Watching the Watchmen

I had heard enough reviews panning Watchmen that I was prepared to come out thinking it was a well-meaning misfire, an interesting failure. And I’d talked enough about it to start to turn off my wife–who had never read it (or very many comics in general) and wasn’t front-loaded to get it if the narrative didn’t hold up as a film in it’s own right.

I still wanted to see it, regardless.  How could I not? The original comic was too personally relevant to my own childhood to do otherwise.

Then I noticed something.

With the exception of Roger Ebert (who for all that he sometimes gets it wrong is one of us), all the naysayers were critics. Whereas a handful of writers I respect and read were chiming in positively. Authors as diverse Samuel R. Delany, John Scalzi, Mark Chadbourn and Paul Cornell—spanning generations, styles, and media but all high in my estimation—were reporting back favorably.

I began to suspect that those negative responses were from critics used to less-nuanced, more straightforward Hollywood fare, narratives stripped down to the fast-paced formula where one protagonist identified his/her goal by the eleven minute mark and then raced towards it across the next two hours, who weren’t used to having to hear and comprehend so much dialogue, who weren’t used to having to juxtapose word and image in order to extract theme.

And you know what?

I was right.

Watchmen is awesome!

I think it may be a “writers movie,” but for this child of ’70s cinema, that lost era in which you could honestly say film was an art form on a par with the novel, in which you could discuss what a film “means” and not just how it looks, Watchmen was my kind of film. Watchmen is perfectly cast, beautifully shot, lovingly realized. I understand the reasons for Alan Moore’s feelings about Hollywood in general and comic book films in specific, but if every director was this respectful towards his source material, we’d have a new golden age of film. Every writer should be so lucky to have his/her work treated with such loving respect and admiration. And if there are a few differences from the graphic novel, my god they are minor!

And my wife, who saw it without the comic book background? She thought it was very good (if a bit bloody). Perhaps not as complicated as The Dark Knight plot-wise, but rich in character and overall very worthwhile.

For my part, I have no complaints at all. I was struck by how much of the juxtapositions of words and images they were able to preserve, and thought it found a whole other level of meaning/nuance unavailable to the comic in the use of period music. I had been worried by the heavy-handed Matrix-style of the prison break clip, for fear that was indicative of the whole, and ended up LOVING its use in the film as representative of the return of Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl’s confidence and libido! (Again, another instance where music and montage are used to add a level of nuance.)

Were there some changes to the graphic novel? Of course. Listen, I once sat in a writer/producer’s office with a script of Watchmen in my hands that ended with them all racing into a burning building to save the day and be proclaimed as heroes again. And Snyder himself talks about how hard he fought to keep the downer ending intact. Wil Wheaton’s take, that this is essentially the best Watchmen we could hope for and then some, is spot on. Anyone who nitpicks the minor alterations is being obsessive. Really, it’s a shame that Moore won’t ever see this, because if this had been the first adaptation of his work, he might have a different opinion of Hollywood (and Hollywood itself, by the way, seems to be more open to faithful adaptations of books/comics content than ever before in its entire history, may this trend continue.)

Meanwhile,  all those proclamations that Watchmen  is “unfilmable” are getting my back up. I’ve got a lot to say about trying to make an ambitious film and not pleasing everyone verses shooting for the LCD and staying comfortable. Even if Watchmen were an “interesting failure” I’d have been pleased, but I pronounce it a very interesting success. I’d rather have a few more Zack Snyders out there attempting to make ambitious, intelligent films and falling short than an hundred more Michael Bays pumping out Transformer sequels. During the previews, they showed clips of Dennis Quaid’s new film, Pandorum, and I thought, “Oh god, not another retread of Alien!” Why is Hollywood stuck on a film that was made in 1979? Please, new material, new looks, new ideas, new types of storytelling, new visuals! I don’t need to see Alien, Blade Runner or 2001 ripped off yet again. If I want that, I’ll watch the originals (or the lamentable Event Horizon for a mash-up of at least two of the three). When I go see something new, I want something, well, new. Give me ambitious filmmakers who dare to film the “unfilmable” (whatever that means) rather than the safe betters who shoot the tried-a-hundred-times-and-true formula films.

It may be a little evil to quote Moore’s own words in this context, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of when he said:

It is much more exciting and thus creatively energizing if you are attempting something where you are uncertain of its outcome, where you don’t know if it will work or not. And this is only the beginning. Eventually, increasingly confident of your talents to make a workable story out of most anything, you will come to regard being merely unsure of a work’s outcome as far too facile an approach. Instead, you may graduate to only attempting works which you privately suspect to be impossible. This is no bad thing, and if rigorously applied would weed out a great many dull and repetitive creators from the world while at the same time increasing the world’s relatively meager cache of genuine unexpected marvels.1

Okay, that’s a little low. Perhaps it would be kinder, and more apropos, to end on a quote from John F. Kennedy, given the frequent use of images of JFK in Snyder’s film:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. 2

I am supposing by “do the other things” he meant film the Watchmen. And I’m glad somebody listened.


1This is from his afterword to the 2003 edition of his Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics, originally written in 1985 and reprinted in 2003 by Avatar Press.

2“Speech at Rice University”, Houston, Texas, September 12th, 1962.

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