Watchmen (2009)

Written by Mike Lyon on March 10th, 2009

Why is writing “The Watchmen Review” proving to be so difficult? I’ve had no less than 7 lengthy conversations at this point with various respected human sounding-boards detailing my issues with the film, and started many a draft. Yet still the issue is complicated, in ways I could not have foreseen when I skeptically entered the theater. But a brief Twitter I sent out post-screening still says it all: Watchmen is a wreck. It is a completely fascinating and utterly bizarre head-on collision that cannot and does not add up to a good movie, but nevertheless I find myself wanting to see it again. Strange days indeed.

As a big fan of the comic from all the way back during the days of its release as a 12-issue miniseries, I knew it couldn’t accurately resemble the comic in any capacity, and it does not. Alan Moore created Watchmen as a structural exercise, a unique exploration of artistic conceits that could only be accomplished in comics. By its very nature, Watchmen as Moore envisioned it is unfilmable. Remove the artistic superstructure and you are left with nothing but the story; a great story, to be sure, involving lightly fictionalized versions of classic Charlton Comics characters solving an end-of-the-world mystery. This is a classic conundrum of the filmic adaptation: how to translate the feeling of something inherently literary to the big screen?

I found myself loathing the idea of a big, dumbed-down version of Watchmen, complete with fight scenes (there is very little of what could be called “action” in the comic) and tight leather costumes. I was certain this was the only direction such an adaptation could follow. I was only half right. Indeed, the film starts with a ponderous, 5-minute long fistfight between The Comedian and a catsuited Ozymandias, a sequence which takes something like 4 panels to transpire in the comic. Everyone wears leather. Lots of it. In one flashback sequence, The Comedian’s outfit squeaks so much while he’s pacing that it is actually difficult to hear what he is saying through his cigar-clenched mouth.

The flip side to my initial fear of difference is an overly-slavish devotion to the comic. The majority of the dialogue, for instance, is lifted straight from Moore’s comic script. But whereas specific word balloons in specific panels with specific lettering serve to create a powerful cadence and establish a convoluted temporal flow in the comic, these same lines spoken by live actors on the screen often sound wooden and over-dramatic. This odd mixture of Big Hollywood kowtowing and fanatical attention to Moore’s dialogue makes for an uncomfortable alliance.

Paradoxically enough, I found those moments that differed so wildly from the source material to make up the majority of the enjoyable sequences in the film, because they are inherently more cinematic. By and large they also a push a fairly radical agenda by Hollywood standards, ramping up the sex and violence to beautifully exploitative levels. The lengthy and graphic Nite Owl / Silk Spectre sex scene set to Leonard Cohen was a particular highlight: a lurid, uneccessarily long and absolutely fantastic onscreen fuck in which Nite Owl overcomes his impotence, complete with a hysterical flamethrower ejaculation denoument straight out of the old Batman TV show. It is such an utterly ridiculous and misplaced pastiche that I could not help but bask in its authenticity.

Some big (wait for it) changes from the comic made my brain itch a little; I’m only a human fanboy. I was legitimately overjoyed to see Doc Manhattan’s blue supergod cock on frequent display, but laughed at the size. When Dave Gibbons draws the Doc, the dick is rightly an afterthought, tiny and flaccid, no more worthy of scrutiny than any other part of the body. The character’s nudity is only interesting insofar as it is devoid of shock value. The concession to Hollywood’s conception of male frontal nudity (and Billy Crudup’s ego, no doubt) seems to have been to make the wang massive, pendulous, and on its way to being two feet long fully erect. Actually, as I’m typing this I’m spontaneously beginning to enjoy the Doc’s new super-sized junk; it’s like the ultimate personification of the Big Dumbification of completely arbitrary elements of the story.

This is the kind of weird shit that happens the more I think about this film; I uniformly despise its adherence to the original even as I come to relish its bastardizations. The big exception is the ending. Even before its release, Snyder was known to have removed Moore’s famous squid masterstroke. The replacement concept, the trickery of Doc Manhattan, feels weak in comparison, but I can roll with it. My biggest problem with the ending, indeed with the entire movie, is that Snyder pulls the punch.

In the end of Watchmen as Moore intended it, we are meant to realize that Ozymandias is the only real “hero” in a cast otherwise populated by sociopaths, fetishists and gods; that only by slaughtering millions of people could he reasonably become the savior of the world and overcome the pedestrian concerns of his fellow underwear perverts. He commits genocide in order to ensure humanity’s continuance. For some reason, this is all unfolding nicely in Snyder’s version, when suddenyl Nite Owl develops a case of the righteousness and slaps Ozy around a bit and tells him, “For shame!” and Ozy feels sad about what he’s done, standing alone in his broken castle looking depressed.

What. The. Fuck.

By inserting this one unbearably inane sequence, Snyder completely devalues the impact of Watchmen’s ending. It literally serves no purpose, it enhances no aspect of the story, adds no special layer to any of the characters; it does nothing but pussy out of a powerful, morally repugnant ending.

On and on the contradictions flow. Take the music for example, the awkward, out-of-place Big Hits soundtrack. It’s actually a reference to the chapter headings in each of the original 12 issues, but this inept fanservice only confuses the film’s timeframe and characterization; “The Sound of Silence” at The Comedian’s funeral? – I’m not even going to pretend that Snyder is clever enough to have utilized the song to an ironic purpose.

It’s a wreck. A Rorscharch meat cleaver to the head instead of a nice metaphorical house fire. An abattoir of retarded children. By representing something truly adult by Hollywood’s standards (an accomplishment I sincerely appreciate), it simultaneously devalues everything the comic stands for. It’s big. It’s dumb as fuck. It’s kind of important. I can only throw my hands in the air. “The Watchmen Review” is doomed to continue forever, and Watchmen itself is doomed by its very nature to never be appropriately adapted. It’s a film that by all rights should never have been made; but here it is.


5 Comments so far ↓

  1. Nick Marquis says:

    I still am waiting to see the “film” adaptation of this legendary book. I shudder at the many reviews that seem to all say in astonishingly similar ways: “cluster fuck. but still had to see it.”

    They remind me of my addiction to really lousy B flicks I watch just for the appearance of Bruce Campbell. Except on a scale ten fold of my little fanboy craving for Ash in “Ice Breaker” or “Maniac Cop”.

    I will return with a post, but can’t help thinking about director douche bag Snyder. Did he just read the book because it was number one? or has he actually read a couple of other titles…I think this is the main problem and probably what may have led him in the wrong direction. Also following his 300 “master piece” – a simply told story by simple Frank Miller…we can see why.

    Frank Miller already fucked up Will Eisner’s “the Spirit”, so even the comicbook maker can’t even see why the medium cannot always transfer over. perhaps he should have read a few books on sequencing of imagery and the comic as a medium first…it may have spurred something in his mind about the fact that it’s not always what is in the frame…but between them. An that is something a film cannot replicate. Will eisner wrote a couple of books on that…but they probably were not popular enough for Snyder to read.

  2. Mackey says:

    I went in knowing this would be an utter failure and found myself enjoying little pieces. I found Dr. Manhattan’s segment to be the strongest. The movie looked good for the most part (up until the final showdown) but Jeffery Dean Morgan + Zak Snyder didn’t even come close to pulling off the Comedian. The emphases all fell on the wrong pieces– Silk Spectre II’s parentage is a good example of this. In the comic it plays well within the overall schema, but in the movie it becomes a Luke Skywalker moment, which is just unnecessary.

    I totally agree with the music point you make, though I found All Along the Watchtower to be the one that really rubbed me the wrong way, spoiling what little gravity Snyder was able to muster and changing the entire tone of the ending. The whole thing unravels in the end rather than coming together. None of the actors seem to be in same room, the editor fell asleep and the unnecessary change in plot and characterization just suck.

    In terms of remediation, Snyder is a clutzy film maker working with deft source material. The decisions to change content versus leave alone speak more to a laziness on the film’s part, falling back on the source material when it suits the director’s sensibility rather than reasoning through how to present the material on film. Dr. Manhattan’s cock and Rorshach’s split dog head are both aspects of this–Snyder seems to be using them both to show his devotion to the source, but he isn’t able to present them in the same light of the comic’s portrayal. Instead there’s a juvenile insistence on adhering to and even ramping up the violence, which again throws the whole work’s emphases off-kilter. The realizations become paltry, the visuals of Mars become new-agey.

    I’d say Snyder needed to do his homework on comic arts, but also realize that the movie viewer carries a different bag of associations than the comic viewer and actually adapt the comic rather than pasting it up on screen.

  3. ZACK SNYDER says:



  4. xfoo says:

    Ozzymandias isn’t a hero, either in the comic or the movie. rorshach’s psychiatrist and the off duty cop who moves to break up that fight are… and also the news vendor, when he protects the kid from the blast. After that, the next closest thing is rorshach and nite owl

    Ozzymandias is a mass murderering ego maniac. His moral relativism would only be excusable if the dilemna wasn’t a fake one of his own design. He was taking over the planet the whole time. It was more important that he alone save the world than it was to save the world, mnore important that he’s alexander cutting the gordian knot. one example: he didn’t regretfully kill the comedian, he personally broke into his apartment and beat him to death, because he hated him. he could’ve just as easily hired a sniper or something. “someone really had it in for this guy”

    also note, accidentally learning of ozzymandias’s plot cracked the comedian, a deliberatley amoral man.

    another example: removing doc manhattan increased the danger of nuclear annihilation. quite a calcuated risk, on his part, but like they say.. if you want to make an omellette you gotta break 50 million eggs.

    the worst thing about the movie is, kitty genoviese and the psychiatrist’s awakening is left out. the good this movie could have done! at least then it would be harder to interpret ozzymandias as a saviour. does get people wondering about it though

  5. Mike Lyon says:

    Xfoo: Perhaps “hero” is not the correct choice of words, but in my mind, Moore wants to make the reader uncomfortable thinking about an act of mass murder saving the world from inevitable destruction, regardless of the intentions of the murderer. That’s the crux of my interpretation of the ending; but you make an excellent point! I think all of the characters fall prey to differing degrees of moral bankruptcy.

    Finding a heroic figure in Watchmen is tricky, although the off-duty cop may be it. I can’t go with the psychiatrist, who is largely motivated by the kind of book he can write about his experience. The news vendor… Man, probably so, it’s been a bit since I’ve read the book so I’d have to go back!

    At any rate thanks for commenting! Despite much inner turmoil I’ve actually picked up the “Ultimate Cut” off of eBay and plan to re-review when I check it out…

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