Watchmen

Well, I saw Watchmen last night, and the short summary is that I was very pleasantly surprised.

I went into the movie anticipating that it would never be able to live up to the story it was adapting. In its original form, it was such a thorough and highly regarded body of work that I could not imagine how they could squeeze it all into a single movie (even a long one) and a series is not really an option for telling this tale.

I could only assume that in the hands of a Hollywood team attempting to make it palatable to a mainstream audience that the movie will need to be “successful” (financially), such trimming would be awkward and bound to chop out important aspects that would just ruin it for the die-hard fans. While there was definitely a *lot* taken out, I have to say that it was done much better than I ever imagined it could have been, and I was generally satisfied with the results.

Since I’m sure you will find many avid comic fans ranting about all the discrepancies and inconsistencies found in this translation, and since I’m not interested in dwelling on them here, I’ll take a pass and skip over those in this review. There is also a multitude of layers of depth to be dug into in terms of subtle meaning and message, many of which found their way from the original story into the movie, but I’ll also avoid rambling on too much about those, since this thing is going to be long enough as it is.

Let’s start with the surface: visually, it was perfect, as can be expected from Snyder after 300. His rich colors painting the backgrounds and skillfully framed comic panel-esque shots in 300 were probably my favorite parts of that movie, but in Watchmen he chose a more subtle and a bit darker approach, which suited it comfortably. I also really enjoyed the soundtrack they picked for a lot of the scenes, even though it was a bit surprising at first.

As for the quality of the adaptation, while much was (and had to have been) left on the cutting room floor, I thought it admirably stayed true to some of the core aspects that made the story great. On the one hand, it is a satisfying murder mystery / adventure story, yet as it unfolds you discover that it’s actually deconstructing the super hero genre right before your eyes.

As I noted over on Alex’s blog, this story was originally presented in the context of a comic book culture that was dramatically different than what we have today. Those of you who are old enough probably remember most “capes & tights” stories as the happy-go-lucky (even campy) type of approach taken in the original incarnations of the characters that we are familiar with. In the mid-80s, this world was about to be blown wide open and (for many of the classics) take a darker turn, as well as give rise to a vibrant independent scene which would delight and enlighten those of us comic fans to a wider world of storytelling potential that the comic medium is capable of. Anyway, it’s an interesting contrast / parallel to today’s recent boom in popularity of super heroes in the movies; perhaps the “comic book movie” needs a similar degree of boundary-box-breaking.

As the world of the Watchmen unfolds, you begin to realize (more quickly for some characters than others, and each in their own way) that literally every single person who devotes themselves to a life of masked do-gooding isn’t the pure, shining example of heroism that you may expect, but rather has deep, psychological issues that have motivated them into pursuing this line of “work”. “Under the hood” (the title of Mason’s book), they are all pretty twisted in one way or another. It’s no accident that the only one with true “super powers” (John) is also the least “human”, and it’s a causal association. Or take Adrian, who is arguably the second most “powerful” of the group (he lacks “powers” but is regarded as the most intelligent man alive and has trained his body to the upper limits of physical potential), is also therefore detached enough from humanity to be capable of the vision / psychosis necessary for what he ends up doing.

[ spoiler below ]

Speaking of that, it’s a classic twist that I’m certainly glad was translated well into this story. The climactic final scene is abruptly shaken from the realm of fantasy when he announces that he isn’t the classic comic book villain. He didn’t just waste his time explaining himself to them to give them a chance to whip something out of the old utility belt and save the day, but rather the whole thing already went down before they even got there – it was already over.

[ end of spoiler ]

Anyway, there’s probably much more that could be said here, but I figure no review would be complete without addressing the one thing that probably everyone who has remotely heard anything at all about this movie seems to be obsessed with… yeah, you know what I’m talking about.

Let me first say that if I did have one gripe about the stuff that was lost in the translation, it might be the fact that a considerable amount of the back-story for the various players was removed (due to time constraints, I’m sure), and I think it may have lessened the impact of this one particular point, which is very probably lost on most of the audience (or at least the crowd of giggling teenagers).

During the full story, you see more flashes back to the past in John’s life. While some of them are still present in this version, it may not have been enough to make it blatantly obvious that from the time of the “incident” until the present day, if you rearrange his appearances into chronological order, there is an intentional progression. John originally is relatively “well covered” (for a super hero costume), and as time passes his costume “simplifies”, eventually to the point of vanishing altogether. It is a perfect symbol of his gradually loosening grip on his own humanity; as that fades away from him, things like shame and concern for appearance naturally do as well. So, no, it *isn’t* gratuitous.

Long story short: I liked it. The changes that were made didn’t bother me much at all, and in the end I believe they made the story better for this current audience. I recommend it. BTW, if anyone’s interested in reading the original, they can borrow it from me anytime.

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5 Responses to Watchmen

  1. Mike Brisk says:

    Kool, I can’t wait to see it. I’ve heard it wasn’t that good, but thanks for the review. :)

  2. I really enjoyed this movie as well. I had never read the graphic novel and went in with little expectation and was treated to a real entertaining time.

  3. Jared, great review. This is good to get the perspective of someone who loved the graphic novel/comic book and saw the movie, but liked it! I saw it with my brother and enjoyed the movie, but missed some of the back story. I agree that Snyder totally nailed it visually, especially with that opening sequence. Gorgeous. I also appreciated the depth and complexity of the characters, something that is rarely attempted in a movie like this – though some of them were still hard to relate to (Comedian, which perhaps, was the point). It was over-the-top brutal and gruesome, however, which I didn’t expect. But for me, rather than detracting from the story, it added to the feeling of it being about real things, real themes, ideas that have implications in the real world. Finally, about Dr. Manhattan and his progression from human to something superhuman or beyond humanity; I found your description (re: Costume) to shed some light on that progression. In the film you get the idea that this change happened at the moment of his move from human to superhuman. Anyway, fascinating film, will surely be debated and discussed for many years… : )

  4. JB says:

    Cool; I enjoy hearing other perspectives as well.

    I actually have a follow-up review brewing in my head right now that I may or may not end up writing. Based on some of the other reflections I’ve heard, I’m realizing that a lot of my enjoyment may have been colored by gaps I was filling in that weren’t actually there in the movie version, so I’m trying to rethink some of my opinions on it a bit, and there were also a couple other articles I found interesting that I wanted to link to.

    Heck, maybe I should stop writing this comment and just write that follow-up instead… :-)

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