You can’t un-watch the Watchmen

I’ve been seeing a lot of talk lately about Watchmen thanks to DC’s really dopey decision to create a bunch of spin-offs around the seminal graphic novel. Fans are raging, Alan Moore is patting himself on the back with indelicate vigor, and the whole thing is just ugly all around. Personally, I couldn’t care less. I refuse to believe that the majority of these comics could ever be worse than the film adaptation; on the contrary, by recruiting people like Darwin Cooke to work on the new material, DC is demonstrating at least some basic comprehension of what made Watchmen tick. (That was almost a pun.) Sure, that’s more or less negated by the fact that these spin-offs will exist at all, but a zero-sum result is still better than a deficit.

The movie is a deficit. I can’t begin to describe how terrible it was.

I am not an obsessive fan of the original graphic novel, but I do have immense respect for the intricate craftsmanship invested in the work — it’s surely no coincidence that clockwork factors heavily into a central character’s back story, among other places — and even more than that, an appreciation for the story’s underlying themes. What makes superheroes do what they do? it asked. It was, in many ways, the next step of the “Marvel realism” Lee, Kirby, Ditko, etc. pioneered in the ’60s; characters like Spider-man and the X-Men were driven to heroism by less-than-heroic circumstances, and Watchmen redrew the landscape from an even more realistic perspective. Suddenly the question became, are these characters really heroes at all? 

By and large, Moore’s answer was to look down at them and whisper, “No,” as it were. Each character has personal reasons for going into masked vigilantism, but the underlying subtext is that they’re all kind of screwed up. Which makes sense. These are people who are fighting crime while dressed as patriotic harlequins, or as armored birds, or in their underwear, or while wearing the tattered remnants of a discarded Hypercolor dress. A great many of the masks suffer (or suffered) from sexual dysfunction, cruel misogyny, blatant gynophobia, or the shame of being homosexual in a not-yet-accepting society.

The movie offends because it completely fails to touch on this theme. On the contrary, Zach Snyder’s almost pornographic love of explicit slow-motion violence made a mockery of Watchmen. Violence in the graphic novel was a brutal, revolting thing — a means to an end, and almost entirely the province of the story’s most unhinged characters (e.g. Rorschach). There was never any glory or catharsis to violence in Moore’s text and staging, and certainly none to be found in Dave Gibbons’ almost clinically detached artwork. Case in point: Tens of thousands (if not more) lives are snuffed out in the final chapter as part of the ultimate “villainous” plan, whose sole aim is… to precipitate world peace through manipulative shock. And yet this almost-noble goal is revealed to be vanity on two levels: One, a callous act of murder by a man who thinks himself above human morality due to his elevated intellect, and two, an act committed in vain as a bumbling news clerk stands poised to stumble into the truth as the book closes.

Good luck finding any of that in the movie. Every act of violence is rendered glorious and exciting. Visceral. Punches land in slow motion, effluvia flies in thrilling sprays. The music pumps up the intensity of every bone-crunching blow. There’s never a second thought given to the purpose or morality of the fights: Fights is what action movies do, man! Snyder choreographed every frame of the film to adhere with slavish exactitude to the source material, and yet somehow despite his own clockwork replication of the surface and appearance of the original graphic novel, his movie absolutely failed to convey any understanding whatsoever of the actual point of the entire work. Watchmen the film elevates everything that Watchmen the book excoriates.

And that is why the movie is awful and, by comparison, the upcoming comics couldn’t possibly be all bad. The bar for derivative Watchmen works was well and truly lowered by Hollywood, and I can’t even begin to imagine how DC could do worse without reprinting Youngblood #1 as Watchmen Adventures and crossing out all the character names to replace them with “Nite Owl” and “Dr. Manhattan.” And even then… advantage Liefeld, I think.

17 thoughts on “You can’t un-watch the Watchmen

  1. I’m glad someone pointed out Snyder’s fetishization of violence. 300 was an equally bad movie, but at least it made sense there – it was based on an equally violent Frank Miller (spit) book. Watchmen, though… ugh.

    I actually have no problems with the changed ending, though. As weird and strange as it would have been to see that ‘ultimate’ villainous climax in a film, the way it was changed seemed perfectly fine to me. Fans who complain about that are sort of missing the worst mistakes in this awful film.

    One more slight note of defense: Jackie Earle Haley was perfectly cast as Rorschach, an odd standout in a film full of miscasting and terrible acting.

    • Oh, huh. I didn’t mention the ending because I honestly forgot it was changed. It was no better or worse than the original plot, and it served the same purpose narratively, so who cares?

      • *SPOILERS*

        You know, it’s funny. I agree with your review 100%, but oddly enough, I FAR prefer the ending in the movie to the original. The notion of turning on someone once seen as a friend rang truer to the themes of the original for me than gigantic-psychic-alien-squid ever will. That being said, yeah, the movie sucked other than that one fortuitous accident.

      • My reading of it is when you read the part with the squid, you’re supposed to feel like everything is meaningless and you have no idea what’s going on. It speaks to the theme of nihilism running throughout the story, AND it serves to force the reader to think about everything that has come before in a different light.

        The fact that the squid doesn’t fit is exactly the point.

  2. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of things the Watchmen movie got right, but I absolutely agree that the tone of the fight scenes is the biggest problem. Zack Snyder is practically shouting “Isn’t this awesome?” in your ear the whole time.

  3. Luckily, it’s a pretty forgettable film.

    I saw it on opening day with some friends, went eh, moved on, and kinda forgot about it to be honest. Seeing it with my friends on a nice spring day stands out more than the film itself.

  4. Regarding the violence in the movie, I thought it did matter to the characters, in a way that’s different from the book. I the movie, the Night Owl and the Specter (I think I’m remembering her name wrong but I’m too lazy to look it up) fight a gang of toughs in plain clothes. The adrenaline, the instincts they show, the fact they haven’t lost their edge, invigorates them and not only inspires them to hook up (a horribly awkward sex scene, but still), but to investigate Rorschach’s claims.

    In a way, the violence was the shortcut Snyder took to move the motivations of those characters forward.

    I liked the movie to a point but I’ll still totally agree on many of the points it’s detractors will make. As far as the violence goes, it did serve a narrative purpose beyond making Michael Bay’s attempts at slow mo carnage look positively meek in comparison.

    • It wasn’t acts of violence specifically that jump-started the characters’ sex lives, it was the costumed vigilantism; And again, my complaint with the movie isn’t that violence exists, it’s that violence is glorified. Who cares what the script says about violence’s outcome when the act itself is presented with such loving enthusiasm?

    • I also like the movie – a lot, in fact. I add that in addition to the great acting by the guys playing Rorschach and the Comedian, I can watch the origin sequence for Dr. Manhattan over and over again. I’d also say that Snyder gets respect from me for slowing things down (especially when not literally by using slow motion) enough to see what’s going on. That’s where guys like Michael Bay really lose me – when I can’t tell what the $#%&@ is going on in a given scene. Sigh, aging. GET OFF MY LAWN!

  5. I liked how they depicted Rorschach, but aside from that? It was pretty bad, and I saw the movie BEFORE reading the comic. It succeeded in making me interested in the universe, though, so mission accomplished

    Snyder is just a really bad director. I’m starting to think that action movies are just really hard to get right, because the majority of the blockbusters (Transformers, 300) have just been bad. It’s as if they forgot that it’s not the cool stuff happening on screen that makes for great action movies, but the fact that people actually care about the characters that makes it so awesome. The opposite is also true: you can have a relatively bland action movie with a particularly cool character, and people will remember it fondly.

    Speaking of Snyder, I have zero faith that he can make a good Superman movie. No doubt we’ll get to see more of his super strength and…ability to slow down time?

    • Transformers was Michael Bay, not Snyder. I take your point and agree with it 100%, though – I haven’t seen a film by the man that I can honestly say I’ve liked (watched more than once? Sure. Liked? Nope. It’s a conundrum, it really is).

      His Superman will likely be totally awful, though I hold onto a glimmer of hope, as is my way.

  6. I thought there was a lot to like about the film, but yeah the over-the-top fight scenes really missed the point, hard. (And as Sharkey pointed out, one of the most horrifyingly violent scenes from the book, the pages and pages of piled-up corpses in Manhattan, was completely sanitized in the movie, because 9/11).

    Plus after the movie my dad asked me how everyone got all their superpowers and why the movie never touched on that. I asked what he meant, that only one guy had superpowers and they DID explain his origin; he responded “Yeah, but everyone else was punchin’ each other through walls an’ shit.”

    So yeah, it’s sort of a weird amalgamation in that it’s a slavish adaptation of the script and panels that somehow manages to miss the major themes. And it peaks in the first five minutes.

    (As opposed to V for Vendetta, which was almost great but completely blew it in the last 15 minutes by inexplicably changing the ending — because nothing says “anarchy” like the streets filling with a bunch of people dressed exactly alike, and while we’re at it let’s have Finch’s quest to track down V end in him standing around and having no actual impact on the plot.

    Or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which Moore himself has said should have been the easiest of his works to adapt as a film but which instead just sucked out loud.)

    • So, which is the best Moore movie, and the worst? It would seem LXG is the worst, which, as you said, probably is the most film-able. Then again, I refuse to watch From Hell, as that’s one of my favorite comics ever, and I can only imagine how that one was ruined.

  7. Excellent critique of the film, Mr. Parish.

    For me, Steve Gerber’s Foolkiller mini-series is the best examination of what makes a super hero do what they do, the validity of those reasons, and consequences, both personal and external, of being a hero. The series is pretty easy and cheap to come by, and I’d recommend it highly to anyway interested in works exploring those themes.

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