So…been awhile since I’ve posted anything. That whole “moving across the ocean and trying to find a home for your family” thing has me preoccupied from really absorbing anything new to write about. I still owe you posts on Tony Hillerman and The Office at some point, and I suppose I could whip up something about “No Line on the Horizon,” the new U2 album. (And, as I’ve mentioned everywhere else, I now live in a city on U2’s tour. And I have four tickets. Hee hee.)
But today I’m going to write about “The Watchmen.” I debated even posting this. In a way, it might not be worth it, and it puts out some information about me personally that I’m not proud of or that might put me in a bad light.
So let me start by saying: Don’t go see this movie. Seriously. Don’t. I mean, I did. And I probably shouldn’t have. But I did. And I’m telling you not to. It earns its ‘R’ (or in the UK ’18’) rating on every level–language, sex, and violence, in ascending order of badness. Not to mention that the worldview underlying the film, practically promoted in it, is nihilism, the belief that there is no meaning and every value is ultimately baseless. So: encouraging and joyful? Not so much.
So why did I go? Well, I couldn’t bring myself to resist. I had kind of been waiting for this movie for 18 years.
The Watchmen film is based on a graphic novel, which is basically like a deeper, grown-up, more solidly put-together comic book, by Alan Moore, the bizarre dark pagan genius of the comic book world. He’s also responsible for the anarchistic “V for Vendetta”, among other things, but “Watchmen” is considered his masterpiece. When Time Magazine put out its “Best 100 books of the Past 75 Years” list, “Watchmen” was the only comic book on the list.
I encountered it in the late 80s at Comics Outpost, Barre, Vermont’s finest (and only) comic book store. I went through a two year or so comic book obsession. And I wanted to buy the Watchmen book, which reprinted all 12 issues of the mini-series. And the dude wouldn’t let me. He knew my mom and knew we had standards, and though I was 16 and old enough to buy it technically, he wanted her permission. He showed her the dark stuff–the attempted rape, some of the extreme violence–and she, much to my chagrin, but wisely, said no.
So I borrowed it from my friend and never told her.
And I didn’t get it. I mean, I thought I basically followed the story, but I didn’t really.
Sometime between then and now, I bought it. I don’t remember when. I have probably read it through about four times, and each time, I understand it more and more. Though I in every way disagree with its philosophy, I have come to love aspects of it, appreciate its complexity and the genius behind the writing.
So, Hollywood scooped this up and has tried to make a movie about it for fifteen or so years. Various directors–many of them the cream of the current crop–took passes at it and gave up. It was largely thought to be unfilmable. Not helpful is the fact that Alan Moore angrily disavows any of the attempts to make movies of his work. (Sometimes he is right. Sometimes he’s just a jerk.) It’s structure is so dense and tightly woven that to do it justice would require either a complete rewrite or a really long movie. Studios for a long time tried the rewrite idea. And all their attempts ruined the story. It’s also against Hollywood wisdom to make a “superhero” movie that’s not PG-13, and The Watchmen could not possibly be told well and still make that PG-13 cut. So, the movie floundered and floundered.
Then Zach Snyder came along. He directed two movies I haven’t seen, but the one that put him on the map was 300, another comic book adaptation. That got him Watchmen, and he was brazen enough to try and make the whole comic book almost just as it was. Many of the shots in the movie are just frames from the comic book, which was illustrated in a more cinematic fashion than comic books usually are.
So when the trailers came out, and they looked amazing, I knew I wouldn’t really be able to keep myself from seeing it. I mean, I knew it would be R rated, but I also knew the whole story and would know when to walk out or turn my eyes.
If you don’t know the story, here’s a synapsis: The bulk of the plot takes place in an alternate 1980s America, in which Richard Nixon has somehow earned a fourth term as US President, and full-out nuclear war between the USA and USSR seems imminent. America is in extreme moral collapse. The streets are dark and violent.
A man is murdered, and that man is revealed to have formerly been called “The Comedian”, part of a troupe of normal human beings who decided to dress in costumes and stop crime. Instead of superheroes (because they don’t have powers), they have been called vigilantes, and throughout the book we see bits of their history. There have been actually two phases of vigilante groups, one in the 4os, and one in the 60s. The Comedian was the only one to be part of both, though he also did work for the government (even secretly killing two reporters named Woodward and Bernstien.)
The group from the 40s, “The Minutemen”, fell apart when some of them were murdered, and one went insane.
The 60s group came into existence after an accident at a science facility caused one man to actually gain intense and incredible abilities. This group, “The Watchmen,” was made up of the film’s main characters, but vigilantism was soon outlawed and they have all since gone in different directions in life. The Watchmen consist of the aforementioned Comedian, Nite Owl II–now a pudgy, lonely guy remembering his glory days while living in New York, Dr. Manhattan (the scientist from the accident), Ozymandias (the world’s smartest man–and note the reference to the poem), Silk Spectre II, who lives with Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach, who never takes off his inkblot mask and represents the worldview of moral absolutism.
Throughout the movie we learn the past of most of these characters and how it ties to the Comedian’s murder. We follow Rorschach as he investigates that murder with other odd things happening in the lives of the other Watchmen. He, along with primarily Nite Owl, soon uncover a conspiracy with millions of lives in the balance.
So there is the plot. Loosely. It took me several paragraphs to describe in almost no detail; that should give you a hint of how complex it is. And one of the challenging things about this story, philosophically, is the last section: a character does something quite horrible, destroying millions of lives, that results in something very positive and fruitful for the planet. I don’t want to give anything away, but one of the messages seems to be that the ends justify the means.
But I wonder if that’s really that hard to disprove. I wonder if Alan Moore would even see it that way after 9/11. You remember that right after 9/11, everyone was promising peace and harmony. I remember the lead singer of a popular rock band at that time pledging to never be angry or hateful again. And SNL said they would lay off the President. And magazines declared dead the age of irony. Something horrible happened–9/11–and people thought peace and change would come out of it.
But the human heart is wicked, and we return to our old ways without a change in that heart. The Watchmen ends shortly after this huge crime has produced such great fruit. But I think if Moore were honest with what he saw in the world, he would have to say that that fruit would be short-lived.
Anyway, how does the movie compare with the comic? Well, much has been made about the change in the ending. Basically, Snyder has completely changed the horrible thing that the one character does to bear good fruit on the earth. Completely. I think he probably did because he considered that thing difficult to film; if it wasn’t done right, it would look horribly silly. And a lot of people complained about this change. I even read one critic who compared to changing the ending of Hamlet, which is bit silly but makes its point, and after all, this is sort of the Hamlet of comic books.
As for me, I thought the new version of the ending actually worked really well…in theory. More on that below.
Structurally, the script is nearly perfect. The film runs 2 hours and 40 minutes, and another 30 or so is going to be added to the DVD release. I hope they return the characters of the newspaper vendor and the people around him to the movie; I have a feeling that’s a lot of what got cut. But what’s on screen works really well. The story unfolds just as it should, and everything looks amazing visually.
The performances are mostly great. Especially good are Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian. Haley nails both the masked and unmasked phases of his character, and Morgan just embodies the moral blankness of the Comedian. The actor playing Nite Owl II was a lot better than I expected, and Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan is also very strong. The actress playing Silk Spectre II was…meh. Not that great. And I still don’t know what to think of the guy playing Ozymandias. It’s a key part, and I liked him in the beginning but felt something big was missing in the 3rd act.
But I had some major problems with this movie.
First of all, The Watchmen comic book is already really violent and disturbing, but it seems Zach Snyder was just determined to make it doubly so. Everything was exaggerated. For example, there is a scene where Ozymandias is attacked by a shooter at his workplace. In the comic, his assistant graphically takes a bullet and then Ozymandias wacks the assailant over the head, knocking him over. In the movie, Ozymandias is in a meeting with several oil industry giants, and in slow motion we see bullets piercing their brains and other body parts, and then Ozy beats the guy to a pulp. So much more graphic. Another example: when we learn Rorschach’s history, we see some pretty disturbing stuff, including the story of a murdered girl and two dogs wrestling over a leg bone. Gross. But for some reason, Snyder added some things in the film to make Rorschach’s revenge 10 times more graphic. It really bugged me.
Likewise with the sexual content. It’s in the book, but Snyder felt the need to make it ten times longer and more explicit for reasons I can’t fathom. I’ve even seen non-Christians bothered by this.
Ironically, the one place where the violence could have been more drawn out was the ending. Part of what makes the ending work in the comic book is that you really see, and really feel, the destruction. And you know the character responsible also makes himself feel it. It’s vivid. In the movie, it happens very fast without a lot of visuals, and the impact of what he has done is lost. It needs to be there. (Also missing: his reaction to what he has done. Instead we get another bloody fight.)
So anyway, there it is: I processed my thoughts. I should not have seen this movie. I did not realize how explicit Snyder decided to go. He did a masterful job, for the most part, at pulling off a resonant and complex story about human nature, the ways in which we hold on to or forgive our pasts, and the darkness in modern living. He lightened up the nihilism of the book while exaggerating the violence and sexuality.
All in all, a very well done film with some flaws, the biggest being that there was nothing good, pure, beautiful or holy to set my mind on.
So let that be a warning. Or something.