Chapter II: Old Ghosts Watchmen was first planned as a film back in the late 1980s. Writer/ creator Alan Moore declined to write the script and said that the adaptation should never be made. Artist Dave Gibbons had similar misgivings. Terry "Brazil" Gilliam (an early choice for director) went on record as saying that the novel was "unfilmable". Thus, the project languished in "Development Hell" until this decade.
Chapter III: Watchmaker Somehow, director Zack Snyder was offered the director's chair by Warner Bros. (parent company of Watchmen publisher DC Comics). In truth, the "somehow" wasn't so hard to imagine, seeing as how Snyder had just completed his second film 300. To many, this was a great thing, as Snyder had scored a big hit with his last comic book adaptation and he vowed to keep Watchmen pure in setting and time. For me, however, the choice of Snyder was cause for much more trepidation. Snyder had been primarily a director of commercials for cars, sports drinks and shoes until he was (surprisingly) given the director's chair for the remake of Dawn of the Dead. To be fair to Snyder, his reasons for accepting the helm of Watchmen the movie was to ensure that someone else wouldn't accept this role and "mess it up". As a fan myself, I say that was a positive mark in Snyder's favor. However, to be frank, Watchmen is far too epic and far too important to be ANYBODY's THIRD film!
Chapter IV: Absent Friends Alan Moore remained completely removed from the project, to the point that (as he did with V for Vendetta) he had his name removed from the credits and signed all royalty rights over to Gibbons. However, Gibbons, to the credit of Warners and Snyder, became intimately involved with the Watchmen movie. Whether this was an honest desire for accuracy, or just a publicity and advertising stunt, at least Gibbons was involved. So were screen-writers David Hayter and Alex Tse, the latter of whom lists this as only his third film as well. So was producer Deborah Snyder, who lists this as only her second film, but that's okay, as her husband was the director of both. Much has been said about the fact that most everyone on set had a copy of the graphic novel with them during filming and used this along with the script (with repeated implications being that the book outweighed the screenplay for them). Could Alan Moore actually be there, if not willingly or actually, than in spirit? Read on... he was still absent.
Chapter V: At Midnight, All the Agents... This morning at Midnight the first real (read: non-preview) showings of Watchmen were screened for fans, curious onlookers and insomniacs. In spite of my concerns and skepticism, this crowd included me. Surely this covered the comic book crowd, but would mainstream audiences flock to this film during its opening weekend and beyond? The answer is most likely "yes", due, mostly, to the enormous marketing of this film (almost every piece of which referred to Zack Snyder as a "Visionary Director").
Chapter VI: Fearful Symmetry By now you've probably heard the critical sound bytes. I avoid the reviews of others like the plague (at least until mine own are done) but even I have been bombarded by one repeated claim: "This film is accurate to its source material". Those who are praising the Watchmen movie are using this as a rallying cry for its greatness. However, even those who are mostly negative toward the film are pointing this accuracy out as a point of derision. The claim is that this much-discussed accuracy somehow limits the actors and action.
However, I'm here to tell you right now that Watchmen is most assuredly NOT accurate to its source material. The "accuracy" claim, it would seem, is based upon the fact that Snyder and his cast and crew did pull out some lines directly from the comic book for often unedited translation here and that quite often a shot is framed exactly like its corresponding page. In truth, this is often awe-inspiring and amazing to look at, especially for the purists out there. However, in the final analysis, these feel dutiful and sometimes forced more than they feel natural. Further, there is very little real plot connection between these "ripped from the page" moments. Worse, several plot points, including the all-important climax, are drastically changed from the original story. While no one in their right mind could expect that a film could capture everything from the book (one more reason it shouldn't have been a film at all) but the myriad changes here range from the necessary to the cosmetic to the arbitrary to the whimsical. Many of the same things do happen, but for completely different reasons, with completely different moods behind them. In short, the film seems to have been made by people who didn't understand the source material terribly well.
Chapter VII: Look on My Works, Ye Mighty... So, how is the movie? After all, a Movie is what this is, right? Right. Setting aside the differences, movies should be judged as movies. I will say that there are moments during Watchmen's 163 minute run time that are truly spectacular. The sights and sounds are often beautiful. There are times in this film that it seems as if the comic book has come to life with such care and attention to detail that when these fragments end the audience is all the more disappointed when the film devolves into something melodramatic and silly, most resembling the TV Version of Batman.
The film kicks off with a stretch of television snippets that set the stage for this alternate-universe mid-1980s world where Superheroes really existed, but are now all-but-illegal. This is all taken in by one of the few who still operate legally: The Comedian (AKA: Edward Blake as played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). This is, of course, just before he is violently killed in an over-long, sensationalized fight scene that gives us our murder-mystery backdrop. Well, it would have... if Zack Snyder hadn't actually shown us the assailant's face during the altercation. One doesn't even need to look too closely to see it clearly.
We soon meet Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) a still-operating vigilante with a Black-and-White view of the world. He also has a very cool mask with a constantly changing, symmetrical, black-on-white ink blot that gives this character his name. Rorschach doubts that any ordinary criminal could have offed Blake and speculates that there may be a killer targeting heroes and former heroes. To this end, he sets out to warn those who remain and to investigate (in his own, violent way) who is doing this.
His list starts with Daniel Dreiberg (the well-cast Patrick Wilson ), Rorschach's former partner back when he went by the name of Nite Owl. Dan spends evenings with the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie). Hollis recently wrote a tell-all book called Under the Hood, some of which was particularly unflattering to The Comedian. It's interesting that Nite Owl II, the character whose costume was changed the most drastically, is also the character whose secret identity is the most accurate to the comics. Though not perfect, Patrick Wilson does a great job here and truly seems to be trying to understand his character.
It's also interesting to note that, unlike in the novel, Rorschach never visits the second person on his list. The lines and scenarios from that scene are (mostly) re-assigned to Dan Dreiberg. To be fair, however, this could be because Rorschach couldn't stand the acting of Matthew Goode, who plays millionaire Adrian Veidt. Veidt (it rhymes with "fight" here) also used to be a superhero named Ozymandias but revealed his true identity (and the fact that he is "the smartest man in the world") years before and successfully cashed in on it. Sadly, Veidt is the other character whose costume has been drastically (and laughably) changed. Even sadder, Goode is absolutely terrible in this role, wooden, unconvincing and unable to even keep a consistent accent from one scene to another.
The last two on the list live together. The former Silk Spectre, Laurie Jupiter (note, the character, played by the beautiful Malin Akerman, doesn't use the name "Juspeczyk" at all) has been reduced to playing the "kept woman" of the one truly super-powered character in this film, Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan (AKA: Jon Osterman). This fact is not lost on Laurie's mother, the original Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter (played by the sexy Carla Gugino in understated makeup).
The real question of "Who Killed Edward Blake?" soon becomes "Who's next?" even more than "Whodunnit?". Of course, if the audience paid attention to the opening scenes (which, again, showed the killer's face), these questions are moot. The one thing we're pretty sure of is that it's not former villain Moloch (well-played by Matt Frewer).
As the story progresses we see our characters changing their relationships and beliefs, travelling across the world (and beyond) battling themselves, each other and the outside world and telling their own (and each other's) tales via flashback (with plenty of era-music to help this feel like more of a "PERIOD PIECE"). The story can't end, of course, before one more way cool (if unnecessary) battle to usher in the altered ending. Then again, the only real surprises in the final act are found in what Snyder changes. After all, we saw who the killer was before the opening credits.
Chapter VIII: A Brother to Dragons Among the most compelling (and accurate) parts of the film are the flashbacks (and forths) of one Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan). Some of his mysteries are revealed out of script convenience early on, but when we delve into his past, this is (in many ways) a fan-boy's dream come true. It's important to separate what does and does not work from what any one of US might have done with these scenes. For example, Osterman's voice is 100% Billy Crudup with scarcely any affectations at all. He sounds like he might as well still be in Almost Famous. Also, it's true that the origin story is greatly abbreviated and brisk. Still, considering all, they did a fine and interesting (if often stiffly performed and contrived) job of bringing this chapter to life. Seeing this "Superman's" depiction here and the awe and controversy he inspires makes it believable that Dr. Manhattan changed the world. The character looks pretty good, too (with a few exceptions) and the effects crew makes good use of the blue light and electrical effects of the character. Crudup also manages to convey the Osterman within the Manhattan, much as he was shown in the comic, with subtlety and deep thought. It's clear that this man shares a kinship with great power, but it's never clear just what his agenda is.
Chapter IX: The Abyss Gazes Also The look of this film often comes straight out of the comic book, showing Dave Gibbons' influence, either directly or as the source. Some of the set-design feels inspired, while some still feels like an unconnected dot. Zack Snyder clearly realizes that he got this job because of 300 and uses a lot of the same techniques here, such as the slow-mo to freeze-frame to fast-forward effects used to (he seems to think) imply the look of a comic book frame. Thankfully he uses this technique a lot less here. The special effects are beautiful in most cases, but CGI still tends to look like CGI and the used, desperate world is often a bit too sleek and stylish to be anything but a computer generation. One area that I must give great praise to is the faithful re-creation of "Archie", Nite Owl II's "Owlship"!
It's easy to have mixed feelings about the costumes here because the costumes are a mixed bag. In many cases costume designer Michael Wilkinson (along with assistants Christine Bieselin Clark and Courtney Daniel) went with what worked in the comics and essentially transliterated what was there. Such is the case with Rorschach, who is, perhaps, the most faithfully rendered of them all. The mask alone (though aided by CGI) is something to see, especially as it changes. The Rorschach mask looks incredible in this film! Similarly, some of the "Golden Age" costumes look very similar to their drawn counterparts, which shows a bit of daring on the part of the film makers. Truthfully, it was good that they dared to be seen as silly (even if sometimes "silly" is exactly what they are). The Comedian's costumes work well (with only minor changes) and even Laurie's Silk Spectre duds (which were revamped a bit) still show the basis for what inspired them. She also looks incredible in the costume, thankfully!
Nite Owl II and Ozymandias are the two characters with the most drastic changes to their costumed appearances, at Zack Snyder's insistence. Snyder and the costume folks (including costume concept artist Dawn Brown) were clearly much more inspired by the Schumacher Batman films of the 1990s than the plausibly realistic costumes of the comic book. To this end, any character with a "Domino Mask" is shown with a thick, gaudy piece of rubber, much like Robin's in Batman Forever, complete with black makeup around the eyes to complete the effect. This includes the Comedian. The idea of THAT guy wearing eye-makeup truly is "a big joke". Nite Owl II is likewise re-designed into a rubber-suited Batman-clone, apparently playing off of the characters' varied similarities (though both Nite Owls were based on versions of The Blue Beetle). The suit actually looks rather cool... just not right for Nite Owl, in many ways. Further, the way it's lit and filmed, there's never any mistaking the fact that this is rubber (not exactly what one would choose to fight crime in). Most ridiculous of all is Ozymandias, whose antiquity-inspired costume has been replaced by yet another rubber suit that seems calculated to point-out everything that was wrong with the costuming in Batman & Robin, from the bulky black domino mask to the enlarged cod-piece to the fake, rippling muscles in the chest, abs and beyond to even the (and, no, I'm not kidding) rubber nipples on the suit. For the "Smartest Man in the World", he sure did hire the stupidest tailor he could find. Was Snyder aiming to point out Adrian Veidt's gaudy and vain excesses? If so he failed in his choice with this idiotic costume. My best guess is that he was attempting to distract from Goode's atrocious acting. Might this have had anything to do with the fact that costume concept artist Dawn Brown actually WORKED on Batman & Robin? Way to go, Warners! I'll leave you with this thought on the Bat-Nipples: Why is it that when Schumacher did it it was a travesty, but when Snyder does it, he's a "Visionary"?
Sadly, it's not just the costumes that are problems with the look here. Even those with more accurate (and/ or realistic) costumes never look like real characters, but heavily made-up vaudeville actors. Every character that is wearing a wig LOOKS like they are wearing a wig. Every character in makeup clearly looks like they're wearing makeup. Shockingly (no pun intended) this even applies to Dr. Manhattan, whose traditionally darkened eye-sockets look a lot more like eye-shadow than a natural part of his composition.
Chapter X: The Darkness of Mere Being Snyder and company also seemed determined to up the ante in the category of the disturbing here. Whether this was a reaction to the PG-13 Superhero films that have permeated the silver screen of late or an overcompensation for the fact that there was no significant tension coming from the screenplay. Even some of the scenes lifted directly from the comic (and again, there are some) are given an extra helping of ultra-violence removing any moral separation between Rorschach and the other heroes and even eliminating the impact of a certain vital area of the denouement. Much of this was already there, much of it was added for shock value. A great deal of this seems to surround the character of Dr. Manhattan who somehow manages to atomize people, but also leave their skeletons intact to stick to the ceiling and drip all over people.
Much has been made of the R Rating of this film, which does free the creators up to break the standard Superhero Movie bonds. Snyder and his cast do take advantage of this fact without hesitation, throwing in more profanity than even the comics had and keeping the body-count rising. Also there is much to note about the nudity in this film, however, as in the comic book, the nudity is primarily that of Dr. Manhattan, who generally doesn't feel the need for clothes and walks around with his Smurfy-colored reconstructed whacker bouncing in the wind. The female nudity we do get is excellent and thankfully very close to its source material. Primarily all of the gratuities here are in the violence category, however, deepening the darkness of the tale whether warranted or not.
Chapter XI: Two Riders Were Approaching... The real sadness about so much of Watchmen is how the film treats its audience like idiots, dumbing down the brilliant story with the assumption that the viewers couldn't possibly understand it without help. Characters are combined and dialogue reassigned to avoid confusion. The Super-Team that failed so miserably is renamed from "The Crime-Busters" to "The Watchmen", seemingly so that the audience can make sense of the movie title. What was subtle in the book is spelled out here and held up, carefully, so that we all get a good look and can, seal-like, clap for ourselves because we "get it". I have to wonder just who required the dumbing-down? Was it the audience or the filmmakers? The script can't even seem to follow its own continuity (and forget that of the book). Both visually and in dialogue we're shown why a cape hinders a costumed hero much more than helps. This, my friends, is straight out of the comic. Yet the redesigned Nite Owl has a long, flowing cape just waiting to get snagged on things. The script conveniently forgets establishing shots and dialogue from one minute to the next and the characters (so well thought out in Alan Moore's original script) often come off as fickle and inconsistent.
In many ways this is because there is a palpable reach for success here that stays just out of reach. So much has been made of the "accuracy" in this adaptation that the flaws tend to shine all the more brightly due to a series of unfortunate misunderstandings between the adaptation and the source material. The result is a series of occasionally connected dots that do look and often sound like they are straight from the comic book. So often there are no lines drawn to connect them. This gives the impression of motion without emotion, action without reason, dutiful motivations without any understanding of what moves the characters. In short, there's just no soul. Even the sex scene(s) feel contrived. Worst of all is what was cut from the story that could have made the film more seamless and complete. Again, there's no way they could have filmed the entire story, but Snyder includes scenes that are repeated over and over in action and dialogue (when only one time would have sufficed). He could have made things more implicit (and less repetitive) and kept more of what was removed in the film. Alas, what's done is done and the best hope we have is that some commemorative edition DVD will give us a more thorough, Godfather Epic-like tale.
Chapter XII: The Judge of All the Earth Will Watchmen be a success? With a budget of over a hundred million bucks, that should be a question. However, in spite of this film's many flaws and in spite of the fact that there is so much melodrama played out by people in costumes that mainstream audiences probably can't relate to, the marketing juggernaut and the abounding controversy surrounding this film is sure to make it a must-see for the popcorn crowd. Let's not forget that Zack Snyder is a "commercial director" in more ways than one. By putting in all the right video and sound bytes, the Warner Bros. Marketing Department is able to create some great 30 second spots with or without any regard to how these pieces fit together on the big screen. So, yes, if for no other reason than ubiquity and curiosity, this will be a hit. Further, the way things are condensed and simplified here, there isn't a whole lot of need to think, so the "masses" may well eat this up. As a piece of art, however, Watchmen just doesn't have it, regardless of how it tries to ape the feel of Alan Moore, borrow the style of Dave Gibbons and, yes, pick up the moods from Watchmen colorist John Higgins. The academic frames do tend to be there, but the heart and soul is not. Still, verbatim frames in a sea of change does not an Accurate Adaptation make. Taken for all with all, as a film Watchmen deserves somewhere around Two and a Half or Three Stars out of Five. From a visual and visceral standpoint, it's a Three Star film. From a writing and directing standpoint, it's most certainly less than that. Being kind, I'll take the average and round up to give Watchmen Three Stars out of Five! Take note, Hollywood, if you want to make something and claim it's accurate, try not to change the ending and half of the middle. Those who have seen the film and claim to agree that it's accurate to its source, make sure you know what you're talking about first. You may have watched the film, but who watches you?
Chapter XIII: See you in the Next Reel!
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