My brother-in-law and I went to see the late showing of Watchmen Sunday night. Now, I should preface any review with the disclaimer that while I’m familiar with the comics, and have read the first few, I never finished the series. I don’t know what the ending was supposed to be, what they left out or what they changed. I’m familiar enough to know what it should have felt like, but not enough to make judgments on any story aspect outside of my “movie goer” opinion.
That said, while I don’t think there will be many, spoilers may exist in the post ahead. You have been warned.
So. The Watchmen. The magnum opus of Alan Moore. I supposed talking about the canon of work is a bit like talking about Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, only less mainstream. There are hardened fans, Watchmen geeks if you will, that take the comics for gospel. Then there’s everyone else. Some of us, myself included, are within the realm of comics and that geek (and I use the term affectionately) culture. I read comic, I play video games, I watch cult/indie movies. I am the audience of this type of movie.
It’s sad then that I don’t feel like I got all I could out of it.
Don’t get me wrong, the experience was positive. I enjoyed the movie, but I don’t think for the reasons I should have and not without it’s limitations.
I always like to talk about the positive first, mainly to get it out of the way so I can get to the complaining, which is what I’m best at.
Visually, the movie was great. The scale, the colors, the cinematography, everything. I really enjoyed it as a visual piece. I really got that “comic leaping off the page” feel. From the Watchmen comics I have read, the images in the movie seemed spot on. To complement them, the special effect were also quality. With the exception of the “blue wang”, everything was well done. The glass structure on Mars was borderline, but if that was the weakest CG
element, I can let it go.
I thought the movie, at least up until the last half hour, we well paced and edited. I thought it did a really nice job trying to compress the wealth of visual information from the books into a visceral experience for the movie goers.
The characters and back story are where things get a little fuzzy for me. It’s similar, although I hate to use this comparison, to my thoughts on Gears of War 2. They are in no way similar subject matter, but story wise, I was left wanting more than a movie could give me, which I suppose is the point to reading the books in the first place.
For me it’s not really such much a matter of suspending disbelief anymore as it is “caring”. Why are the characters doing what they’re doing? What’s their motivation? Where did they come from? Why do I CARE?
Good works of fiction (and I supposed non-fiction as well) always have one thing in common. Characters that the observer can relate to. What was Jack Kerouac’s motivation for going “on the road”? I’m not sure (that’s not true, I do know) but I can relate with his characters “disenfranchised with the establishment” attitudes and willingness to explore and experience the world.
That might have been a bad example. Point is, a character is only as strong as my willingness to either find them interesting or care about them, or both.
The Watchmen, I felt, failed me in that category.
I was longing to see, and again perhaps this is cover more in the comics, more of the Minute Men and to learn about what the basis for the formation of this group was, was the motivation for the later group in the 70’s was, who they were fighting, what adventures they had, all that.
We get pieces here and there. We get a brief Dr. Manhattan backstory, which was nice, but then we get only brief snipits of the lives of Rorschach and Silk Spectre, but almost nothing of Nite Owl of Ozymandias. Perhaps it’s unnecessary, perhaps it’s the story as a whole that is more important than the players within it, which seems to be the approach the movie takes. Maybe that’s true, but it left me wanting more, and not in the usually good way.
I realize at this point that we’re now talking about two different things. The Watchmen the movie and the Watchmen, the novel and more importantly, the concept.
I know full well that Moore’s intention was to examine the concept of the “death of the superhero” as it relates to society as well as the implications of a “god living among us”. Those are concepts that I can understand and wrap my head around. It was a “coming of age” for comics. It introduced the anti-hero, the anti-villain, characters with human limitations and expectations, with problems of their own. It’s an interested parallel universe and it’s social commentary is outstanding.
That, however, was missing from the film. At the very least, the film struggled with resolving that. There are glimpses of Moore’s commentary. Dr. Manhattan becoming uninterested in humanity, going to Mars. Rorschach seeing the world as full of scum and villainy. As the character points out “the city will look up and cry ‘save us’ and I will answer ‘no'”. That seems to be where the deeper meaning of the comics end and where the movie takes over and turns it into an action movie.
I don’t say that to mean that an action movie was the wrong move, it was actually one of the parts I felt was strongest in the movie. It just seem unfortunately stuck in between the two.
The movie had the VERY hard job of combining full force action with deeper story with social commentary. I would say that it’s successful, in that the movie actually got made and now exists. I would say that, at least in my opinion, it’s a movie that didn’t need to be made in the first place. The thoughts the comic puts forth are so scholarly and deep that the only place it would successfully couple with action like that is in a printed form, where the imagination fills in the holes and the words can back it up.
As a medium, in that sense, a movie is actually more limiting. You visually have to express an idea that might have otherwise been written or described in words. If the audience isn’t looking for it, or the cues are less than obvious you run the risk of people just not getting it.
I should digress, the point of all this is that the experience of watching the Watchmen movie can never measure up to reading and then thinking about the comics and their meaning. That means, the only thing we’re left with for a movie is a visual experience that we hope is entertaining, and it is.
The movie, as a whole, is good. It holds interest, it’s action packed, it’s thoughtful, it’s visually appealing. It’s not a better or worse experience than reading the comics. It’s a different experience.
Much in the same way as the X-Men movies shouldn’t be taken as a representation of the true X-Men canon, The Watchmen isn’t a 100% direct representation of Alan Moore’s work. People going to see the Watchmen comics “come to life” will be disappointed that they’ll miss all those subtle things that the comics were able to include. Likewise, people going to see an action movie will be disappointed because it tries to make them think to much and stuff doesn’t blow up all the time.
The Watchmen movie occupies a weird kind of in-between space where it’s really neither one but somehow trying to be both at the same time.
I worry that both Alan Moore and Zack Snyder (director) thought that the subject matter was “above” the genre and resigned themselves to simply making an action movie, but changed their minds half way through and tried to get preachy with it. Especially with the ending.
It was a good experience, I’m in no way disappointed that I saw it. I’m glad I saw it on the big screen as I think it would lose something in the smaller, at home presentation.
In the end, it’s an O.K. movie. It’s really hard to sum it up and walk away with a definitive answer on this one. I think it was good for what is was, but it was either trying to be more and failing, or stopping itself just shy of being truly great.