Watchmen (2009)

© Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures

Here’s a fun game to play, should you find yourself stuck in a room with comics fans. Step one: inquire if the Watchmen comic book is any good. Most will assure you it’s genius, whether or not they’ve read it, but you’ll want to focus on the first twats to snap, “It’s a graphic novel!” without a hint of irony. Step two: ask the fanboys what makes the book so special, and cut them off as soon as they start prattling about their favourite scenes and characters: “My question wasn’t what you like about the comic but why you think it’s profound.” The hapless geeks will hate you for it, and some may want to stab you with their imaginary Wolverine claws, but their most common reaction will be to bring up the series’ critical acclaim, which leads us to the final step: confirm with the fanboys that the only reason they consider Watchmen genius is because other people have claimed it so.

My point is, in spite of their encyclopaedic knowledge, or perhaps because of it, fanboys generally don’t understand their pet franchise’s broader appeal. If they did, I wouldn’t get the sudden urge to stab my own eyes every time I read fan fiction. Sadly, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen feels much the same, except it lasts a little under three hours and downloading it off the Web would be illegal. It’s as if the director, whose passion for the source material has been well advertised, couldn’t see the forest for all the trees, so he opted to copy every single leaf and add lots of graphic imagery because, you know, nothing says “deep” like blood and boobies.

There are, in fact, three reasons why the “graphic novel”, about five retired crime fighters investigating the death of one of their own (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is so highly regarded. First, it helped redefine super-heroes as flawed human beings. This, the movie gets right, due in large part to Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Crudup’s powerful performances as the unstable Rorschach and godlike Dr Manhattan. Except for Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), every hero is fully explored, from the nostalgic Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) to Dr Manhattan’s long-suffering wife, Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman). Sure, the plot’s got its fair share of melodrama, but how many super-hero yarns deal with issues like adultery and existential malaise on an atomic level?

Second, the story’s social commentary, which is heavily tied to the Cold War, truly resonated with readers in the eighties. This is where the film necessarily falters. Unless you’ve been living under the same rock as Snyder for the past two decades, you know the conflict ended with a sensible whimper instead of nuclear annihilation. Yes, I know: the characters live in an alternate 1985 with Nixon still in power, so the threat is still relevant to them, but it isn’t to viewers in 2009. Besides, the idea of destroying a large section of New York City for the greater good isn’t just historically impertinent in a post-9/11 world. It’s in bad taste.

Third, creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons made full use of the comic book medium, providing a metatextual analysis of the super-hero genre as a whole, which, of course, doesn’t translate particularly well to cinema. Still, Snyder gives it the old college try, tediously reproducing every panel from the comics’ main plotline, even though its structure was specifically designed for serialization. Chapter titles might have helped remove some of the resulting confusion and create a more deliberate sense of pace, but that would have required screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse to adapt the tale, not just transcribe it.

© Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures
© Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures

In fairness, Watchmen does take some liberties, most notably in the final act, which is mercifully devoid of giant telepathic squids, and the more prominent changes made generally benefit the story. I particularly enjoyed the opening montage depicting how super-heroes altered the course of American history. However, the subtler modifications often seem to miss the point: less than ten minutes in, the movie practically spoils its own whodunit plot in favour of a kung fu fight; Rorschach’s paranoid delusions are heavily romanticized and his violent excesses, outright glorified; and a number of character-defining lines are given to the wrong protagonists to accommodate staging.

Now, some fanboys may argue that the film deserves credit for including these misattributed lines, that a lesser production would have omitted them entirely. To me, that’s like ordering a Happy Meal and then praising the clerk for remembering your little plastic figurine as he smashes it into your burger and pours cola over your fries. If he’d forgotten the toy and drink, you’d at least have got to enjoy the greasy food. That’s the biggest problem with Watchmen: had it not been so long and ponderous, I might have appreciated its gorgeous visuals and histrionics, but it tries too hard to be as compelling as the book, which was never going to happen.

I don’t care how much you like junk food. If you have trouble understanding plastic isn’t edible, French fries taste better crispy, and soft drinks should come in separate containers, then you have no business working at McDonald’s (well, unless you’re in Paris, but I digress). By the same token, if you’re a talented director, but your passion for the source material has somehow blinded you to basic storytelling principles such as, “Show; don’t tell”, “Avoid lingering for half an hour after your main conflict’s been resolved”, and “Comics are not the same as movies”, then perhaps you aren’t the right filmmaker to adapt Watchmen. It’s worth noting, however, you’d make an excellent fanboy.

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Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."