Director Zack Snyder Achieves The Impossible with “Watchmen”, the So Called Unfilmable Graphic Novel
Zack Snyder, who won acclaim for his adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300, turned his attention in 2009 to the so-called “unfilmable” Watchmen by creator Alan Moore…
Watchmen is the long-awaited and long-delayed film adaptation of the most beloved graphic novel of all time, created by writer, Alan Moore, and artist, Dave Gibbons. The film follows the same plot as the graphic novel in which it is set in an alternate 1985 America where costumed superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society. They become outlawed and disowned from both the law and 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 masked vigilante Rorschach, washed up but determined, sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. As he reconnects with his former crime-fighting legion, 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?
The original graphic novel is loved by everyone, critics and audiences alike, and went from being lauded by Rolling Stone to being included on TIME Magazine’s 100 Best English-Language Novels since 1923. Having grown up being a fan myself, the original graphic novel was profound, important, political, adventurous and postmodern in its new drastic approach to the superhero mythology, turning the genre on its head in a new and fresh way that shocked the mainstream and pop culture. The film adaptation was mired in development hell for 20 years, and went through many directors who were meant to be up for doing it, from Darren Aronofsky to Paul Greengrass. Terry Gilliam (Monty Python, Brazil, Time Bandits), at one point, was meant to be doing it and thought it would work as a TV miniseries. He asked Alan Moore how he would do it, and he famously replied, “I wouldn’t”. After a period of time, Zack Snyder was hired to helm it, after having successfully directed 2007’s 300, the well-acclaimed movie adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel.
First thing to be said is that the author of the graphic novel, Alan Moore, has famously disowned the project, so far that he has demanded that his name be taken off it, and when asked about the film, he “put a curse on it”. Then again, Alan Moore has always disowned every film adaptation of his graphic novels, including From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V for Vendetta, which he said was the “final straw”. The only way that you can deal with the film version of Watchmen is do what exactly Alan Moore would like you to do, which is to remove his name from the equation and see it as a standalone piece of cinema.
To that end, Watchmen succeeds as an adventurous, pot-boiling, pop-inflected, comic-strip thrill ride. After the revelation of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Watchmen is another bold exercise in the liberation of the superhero movie genre. Zack Snyder successfully translates the unfilmable into a compelling, visceral experience that is full of sound, images and characters, combined in a way that evokes the feel of a graphic novel. Unlike most superhero movies, like Spider-Man and Iron Man, where the idealistic surroundings of superheroes are celebrated, Watchmen is a film where that idealism is completely extinct. In this terrifying world, society brands superheroes as freaks of nature or, in the case of Doctor Manhattan, weapons of mass destruction. The heroes themselves are almost failures, setting out with noble intentions, but only to become more compromised and are sort of causing more harm than good. Beneath the God-like powers and garish costumes, these characters are real people that have been damaged as a result of these newfound gifts and moral responsibilities they are branded with. In a way, they are more human than super. What would being a superhero do to you? Does it make you crazy, a recluse or lose touch with humanity? These are the questions that Watchmen raises, and Snyder explores that in great depth. This is a common conceit that has been touched upon in films like The Dark Knight Trilogy, Kick-Ass and Spider-Man 2, but Watchmen takes that idea in a more dark, gritty and adult way.
With the perfect combination of Alex McDowall’s production design work and Larry Fong’s cinematography, Watchmen is visually sumptuous; hyper-stylised, striking and definitely captures the noir-style seediness of Moore’s world brilliantly. Whilst keeping with the style of Dave Gibbons’ original graphic novel artwork, the mise-en-scene is very reminiscent of films like Blade Runner, Taxi Driver, and Seven (films that Snyder himself has cited as visual influences), in terms of capturing the darkness of that world. Fong shot the film on 35mm anamorphic, so you can see a sharp and beautiful clarity in the images on screen in a way that it’s easy on the eye. Tyler Bates’ moody, brooding score uses extended strokes, rising and falling on a romantic undercurrent of intertwining themes, underpinning the action with a persistent sense of longing. Thanks to editor William Hoy, the film hasn’t been edited to within an inch of its life, not doing those Michael Bay standards of editing at about every corner of a second, and that way, Snyder is able to show the story in camera.
On the performance level, Jackie Earle Haley IS Rorschach. It’s not just a career-defining performance, it’s one of the best this genre has seen other than Heath Ledger’s Joker and Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit Girl. He is the ultimate manifestation of the borderline psychotic vigilante with no special powers beyond their own dedication to justice at any cost. Disconnected from society and living by his own moral code, he sees the entire world in black and white, no longer being able to handle the basic injustice of existence, and his fury and violence all comes out of a desire to reshape the world the way he thinks it should be. Rorschach is a character that is in constant psychological pain for every moment of his life, and is wanting out of it but with honour, in whatever his own twisted standards of honour might be. Haley manifests that perfectly as he completely owns and dominates the entire screen whenever he’s on it, which is amazing seeing as how his face is obscured for most of the film. His scenes as Walter Kovacs in prison are among the most gripping and entertaining in the film, and arguably, his very best moment is his emotionally powerful climactic stand against Doctor Manhattan.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is also a revelation as The Comedian, portraying a man whose life is almost as mysterious as his death. Morgan completely captures the character’s darkness and brutality while also making him captivating at the same time; while he commits brutal monstrous acts, you still, at the same time, understand why some of his teammates may have a begrudging secret admiration for him. Plaudits should also go to Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl, delivering a very subtle and nuanced performance that is the film’s true emotional heart. Wilson perfectly plays this shlub as a man who tasted greatness on a nightly basis once but who now finds himself locked in a half-life, having to subvert his own desires because of politics and public opinion, pretending to be happy even as he aches for a return to who he is. It’s a difficult role that could’ve descended into being a jokey, cartoon-like caricature, but Wilson made it sad, honest and real.
As Doctor Manhattan, Billy Crudup, is robbed of one of the best tools an actor has – their eyes – and must largely rely on a subtle vocal performance to convey his character’s almost imperceptible humanity, and that is where his performance succeeds. The CG work on his character is almost hit and miss – realistically much better in close-up, with his movements in long shot seemingly too animated at times. Thankfully, Crudup’s brief flashback scenes as Jon Osterman help establish a level of sympathy and emotion for this increasingly cold and detached character. Carla Gugino is serviceable as Laurie’s mom Sally Jupiter, a.k.a. Silk Spectre I, and the idea of the character as sort of the Betty Gable of super-heroines is fascinating, even when it was more interesting than her besotted, post-glory days depiction, which includes some bad ageing makeup, despite a perfectly solid performance from Gugino.
Not all the performances are great, however, as Adrian Veidt a.k.a. Ozymandias, Matthew Goode is just simply miscast, fact. Goode has lent some great performances throughout his career (A Single Man, Cemetery Junction, Stoker), but for some strange reason, he seems completely out of his depth here. That role needed someone who is less obvious and more heroic, stalwart, empathetic and self-righteous, you’d be heartbroken to find out he was the mastermind. However, once you see the urbane, blond-haired, blue-eyed guy with the vaguely Eastern European accent, you know there’s something not quite right with him. Goode’s over-the-top performance almost makes the heroes look dumb for not figuring him out sooner.
However, Goode’s isn’t the only performance that doesn’t work, as Malin Akerman is also the cast’s weakest link as Laurie Juspeczyk a.k.a. Silk Spectre II, with her woeful turn being the film’s real problem. While Goode has had great performances and clearly tried his hardest in the film, Akerman has always been wooden in all the films she’s done (The Heartbreak Kid, Rock of Ages, Couples Retreat, etc.), and she is even more wooden here. If she were placed in a room with pinewood furniture, then the furniture would’ve acted her off the screen. The problem is not that she’s a bad actress; it’s that she’s not an actress. Akerman fails to nail Laurie’s emotional and dramatic scenes, particularly her biggest scene: her climactic plea to Doctor Manhattan to save the world from destruction. What should have been moving and impassioned comes across as shrill and nagging. It’s no wonder he went off to another planet to get away from her! However thankfully, Akerman and Goode just merely blend into the background whenever Haley or Wilson stands aside them.
The ending was the only aspect that was changed for the film, and the new ending that Snyder and the screenwriters have come up with simply doesn’t work, both logically and dramatically. Throughout the film, the narrative built upon the foreboding of nuclear war and an impending global catastrophe with characters talking about the horror of it all, but when we finally come to it in the final act, the sheer scale of the situation is ultimately lost and ends up simply as a rather unimpressive special effects sequence. This is the movie’s greatest sin: huge build-up for a pay-off that fails to generate any real emotional impact. The movie’s 18 rating would have been better used in making the finale more harrowing and grim in depicting the breathtaking human toll as the comic did. Logically, on the surface level, framing Doctor Manhattan and making him the scapegoat of that attack sounds like a great alternative. But it isn’t until you start to analyse it that you realise that there is simply no way the countries of the world are going to set aside their differences and join hands in peace after America’s ultimate super-weapon – which he has been touted as for the whole film – is to blame for the deaths of millions, especially when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were at the very brink of World War Three. If Doctor Manhattan took out the world’s major cities, why would any foreign nation now want to work with America for a better future? As silly as the genetically created squid was in the graphic novel, it worked because it was an external threat that united these disparate human factions in a common cause against a more powerful outside force. Imagine if the world knew that the squid was an American creation, there would have been no Utopian outcome.
However, despite those small fundamental faults, the rest of the movie still stands up extraordinarily well. Its complex narrative structure may make it difficult for it to appeal to viewers not already familiar with the source material, and it’s not big and explosive like most superhero blockbusters, which makes Watchmen unique and special. It’s a superhero film that’s not meant to be about huge things blowing up, but about the small interactions between the characters. It’s a film built upon grand ideas rather than grand spectacle, and all the better for it. Anyone with a fondness for broad canvas, ideas-heavy cinema should give Watchmen the benefit of the doubt. It may not be quite perfect, but it’s a sincerely ambitious adaptation from an unfilmable novel by a filmmaker who has both the technical skill and artistic vision to aim big. Snyder clearly went for it and made a smart, stylish, witty and almost faithful adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel that is both gritty and visually striking.