Watching the Watchmen

Adel Gabot

jackie_earle_haley_as_rorschach_watchmen_movie_image(Warning: Here there be spoilers.)

During the scene of Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup)’s first full-on appearance as Dr. Manhattan, at the lab cafeteria where he manages to reconstitute himself days after being blasted apart by the Intrinsic Field Center, there was a crude, jarring and ham-handed jump cut in the movie, the first of many, and I thought, ok. So it was the blue penis that threw the MTRCB censors into apoplectic fits and made them cut up Watchmen. So are they going to censor every instance the big blue banana makes a screen appearance? If that was true, we were in for a lot of jump cuts.

It was just the one time, if it was even a cut; the blue banana made subsequent full frontal appearances unmolested by the MTRCB later on in the movie, to uncontrolled giggling of largely juvenile audiences. (I suppose these are the same people who giggle at the UP Oblation every time they pass by the statue in the Diliman campus.)

Apparently the MTRCB’s major trims were reserved for the backseat action in Nite Owl’s ride, between Patrick Wilson’s and Malin Akerman’s masked heroes (and apparently, we discover, Nite Owl performs better in costume that he does in civilian garb.)

Unsurprisingly, there were no trims for the graphic double arm amputation scene at Rorshach’s cell, or the dogs fighting over the partially eaten shin bone and still-shoe’d foot of the murdered and mutilated little girl, or the goodfella intestines hanging off the ceiling of the club courtesy of Dr. Manhattan. I was especially taken aback by The Comedian’s exceptionally brutal and vicious attempted rape of Silk Spectre.

Loving, passionate sex always trumps unflinching, graphic violence, as always. So snip snip snip. No gratuitous sex! Gratuitous violence, yes, but sex? No frakkin’ way. (But that’s a ranting for some other post. Like my mother-in-law loves to say about most things in life, what can we do?)

A large part of the adult nature of the material is precisely that unflinching violence, present in the graphic novel, and front and center in the movie. It is this violence that sets it apart from even the already sobering and serious tone of The Dark Knight. This is the nasty stuff. The bone-crunching, flesh-rending kind of brutality more at home with recent gore porn like in the Saw series of films. Viewers looking for pop-culture superhero-ness in the vein of Iron Man or Hulk will be in a for a surprise. This is a comic-book movie?

But Zack Snyder’s stylized treatment puts a glamorous veneer over the violence of Watchmen, and the slow motion stop-starts of the action make the fighting less draining and somehow exhilarating. The Dolby punctuation of the teeth-jarring punches and the juxtaposition of incongruous, yet appropriate music makes for exquisite contrast. I will never listen to “Unforgettable” in the same way ever again.

I am a big Watchmen fan, so I guess I would not be the right person to do a balanced, sane review. How big a fan? I have the original run of the 12-issue comic, two copies of the trade compilations, the reprinted run and a copy of The Absolute Watchmen, a tome heavy as a marble tombstone, digitally recolored and resized, big and bright as life. I’ve re-read the thing maybe more than a dozen times, and I’m intimately familiar with the text and the subtexts. But I’m going to forge ahead anyway; make of this what you will.

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Zach Snyder’s version of Watchmen is so slavishly faithful to the material to the point of the panels serving as literal storyboards for the film: it seems that some of the pages were ripped out of the comic and stuffed right into the camera, like he did for another movie of his based on a comic book by Frank Miller. It’s a two-edged sword though: the literal-ness is sometimes comforting, sometimes unnerving. I see details in the background that were there in the original panels, and I can’t even begin to fathom the extent of the obsessive attention to detail. Which is scary if that’s all they did. It’s a good thing Snyder is on the ball, because when they depart from the source material, they do it with style and intelligence. And, dare say I, improvement.

His cuts and trims to the rich material were painful yet necessary; the labyrinthine storyline and multi-branching plots, plus the flashbacks and other literary/comicbook devices made adapting Watchmen a monumental challenge. People, me included, thought the thing was unfilmable.

In spirit, I think they’ve succeeded.

It’s not the graphic novel, of course. It’s another creature entirely, with marked differences. Of particular note is the controversial revision to the ‘squid’ plot device which now seems in retrospect the right thing to have done. Cinematically, big calamari doesn’t work; forcing the issue just to make fans happy would’ve been suicide. Snyder’s instinct was dead-on. Likewise, dropping the parallel ‘Black Freighter’ story in the book trimmed the whole thing to fighting weight. (Tales of The Black Freighter is a separate animated feature now, voiced by Gerard Butler, and will eventually be integrated into the Director’s Cut of Watchmen. Right. Let’s just save the other stuff for the blu ray.)

While his subtractions seem substantial, Snyder’s additions on the other hand are worthy of the original material. Motivations have been retained, but execution has been revised. The opening credits, which telegraph and outline the extensive, complicated and fully-realized alternate universe of the graphic novel, is very well done, complete with large, intrusive 3D text that is right out of the TV show Fringe.

Despite the wonderful material Snyder took pains to bring to the screen, he still had time to have a bit of fun with it. At the beginning of the film, when the masked killer kicks in The Comedian’s front door, Edward Blake hurls his mug at the invader, knocking off the last digit of the unit number on the door—3001—giving us the first of the in-jokes of the film: a tribute to Zack Snyder’s previous magnum opus about a bunch of Spartans. When I saw that, I knew I was going to have fun watching this movie.

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One niggle I have is the big confrontation scene in Antarctica near the end of the film, which, try as they might to gussy it up and buttress it with inventive shots and visuals, still comes off a as one big textbook supervillain monologue by Ozymandias. (But I especially like the subtle, nearly undetectable German accent in Adrian Veidt’s speech cadences, revealing his character’s roots and background—an obscure factoid buried deep in the graphic novel’s many annotations—giving us a subconscious way of interpreting the character. The fact that actor Matthew Goode is a Brit playing an American makes this fact even more astonishing that the filmmakers took trouble to add that subtext.)

I had no trouble with it because of my familiarity, but other people might have a hell of a time following the story. Truncated and abridged as it is, it’s still a formidable task trying to catch the broad strokes, when some of the important points are given short shrift. In toto, it works, just barely for some; newcomers to the Watchmen universe will find lots of things to make them go hrhm.

Superficially, the interpretation to the tropes will be the obvious knee-jerk response: Dr. Manhattan is Superman, The Comedian is The Punisher, Ozymandias is Lex Luthor, etc. Nite Owl looks at first to be the Batman analogue (mainly because of the look and the circumstances—the costume, the wealthy background, the Batmobile/Batcave equivalents, the secret identity) but in reality, Batman is really Rorshach, in motivation and temperament. He even sounds like Batman. For all I knew, it could’ve been Christian Bale under the ink-blot mask, rasping at us.

Still, the film suffers from bouts of either poor acting or poor writing. Hard to tell which. The words from the book, as they were, would not sit comfortably in the mouths of the actors, no matter how talented they were; the words were badly in need of retooling for the screen, but apparently some of it got through. Some of the material sounded awkward and stilted, particularly with Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson and Billy Crudup’s characters.

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And like Rorshach’s delivery, there is the matter of the voices. Somehow, in my head, I thought Dr. Manhattan would sound closer to James Earl Jones than the regular, everyman voice of Crudup. Somehow I feel God should sound more stentorian, not like a guy off the street. Standouts though are Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach. Fantastic actors, both of them, and if their characters had survived the movie and went on to do spin-offs, please count me in as a fan.

Haley’s Rorshach, odd as it may seem, is the moral center of the movie (and the book): No compromises, he says, not even in the face of Armageddon. My favorite line from the book in the prison scene he delivers more than adequately: None of you get it! I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me! An odder hero in popular entertainment I haven’t seen. The amoral and totally unfunny Comedian also comes off as a note-perfect character via Morgan, and by leaps and bounds a more difficult task to pull off than Rorscach, certainly.

I was just reading over what I had written and realized with some considerable surprise that I haven’t once mentioned writer and Watchmen creator Alan Moore, who is the man most responsible for all this sturm und drang. The fact that he has shunned all association with this enterprise seems to have worked exceptionally well: his name hardly ever comes up these days. But whatever he says, this offshoot of his original work is something exceptional despite all his protestations to the contrary.

Watch Watchmen. Afterwards, you’d do yourself a favor if you actually picked up Moore’s original version and read it, whatever your opinions are about the movie. And whatever people may think about the film version, it’s still an acquired taste. All I can say is, acquire the taste at the soonest possible opportunity. It’s a brilliant thing, on its own terms. No matter what Alan Moore says.

And yes, I stayed through the credits.


One Response to “Watching the Watchmen”

  • stef juan Says:

    after walking out of the theater and down the escalator with nothing from my end, my date’s first words were, “give me the superheroes without issues any time.” typical of a guy who prefers ben stiller movies and wall-e over hell boy and my other movie preferences. i guess what he meant was that he wants his superheroes to be superheroes who eventually save the day without having to kill 15 million people to do it.

    first time i read Watchmen was when I was a CW student in UP– and i welcomed Alan Moore’s graphic novel like the world-weary-teen-who-had-seen-it-all i was back then. funny enough, ten years later, i want my superheroes to be– well– heroic again.

    hmm… maybe that’s for a longer blog post. 😛

    but i liked rorshach… i agree that he’s the moral center of a movie, which is disturbing enough. i wish christian bale’s rasp sounds just as good as his. hehehe

    anyways…why did this have to be made into a movie again???

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