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|Written by April Yorke|
|Friday, 13 March 2009 19:00|
Note: Hey, did you know that this article contains spoilers? You do now!
Watchmen is a graphic novel about a group of former masked vigilantes who come together after the murder of one of their brethren. Their particular brand of justice has been outlawed since the Keene Act of 1977, and, in this alternate 1985 with Nixon in his fifth term and the world teetering on the brink of nuclear war, it may be that they are still needed - even if this mess might be their fault.
Watchmen is a movie also about a group of former masked vigilantes who come together after the murder of one of their brethren. Their particular brand of justice has been outlawed since the Keene Act of 1977, and, in this alternate 1985 with Nixon in his fifth term and the world teetering on the brink of nuclear war, it may be that they are still needed - even if this mess might be their fault.
So far, so good. Part of what makes for a successful adaptation is a movie's ability to stick to the trenchant points of its source material while jettisoning anything that would slow it down. Director Zach Snyder and co-writers David Hayter and Alex Tse's film version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's legendary graphic novel accomplishes just that with incredible visual style, striking action, and stunning set pieces. But is it a fair adaptation?
Watchmen is a dense, multi-layered novel, and Snyder and co. excised a lot of the material for the sake of expediency. Can't blame them: at 163 minutes, they're pushing the limits of the human bladder. While Tales of the Black Freighter (the pirate comic within the comic) will receive its own DVD treatment, the newsstand where it is read greatly looses its significance in its transition to the big screen. We see it, but that's it. Gone, too, are the selections from Under the Hood, Walter Kovacs' case file, Dan Dreiberg's bird article, interviews with Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre, and a host of other fragments that come together to tell a complete story. Moore and Gibbon didn't give us just another comic book; they created a packed, wondrous novel about the kind of people who dress up in costumes and fight crime. It's The Right Stuff or What it Takes for comic book geeks.
Watchmen (the novel) is more episodic and elliptical than the movie suggests, in part because it began as a 12 issue mini-series. This approach suits its themes, but movies need a certain amount of narrative thrust to keep audiences in their seats. This thrust comes from the twin plots of the Comedian/Eddie Blake's death (murder mystery) and nuclear war (political thriller). All the movie has to do is lift those plots and distil them for fanboys (and girls!) and laymen alike. Unfortunately, it struggles with the transition. In fact, it struggles with the exact chapter that makes the entire enterprise worthwhile.
By the time that Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup, whose velvety voice packs a lot more emotion than Gibbons' icy blue speech bubbles) picks up Laurie/Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman, a surprisingly likable presence) for their talk on Mars - she's to convince him to save the world - we've lost track of Rorschach's (Jackie Earle Haley - thank goodness you've come back to us!) investigation into the Comedian's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, underplaying the wry humour with a nice side of depression) murder, the very act that begins both the novel and the movie. By this point, Rorschach's been discredited as psychotic. His theory that someone's picking off masks hinges on Dr. Manhattan's exile, but the audience knows that Jon left Earth of his own accord. As for the Comedian, why should we care? He's been portrayed as a sadist and a sociopath, and no one seems to miss him. Any number of the characters could have thrown him out that window. It's practically a mercy killing.
That is, until Jon shows Laurie the very thing she's struggled against her entire life. It seems she's long realized that she was the product of an affair, but her mother, famous original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino, who really ought to be getting better roles by now), kept the identity of her father a mystery. Now it's out in the open: he's the Comedian. The very man Laurie's hated for the last twenty years since she found out about his attempted rape of her mother is her biological father.*
In the novel, this reveal comes out of left field. There are hints, particularly in Sally's reaction to Eddie's death, but they're only hints. Even so, it's the moment that finally pushes the narrative over the edge and sends it hurtling toward a resolution. Suddenly, Eddie's humanized. If one of his victims could find a way to forgive him, he couldn't have been all that bad, could he? What's more, this revelation causes Jon to flip the switch and decide to save Earth after all. Hurrah!
These events occur almost concurrently with Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson, a handsome man almost unbelievably adept at playing ordinary) and Rorschach's discovery that former ally turned mogul Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Matthew Goode, making the best of some truly unfortunate hair) is behind everything. Again, in the novel, this comes out of left field. It's not that there aren't hints, but aside from the assassination attempt on Veidt early on, we spend next to no time with the character. It's only after the other characters put it together that we get any sort of insight into Veidt, and that's mostly through printed interviews and other source material that didn't make it into the movie.
Of course, all of this is set up for our dramatic climax, but we can't deal with that until we get this out of the way. Snyder, Hayter, and Tse, in trying to appeal to both the salivating fanboys (and girls!) and general audiences who just want to see cool shit, have decided to err on the side of, "If they didn't read it, they're probably stupid." How do I know this? Because of the way they telegraph the aforementioned twists. When we meet Adrian in the movie, he's blathering on and on about zero point energy, Alexander the Great, and saving the world. When do these conversations occur in the novel? Never, right at the end, and right at the end. That moment when Ozymandias tells Nite Owl and Rorschach his plans and they vow to stop him only to discover that it's too late? It's then, and only then, that we get any real insight into his personality or motives. Prior to that, he's a calculating suit with a storied intellect and penchant for Egyptian décor. But saving the world? Pshaw. And when Jon shows us the screaming match between Sally and her husband in his and Laurie's first scene? Hmm, wonder if that's going to come up again? And hey, there sure are a lot of pics of Silk Spectres I and II in Blake's apartment!Onto the final showdown in Antarctica. Sure, the giant octopus of fake alien invasion from the book has been dropped in favour of a series of small, nuclear explosions made to look like Jon's responsible (Big Blue has finally snapped!), but that's to be expected. A) Alien invasion? and B) All the scientists and artists Veidt hired to build it have been cut from the movie anyway. It's that little extra twist of framing Jon that makes Adrian a complete dick, anyway. In doing so, Snyder and co. manage to destroy one of the final scenes in the book and rob its most important line of all meaning, replacing it with treacle. Jon's conversation about finding another galaxy and attempting to create life there isn't a goodbye with Laurie. It's with Adrian. After everything that's happened, including Rorschach's death, it's Adrian who wants to be sure that what he did was for the good of the world. He was reassurance that violence, suffering, and evil is at an end. Jon offers only cold comfort, "Nothing ever ends." Having Laurie say it to Dan is just unnecessary closure on a romance that doesn't need any. Couching in a scene that says, "We're going back out there as adventurers! Did someone say sequel?" is the final nail the movie drives into the novel's coffin.
So, book or film? The movie ups the violence considerably, removes the majority of the psychology, and takes away a lot of the blame that Moore readily lays at his characters' feet. Of course, it's also free of a lot of cumbersome flashbacks and subplots, and it looks cool, particularly the opening sequences that capture the previous generation of masked avengers. Even so, if it didn't have a patina of prestige lent by its pedigree, I'm not sure what would separate this enterprise from any other comic book adaptation. As over $1 billion worldwide will tell you, people are ready for dark, morally conflicted and compromised "heroes." Of course, having read Watchmen in anticipation of the movie, I'm not sure what the big deal about the graphic novel is either. It didn't usher in a revolution, and, twenty years later, the idea that the kind of people who put on masks and roam the streets at night might not be altogether sane is hardly a revelation. Still, Moore was uncompromising in his vision of a world so bankrupt it could only be healed by holocaust. Snyder just thinks you want to watch hotties kick ass. Pick up the book when you're ready for something more.
*We'll save a discussion of rape mythology in film and TV for another day or another writer. But seriously? I am sick of this shit.
That while jetisonning the giant psychic squid was a good idea (why did it have to be psychic again?) the climax in Antarctica was stupidly re-tooled. Why switch Jon's goodbye to Laurie instead of Adrian? Why get rid of Laurie and Dan's sad guilty sex? Most important, why force poor Patrick Wilson to fall on his knees and curse the skies when Rorshach dies? It's impossible not to laugh at that point, which is a disservice to Jackie Earle Hayley, who is all kinds of awesome.