Warning! Giant Squid-like Spoilers Descend Before the End of this Review!
So now even the last laggard has seen the Watchmen movie, and his eagerly awaited belated response is to agree with everybody else. Yes it’s true, the one Alan Moore comic we were all convinced would never be successfully made into a film, made by a director no-one really cared for (Zack Snyder), is actually surprisingly good. To call it ‘the best Alan Moore adaptation yet’ might sound like faint praise given it’s company. But suffice it to say it’s the first of these I have bothered to comment upon!
Perhaps we had cause for our cynicism. While From Hell systematically removed almost every element from the comic that made it singular, let alone memorable, V For Vendetta was made by fans of the comic - but this seeming advantage only served it slightly better. Unable to capture its nuances on the screen, they instead served up another slo-mo kung fu ballet. (Of the two, I was expecting the second for Watchmen.) So for many years our stance on a Watchmen film echoed Samuel Johnson’s to being told a violin part was difficult – “Sir, I wish it was impossible.”
It was even arguable the comic was particularly innoculated against filmability. As Alan Moore has so often said, the original “was designed to show off the things that comics could do that cinema and literature couldn't." It was as much detective story than superhero romp, which involved you spotting details about the murder enquiry (or the surrounding parallel world). Those details would then be combined and contrasted in ever-more-creative ways as the storyline moved along. But the juxtapositional page of a comic is not the same thing as the linear strip of a film. Surely, any attempt at adaption would be lose/lose.Try to capture that detail and it would just become bewildering eyeball agony. Try to prune it and you risk losing the essence...
In fact, Snyder not only gives us a whole slew of those references but even tosses a few more in! But mostly he succeeds by giving us the sense of a world teeming with clues. Each scene, each shot, is stuffed with incident until it becomes an impressionist blur. When Dan and Laurie do nothing more than meet for coffee there’s a world going on outside the window. Even at Ozymandias’ eyrie-like headquarters, we see a barrage balloon sail uncommented past the window. (Advertising Gunga Diner, if I remember?)
(Some have concerns this approach may make the film hard to follow for those who haven’t read the comic. But here I won’t try to second-guess someone else’s response. More interestingly, others have countered that DVD technology has changed the way we watch films to make our response more contemplative and hence responsive to this sort of approach. While there may be some truth to this, I believe it contains a basic misconception. We may re-watch films more often, but each instance of viewing experience isn’t formally altered. That’s like saying CD technology has liberated us from hearing symphonies in a linear way.)
Though loyal to his source, Snyder smartly knows when not to be scrupulous. The now-iconic comic opening may resemble a pull-back shot, but it would never actually work slotted into a film - it relies on a ‘time-dissonance’ between what we’re reading and what we’re seeing. Sometimes he slips up over this. When two characters are about to break into a remote base, Moore quotes Dylan’s line “two riders were approaching.” (Maintaining a motif where each chapter ends in such a quote.) It’s a little literal even for the comic, but when the song is actually played over the film it becomes clod-hoppingly ‘significant’ and tips the balance into plain naff. (In general, I’d agree with World OfAgwu that the soundtrack frequently mars the film. The term ‘song placement’ really sums it up, those songs are used as crass triggers in a way you’d expect from an advert.) But such moments are more exception than rule.
True, at times we do get just the same slo-mo kung fu ballets as the V film. Such moments now seem so ubiquitous in Hollywood they’d probably stick them in a Tolstoy adaptation. And there’s other points where gonzo ‘movie dumb’ strikes. (The smartest man in the world getting his computer password from a book left out on his desk.) It’s ironic that both films ironically have ‘comic booky’ moments which aren’t actually in the originals at all. But the trouble with them in V is that they break the tone, and stop us feeling we’re watching a psychological mystery. There are times they do the same here. It’s important, for example, that the Comedian didn’t die because he lost a fight, we need to feel we’re in a world where his death was inevitable as soon as it was determined. The characters are following the developments of the ‘plot’ as much as we readers are. Hence the comic starts with his death, and flashes back only for brief fait-accompli snapshots of the fight.
For all that the comic itself is much more genre-based than some fans like to imagine, elevating it in order to cut a stick to whack the film. Snyder might amplify the fight scenes up to 11, but rarely does he invent them. In fact the process sometimes works better the other way round. The comic was simultaneously suspicious of vigilante-glam and seduced by it, an attack on superhero comics and a celebration of them - a piece of double-think most evident in Rorschach. He calls his mask his ‘face’ and reacts pathologically to it being removed, as if his very identity was violated. Yet once in prison he’s somehow able not only to keep up his ‘cool psycho’ shtick, but even survives revenge attacks against overwhelming odds. He then obsessively struggles to get it back like a man who’s been fighting for oxygen all this while. Rorschach is simultaneously sad outsider and elevated loner, something the film (perhaps unwittingly) emphasises.
Against quite overwhelming odds himself, Snyder even does a reasonably good job of cutting the tangle of plot threads down to a more manageable size. Rather than missing the death of the first Night Owl, I found I’d forgotten all about this until I read about it’s removal on the net. However his general rule is to condense rather than excise. The first Night Owl appears, for example, even if he doesn’t get his death scene. This can lead to an odd tendency to include scenes, but remove their clincher. Snyder may have been trying to adhere to the ‘show not tell’ rule here, and its true expository dialogue shows up more when spoken rather than written. Hence, contrary to Only The Cinema, I’d be willing to defend the exclusion of some dialogue from Dan and Laurie’s make-out scene because I feel it’s point is implicit enough – particularly in their response to an earlier fight scene. (Though of course I’d already ‘heard’ the dialogue from reading the comic.) But the refusal to supply us with the pay-off line between Rorschach and the Psychiatrist looks to me more eccentric, especially when a) a non-comic confrontation seems devised to set it up, and b) it seems to me almost the key to the whole comic. (If you haven’t read it yet, I shan’t spoil it here!)
NB Just in case you missed the WARNING above, from here we get PLOT SPOILERS relating to the ending...
But perhaps Snyder’s most audacious change is over the ending. For us comic readers, this had a powerful yet most likely unintentional effect. After over two hours of almost total faithfulness to the original, we’re suddenly thrown a curve ball; just as the film seems to be closing down, all bets are suddenly off... Snyder even puts in a cheeky in-joke on the original ending, with a reference to the old SF TV show The Outer Limits. (The original bore a resemblance to one of its episodes, though Moore stresses coincidence.)
Unlike earlier (thankfully aborted) drafts, the ending does not attempt to graft on anything feelgood. In fact in some ways its similar to the way Blade Runner amended the ending to Dick’s novel, both made for something more sensical and more satisfying. In the original, Ozymandias fakes an alien invasion (with a genuinely devastated New York) to bring the warring Cold War sides together – a sacrifice of millions intended to save further billions. The film keeps this Cold War scenario (it’s setting is very much alt-Eighties), but has Dr. Manhattan set up for the crime. This takes away much of the deus-est-machina sense of the original, where aliens (even fake ones) suddenly sort of arrive, and has an added weight when he even persuades Manhattan to go along with the deception.
Even at the time, the original ending had been controversial, and attacked for dramatic reasons in some quarters. (See for example Tony Keen’s comments.) But two quotes from Wikipedia might suggest why this particular ending was introduced now...
"[Watchmen] was considered too dark, too complex, too 'smart'. But the world has changed [after the September 11 attacks]. I think that the new global climate has finally caught up with the vision that Alan Moore had in 1986. It is the perfect time to make this movie."
—screenwriter David Hayter, in October 2001
“If you update this and make it about the war on terror, you're now asking me to make a comment of how I feel about the war on terror. This way, it's up to you how you decide to feel about it."
Hayter is of course right that the September 11th attacks put armageddon back on the agenda, and ended post-modernist speculation that we had reached ‘the end of history’. Yet the quote from Snyder is simultaneously more disingenuous and more telling – for the film’s ending explicitly connects the Cold War and the War On Terror. The parallels to Adam Curtis’ Power Of Nightmares documentary are striking, with its references to Leo Strauss’ doctrine of ‘noble lies and deadly truths’. Ozymandias is rewritten as an almost stereotypical neo-con, a former liberal turned corporate head - now convinced the people need a phantom enemy to keep them united, and the money and (apparant) smarts to bring that about.
However, there are two big problems with this new denouement - one dramatic upon the back of another political. Preferring, as we’ve seen, to condense than excise Snyder has given us the collection of characters who gather around a streetcorner news-stand - but so briefly he is more quoting them than incorporating. Though we see the consequent devastation, without knowing these characters it becomes contextless and mere movie spectacle. As Thoughts On Stuff point out: “The absence of the peripheral supporting cast basically kills the emotional impact of the ending... The moral conundrum is entirely intellectual.” (It’s rumoured more scenes were filmed and will appear on the director’s cut. If so, it’ll be interesting to see how that changes things.)
And consequently, one big advantage of Moore’s original ending is lost. Moore paints Ozymandias’ plot as at best highly ambiguous, is it necessary evil or megalomaniac delusion ultimately fated to fail? Snyder’s version stacks the deck, pushing it towards the ‘peace in our time’ reading at the very same time that he codes Ozymandias more clearly as a villain. In both versions Ozymandias claims to feel the weight of what he has done. In one version we believe him, for we feel that weight insufficiently ourselves. Manhattan’s quite vital parting line to him (“nothing ever ends”), surely vying with the Psychiatrist’s missing line as the keystone to the whole thing, is also inexplicably absent. (Though Laurie quotes it as something he would say, the effect is muted into ineffectuability.) Particularly at a time when the neo-con ‘project’ has crashed disastrously, it’s doubtful that this was Snyder’s intention. But it is what happens on the screen – New York ends with a bang but not a whimper.
Interestingly, and as argued previously, Nolan’s recent Dark Knight tackled similar themes of ‘noble lies’ and similarly got tangled up in them. Legend has it Strauss got the concept from the black-and-white world of genre fiction, particularly the TV Western Gunsmoke. Does this suggest genre fiction is inherently tainted by these limitations, and so an ineffective medium to use in critiquing Strauss’ cronies? Or is the problem more specific to the Hollywood process? It would be interesting to compare the two films, both named after the key ‘mature superhero’ comics of the Eighties, in more detail...
For those who don’t have the time for a two-and-a-half hour film...