Zack Snyder is a great compositor of images: in another time he would have built lordly frescoes swirling with cloth and pectorals and stars. He is no great author or human observer – if this was the first time anyone had heard of Watchmen, they likely would be bedazzled by the techno-pornography but little else. As a companion to a book well-read, the Watchmen film is an accomplishment worthy of the director’s talents (and his faults – its airy manliness may be the only attraction). “Why’d we do it?” someone asks these heroes of their old exploits. They reply, “No one else could.” I imagine Snyder giving this exact answer.
I have read Watchmen and so I know the sorry truth: it is so redeemable as graphic art that it is untranslatable into film. In order to fit it even into a bombastic three hours (the director’s cut runs that long, and the ultimate cut runs longer), whole reams of the story had to be cut, including the newspaper clippings of the golden age of superheroes and the recurrence of the comic-within-the-comic, “The Tales of the Black Freighter.” As the Mousetrap play allowed Hamlet to channel Shakespeare and observe his evil uncle’s reaction, Alan Moore’s inner comic highlights the common view of desperate times. Watchmen is full of muscle but here are the bones: that beneath our rank and our job and our pretty tights we are all starving cannibals, wild-eyed vagrants on a stony shore, afraid of the sea. Moore probably loved observing our reaction. Watchmen is not the cheeriest of comics, but look up what Moore looks like and you shouldn’t be surprised (he’s like the offspring of Hugh Laurie and Rasputin).
This has no bearing on whether Watchmen, the film, is any good. I only want to remind the purist that it comes into this life with much expected of it and with relatively few resources with which to prove its worth. One advantage is Snyder’s slavish devotion to the text. Though he blanks out whole sections, those that he adapts he does so panel-by-panel. This can result in blood-boiling excitement, as in the opening when a mysterious visitor kills the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) by throwing him bodily through the glass wall of his apotheotic condo. This devotion gives Watchmen furious authenticity (it doesn't shy from any of the colors or creeds of its heroes, as films often do now). But it can also befuddle the stranger in Moore’s strange story, as in Dr. Manhattan’s time-skimming monologue. He juggles several blurry girlfriends, describing his journey as he sees it, with no concept of linear time. This is a little-discussed advantage of comic books: to take them at your own pace, stop, make a cup of tea, reread a few panels, get back to it later after a little recap. The film clips along with diabolically high ambitions to cover three pages in a second’s time. The result, and I mean the word with equal caution and praise, is admirable. Sometimes it’s so admirable it leaves you behind.
Equally admirable is the look of the film. It’s like Renaissance pop-art: the edges are hazy with a kind of beautiful imprecision. The colors explode. I checked to see if the contrast setting on my television was astronomical once the first hues lit up Snyder’s New York, which always seems to be lost in the rain, though the characters spring out of it like neon signs. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a particularly vibrant splash. Each shot is its own climactic lithograph. This is Snyder’s fashion, to make every frame a work of art standing defiantly alone, never building on to the next. The comic book’s semi-omniscient narrator (the non-super vigilante Rorschach) officiates each of the film’s sets, reading from the book as one would typically not do in the context of a film. But this is untranslatable fiction. The goal is not an adaptation but a companion.
The action is all-important. Snyder’s slow wind-ups and fast beatdowns alternate as they did previously in 300 (also based on a graphic novel). The choreography has its own jagged beauty (if Marvel films are talking heads styled for TV, Watchmen is a broken skull). When Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) take down a prison riot together, it’s with more elastic sexuality than their literal sex scene earlier (which could be wooden or laughable, depending on your affection for Leonard Cohen – today I tend to think that he plays as mushy). It doesn’t hold back the violence either: it wallows in it. Gore heightens the drama of Rorschach’s escape from prison, involving a chainsaw and a particularly unlucky dwarf (I wonder what Moore’s ink blot results would be?). Even grimmer, we visit Rorschach in his memory. The tale he chooses is the time he fed a sadist to his own dogs, after finding a small girl’s femur in his fireplace. Moore lives among humans, presumably, but who does he see? If we asked him to save us, I imagine he would give Rorschach’s sociopathic “No.” Jackie Earle Haley roars behind that mask: I would want a Rorschach prequel, if I didn’t know how those always turn out.
Snyder’s baroque maleness shines through like nipples in a work-out shirt, as it always does. He is almost too suited for a book that includes the term “fucking homo.” And there is something inherently contradictory in a parade of pectorals that includes a violent rape, which Moore got but Snyder may not have. Moore is subverting Superman where Snyder is immortalizing him. Perhaps this is again a limitation of the medium: the lady, beaten out of her pretty face and raped by a “good guy,” can haunt our imaginations from our bookshelves. We can stop and empathize with her, trace every line of her face, and become weighty with her loss. It’s too fast in the film: the rapist is efficient. It doesn’t linger the same way as in the Dave Gibbons spreads. The result is almost tragically ineffectual.
Reading Watchmen feels like a news bulletin from another dimension. It is full of details fit for a reporter’s eye, and even if they make it into the film they disperse as quickly as light comes off the screen. The soundtrack is a tired mash of particular favorites (“The Sound of Silence” and “All Along the Watchtower” appear at expected times) but songs can get tired just from being so good, can’t they? There’s no real rhythm to the selections (can My Chemical Romance and Billie Holiday appear on the same record?). It’s obvious that they were simply the songs quoted in the book, which didn’t have to deal with how they sounded when Moore selected them.
The story, of a government dissecting the super people it can’t control out of the body politic, is sociology by way of MAD Magazine (Nixon looks like his face could be bought at a party store). When someone starts killing alter egos, Rorschach, the hero who never gave in, has to solve the mystery. Why? He is the man with the least scruples, who turns out to be the one with the most principles. He is our non-hygienic angel. He doesn’t want to save the world: the instinct is unmistakably self-preservation. And that’s how he saves it: by saving himself from it.
But really, there is no plot. There is the dilemma, of a world poised to stop existing at any moment, but Watchmen is about the images of how people feel about it. The heroic tropes (the belts, coils, bodysuits, cowls, capes) protect the people beneath them in their world, but to us, there’s nowhere to hide. Snyder is called "self-obsessed" and I believe this is true, in this sense: he is obsessed with the selves beneath the heroics. Whether you see his work as a biting fantasy docudrama or a slushie of pop-hurt humanity depends on how much you're willing to interpret into it, after Snyder shows you the players. There’s Rorschach, who couldn’t stop fighting even if he knew how, Nite Owl, who doesn’t want to put his manhood on the line by saving anyone again (he finds that he can only get an erection while wearing his costume). There’s Silk Spectre, who struggles to find out who she is beneath the public persona, having been born into the life without the privilege of a secret identity, and Dr. Manhattan, who has forgotten how to wish he could feel human again. And there’s the Comedian, who embodies the singular truth that they all share, that possessing great powers didn’t give them control over the world: it made them realize how helpless we all really are. There's truth in these figures but they play it out like icons of it rather than as people. There's a highness to Snyder's intentions that he's had ever since.
As much as Moore may have wanted to save us from superheroes, Snyder seems to want to save them from us. If Moore reassessed them to bring out their flaws, when applied to a Snyder movie, the reassessment becomes liberation. Snyder seems to love superheroes so much that he wants to take their popular appeal away from them, and seriously exalt whatever is left. He wants to find out what these beings would be, what their stories would look like, if we weren't allowed to expect anything of them. This is slightly hidden in Watchmen by our knowledge that Moore was writing a deconstruction. But once Snyder applies the same process to Batman and Superman, it becomes clear as exaltation. Images once used to critique the medium itself are now repurposed to propose that medium in its purest form yet: Watchmen defies the mainstream; it may be the first superhero auteur film. I’ve never seen a superhero movie with a head so full of rain, and that gives it a perverse beauty that I never really get tired of. Even its smiles are brought to our attention to ask us why we're smiling about it. We're the only thing in it that's played for laughs.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
David Hayter (screenplay)
Alex Tse (screenplay)
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (book)
|Walter Kovacs/Rorschach||Jackie Earle Haley|
|Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl II||Patrick Wilson|
|Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II||Malin Akerman|
|Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan||Billy Crudup|
|Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias||Matthew Goode|
|Edward Blake/The Comedian||Jeffrey Dean Morgan|
|Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre||Carla Gugino|