by Paul Smith
Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” was largely considered to be the “holy grail” of graphic novels, the treasured masterpiece of superhero storytelling that was in a class all by itself.
At full disclosure, while I am an avid reader of graphic novels, I grew out of reading superhero comics when I was about 12 years old. I grew out of superhero comics because, frankly, superheroes are extraordinarily lame.
While I’m sure there is the occasional well-written superhero graphic novel (e.g. Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”), but ultimately you just can’t make me care about muscle-bound men in rubber-tights with supernatural abilities fighting world-domination-bent super-villains – that is except for “Watchmen.”
There is a reason “Watchmen” was so good, and it is this very reason which I feel director Zack Snyder completely missed when making his film adaptation.
“Watchmen” is certainly not a bad movie, but it is far from a great movie.
This is the point: “Watchmen” the graphic novel was revolutionary and amazing because it was satirizing the superhero genre. Snyder’s film becomes exactly what Alan Moore set out to satirize.
Snyder does try desperately to stay faithful to the graphic novel (for which he can be applauded), and there are moments in the film that work very well. However, the film would have greatly benefited from being about a million times more subtle stylistically.
Snyder began his career making flashy car commercials before venturing into feature films – and it shows.
As soon I saw the murder of the Comedian in the opening scene, I knew Snyder had blown it.
The fight-scenes in the film are choreographed within an inch of their lives, and the sound-effects added seem like something straight out of a cartoon. Yes, they may have been ultra-violent, but nowhere even close to realistic. You practically expect to see the “Zap!” and “Pow!” graphics from the old Batman television show to appear on screen during these sequences.
And while Snyder does use the layout of the comic panels to set up most of his shots, he fills the scenes with so many slow-motion segments and also zooms and pans and dollies the camera into a dizzying style which screams “you must know that this movie is awesome!”
Well, it wasn’t supposed to be awesome in that way.
Remember, “Watchmen” the graphic novel came out in the mid 80’s, and at the time, superheroes were still a medium of storytelling largely directed at children. What Alan Moore set out to accomplish was to write an ultra-realistic, gritty take on superheroes aimed squarely at adults.
He was mocking the genre by saying, “all of this superhero stuff is so cheesy and lame, I’m going to write a story that actually attempts to demonstrate what the world would really be like if superheroes existed.”
The world Alan Moore created was one where superheroes were psychopaths or neurotic-depressives – because to be something as absurd as a superhero, you would have to be totally nuts. In Moore’s world, superheroes did more harm than good.
Even the very concept of Dr. Manhattan is a complete satire of how the superhero comic craze came out of the atomic-age. I mean, come on – a nuclear researcher gets locked in a test chamber and develops superpowers? Moore was mocking the absurdity of the concept, but at the same time making it as realistic as possible.
The closest example I can think of which employs a similar satirical style as the graphic novel is Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”
Keep in mind, satire does not automatically equal funny. Satire will take some truth and heighten it to the absurd or the extreme. When taken to the absurd you get Stephen Colbert satirizing Bill O’Reilly with “The Colbert Report;” when taken to the extreme you get Oliver Stone satirizing America’s violence-and-celebrity-obsessed culture with “Natural Born Killers.”
“Unforgiven” is in many ways a satire of the western genre by being an ultra-realistic or extreme version of it. But extreme does not have to mean flashy and extravagant.
In my opinion Snyder should have employed a cold, calculated, objective and even somewhat distant style to “Watchmen.” Stylistically it should have been more similar to “Unforgiven” or the wonderful film from last year “Let the Right One In,” which was pretty much a satire on the vampire genre by being an extreme or realistic version of it.
Basically, Snyder should have asked himself, “How would Akira Kurosawa make this movie?” – because the film badly needed Kurosawa’s touch for subtlety.
And the violence should have been gritty and ultra realistic, not over-choreographed with cartoony sound-effects. The movie should have felt more film-noir and less X-Men.
And by missing this point, Snyder misunderstands Watchmen, and will also force others unfamiliar with the graphic novel to forever misunderstand Watchmen.
Also, some of the casting was pretty bad. Jackie Earle Haley was good enough as Rorschach, though the voice seemed rather forced at times. Patrick Wilson was almost perfect as Nite Owl. And Jeffrey Dean Morgan was just about flawless as the Comedian. Everyone else was basically horrible.
I’ve never been a big fan of Billy Crudup. I thought he was awful in the terrible movie “Big Fish.” I appreciated the gentleness he brought to Dr. Manhanttan, but his voice sounded like Dr. Manhattan had just reached puberty which was very off-putting.
Mathew Goode was far too young and small-framed for Ozymandias, and he couldn’t keep a consistent American accent.
And both Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter and Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter were appallingly bad.
Granted, some of the scenes worked very well, and the opening credit sequence was amazing (by far the highlight of the film). But overall, seeing Watchmen on the big screen just felt so horrendously cheesy.
Snyder understood that “Watchmen” was superheroes for adults, but he made it feel like it was for teenage boys. And as a result, the film became what Moore was satirizing.
Nice try, Snyder… but you missed it.