salvages the character in ways that I think other actors could not have done.
Which brings us to the great X-factor: Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt. He’s been the least seen in promotional clips and commercials, and this character has been the most obviously changed from his comic book incarnation. Ozymandias, the smartest man in the world and a man whose super power would be best described as supercapitalism, is in many ways the linchpin character of the entire story. Goode has bewildered fans with a decision to give Ozymandias a slight German accent; I can report back that the accent isn’t overpowering but it does come across as a weird choice that never quite gels. Thankfully it also comes across as an actorly affectation and isn’t written into the character’s story. That affectation is a mistake, but I think that otherwise Ozymandias is played well. In fact, there is an added scene where Ozy deals with Lee Iaococca and other captains of industry who complain that his attempts to create a free, renewable source of energy is socialism; in theory I thought this scene would be goofy, but in fact it adds an element of heroism to Ozymandias that not even the comic proper did – it’s an element you had to gather from reading the text supplements at the end to really grasp. And Goode plays it perfectly – he’s a man who is arrogant and manipulative but utterly righteous and assured of his own moral rectitude. I’ve heard complaints that Goode isn’t a natural blonde, but to be honest I like the fact that Adrian’s hair looks dyed – it completes the idea that he’s a man who has made himself over in the image of Alexander the Great. There’s brazen spoiler territory that follows, so again, I have hidden this from the eyes of the Watchmen uninitiated: the end of the story has always been where Ozymandias is made or broken, and I think that Snyder and Goode have made it so that he stands flawed and heroic and possibly wrong all at once. The film keeps Ozymandias alive, but it allows Dan the opportunity to beat the shit out of him – a beating that Ozymandias does not resist, even though we had just seen that he could easily hand Nite Owl his ass. There’s a Christ-like quality, and the way Goode plays it you know that this is very much on Adrian’s mind at the time.
There are more characters I could go through – again, a 10,000 word treatise on this film wouldn’t be out of bounds. There are books to be written about the movie, and about its relationship to the original novel, among other things. But the last character I want to really discuss is the world itself. With Watchmen Zack Snyder has pulled off a feat of world building that feels unparalleled; some people were chomping at the bit for Terry Gilliam’s version of this story, and I have to say that this has a Gilliam-esque depth of reality to it. Blade Runner might be another comparison in terms of the completeness of the world. Snyder doesn’t drag your eye to things that construct the alternate reality of Watchmen, he instinctively understands where to place them so that they add to the illusion. With one or two exceptions I never felt like things were being shoved into my face, and I know that there’s a ton of background elements that I missed my first time through. There’s a thoroughness to it all which makes the movie feel like it’s happening in a living world, not on a set or on a backlot. You believe that there’s an entire alternate 1985 just outside of the camera’s viewing range.
The world that is created is minutely faithful to the world of the graphic novel, but as I said, Snyder hasn’t simply replicated the book on screen. He’s transitioned it for the medium, and this is where some of the controversy will come in. The movie doesn’t add fight scenes, but it does amp up the ones that exist. Likewise, the sex scene from the book is in the movie, but it’s been brought to a new level. There are some who will point at these changes and loudly proclaim that Snyder doesn’t get it; these people are goofs. They prove that he completely gets it. When Watchmen was first published as a serialized story in 1986, Rorschach breaking a finger to get information was shocking. Heroes didn’t act like that. Today Jack Bauer breaks a barista’s finger to order a latte. We’re used to the idea of heroes who go beyond the pale, and we don’t even question it anymore. Snyder needed to find a way to make the violence of the film as impactful to us today as the violence of the book was to readers twenty years ago.
The same goes for the sex scene in the Owlship. While the book today seems demure about the act, at the time the idea of seeing superheroes doing it was stunning and boundary breaking. Now the sexuality of these types of characters – and the kinkiness at their heart – is old hat. Snyder makes the sex scene graphic and erotic in a way that few films dare to do anymore, and he brings the fetish to the fore. A shot of Silk Spectre’s leather boot trailing up Dan’s naked thigh and butt will surely trigger a whole new batch of fetishists. Ironically I think this one scene does more for old-fashioned kink than the entire Bettie Page movie from a couple of years ago, and that’s more than a little delightful.
There is one huge caveat at the center of all this gushing. I do believe that Watchmen is a singular film, a movie that will be name dropped in twenty years by new directors (‘I saw Watchmen and knew that I had to go to film school/make a movie!’). I believe that it is a monumental achievement, a alchemical balancing act that manages to serve the original material while feeling fresh and the product of a director’s vision. But it also feels incomplete. There’s no doubt that releasing a two hour, forty minute brazenly non-mainstream, resolutely non-commercially minded film like this is an act of bravery on the part of Warner Bros. But to the graphic novel reader there’s just enough on the edges of the film to know where the cuts happened, where the forty minutes to be returned in the Director’s Cut are. As incredible as the world Snyder created is, it’s still missing the small nuances of the two Bernies at the newsstand; they show up, and they’ll be back in the long version, but their relationship being excised here hurts the finale a little bit. Even at this massive size and running time, there’s a nagging feeling that you’re watching the abridged version.
Still, it’s a triumph of abridgment. As the movie itself is a triumph of adaptation. Those who claimed Watchmen was unfilmable may have been right, if you’re accepting the usual rules of filmmaking. Zack Snyder hasn’t done that, and it makes the film feel incredibly outside of the mainstream, incredibly fresh, incredibly unique. This isn’t Watchmen beaten into submission for movie screens, it’s Watchmen being allowed to exist as itself on movie screens. There will be those who are alienated by this, and those who just don’t have the ability to keep up for nearly three hours. It’s not an easy film, and it’s a movie that demands participation. It’s a movie that requires digestion; opinions walking out of the theater will not be the same as opinions three days later. Be wary of reviews written in the heat of the moment; a thoughtful person probably wants to approach this movie after having some time to chew on it.
And how amazing is that? A huge budgeted superhero movie that delivers intellectually? That takes serious, ballsy chances with the form? That isn’t giving audience what they expect, and is possibly not giving them what they want? Why, that sounds like a piece of art. A glorious, epic, exciting, mind blowing piece of art.
*anyone who looks at the original Watchmen graphic novel and thinks that Gibbons was not doing exciting things stylistically is blind. The cinematic presentation of the pages, with panels giving the impression of everything from pans to dollies is exceptionally stylistic, and was completely outside of what anyone else was doing in comic books at the time. Some fools have claimed that the visuals are the least important part of the comic; they just simply couldn’t be more wrong.