Thunder Matt Movie Minute: Watchmen

March 05, 2009 | Comments (0) | by Chaim Witz

For this review, I have enlisted the help of resident comic nerd Wolter to help me deconstruct this year's most anticipated film. I just finished reading the novel about a week ago and that was the first 'graphic novel' that I've ever read, having not read an actual comic since I used to devour 'Richie Rich' comics as a pre-pubescent lad (no wonder I'm so pretentious). Wolter on the other hand, has intimate knowledge of the subject matter. And by intimate, I mean he has had sex with the novel. Don't knock it til you try it. We'll spare you the details of the trying to explain the plot. You can do that legwork yourself.

IMDB Cribbed Synopsis: "Watchmen" is set in an alternate 1985 America in which costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society, and the "Doomsday Clock" - which charts the USA's tension with the Soviet Union - is permanently set at five minutes to midnight. When one of his former colleagues is murdered, the washed up but no less determined masked vigilante Rorschach sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. As he reconnects with his former crime-fighting legion - a ragtag group of retired superheroes, only one of whom has true powers - Rorschach glimpses a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future. Their mission is to watch over humanity... but who is watching the Watchmen?


Chaim: Watchmen comes to us as the most anticipated comic/graphic novel since Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties. It's length is Lord of the Rings-esque, it's violence stylized yet brutal and it's scope is sometimes too complex for it's own good and for the mere mortals trying to take it all in.

For those who are unfamiliar with the dark noir world of graphic novel that the movie is based upon (Voted one of Time Magazine's '100 Greatest Novels of All Time') the best way I could describe it would be if George Orwell's book 1984 made love to the movie Sin City and had a child, but then gave it up for adoption to David Lynch and Hunter S. Thompson, that child would grow up to be Watchmen. Sound a bit complex and slightly disturbing? Welcome to the show.

Wolter, you can probably speak to this better than I can, but I did feel that for the most part, the movie stayed very true to the novel, which may please the die hards, but alienate the casual viewer. Gone are the pirate ship sub-story and the news stand guy, and the ending is tweaked a bit for mass consumption, but other than that and a few other slight omissions, the book seemed to be the storyboard for the movie.

Wolter: I agree. In fact, last night I picked Watchmen off the shelf and started sort of half-rereading it. It's amazing how much was directly from it (at least in the first 30 minutes of the movie). Rorschach's diaries are pretty much identical, even down to what's being shown as he talks. And a lot of the signs and graffiti were pretty much directly transferred. It's pretty clear that the original source panels were converted directly into storyboards for much of the film.

Of course, such reverence could easily make the film turgid and hard to follow (which, for all I know it is - I really need to rewatch it now that I have "OHMYGOD I'M WATCHING THE WATCHMEN" out of my system). But pretty much all of the major plot changes and omissions worked for me. In fact, I think the changed ending is actually a more plausible plot device, and works better in almost every way. Oh, and I support Sally Jupiter aging into a GILF...but I'm shallow that way.

I did love the "tip of the cap" to the fans by including a brief view of the "newstand guy" and the "comics reader" near the end. Sort of a "yeah, we had to cut the Black Freighter, but you know it was still going on, fanboys."

Another observation: the score was a bold and largely successful decision. The use of mostly period songs (with a smattering of 60s songs) and a sort of 80s-movie style guitar/synth highlighting (is that the right term? I suspect not) really worked for me. It really put the movie in the proper (alternate) time frame.

I think this movie may do poorly later in the run, as it's definitely not The Dark Knight, Iron Man or Spider-Man. I'm not 100% sure how Snyder got the budget to make what has always been a niche read comic meta text ruminating on such subjects as the comics industry and the way the American Dream flirts with fascism.

Chaim: The soundtrack was ballsy, but yeah, it worked. Putting Hendrix, Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen in key spots could have really been a disaster, but I thought it worked.

Do you think that someone that sees the film without any preconceived notions might see it as a bit cold and detached though? I will say that I think that it's easier to get away with that type of heavy tone in a book than on film.

Wolter: I think it's possible. I told my girlfriend (in as spoiler-free a manner as possible) that if I didn't know how his character sees the world from the get-go, I might have felt that Billy Crudup was way too flat and detached in his line reads.

The whole trick of the original graphic novel is that none of the characters are fully likable at all times (except for maybe Hollis Mason). Depending on the point in the story, I have felt sympathy with and revulsion regarding almost every character's morals and behavior.

An example: in many ways, Rorschach is the most heroic character of all, and the only one who stays true to his ideals - and he's actually an unlikable psychopath that is more or less a straight caricature of the Ayn Randian Objectivism and moral certitude of comics legend Steve Ditko (whose Question is the inspiration for his character). In both the original source and the movie, he ends up brutally torturing more-or-less innocent people to get the information he needs - and he is far more obsessed with retribution than genuine justice.

And now an aside: one of the more disturbing experiences at the screening was hearing all the comics geeks cheering loudly in response to some of Rorschach's more psychotic excesses (particularly in the prison). There's always been a bit of that mindset in vigilante heroes anyway, but the amount of laughter at the fate of the relatively defenseless and (at that point essentially impotent) ringleader was somewhat chilling. And somewhat more chilling: I found myself almost wanting to laugh and cheer along with them - which I believe was the result Moore and Snyder were consciously aiming for.

To get back to the original question: the Watchmen graphic novel rewards careful rereading with insights, and I suspect this film does the same with careful rewatching. However, I'm not 100% sure if the film will attract rewatching in people who weren't already fans. I would like to see it again, but I suspect my views are not those of the average moviegoer.

Chaim: I love that you casually work into the conversation "...the Ayn Randian Objectivism and moral certitude of comics legend Steve Ditko..." That's some Grade A geek speak right there.

My summary for the uninitiated would be this: If you like your comic book characters ambiguous, your violence extreme, your nudity gratuitous, your symbolism deep, your penises blue, your endings somber and your humor dark, this might be the movie for you. Or it might not.

Rating: 3.5 Blue Penises Out of 5

Wolter: For the initiated: If you can wait for the special DVD to see Tales of the Black Freighter, can accept that the original ending would never have made sense on the big screen (heck, be honest, you had to reread the comic just to understand it in the first place), don't have any cockamamie theories about Dr. Manhattan's penis size or circumcision status being symbolic, and can get over the gratuitous freeze-frames and slo-mo sequences during the fights, you probably will enjoy this movie. Very little was added that wasn't in the original, and it's still dense even after the judicious cuts were made. I did think the fight choreography (and to some extent the dreaded FREEZE FRAME AND SLOW MOTION) was out of place. But even if it falls flat on some levels (Nixon looks goofy as hell. There, I said it), remember how hard it is to even be in the ballpark of the source material. And how often will you have the chance to see a live action comics movie that is so visually faithful to the source material?

Honestly, I don't know if this movie is successful on it's own terms or not, but seeing Dr. Manhattan's crystal sanctuary rise up out of the soil of Mars on the big screen is probably worth your greasy, Dorito-stained money by itself. Watch it. You paid good money to see X-Men 3, and this is definitely better than that festering, amoral, crapfest. And, oddly, a lot more fun...

Rating: 4 Sadistic Killings Out of 5 (subject to change)