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Watchmen (Pt. 2)

I spent a lot of time, effort, sweat and tears on the book I grew to love, the fandom I was proud to represent and the movie I couldn’t wait to see. I’m very fortunate that my work and anticipation were not in vain.

The first time I saw Watchmen, it was on an IMAX-licensed screen on the midnight turning into March 6th, 2009. The president of my fraternity was also something of a fan (never joined the forum, though) and agreed to make the premiere screening a frat event. Naturally, I was put in charge of coordinating the event and reserving all the tickets. We went in, watched it, and the first thing that any of them said to me when I left the theater was “What did you think?”

Naturally, I could go over all the nitpicks, flaws and story changes until I turn blue (and start glowing). But pretty much everything I have to say about Watchmen boils down to this: It’s the best we’re ever going to get. I’m not going to pretend that Zack Snyder is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived, but if he was and if he surrounded himself with the greatest talent that Hollywood could offer, the improvements over this final product would be minimal at best. Sally and Laurie Jupiter might have been cast more strongly and the fifth-dimensional cephalopod might have been included, but on the whole, Snyder made the changes that any director with half a brain would’ve done to make Watchmen work as a movie. Nobody could’ve done a better job condensing this source material to a reasonable running time on a budget and in a way that newcomers could follow. Moreover, I’ve read the rejected scripts by Sam Hamm and David Hayter. Let there be no doubt that if not for all its years in development limbo, this movie would surely have been a hell of a lot worse.

From the very beginning — especially at the beginning — Snyder does an outstanding job of establishing this world that’s just like ours, only slightly different, and how this world got to be slightly different. The opening credits sequence helps, beautifully portraying familiar historical developments, as influenced by the events and characters of Watchmen. Screenwriters Alex Tse and David Hayter also do a superb job of setting up the omnipresent possibility of nuclear winter to an audience that’s long forgotten (or never knew) the Cold War. Even more impressively, this is done in a way that meshes perfectly with the source material and never feels forced.

The action in this movie is kind of a mixed bag. The fight scenes are wonderfully choreographed and I love how the different superheroes have their own distinct and unique fighting styles, from the swift and fluid precision of Ozymandias to the old-school boxing style of dear Hollis Mason. However, there are a few scenes that are very inventive, yet perhaps excessively gory. Snyder said multiple times that his intention was to depict heroes who killed in realistic and bloody ways, as opposed to the clean and tidy knockouts we see in pretty much every mainstream comic book movie ever. While that intention does come through at times, I don’t think this approach was really perfected until Kick-Ass was released a year later.

By and large, the casting is wonderful. Jackie Earle Haley turns in an absolutely flawless Rorschach. Matt Frewer brings a solid vulnerability to Moloch, but with just enough energy left over from his salad days. Ditto for Stephen McHattie, whose voice is now the only thing I can hear while reading the “Under the Hood” segments of the graphic novel.

A few cast members are great, but each with a single glaring nitpick. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, for example, has a strange lack of pain at getting his face sliced open, which mars an otherwise outstanding turn as the Comedian. Patrick Wilson got the voice and mannerisms of Dan Dreiberg down pat, but he just didn’t quite gel in the role for me. Something about his face, I think: He gained all that weight for the role and bless him for it, but Wilson is still just too pretty to be Dreiberg. Matthew Goode delivered a very charming and threatening Ozymandias, but that German accent just didn’t work. Billy Crudup’s voice as Dr. Manhattan seems a little off to me, though that may have been the entire point.

Then we have Malin Akerman and Carla Gugino. These two are the weakest in the cast, though that’s hardly their fault: Even Moore and Gibbons didn’t seem to have a very solid idea of where the Silk Spectres fit into the whole “averting global apocalypse” story of Watchmen. Even so, there are a lot of notable differences between the comic roles and the movie roles that just don’t seem to work. For example, the original Sally Jupiter seems to have resigned herself to growing old and spends most of Chapter 2 in bed. When we meet Sally in the movie, she’s made up, dressed nice and acting as if she were trying to hold onto her youth. It’s a valid approach to the character, but Gugino doesn’t quite sell it. Meanwhile, Laurie Juspeczyk showed a much wider emotional range in the comic than Laurie Jupiter did in the movie. I think Akerman was trying to make Laurie more stoic, which — again — is a valid approach to the character that she just can’t seem to pull off.

Nevertheless, for all these problems, the cast for this movie is definitely a strong chain (though the two Jupiters remain the weak links) and these nitpicks can probably be overlooked as the anal-retentive rants of a Watchmen nerd.

However, there is one glaring problem that I can’t overlook. One huge beef that I have with the movie. In the Director’s Cut of Watchmen (generally considered to be the definitive cut of the movie), as well as the Ultimate Cut, there’s a scene early on that I like to call the “Magic Rorschach” scene. I don’t even know how to describe it, except to say that the editing is atrocious. The way that scene is spliced together, Rorschach should either have died of gunshot and/or followed Eddie Blake to his doom out the window. It’s so aggressively stupid that even the most ardent fan of the movie couldn’t defend it or explain it in a way that makes sense. It’s the only thing that I totally hate in a movie that I totally love and it just breaks my heart.

But again, I’m willing to forgive all the unimportant things this movie gets wrong because by and large, it got all the important things right. The graphic novel examined several different ways that power can be used or abused and pretty much every one was accounted for. The philosophical musings about who makes the world are carried over almost verbatim. The moral flaws and essential character beats of all the main heroes are lovingly preserved. Perhaps most importantly, the nuances and ambiguities of Veidt’s actions are left intact — squid or no squid.

A review I read somewhere — I think it was on Ain’t it Cool News — said that the source material didn’t humble Zack Snyder so much as it emboldened him. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Visually, there are many times when Snyder and company managed to bring the source’s comic book panels to vivid life. There are other times when Snyder shoots perfect recreations of the comic, but with a few original flourishes (when Rorschach climbs to Eddie Blake’s apartment, try comparing it to the comic’s sequence). There are obviously a few shots and scenes that weren’t in the comic, but every frame of this movie feels like it could potentially have come from the hands of Dave Gibbons and John Higgins. Then again, maybe that’s because they helped Snyder storyboard a few sequences.

Speaking of which, the production design didn’t get an Oscar nod and that’s a damn shame. So what if Avatar (which won for best art direction) took us to Pandora? Watchmen took us to Mars, Antarctica and New York City at various time periods across fifty years! I’m completely aware that the Academy has a history of snubbing superhero movies, but anyone with a working eye can see the level of intricacy that went into this movie’s construction. Alex McDowell and team crafted every exterior, interior, billboard and stray newspaper with painstaking detail. They deserve every possible word of praise for creating this living, breathing world, so recognizable and yet so different.

Then again, I suppose it’s hardly news that Watchmen didn’t get its due. It got a decent opening weekend, but only made $107 million domestic against a reported $130 million budget. Personally, I’ve made my peace with that, because anything that disinterests Warner Bros. from making any sequels, prequels or spin-offs is just fine by me. Also, Snyder made the decision early on to adapt the source material without compromising it or pandering to the lowest common denominator. The fans always had his back on the decision to choose fidelity over greed and I, for one, still hold to that. Additionally, the movie’s release drove sales of the graphic novel through the roof, which should be enough of a victory for any Watchmen fan.

If the movie had died in development hell, I don’t know who or what I’d be today. For all of its failures and successes, I deeply love Watchmen the movie and Watchmen the book. Their ideas, characters, creators and fans continue to teach me and change me to this very day. Truly, no movie deserves a place on the retrospective more than this one.

2 Comments

  1. Comment by Zoe:

    <3

    I actually was watching Watchmen the other day as a break between my True Blood stuff. 😀

  2. Comment by DannyDreiberg:

    The movie holds a big place in my heart.
    Its among the three movies that changed my perspective and altered my course in life.
    Its nice to know that someone else was equally as affected.
    Great retrospective.

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