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.