As may be obvious by now, I’m using November to buff up my backlog and get a bit of practice in writing reviews on a tighter deadline. I’m definitely not doing this to cheat at NaNoWriMo.
Anyway, this one is going to be basic because I’ve already talked about it — or about its source material, anyway. In 2009, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ beloved Watchmen graphic novel got its first film adaptation from the mind of Zack Snyder after Snyder’s success with the 300 series. Praised for its faithfulness to the comics, the film was still derided for being lesser by critics and fans. Witch the new HBO series coming out and changing attitudes toward Watchmen’s story in recent years, I think it’s worth revisiting.
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: The Point, and Missing It
The first thing that comes to mind when watching this series is that it looks a bit ugly. No, that’s unfair. Uninteresting is a better word for it. I don’t mean to blame the effects artists for this, as they did their job and they did it well. The effects aren’t bad, especially given they’re ten years old now, and all of visual elements look professional. The cinematography is nice, the lighting is clear, makeup and costumes are all highly detailed without diverting from the film’s goal. Everyone involved in the actual construction of the film did a good job creating realistic versions of these characters and scenes. It’s that concept, though, that’s the problem.
The book Watchmen is known for its visuals. In my opinion, its visuals are its most important asset. The colors are sharp and well-balanced, the contrast is high, and the style captures a feel of classic comic books without ever really looking dated. The symmetry of the panels and pages, the motifs and parallels, and the way subplots within the story link together ties the book together to a point where the dialogue could be cut almost entirely without disrupting the core of the narrative. It’s not my favorite series to use this approach, but it’s praised with good reason.
It wouldn’t be impossible to create a live-action or animated version of Watchmen that hits the strengths of the book. But this film isn’t really aiming to do that.
Not unlike the Disney live-action remakes, the film Watchmen only exists to make a cartoonish-looking thing look more real, and in doing so, hopefully gain a bigger audience. This film is on the whole more cohesive than the Disney remakes, but it has a similarly lifeless quality to it. This effect is only compounded when the film is juxtaposed with the original — take a look at the image I used for my original Watchmen review.
But where the Disney remakes falter in their aesthetic because of cut corners and many small bad decisions, Watchmen fails for a much simpler and relatable reason: the book isn’t built for it. This is true of most artistic styles involving bold colors, as detail often mutes colors and anything bright looks cartoonish when surrounded by muted tones. Take for instance Doctor Manhattan. The film couldn’t significantly change its big naked blue guy while still keeping the comic’s design, but with everything else as taking on the same palate as The Dark Knight, Doctor Manhattan stands out like a sore thumb and draws attention to the technological limitations of the computer effects used.
Elsewhere, scenes are visually appealing by the standards of most action movies, with high-contrast lighting and Snyder’s famous slow-motion shots, but they still lack visual flair. Again, part of this is the books’ fault; while the images in the books are elegant, they rarely depict artistically innovative events. The book is relatively subdued compared to other mature comic books. Its action is quick and violent rather than entertaining, and characters don’t really get into fights all that often. There are a few noteworthy setpieces, but for the sake of its narrative, the book keeps them sparse. It only has one character with anything resembling superpowers, and even then, it’s far more concerned with the interpersonal drama of its characters and the prophetic themes of the political environment than anything a typical superhero film concerns itself with.
The film captures these setpieces as best it can, but because Watchmen’s foundation is already grimy realism, removing the visuals of classic comic books eliminates a large part of why the story works in the first place. It’s like trying to turn Monty Python and the Holy Grail into a serious fantasy epic. That’s not really what the story is going for. By deciding to make the film realistic without changing much else, the film ends up accidentally dragging back parts of the intentionally cartoonish nature of the book without the accompanying homage, which out of context, makes them much more ridiculous.
Part Two: Sedimentology
Big Joel recently made a video essay on the Lion King remake and how one of the curious side effects of dampening the visuals is that doing so highlights the contradictions of the story. The Lion King‘s moral is ultimately, “Monarchy is good because of divine right, integration is bad because others are inherently evil, and questioning the existing power structure is unnatural.” Strip away the majesty of the music and animation spectacle, and this weird, uncomfortable message comes across much more readily.
Watchmen has a similar issue.
Like many political comic books, Watchmen works on a few different layers. Its superficial elements are its classic comic book aesthetic, including its pastiche characters, and its more obvious subversion (what if superheroes were assholes?). Most people who read the book pick up on these two elements at least, and they’re a big selling point for the series.
Let the book sink in for a while longer, and you’ll reach the next layer of analysis, as you start to realize that its core two elements are mutually exclusive. The book is critical of its characters’ actions, but it still frames the narrative from their perspective, relinquishing punishment or even condemnation. It considers Rorschach a voice of reason, the Comedian a speaker of truth, Ozymandias a necessary evil. Its only two significant female characters are portrayed as vapid and over-emotional, only defined by how fuckable they are to the men around them, and only useful as pawns. The book is hypocritical.
Zoom out, though, and you find yet another layer of story, one where the author is not nearly as callous as the second layer implies, but fallible. The story of Watchmen is, after all, about the bomb, and about how over-reliance on weapons leads to destruction. The book isn’t necessarily praising the actions of its characters by giving voice to them, but rather it’s trying to illustrate the duality of ordinary people with honest intentions becoming monsters. It knows what it wants to say, and signs along the way point out its intentions, from the loaded language to the nuclear imagery to the pirate comic subplot to how unlikable all of its protagonists are. How effective the book is at presenting its intent is questionable, but the intent itself is pretty clear.
How far you dig depends on what you want to get out of the story and what you’re willing to put into it. For many people, the most satisfying level in Watchmen is the topmost one, as it allows one to appreciate the artistry of the book without needing to question whether one should actually like it. I tend to get stuck on the second level because I’m a cynical bastard and I like ruining things. For me, some of the distasteful parts of the book stand out more than its merits, and it’s easier to accept the whole thing as pretty but problematic rather than suss out the details to make sense of my complex feelings surrounding it.
Sometimes I’m willing to go further, if parts of a series give me reason to want to spend time with it. Watchmen does that in ebbs and flows with its art style, giving me glimpses at that deepest layer. Those are the most enjoyable parts of the book, not because they are satisfying, but because they offer much-needed balance.
What happens, then, when you strip out that art and replace it with a bunch of gray people trying to hitch a ride on the superhero movie train?
The film Watchmen understands that the book has cold war themes, but it struggles to communicate why it thinks these themes are important. It hits a few of the book’s notes simply by replicating it scene-for scene, such as when Doctor Manhattan wins the Vietnam War single-handed through mass destruction. I do think the creators of the film understand the book’s criticism of violence on some level as well, as evidenced by their change to the ending and how it compliments the book’s original story. But without a steadier hand, an adaptation of this book made to fit the gritty comic book movie trend of the late 2000-aughts runs the risk of losing a lot of the subtlety of the story. And that, arguably, is what happened.
Point-by-point, Watchmen is not an overly interesting story. A superhero has died, but it turns out he was an asshole anyway, as are most of the other superheroes, so let’s just watch a bunch of them re-live the glory days in a gritty garbage city while a blue nudist makes a sand castle. All of them must be dead serious at all times, because it’s more symbolic that way.
It all sounds a bit absurd when you put it like that, as do many of the minor elements of the series. Rorschach’s journal entries delivered in voiceover call attention to how unnatural the character’s speech patterns are, so they clash rather horribly with the dark tone of the film. The costume department frees Nite Owl from his walnut-shaped outfit, but he, Rorschach, Ozymandias, and Doctor Manhattan retain too much of the original characters’ designs to fit into the world as written. Frequently, the addition of animation makes ideas from the comics, like Nite Owl’s… machine?… and Rorschach’s face look silly. And do I even need to mention Doctor Manhattan’s floppy dick?
The film makes the story seem more absurd simply by disrupting the careful balance between the writing and the art. Reducing the impact of the one by eliminating crucial connecting threads — which would be weaker even if they were included simply because of the subtlety of film — requires the other to take on a bigger role. Watchmen‘s writing strengths are not in its plotting.
Part Three: The End of the World
Based on the title of this section, you might be expecting me to turn around and praise the ending of the film like most other people who talk about it do. One of the few major changes beyond general cuts and a few new lines, the film opts to make Doctor Manhattan the “accidental” trigger for the destruction of New York, rather than some genetically-engineered squid monster as in the book. This is generally praised, as it’s more plausible and less distracting than the somewhat ridiculous ending of the book.
I, for one, like the squid monster, but yeah, I see the point. It still works with the narrative set up, Doctor Manhattan being a stand-in for the bomb and eliciting increasing concern as the story progresses in both iterations. Humanity needs a scapegoat to avoid total annihilation, and it will generally opt for anything other, be it man or squid monster. By making the destructive agent a character used as a weapon, the film affirms the theme of self-destructive tendencies and the ending is resolved through an effective nuclear mishap. In the book, Doctor Manhattan just sort of leaves, implying weapons are of little use against the vast unknown. Either ending works, though I imagine many people prefer the film’s.
This film is not a trash fire. Its worst crime is being boring. Do you remember that shot-for-shot remake of Psycho that came out a few years ago? It’s mostly remembered for being pointless, and I tend to come down on highly faithful adaptations in the same way. It’s unfair sometimes. Any adaptation involves a hell of a lot of work, and often there are small changes that go unnoticed but play an important role. There are several parts of this film that I like seeing in this form. The scene with the dogs holds up, as do many of the flashbacks. The film makes the dystopian environment much more overt, which can be grating at times, but serves as a useful reminder of what the story is really about.
I think the decision to replicate the story without much change was the film’s first and fatal downfall. It might have been salvaged by going the animated route, but either way, this is a difficult book to adapt. Deceptively so, as most graphic novels translate well to a filmed medium. I haven’t yet seen the new HBO series, but it seems like it’s both more critical of the Rorschach-loving environment that sprang out of the original series, and willing to make major changes in adaptation. That’s a good foundation moving forward, and much as I wish to see less prominent series made into shows, I hope the new Watchmen finds itself on solid ground.
As far as the film goes, it’s probably not really worth your time unless you’re just very curious. The book’s better. I don’t say that a lot because I dislike the assumption that it’s always true, but when the film tries and fails to be a carbon copy without adding any impression of its own, what else is there to say?