You know the story by now: Watchmen, the “unfilmible” masterstroke of the Graphic Novel media has finally been put to celluloid, and the fanboys are waiting with baited breath to find out if it was all for naught or not.
And now that it’s out, a movie I’ve been anticipating for years, I don’t feel compelled to say yea or nay. Considering its potential, It’s just okay. What Snyder has delivered is an odd combination of very faithful product, with just a few small changes that don’t hurt the film quite as much as they are just pointless and typically Hollywood.
Let’s start with what he got right – the characters. The comics offered up six complex superheroes that could never be summed up conveniently. Snyder’s screenwriters and cast have easily stuck to the source material in this respect -especially Rorshach, the masked and brutal night-time P.I., who is as close of a realization as one could imagine. The only exception is Matthew Goode, as the smartest man in the world Ozymandias, who just gets stuck in his vaguely British (and very annoying) accent. But otherwise, this is a movie with six (well, I guess five) wonderfully complicated characters that all get their moment in the sun.
But from there, things get a bit murkier.
For one thing, Snyder decides to stick to much of the book’s exposition and backstory. In one respect, staying faithful is an honorable decision. But comics and films are two different mediums. In comics, or any book, you can take as much time as you’d like to dig into back story and explain anything you feel like. But film doesn’t have the luxury of time, and much of what Snyder carries into his film is nice but ulitmately not required for the story. With it in the film, there’s a solid 45-minute chuck of flashback in the middle of this clunker, and it throws off the pacing of the whole 163-minute picture. If Snyder could have kept the exposition to a minimum – as most all movies should – he would have delivered a slimmer and more svelt product.
Another big flaw of the film, perhaps the biggest, is Snyder’s decision to include needless action to the movie. Taking scenes of dialogue and artificially inserting them with Bullet-Time-esque combat, you can’t help but feel like either the Studio demanded more action or Snyder was just unable to process the themes of the movie without super-slick action.
In Snyder’s previous film, 300, he was able to fashion an entire film with over-stylized shot after over-stylized shot. And for what it was, it was a great film. But Watchmen shouldn’t be 300, nor should it even be an action movie. This story is a thesis on transplanting the fictional into the real world, not The Matrix 4.
Furthermore, Snyder takes these supposedly normal, mortal, non-superpowered heroes and gives them more combat ability than Tony Jaa. In one scene we see Dan Dreiberg – the now long-retired superhero who has lost his manhood to a life of bird-watching – taking out a street gang of seven. He, along with the help of a woman in her 30s, does this without breaking a sweat, even managing to twist someone’s bone out of its arm. Not only is this violence distracting and unjustified, it violates perhaps Watchmen’s greatest feature – it takes away the realism of the story. In the novel, only one of the superheroes has any actual super-human ability. Everyone else, including Dreiberg, is just a normal mortal with too much spare time on their hands. Even if Snyder decided to change this for the film – give his heroes powers – he never explains this. He just has characters mention “He’s fast!” and calls it good. This is breaking off from what makes Watchmen one of the best comics ever written, and just makes it more of a Hollywood product.
An adaptation doesn’t have to be faithful to be a good movie, and maybe having read the novel on which the film is based makes me too biased to properly review it. But you don’t have to be familiar with the source material to notice that the action in this film is of mediocre quality, and unnecessary. You don’t have to be a Watchman fan to know that this movie is too dedicated to the source material to be its own movie, to see that it has no voice of its own. And you sure as hell don’t have to have read the book to be weirded out by Dr. Manhatten’s computer-generated dong-swinging.
Outside of these complaints, Watchmen is at least a mostly faithful adaptation, even at its most important points. It’s got great visuals, decent pacing, and manages to stay true to the story of the original (well, most of the time). It asks the questions – what good can intentions accomplish, and do the happy endings we want to read about have any place in the real world?
But when you have such great, original source material to pull from, some of the decisions the filmmakers made prove not just poor, but counter-intuitive. Those who have yet to have read the Graphic Novel will find “Watchmen” to be a mostly strong feature – it brings to the surface important questions that have relevancy in a culture so familiar with the Superhero. And, hey, even fans may find some use for the film. But Watchmen is not the film it could have, or should have, been.