Growing up Watchmen

The hardest part about Watchmen, that everyone seems (wonderfully) to understand, is that it was built as a comic book.  It references itself in the way that the best comics can, because it is so easy for the reader to flip back, having a visual guide as well as the words.  The comic book really is a wonderful medium, and Watchmen is its pinnacle.

Now, going to see this adaptation last night we knew these things:

  1.  Story is fantastic (having both read graphic in past week)

  2.  Snyder stuck to visual guide (from previews)

  3.  Story will be simplified (no pirate sections)

  4.  Snyder thinks that crunching and gasping equals fighting and sex (from 300)

  5.  If he gets anything right at all I’ll be excited because I love it (same as LotR)

Walking out three hours later, which is neither too long nor something audiences can’t stand, we remembered those points, which really helped.  Yes, the story was fantastic, and, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, who got the 300 treatment, everyone looked good.  Rorschach and the Comedian were incredible.  Watching Dr. Manhattan drop the photograph on Mars made me so happy, as did watching his suit assemble itself on him (which I would have watched for longer).  Things like the long pull out from the statue in the rain prior to the Comedian’s burial were wonderful.

The cuts were understandable.  Hollis’ death was the last thing cut (says Wikipedia), which I understand (and am glad was the last thing to go).  The pirate ship story was of course going to go (though is supposed to be added in for the DVD).

Now we come to the personal portion of this review/examination:  Zach Snyder’s incomprehensibility.   Here we have someone who grew up with the same influences as I did, who deeply loves the same books.  I think it’s pretty impossible to see Watchmen and not think that Snyder loves the graphic.  He does, and I believe that, and I think that it’s very visible in the scenes he does not alter.

The problem is that Zach Snyder has almost no sense of subtlety.  As noted earlier, he thinks that a fight is not a fight if bones don’t come through skin.  Every punch must have an accompanying crunch sound effect so loud as to make the audience wince.  The sound track has only two volumes: loud, and REALLY LOUD, which is reserved for touching, soft, or very complicated scenes.  The visual grace that began this generation’s obsession with intricate fight scenes, that of the first Matrix and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, is utterly lost.  The Nite Owl is an out-of-shape 40 year-old man, and yet when he punches bones break and people crash through walls.  Zach Snyder is unable to see that people will understand a fight scene without bone crushing.  This is a flaw we were well aware of going in, because of 300, and simply hoped he would avoid as it did not hew to the source material at all.  He demonstrated no such restraint.  The prison escape is a perfect example.  Rorschach’s scenes are handled with wit and delicacy, even in their gruesome nature, but the Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II are forced into an awkward (and utterly manufactured) brawl that is both unfortunately long and ridiculously loud.  By making them so forceful Snyder removes a central portion of Moore’s idea, that these are heroes who are adventuring for the first time in years.  In Gibbon’s original art this is handled so deftly (see page 15 of issue 3).  Snyder will have none of this deftness.

Dr. Manhattan, as mentioned earlier, has the physique of a body-builder, and is more frontally nude than a) he is in the graphic or b) is necessary.  He also is needlessly shown exploding Vietnamese soldiers, another moment where Snyder looked at Moore & Gibbon’s work (which the shot otherwise mimics very closely) and was like well, this was cool, but it would have been so much better if they EXPLODED.”  In so many ways it is like watching a fifteen year-old boy’s thoughts.  More bone breaking, more nudity, and louder sound effects are always better.

I had a good time.  But every time a fight scene approached I winced, hoping we could get through it without any horrible disfigurations.  This doesn’t mean all the fighting was poorly done.  The opening fight was wonderfully done.  Most of Rorschach’s fighting was excellent.  The re-visioning of the death of the convict Rorschach ties to the cell bars was very good.  Snyder’s attempt to modernize the conflict with the inclusion of oil and energy was awkwardly welded to a cold-war plot.

In retrospect, this is a better movie than I expected from a very tasteless director.  He delivered his personal brand of utterly over-the-top and graceless fighting alongside a very tight rendition of the story.  Big props to the screenwriter.

There are only two scenes that stop the movie from being good, and something that I would go see again:

  1. Nite Owl & Silk Spectre IIs love scene in Archie.  In utter contrast to the first love scene, on the couch, which is moderate and tasteful and NOT set to absurdly loud music, this second scene is so awful and horribly over-long that most of the audience was cringing and looking at their phones.  Absolutely uncomfortable to watch is usually not what directors are going for in sex scenes.

  2. Rorschach putting a cleaver into the guy’s head.  Unlike the previous mention, which is basically straight from the book just shot & scored horribly, this scene is totally created for the movie, and alters Rorschach’s character fundamentally.  Rorschach is not a deranged psycho killer who cleaves people in two.  This scene fails in all three of the ways an adaptation can fail, that being it alters the story and characters, adds nothing, and takes unnecessary attention away from the original work.  For those who may not know or remember, in the original Rorschach cuffs the man to a chair, sets the house on fire, and throws him a hacksaw with the advice don’t bother cutting through the cuff, you don’t have time for that.” He then stands outside the house for an hour, but no one comes out.  As originally written it is evocative and characteristic without being over-the-top gory and psychotic.  But, as we all know, Snyder is unable to appreciate subtlety or simply good writing.  His mantra of more gore louder!” is impossible to miss.

Yeah.  So for all of you who have been asking me how I feel about this on Twitter/im/text, here’s your answer.  It’s good, it’s fun, it’s much better than I possibly expected Zach Snyder to do, and if it could be edited again (by someone else) it could be really wonderful.  Unfortunately, even with a supremely tasteful base text (as opposed to the incredibly simple and violent one he had with 300), Snyder is unable to resist his own urges, to everyone’s detriment.

Recommendation:  Go buy the graphic and read it before seeing this film.  The hype surrounding this movie means it is available at every major book store, and well worth your time & money.  If you saw the film first, the same advice applies.  You’ll have to trust me that the parts you’ve complained about (horrid score, awful fighting, painful sex scenes, atrocious cleaver-to-the-head shots) were Zach Snyder, and not Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons.