. . . And I Likes What I Sees.
Am I a full-blooded comic book nerd who can understand the prose of Grant Morrison and reiterate every nuance of the recent Skrull invasion? Absolutely not. I boycotted the whole Skrull thing because it was just too complicated a story spread out over too many books, and, frankly, too expensive and too much like Battlestar Galactica for me to get interested. The entire Marvel Universe has descended into the paranoia that was novel and biting when it was just Chris Claremont doing it to mutants, and every book seems dark and forbidding, and D.C. seems intent on following that trend. I tried to slog through Final Crisis, but got increasingly irritated by the entire, nonsensical, purposeless story. Before my attempt, I didn’t think it was possible to perpetrate a worse series than Batman R.I.P. Boy was I wrong. The only books I’m regularly reading these days are the New Krypton story, Batman/Superman (off and on good), Red Hulk,
Avengers/Invaders, the X-Men First Class books, Spider-Man Brand New Day, The Titans (Teen Titans got weird and full of C-Listers), and anything with Franklin Richards (though that series is wearing thin). In other words: I read the stuff that “real” fans call junk. I read stuff that I can read with my kids. I like stories that help me escape, not ones that leave me confused. If you’re gonna charge me almost as much for a comic as I pay for a movie ticket, I expect a lot of bang for the buck.
Which brings me to Watchmen. The above notwithstanding, I read books geared for adults as well, like All Star Superman, All Star Batman, anything by Frank Miller, and, of course, The Watchmen, which was the second-greatest comic book of the 1980s. I tell you about my current tastes just to let you know that I’m not a full-blooded nerd. I’m more of a nerdatto, part superhero geek, part busy person who wants to share in the joy with his kids.
I’ll say first off that my expectations for the film could not have been lower. Zack Snyder turned the interesting blend of myth, legend, and history that was Frank Millers’ 300 and turned it into a joke. But The Watchmen did not follow suit (which may be why it made about 30% less on its opening weekend than 300—but that could also have been due to the fact that Watchmen is nearly 3 hours long). I also knew that Alan Moore and several fansites had condemned the movie before it was released, and Moore’s name is glaringly missing from the credits, so let’s just say was very skeptical.
Did I like it? That question can be answered in two ways: Was it a good film, and was it a good adaptation of a multi-layered, oppressively dark maxi-series? The answers, surprisingly, are yes and yes. As a film, The Watchmen has three acts, several sympathetic characters, great plot twists, flawed-but-heroic centerpieces, and enough of a human element to reach even those who are not fans of the tights-and-spandex genre. As an adaptation, the film is dense and retains many of the complexities of the primary two storylines from the comic, which are the mystery of who killed The Comedian and the overarching drama of whether Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandius can stop Nixon from starting a nuclear war.
Although it was simply not possible to include all of the backstories, Snyder solved some of this by producing a brilliant montage under the opening credits, showing the history of the first superheroes (The Minutemen), their rises and falls, and the coming of the new breed (The Watchmen), so that by the time Rorschach begins delving into the murder of Comedian, we already understand that the two “heroes” are similar representations of the eras in which they lived: As Comedian himself later explains, in flashbacks, he was a living satire of society—it’s reflection in a funhouse mirror. We come to understand later that Rorschach, like his name and mask, is also a rendering of society’s unconscious prejudices and deep psychological scars.
Are there changes from book to screen? Of course. Many storylines are abbreviated, and we never get a full sense of Sally Jupiter’s relationship with The Comedian (or Night Owl’s partnership with him), but much is faithfully reproduced as well. In the book, Alan Moore uses Comedian’s funeral as the means to show us the impact he had on all those around him—and as a tool to confuse us as to who the real killer could be. Each main character recalls their resentments, and we come to a deeper understanding of the deceased antihero. These scenes done very well in the film, with several shot-by-shot reproductions of the comic. We also come to understand the level of Dr. Manhatta’s power through his single-handed victory in Vietnam, and to see big blue as a symbol for America itself, whose power grew faster than it, as a country, could understand and adapt. It’s a timely message, as our country today struggles to find our footing as we move
from our role as a world leader in success and inspiration to our role as the leader of the world’s faltering economy. Again, all very true to the book, albeit told in a more compressed fashion. Even though the pirate comic-within-the-comic is gone, we see a pirate flag over a young child’s bed, reminding us that even kids of the time are disillusioned by superheroes, preferring the simpler black-and-whites of swashbucklers.
The overall look of the film is also fairly true to the comic. Certainly the characters are all easily recognizable . . .
. . . even if Laurie should have been far more busty. The special effects are so seamless and extraordinary, in fact, that it is easy to take them for granted. Much like Tim Burton’s Batman, Snyder has created a world stage that has little in common with today’s reality, but is wholly believable and organic.
Are there weaknesses? Yes. The film, like 300, often feels sterile and bleak. But this is similar to the source material. The third act doesn’t really build to a conclusion, and the punchline at the very end is unsatisfying in its subtlety. But these are problems with standard movie formats, and Alan Moore’s tale was an intentional subversion of those expectations, so the fact that the movie just kind of trails off feels right. Dr. Manhattan is exactly like I always imagined him, almost like a version of The Watcher, a part of the story but also apart from it, a man whose power forces a Zen-like detachment upon while but whose former life as a human being keeps him emotionally vested in goals and outcomes. But this character will be hard for most moviegoers to feel for, I expect, given that he is so far above (literally) the struggle. The biggest weakness is the villain. Matthew Goode is too gentle as Veidt, and we never understand his
sinister nature (or his ability at the end of the film to predict every hero’s move). We should be afraid of him, and we should not believe in his vision for world peace, but the film does not guide us in that direction.
Overall, though, these are minor quibbles when one considers the sheer vastness of the film. Nolan’s Batman films and the last Spider Man movie were long. But The Watchmen is the first real superhero “epic,” with a grand narration and a big, historical feel. I am happy to say that the film defied my expectations, and was a very good supermovie.