It’s impossible for me to offer anything close to an objective review of the Watchmen film. Watchmen the book was a massively important work for me, a work that cemented my interest in comics, and showed me how much they could do as a storytelling medium. Watchmen was the work that made me realize that there were things only comics could do, storytelling methods that drew neither from film or prose, but were unique the combination of words and pictures. So, to attempt to create a film from the most distinctly comic book of comic books is no easy task.
The film is neither colossal failure, nor smashing success. Tasked with condensing such vast source material into a film length running time, the movie loses a lot of the things that make the book so special. It’s not the narrative that makes Watchmen such a legendary work, it’s the way that it builds a world and plays in it for twelve issues. The much lauded opening sequence conveys all the narrative information we need to follow what’s going on, but it doesn’t give us the emotional connection that we get from Hollis’s first-person narration in the “Under the Hood” excerpts.
I could go on along these lines for a while, but I want to address the issue of audience expectations in assessing the film. I don’t to be one of those fans who simply reviews the film in terms of its similarity to the book. If your only concern is narrative faithfulness, the movie’s a smashing success. It does a fine job of condensing the book into a film narrative, but I’d argue that’s not enough to make for a satisfying viewing experience. That said, it’s impossible for me to assess the film from anything resembling a new viewer’s perspective. I’ve read Watchmen many times, I know the book, and watching this film, I saw it more in similarities and differences to the source material than as a separate entity unto itself. The film’s consistent faithfulness makes it impossible to view in any other way, it changes some things, but adds very little to what’s already in the comics?
This film follows in the tradition of Sin City and 300, works that exist as little more than replications of the graphic novels they’re drawn from. They’re works that exist largely because the creators love the books, and want to expose them to a larger audience. That’s fine, I want more people to read Watchmen too, but I think those earlier films struggled to justify their existence as anything more than curiosities. Sin City was faithful to a fault, bringing nothing to the screen I hadn’t already experienced in the book. Watchmen feels that way to some extent, though I think it is a more satisfying viewing experience than 300.
I think there’s some things that did work well in the film. Doctor Manhattan was really well realized, he was totally believable as an alien, powerful being who’s more than human, but still rooted in a human reality. I never once felt that he strained credibility, and I particularly enjoyed the recounting of his origin as he stands on Mars. I also thought Rorschach was wonderfully realized. When I heard him speak in the trailer, I didn’t totally buy it, but seeing him in action, I totally believed in the character, and his personality shone through even though he wore a mask for nearly the entire film.
In terms of performance, I had serious issues with two characters, Veidt and Laurie. As Laurie, Malin Ackerman doesn’t bring the humanity that the character had in the book, largely because I didn’t buy her as someone with the weight of a troubled past as a hero. I always imagined her as someone who’s older, and more troubled. This Laurie felt like a rather generic love interest torn between our two male heroes. I do think that the moments with her and Dan in Dan’s basement worked really well and were pretty sweet. Those smaller, human moments are what make the book so special, and occasionally I’d see sparks of that humanity on screen. But, in general, her performance didn’t do much for me, which is a mix of performance, and of a lack of background for the character. She’s much less in her mother’s shadow, which means that both her and Sally’s character arcs are less compelling.
But, my biggest issue was with the dismal performance of Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt, whose sometimes British, sometimes Hans Gruber accent tips him off as the villain pretty early on. Judged solely from the film, he’s a boring character whose motivations don’t quite hang together. But, bringing the book into it, the film completely misses the charisma that Veidt had. In the interview backup segment in issue 11, Veidt is described as the man every woman wants, more than Jagger, more than JFK. And, his inherent likability and charisma is sharply contrasted by the scheme he’s developing. Here, Veidt is treated as such a heavy, dire character, you get no sense of surprise when he’s revealed as the villain, and little of the emotional pull of the book. There’s no joy in the character in the film, and without that joy, he simply becomes a villain in hero’s clothes. You have no sense that he really does care about humanity.
The ending is where the film really doesn’t work for me. I guess there’s not that much more background on Veidt’s plan in the book, but the groundwork is laid by the subplot about the missing artists, which gives the final revelation the feeling of a whole bunch of threads coming together. Here, it comes out of nowhere and doesn’t make that much sense. I see people say the “squid” ending is plausible, but I think it makes perfect sense, and the very alien weirdness of the squid is the whole point.
But, beyond plausibility, what makes the ending of the book work for me is the fact that we’ve seen this entire society built up over the course of the series. We’ve spent so much time with Bernard the news vendor, Bernard the kid who reads comics, Joey and Aline, Malcolm and Gloria, and the detectives that seeing them all destroyed for Veidt’s dream makes it a real moral conundrum. Intellectually, I can sympathize with Veidt’s point, but when Rorschach walks out in the snow at the end, promising never to compromise, I’m with him. Watching him getting torn apart is such a visceral, emotional moment in the comic, and in the film, it just dies there on the screen.
The absence of the peripheral supporting cast basically kills the emotional impact of the ending. My favorite moment in the whole book is those scenes at the end of issue 11, when everyone comes together to break up the fight between Joey and Aline. Even after being scarred by his time with Rorschach, Malcolm is still going to break up this fight. Watching everyone converge, it becomes clear how much we’ve gotten to know these people over the course of the book, and how heavy the weight of Veidt’s plan is. All their lives will be wiped out for Veidt’s utopia, is it worth it?
None of that is in the film. The moral conundrum is entirely intellectual. That’s a prime example of the film losing “inessential” background detail that removes the emotional impact of storylines. It’s possible to tell this story in 160 minutes, but it’s not possible to make us feel it.
My other major issue with the film was the fact that it’s so oppressively heavy. It never seems to stop raining in the world of the film, and the color palette was all greys and browns, nothing popping. It’s not an easy world to spend that much time in. The book was certainly heavy, but there were jokes and warmer moments as well. Most of those jokes have been excised. A lot of the jokes in the film were from the juxtapositions of images with different captions or narration. The biggest one is the "Black Freighter" story, but there’s also smaller stuff like juxtaposing Veidt’s charity performance with Dan’s failure to perform. I think Moore does get a bit too clever from time to time in the book, but I think for a book that’s so much about using that juxtaposition, the film missed a big opportunity by not attempting to do something similar.
In the case of the "Black Freighter," it’s pointless to make it as a standalone story. The point of it isn’t to give us a nice pirate story, it’s to comment on Veidt’s plan, and criticize it. While that’s not apparent on the first read, it does subconsciously prepare us for the reveal at the end of the film, a preparation that’s not there in the film.
Other, more nitpicky issues include frustration at the fact that none of the characters can smoke. I think there’s a major free-speech issue brewing with the ban on smoking in films. I understand the need to “protect the children,” but this is an R-rated film, with myriad examples of bad behavior, surely Laurie could have a cigarette after beating up the gang with Dan? Taking the cigarette out of that scene kills the gag. Of course, that may be a calculated maneuver, since Synder chooses to not have Dan and Laurie in their costumes when they have sex on the Owl Ship. This takes away the subtextual tie between the costumes and Dan’s sex drive, and instead makes it seem like he just had to reassert his manhood as a hero to get his potency back. That whole scene was handled in a really weird way, with the use of “Hallelujah” on the soundtrack. It was so over the top, it bordered on comedy, and I’m not sure it was intentional.
Ultimately, I can’t view Watchmen as a movie. It’s a filmic replication of a comic that I love. It doesn’t bring much that isn’t already in the comic, and is by no means as deep or challenging a work as its source material. It exists primarily as a curiosity. I do think it’s well worth seeing simply for the experience of looking at one man’s interpretation of the comic, and the time passed quickly. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it’s essential in any way.
What will the film be to someone who hasn’t seen the comic? I’ve got no idea, Will it feel like a jumble of unrealized ideas that don’t quite hang together, or will it play better, a badass hardcore superhero story? I’m curious to see the public reaction once the film passes beyond the fan community. I have no objectivity on this film. I can appreciate what’s there, but the film exists in the shadow of book, and it cannot match its source material. And, I’d argue that it’s precisely its fidelity to its source material that holds it back. Would I have wanted a less faithful film? Probably not, but at the same time, that would have opened up the possibility of making something newer and more artistically vital. For now, this film has the surreal feel of people acting out a predestined script, struggling to find humanity in an elaborate recreation of something that was already done right and didn’t need to be done again.