What’s Wrong With ‘Watchmen’?

I finally got around to watching HBO’s Watchmen series, and enjoyed it tremendously. The thing I like best about it, aside from putting Rorschach in his proper place as a fetish and cosplay inspiration for ignorant racist terrorists, was how effectively they completely ignored the movie while continuing the original 1985 graphic novel into the present day. Damon Lindelof, whom I can go hot-and-cold on, depending on how badly his cool idea derails a given plot, does a great job of extrapolating forward from where Alan Moore left off, while at the same time calling back to atrocities of the past, rooting the beginnings of Moore’s epic in the middle of one of the most egregious examples. HBO’s Watchmen captures the themes and message of the graphic novel, themes that somehow completely evaded Zack Snyder in his adaptation.

I very much enjoyed the HBO series, but our own Edo Bosnar is planning to write a review of that, and I guess we’ll find out if he agrees with me. My topic today is what it says in the title; what’s wrong with Watchmen? Specifically, what’s wrong with the movie, and in particular, why it is absolutely not a faithful adaptation of the graphic novel.

One of the most-anticipated superhero films of its day, Watchmen was supposed to be a tentpole movie, but it crashed to the pavement like Gibbons’ giant squid-monster, and its failure was surprising to many. We’ve talked about how much of the audience missed the point of Watchmen, so that won’t be a huge part of this post, except of course for the fact that the film’s director was one of those who missed the point.

For those of you about to leap to the defense of the film, please stop for a moment and consider carefully whether you are in fact defending the film, or the original graphic novel. I maintain that everything good about the movie was in the comic to begin with, and was done better in the comic. The movie is a weak imitation; Snyder neither captures Moore’s intent nor adds anything, but he does get a lot wrong.

Watchmen, like the comic from which it originated, attempted to show that comics and superheroes were serious art and could address complex themes in sophisticated ways. There were several attempts to get a film off the ground over a number of years, including proposals and scripts from the likes of Terry Gilliam and Sam Hamm, with David Hayter and Alex Tse ultimately  getting the gig. At one point, producer Joel Silver wanted to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dr. Manhattan, and Jude Law made no secret of his desire to play Ozymandias.

Finally, and largely because of the popularity of his shot-for-shot adaptation of 300, Zack Snyder got the directing gig. The reviews for Watchmen were mixed at best (currently 65% favorable on Rotten Tomatoes), and the movie did not come close to being the tentpole blockbuster hit that Warner Brothers wanted. Somehow, despite this, the studio decided to turn all their superhero movies over to Snyder anyway, at least for a while.

Suckerpunch cast
You too can package fetish cheesecake exploitation as feminism!

Let me be blunt here: I pretty much hate all of Zack Snyder’s work. His aesthetic sense is creepy, every character looking like they’ve just been slathered in grease, with a vaguely S&M-tinged fetish sensibility to every shot. Sucker Punch is one of the slimiest movies ever made, pretending to be a female empowerment story while ultimately being about (SPOILERS) orderlies at a mental hospital conspiring to lobotomize pretty inmates in order to rape them. True, one of them does escape at the end, and the perpetrators are exposed, but at the cost of four out of five of the girls’ lives, an ultimately somewhat pyrrhic victory. The film is gross and disgusting, and way too many people missed the point because they bought into the bogus claim that the lingerie-clad heroines of this story were being empowered rather than exploited by both the villains and the director. And the less said about his Superman films, the better.

Which brings us to Watchmen.

Adaptation is an art; when it’s done right, it’s more of a translation process. The vocabulary of print is translated into the vocabulary of film, and nuances that are difficult or impossible to capture on the static page move to the forefront, while others that are easy to show in a comic prove difficult to film. By its very nature, the film adaptation of any work is going to be a different thing entirely, an attempt to capture the work as it was recreated in one’s imagination when it left the page; every interpreter is going to have a different version. The best we can hope for is that the person making the film approaches it with at least some respect for the mindset of the person who created the original.

Squid monster
Sorry, Zack, but the squid is NOT “fucking stupid.”

Snyder’s version of Watchmen is a master class in how not to do an adaptation. Despite the slavishly-rendered (although far too dimly-lit) visual recreations of many iconic panels from the comic, the heart and soul of the story is missing. Scenes that are supposed to be darkly funny are merely bleak, the characters are at best superficial sketches with most of the underlying layers missing. Everything good about the movie, everything that its fans praise, was actually already there, and better, in the comic. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work somehow peeked through the glossy eye-candy spectacle for moments at a time. So if Moore provided the story (except for the ending, but we’ll get to that) and most of the dialog, and Gibbons the visuals, what did Snyder bring?

What the director brings to an adapted story is mood, pacing, rhythm, and the guiding of the actors’ performances. Zack Snyder’s mood is always bleak, his pacing is plodding, rhythm non-existent, sense of humor absent, tastes vulgar, and he is not “an actor’s director.” Every performer in Watchmen has done far better work in other projects, often playing the same sort of character to much better effect. Here, we get the most obvious and shallow performances possible, good actors trying to play what they are asked for but denied the opportunity to really dig into their characters.

Anyone who saw Almost Famous knows that Billy Crudup is a talented actor. The beautiful scene on the bus is an amazing performance; he stares into space while dealing with the fallout of the previous night’s drug-induced lunacy, gradually returning to himself by reconnecting and reconciling with his bandmates through the shared sing-along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” almost all of the transition happening silently and behind his eyes.

Crudup is capable of incredible depth and emotion, all of which was lacking in his sleepwalking performance as Dr. Manhattan. Obviously, Snyder told him to play “a detached guy who has lost his humanity.” The problem is, that’s boring as hell, it’s not what the movie needed, and it’s not what Moore wrote. Dr. Manhattan is not “a detached guy who has lost his humanity.” He is a guy whose humanity is so vital that it held him together after his body was vaporized; he clung to his humanity so firmly that it pulled his very atoms back together out of the atmosphere.

Dr. Manhattan origin
He’s not detached from his humanity; he clung to it and rebuilt himself with it.

He’s not detached from the world, he’s too involved in it. He’s connected to the world on the quantum level, intently examining and experimenting with reality in time-and-space-altering ways, which makes him appear distracted, at least to the people who can’t see what he’s seeing and touching and experiencing endlessly.

Dr. Manhattan is not a guy who’s lost his humanity, he’s a guy who recognizes that his humanity was once his most important asset and is trying like hell to hang onto it, while at the same time beginning to question whether he should. He hasn’t lost his love for or connection with Laurie, but it’s been displaced into a form and language she can’t hope to understand. He struggles to express it in a way that she can grasp, like a man who has lost the power of speech and is trying to learn sign language. Crudup could have played the hell out of that, but he was told to be a zoned-out space cadet instead.

On another point, one that the HBO series has gotten completely right as much as the movie got it wrong, which we’ve talked about before, but here it is again: Rorschach was meant to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of vigilante thinking, and the character is gradually revealed to be damaged and pathetic outside of his masked persona. Jackie Earle Haley has played a lot of dangerous and creepy characters in his career (see his role on TV’s The Human Target), and again, Rorschach is possibly his least effective performance in that arena. His iconic line, “I’m not locked in here with you, you’re locked in here with me,” is the sort of line that Clint Eastwood delivered to great effect in at least a dozen films from Spaghetti Westerns to Dirty Harry, but he never once yelled it, because he knew what Snyder doesn’t: people with power never raise their voice. They don’t have to. How much more menacing would that line have been if delivered with an icy calm, instead of screamed like a lunatic? Jackie Earl Haley certainly knew how to play it, given how well he played Guerrero on Human Target, with no histrionics to be seen:

One big failure in the film (and nailed perfectly in the TV series) is that Rorschach is supposed to be a condemnation of the kind of black-and-white extremism that leads to vigilantism. He’s not supposed to be admirable. In fact, the entire point of Rorschach is that his self-righteous black-and-white worldview ultimately destroys the fragile peace brought by Ozymandias’ deception; when his journal hits the tabloid pages, one can assume that global outrage and a resumption of hostilities will inevitably be the result. The entire point is that we humans have to accept a certain amount of self-deception in order to avoid killing ourselves and each other, and Rorschach’s inconsistent and selfish ethical code (deception is okay when he does it, but not okay for anyone else) is destructive and self-destructive. Moore keeps reminding us that the guy is psychologically unstable, childish, sociopathic, and delusional. One would think that the portrayal of his alter-ego as a foul-smelling nut waving a “the end is nigh” sign on a street corner would have hammered home the point, but Snyder admires him and paints him as a Randian hero.

Silk Spectre is another example, or rather, pair of examples. Carla Gugino is a wonderful actor, she’s done a lot of great work. She was an inspired choice for Sally Jupiter, Silk Spectre I, a young woman out of her depth in the masked hero world, a vigilante packaged as a sex symbol, and complicit in her own exploitation. Unfortunately, her performance as the senior citizen version of that character completely lacks the melancholy mix of humor, regret, and sadness that marks the comics version; This Sally Jupiter is not Moore’s demanding yenta who needs to micromanage her daughter’s life when she can’t really handle her own, the woman with a dark secret she’s tired of keeping but afraid to reveal. Again, this comes down to direction. Sally should have the fatalistic resignation of a Catskills comedian; much of what she says in the comics is intentional schtick. Imagine her dialogue from the comic performed by Lainie Kazan, and you’ll see that she’s funny (to anyone who isn’t Laurie), but you’d never know it from this movie.

The most telling example of Snyder’s inability to direct humans is Malin Akerman’s performance as Silk Spectre II, AKA Laurie Juspeczyk, Sally’s daughter. Pretty much every review lambasted her performance, some noting that her part had been drastically cut in the script leaving her little to do but stand around in shiny latex. Laurie is supposed to be the gateway character, the ordinary human alongside whom we get a more intimate view of these superhuman beings, but because Akerman is given nothing to play, we never fully connect with her. Like everyone else in the cast, the actress has been far better elsewhere. She could have been amazing with a director that can work with performers who aren’t CGI puppets.

Possibly the greatest flaw in the film is the complete and total lack of humor. There is a lot of outright comedy in the comic. The recurring scenes between the kid and the newsstand guy should be funny. Rorschach’s sessions with the prison psychiatrist should be an uncomfortable mix of terrifying and hilarious-in-a-cringy-way. As I said in the last paragraph, Sally is funny. The one that really bothered me, though, (which I’ve mentioned before) was how badly Moloch was handled. Matt Frewer should have been amazing in that part. Moloch should be fascinating; here’s this guy who was once a major villain fighting and scheming for, if not world domination, at least a big slice of the pie, and he ends up alone, broke, and sick, with nothing to show for the years he wasted battling the masked heroes. Like Sally, he’s got a fatalist view, with a shrug of the shoulders and “whaddaya gonna do, y’know?” on his lips. Moloch is another complex character poorly served. We should feel pity for him, even as he feels such pity for the Comedian that he leaves his shitty little apartment to attend a funeral at which he is most unwelcome. He keeps his distance so as to not create a scene, because the heroes who continually defeated him are the closest thing to friends that he has. He can’t be played as only bitter or we won’t care about him and he becomes merely a plot point, not a person. And again, the actor has shown over and over that he has the chops to deliver what should have been a nice character turn, but the director didn’t let him do it.

Aside from the complete mishandling of every character, the overall pacing of the film is terrible; at least 20 minutes is wasted on Snyder’s slo-mo action fetish and endless dwelling on the glossy gee-whiz scenery. In other—better—movies, the eye candy happens during the storytelling, it doesn’t stop the movie. If the pace were picked up, losing all of those tics as well as the long pauses and drawn-out line readings, all the stuff they had to cut from the comic could have been put back in without adding a minute to the running time.

The other major failing can also be put down to Snyder’s taste and sensibilities. Despite the frequent claims that Watchmen is “a faithful recreation” of the graphic novel, it really isn’t; in the comic, many of the most violent incidents happen off-panel, and we don’t see them lovingly rendered in gruesome detail the way they are presented in the film. When Rorschach kills the guard dogs, we don’t see him bashing out their brains in the comic, but Snyder makes damn sure we get a good long view. He doesn’t know when to cut away, and the result is vulgar and relentless rather than shocking.

Along the same lines, the love scene aboard Night-Owl’s airship is supposed to be awkward and uncomfortable, raw and human and real. We’re supposed to be seeing two out-of-shape and damaged people coming back to life, acting on impulse in an emotional catharsis, expressing the adrenaline they’ve pumped up, with a lot of repressed emotions coming to the surface. But Snyder shoots it like a soft-core porn scene, the exact opposite of raw and human and real. His vision is all glistening bodies moving sensuously under dim-but-sexy lighting set to exactly the wrong music, with no humanity to be seen.

And then there’s the ending.

Granted, the squid monster in the comic is silly looking, but the concept is solid: Ozymandias has kidnapped an army of great artists, engineers, writers and scientists and commissioned them to fake an alien invasion of Earth, which causes the nations to draw together for mutual defense. This ties into a minor plot point, that the pirate comic being read by the kid at the newsstand was written by one of the missing geniuses, which is what ties the newsstand sequences to the main story in the first place. But Snyder decided that “the squid is fucking stupid,” and instead of designing a false-flag alien invasion that isn’t stupid-looking, he decided to have Ozymandias frame Dr. Manhattan for a series of attacks around the world, making him everyone’s enemy and drawing the people together for imaginary mutual protection from a nearly-omnipotent godlike being against whom there is obviously no viable defense.

But there’s a problem; at the start of the story, we’re told that it is the existence of Dr. Manhattan that has caused the Cold War to be extended; the Soviets consider him a US weapon, and peace talks are stalled until he is eliminated. Ozy’s plan to remove him is to play on his greatest vulnerability, which is, ironically, the humanity that he has supposedly lost touch with; when he is convinced that he has doomed several loved ones and a few enemies due to radiation from his body causing their incurable cancer, he leaves the planet, which should have ended the detente. For Ozymandias to then frame him for the later attacks merely restores and amps up the status quo, accomplishing the exact opposite of his stated purpose. Rorschach’s journal will do nothing to alter this. The whole movie becomes a pointless exercise in futility.

In the graphic novel, the concluding scene shows that the world has at last achieved some sort of stability (as evidenced by the popularity of Russian Fusion food in New York) until the discovery and publication of Rorschach’s journal threatens to tear it all down by revealing the fraud perpetuated by Ozymandias. But if Ozymandias’ hoax merely validated and exacerbated Soviet concerns about the threat posed by Dr. Manhattan, thereby justifying the global conflict, then how did proving he was a threat suddenly bring unification? If Rorschach’s journal merely reveals that the real threat was a different vigilante who is now at large, why would this revelation change anything?

It appears that Snyder’s entire point in making the movie is to show that Rorschach is a badass. He was not at all interested in Moore’s point that he’s a dangerously unstable sociopath who destroys everything by his monomaniacal obsessions.

As I said at the outset, the best we can hope for with a film adaptation is that the person making the film approaches it with at least some of the mindset of the person who created the original. It’s exceedingly clear that Zack Snyder’s mindset is many degrees away from Alan Moore’s. He was far more invested in showing off Dr. Manhattan’s schlong and slavishly recreating Gibbon’s imagery than in understanding Moore’s intent.

Fortunately, the makers of HBO’s sequel have wisely ignored all of that. They went back to Moore & Gibbons’ original and worked forward (and back) from there, in a series that serves as a repudiation of Snyder’s film and the toxic ideology behind it.

But I”ll let Edo Bosnar follow up on that.

3 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    I argued much of what you say here, with colleagues, when the film came out. Basically, Gibbons’ images vs Moore’s characters and subtext, especially Rorschach.

    I so much would have rather seen what Gilliam would have done with it; but, he came to the realization that it would take a mini-series and HBO wasn’t quite in that game yet.

    I had seen Cruddup in Big Fish, and he was okay but rather dull in Watchmen. Haley I didn’t have a problem with his performance, so much as the character, which I put on Snyder. Jeffrey dean Morgan I thought was good and tje Comedian came closest to ringing true from the comic, though Snyder seemed to present him as more heroic than he was, to fit his political POV.

    The Randian element was the biggest thing and the whole point of Watchmen was to illustrate that vigilantes are messed up puppies and costumed vigilantes are exponentially moreso.

  2. One of the things that drove me nuts about the movie was the fight scenes. These aren’t superhumans (Manhattan excepted) but every time they punch someone the dude flies across the room like he’d been slugged by Spider-Man. It looked ridiculous.
    You have a good point that using Dr. Manhattan instead of the squid is a bad idea, though the squid wasn’t great either; as a friend of mine observed, having an apparent alien attack kill thousands of people isn’t going to turn us away from war and military spending, even if we’re not focused on killing each other. Still better than the movie though (and the graphic novel doesn’t require a perfectly happy ending).
    I watched the first two episodes of HBO’s Watchmen. Competent, but it didn’t feel like much of a Watchmen sequel, so given how much I hated Lost, I dropped it.

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