Saturday, 16 May 2009

Watchmen - a review of the film adaptation


A review of the film adaptation by Adam Manning

The mid-eighties were an exciting period of revitalization for the comic industry, in particular for DC Comics, the publisher of titles involving such well known characters as Batman and Superman. The modern approach to Batman received a substantial part of its power in Frank Miller’s, Batman : The Dark Knight Returns. In Crisis on Infinite Earths, the mainstream DC Universe with its array of parallel alternative universes was collapsed into one cosmos and many of the characters and their backgrounds were, to a greater or lesser degree, revised. The accumulated debris of decades of story writing was swept aside to make way for a more rational, leaner setting.

Nowhere was this revisionism more radical than with the last son of Krypton. Superman is the idealization of the masculine West, matching as he does the power of a classical god like Apollo with the intense morality of the West’s judaeo-christian heritage. Kal-el was depowered by several orders of magnitude, which greatly benefited story writing. It is interesting to note that some of the last stories written about Superman before the Crisis was a series by Alan Moore; an imaginary tale about the last days of the Silver Age Superman in which some long term enemies switch from being fairly ineffectual jokers to psychopaths on a murderous rampage, leading to Superman sacrificing all his powers and identity to save his friends and the woman he loves.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen remains as the most extraordinary example of this wonderful period in comics, or as we less embarrassingly refer to them, graphic novels. The most exciting idea from a superhero fan’s perspective was taking the idea of the costumed hero and speculating on what might actually happen if masked vigilantism became real.

Watchmen rightly became a best seller. Its complex, reflexive storyline centres on the Cold War fear of a global nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. Taking in a lot of the history of the twentieth century, it charts the rise and fall of the costumed hero as the characters accelerate towards Armageddon. The climax is wish fulfilment for all of us who felt trapped in those times in a world with no seeming escape from atomic inferno. The Watchmen’s heroes are not the straightforward types normally depicted in comics; they all have “issues” as we like to say now and nowhere is this more clear than the extraordinary psychological jump that would be required to don a costume and physically embattle society’s worst elements.

Given its revolutionary scope and grown up themes in some ways it seemed inescapably excitingly enough to justify a full cinematic translation. But as the creator Alan Moore decreed, its sheer richness, density of narrative and bubbling list of characters could also make it seem “unfilmable”. It has taken the best part of a quarter century for it finally to come to the screen.

As a long term Watchmen fan I became ensnared in the viral marketing campaign leading up to the release. Fascinated with the transformation into a cinematic production, I eagerly kept up to date with its octopusine internet presence almost to the point of becoming fatigued by its relentless outreaching. After over twenty years, could I really be losing interest as the release date finally approached?

Now that I’ve seen it I’m happy to relate that it is as near a perfect depiction of the comic book on the screen, more or less, that could ever be achieved. Zack Snyder has triumphed in bringing the world of Watchmen to life in a shocking, visual and almost visceral experience.

The film starts with the murder of the Comedian in a brutally powerful fight scene. We are instantly aware that though these characters might not be super-beings, they are still astonishingly strong. The consistency of the production creates an imersive vision of another world, similar to ours but different. The ultraviolence of the fight does not pull any punches and the audience cannot help but be drawn in.

The first part of the film is a wonderful character exposition using the device, again following the comic book, of the Comedian’s funeral. This is where the cutting back and forth between different periods is used most effectively. By necessity these are a selective short-hand for the equivalent sections in the novel but nevertheless clever choices have been made and this section is perhaps the most effective in the film.

Soon the plot starts to take over again and in some interesting divergences from the book we are shown additional edgings to the characters and their relationships not revealed before. Adrian Veidt seems to be the most different from the book; Rorschach the most accurate. Veidt’s depiction interested me greatly. Here he is portrayed as a hubristic Euro-American with his softened Germanic accent and European fashions. I was reminded of a younger version of the characters the great Richard Lynch used to play in the eighties.

The film moves forward through Nite Owl, the most likeable of the Watchmen. His engaging portrayal allows the viewer into the plot. The changed ending is clever. It is a much more logical and efficient conclusion than the book’s, albeit less colourful. I have always thought Watchmen’s conclusion was more about wishing away the Cold War than providing a clear way out of World War III but still take the view that with the world a hair-trigger away from annihilation any extraordinary occurrence, whether it be the giant squid monster of the comic or the ending shown here, would still be a catalyst for an all out nuclear attack.

The film is most successful when authentically showing important parts of the Watchmen story properly and allowing them the time needed. Rorschach’s jail time is a case in point. At other, seemingly equally crucial, points the narrative is rushed so much I am not clear that anyone not familiar with Watchmen would really follow what is going on. How do Nite Owl and Rorschach so quickly work out that the whole scheme links back to Ozymandias? It is not clear how the Comedian uncovered Veidt’s plot before his killing. The tenement fire rescue scene is forcibly truncated. Nite Owl’s hacking of Veidt’s computer (which must be a Mac – by the way apparently when looking through his computer’s files, one of the folders is entitled “boys”, another this time obvious hint about Veidt’s obscured sexuality) is treated very quickly. I have never been entirely satisfied with how easily Nite Owl and Rorschach work everything out, but this is symptomatic of the book as well as the film. The world’s smartest man has an important password that is the title of a book near his desk or which happens to be the real name of his superhero identity? It seems unlikely. Or perhaps he wanted to be discovered?

Veidt’s motivation or desire to save the world is also not as clear as it might be. In the book he has a long sequence about his life story in which all this becomes clear and in the process illustrates his own character. In the film there is a short sequence in which he describes some of this to a collection of powerful and rather grumpy business men which then leads into the exciting assassination sequence. As such an important part of the plot there simply isn’t enough time spent on Veidt to really get to grips with the man and his role in the world of the Watchmen.

Silk Spectre II is eye wateringly beautiful and her scenes powerfully reminded me how sexy stockings and suspenders are. This is not a film you want to give away as a prize at Sunday School when it's out on DVD. The fight scenes throughout are brutal and in particular the scene where Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II are attacked in an alley is the most teeth grindingly painful. The fighting is of a fairly straightforward style but highly satisfactory with the emphasis on speed and strength rather than exotic or flamboyant moves. It is a perfect depiction of comic book violence which doesn't hold back on the flesh tearing, bone snapping results.

Visually it is a stunning production. There is an interesting interplay between realistic, cluttered sets and colourful superhero costumes all combined with comic book style framing of shots. Archimedes, Nite Owl’s airship, looks wonderful and at times the style of it all almost looks over produced. Doctor Manhattan is stunning to see, although on a few, very minor, occasions, his computer graphic overlay did look a little artificial. The scene where he blows up the tank comes to mind; the movement of the arm is just a shade unreal. But this aside he has been successfully brought to the big screen. I was surprised at the choice to make him glow which is not something that is apparent from the comic book representation. The Watchmen’s only true superhero is cleverly used where the plot diverges from the book.

Doctor Manhattan of course has his big revelation on Mars and these sequences were really some of those that needed to be longer to have the required dramatic impact. Mars reminded me of the planetary landscapes from the original Star Trek which, wonderful though they sometimes looked, often could never quite escape the studio bound atmosphere. There simply wasn’t time for sufficient Martian grandeur or for Laurie’s breakdown at her personal revelation or at Doctor Manhattan’s re-affirmation of his interest in life. Thankfully Doctor Manhattan’s origin sequence was wonderfully put together into a stirring sequence about the creation of a man made god.

Another striking thing about this film is the use of music. It’s a film about the twentieth century and as a result has a very twentieth century soundtrack to it. The opening titles use Bob Dylan to good effect; in many ways this is one of the most successful parts of the whole film. Occasionally the use of this music seems incongruous and I couldn’t help finding the love (or rather sex) scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II in the owlship rather laughable especially with its use of the original version of “Hallelujah” as backing.

At nearly three hours though it is a long, long film in accordance with the trend for some years now of lengthy productions. And despite myself, I could not help but notice the story lurch and seemingly stop at various points. For a film about such action packed characters, it was rather slow in parts. It reminded me sometimes of my reaction when watching Batman Returns; whilst I loved the production values, actually following the film occasionally induced a rather awkward, glum feeling brought on by its strange pacing. It was like being on a roller coaster where the ups and down were horribly mis-timed. This, it felt, was symptomatic of simply trying to fit too much into the time allowed.

And speaking of Batman, it’s interesting to compare this film with another recent superhero film, The Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan’s production is overall a more consistent affair. In it, he manages the virtually impossible task of making Batman seem almost plausible in a contemporary setting. This is a film of course that is, unlike Watchmen, built from the ground up and purely within the parameters of cinematic construction. The Batman of Dark Knight is, to my mind, rather different from the one of the comics. In it, Christian Bale’s Batman is starting out on a road that will eventually lead him to Robo-Cop or Iron Man. In making him almost plausible, The Dark Knight distorts the classic mysterious detective of the comics into a technological hero who only works through his gadgetry. Its success is taking the real world (or at least a rather grim and nasty imitation thereof) and trying to fit Batman into it.

Zack Snyder could have taken this approach with Watchmen and indeed there are stories that the movie studios wanted him to set it in a contemporary period with Doctor Manhattan being asked to intervene in Iraq. He could have pruned the plot right down to its essentials and not included the beautiful sections with the original Silk Spectre, Mothman and so forth and given us a somewhat stale, anodyne modern interpretation. Bravely he stood up for his love of the source material and took up the far larger challenge of trying to create the whole world of the Watchmen.

To film the unfilmable Watchmen was always going to be a challenging feat for even a superheroic producer. Thankfully, as someone who has read and re-read Watchmen continually ever since popping into Smith’s one early weekday morning in 1987 to buy it, my view is that Zack Snyder really has brought it’s vision to the screen in a gorgeous, powerful production. I hope somewhere he is having his Ozymandias “I DID IT!” moment.

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