Watching The Watchmen

This weekend, I managed to catch Zach Snyder’s adaptation of the “unfilmable” comic bookgraphic novel Watchmen. I didn’t read the book until after the movie had been announced, and while it is unquestionably a good story, it is more than a little dated. This review will avoid spoilers except in the most general sense, for those who have not seen them movie.

As to the story, one reviewer notes why it has not worn well:

Watchmen’s brand of dystopian misanthropy has been specifically refuted by events. It’s one thing to worry about the evil U.S. policies of containment and mutually-assured destruction in 1986. It’s one thing to paint a particular political party as being unconstitutionally obsessed with the possession of power and recklessly in pursuit of nuclear confrontation with an enemy who probably wasn’t so bad.

But as it turns out, that entire worldview was vitiated by events. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. Reagan’s strategic policy decisions vis-a-vis the Soviet Union were completely vindicated. MAD proved to be an effective deterrent. The conflict between the East and West was settled without a shot being fired. And, perhaps most importantly, the Truman/Kennedy/Reagan view of communism as an insidious ideology which led to violent, repressive authoritarianism was borne out.

So Moore was wrong. His fears were wrong. His warnings were wrong. His fundamental view of the world was wrong. And ‘Watchmen,’ in particular, is left as a bizarre cultural artifact. A pretentious piece of commentary masquerading as philosophy.

That being said, how is the movie?

It’s okay. It isn’t a great movie. It isn’t even the greatest comic-book adaptation out there. However, it is very ambitious, and very well done.

The good: Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach is an amazingly well-done character. Rorschach is not supposed to be all that sympathetic. He’s a psychotic vigilante with a brutal streak. Yet he’s arguably the most sympathetic character in the whole movie, because he has the most realistic motivation. We don’t really connect with the other characters in the way we connect with Rorschach, and that is due not only to the blandness of the others but because Haley makes him such a complex and multi-faceted character.

Billy Crudup’s Doctor Manhattan is fascinating to me. What if someone became what was essentially a god? Crudup plays the character (through CGI) as someone who is torn between his humanity and his incredible powers. The problem is that the CGI is not quite realistic enough to make it all work. The facial expressions don’t always work, especially the mouth. Crudup does a good job with what he has to work with, and the idea of the character is fascinating, but the execution is not up to what it could have been.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan also did a good job as the murderous thug, The Comedian. The problem with his character is that his emotional arc never goes anywhere. Part of that is the fault of the story where his sudden conversion is more about serving the plot than anything else. However, when Morgan is on the screen, he’s got charisma, and even The Commedian is such a terrible person, you almost want to root for him.

The bad? The old-age makeup is atrocious. It rings false for some reason that isn’t quite quantifiable. Carla Gugino’s older self in the movie comes off as a cliche, even though she’s a talented actress.

There is a sex scene that is absolutely cringe-worthy. Making a nude scene with a comely Swedish model be boring takes a special kind of incompetence—and Snyder is a talented director in many other respects. The emotional core of the movie is lacking because Snyder (much like George Lucas) is a great director with fight scenes and effects shots, but doesn’t have the same fluency with actors. It’s in many ways harder to frame and edit a shot with two actors talking than to blow up New York. Many, if not most directors, don’t always know how to do that, and Snyder has yet to learn how to be subtle. Hopefully as he grows as a director he’ll learn.

Malin Akerman has her moments, but is still rather wooden. Part of that is due to Snyder not knowing how to bring out an emotionally resonant performance from her. But still, she never quite hits the mark.

Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl also gives just shy of a great performance—and again, I blame Snyder for this. He plays the washed-up old superhero finding his true place fairly well, but never quite connects. He’s probably the most accessible character in the movie, and the most realistic. We want to connect with him, but his low-key performance seems to get overwhelmed by the scale of the movie. Still, he isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, and his character has his moments.

Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias also fails to hit the mark. He’s supposed to be the world’s smartest man, but comes off as a bad David Bowie impersonator. We never really get a sense of his guile, and at one point he states that “he’s not some comic book villain.” The problem is that by that point, that’s exactly how he comes across. I never thought the Veidt character was well-developed in the book either, but here he’s just another part of the plot.

Fans of the comic note that the ending has been rather significantly changed. I’ve mixed feelings about that—the original ending would not have worked well on film. Yet at the same time, the new ending falls a little flat. It plays well into some of the themes being developed in the film, but it still lacks punch.

All-in-all, Watchmen never becomes much more than the sum of its parts. It’s too cool, too sterile, except for when Rorschach is on the screen. There’s no emotional heart to the story, and the big emotional moments fall flat. Snyder is a great action director, but he doesn’t yet have the skills to bring out the subtleties in the piece.

The problem with the story’s politics is also there. It’s impossible to uproot it from Cold War paranoia, yet the Cold War is a distant memory for its audience—and many of them never lived through it at all. Watchmen‘s alternate reality not only assumes the existence of costumed vigilantes, but also a Cold War radically different than the one that actually happened.

Watchmen is not a bad movie, it’s more than serviceable, but it never crosses the line to being a great movie in the way that The Dark Knight does. Snyder did prove that Watchmen is not actually unfilmable, but at the same time, it stops just short of being great.