Friday, March 6, 2009


"Turning Air to Gold:
The Transmutation of 'Watchmen' from Graphic Novel to Silver Screen"

After years of failed attempts by various studios and directors, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' epic deconstruction of super-hero stereotypes in graphic-novel form has finally made it to the screen. Two studios financed it (with proceeds going to a third) and the director is Zack Snyder, who did an interesting re-make of "Dawn of the Dead," and the film adaptation of Frank Miller's "300." "300" was a somewhat mixed result due to the weakness of its source material, and Snyder's reliance on a bleached CG oppressiveness, but one could see him trying to find interesting ways to make Miller's panoramas and boxes translate to interesting moving images, if not a fully-realized film.

When one heard that his next project was to film the unfilmable "
Watchmen," there was some cautionary hope: Moore's works "From Hell," "V for Vendetta," and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" were not the movies they should have been, mostly due to liberties taken to Moore's blue-print (and as a result, Moore has refused any interest, personal or financial, from filmed adaptations of his writing—his lack of credit yawns like a big black hole in the film's credits).

His "Watchmen" is another animal—a sprawling 12 issue serial based on an alternate Earth where masked vigilantes do exist, it crossed eras and locations in a blink, played on nesting cultural references and on-the-nose word-play, while having
the look and feel of a movie story-board. It looked like it should be filmed, even though its nudity, ultra-violence and political satire made it somewhat over the heads of the casual movie-goer and beyond the scope of the MPAA. Given Moore's history, the expectations were another bastardization, or, given Snyder's, a by-the-numbers adaptation with nothing new to offer.

The result, though, is neither extreme.

It's a faithful adaptation that doesn't mind sharing in the fun of creation.

"Structurally, There's No Difference"

Snyder and his scriptwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have compressed the story, eliminating some second and third-tier characters (although they appear in the movie if you're looking for them), completely eliminating the parallel stories (in comic form) of "Tales of the Black Freighter" and the super-hero memoir "Under the Hood" (which will appear on a separate DVD, apparently) and concentrating on the main thread of the story: "Somebody is killing the Great Retired Superheroes of America."** It follows the investigation of never-realized super-group The Watchmen into who might be killing their members, starting with The Comedian, a government-sanctioned vigilante. All the Watchmen are vigilantes and, to some degree, fascists breaking arms and legs in brutal fist-fights that are, in the film, probably the best realized comics-fights yet filmed—like cage-matches in the open air. They all dress in the spandex kicking heads for different reasons and their very differences in attitude, sense of justice and heritage are what make the characters interesting, not the justice dispensed. There's action aplenty,*** but where Snyder has excelled and made the film his own is to take Moore's example and kick it up a notch. Moore's super-America of 1985 has Nixon still in the White House for an unprecedented sixth term, the Viet Nam War having been won by Watchmen incursion. But Snyder doesn't stop there. There are all sorts of cultural references spread throughout the film mixing History with heroes. TV, political and business personalities are recognizable from their Real World counter-parts. Moore piled on the culture references but Snyder takes advantage of the audio-visual tools he has to provide a great soundtrack of hits from a diverse group of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkle, Leonard Cohen, and Phillip Glass. Compositions and dialog are taken from other movies to sometimes hilarious effect, and although one doesn't want to give away too many of Snyder's surprises, to not acknowledge them would be giving this film's own strengths short-shrift. It is its own animal—a fully functional moving picture that takes the strengths of the comics medium source, but builds on it and takes the viewer between the panels without a sense of filler or extraneous material.

"But my Eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light/
That split the night"

Just as Moore nested references throughout the series, Snyder takes visual cues and unites them throughout the film. Where Moore has his "Smiley Face" icon throughout (a device that seems a shade contrived in the film), Snyder's white-bright light flashes carry resonances throughout the film, especially in an ages spanning credit-sequence (which contains one of the best comics call-backs in the film). Those flashes will carry dramatic weight throughout the movie right up to the ending (which manages to logically improve on the novel's proposition-of course, that's how you solve "the problem," it's been staring us in the face all along).

But, you can have all the CG wizardry in many worlds if the organic part ofthings, the actors, don't breathe life into the characters, and here "Watchmen" excells. Patrick Wilson has spent too much time being the handsomely bland blonde guy that it's a welcome relief to see him stand out appreciably as Dan Dreiberg, The Nite-Owl. Matthew Goode as Ozymandias has a lazy, lithe, slurry quality that shows how used he is to being The Smartest Man in the Room, always. Jeffrey Dean Morgan has the hardest role as The Comedian, but makes it work, as Malin Akerman does for The Silk Specter. But the big raves go to to guys who spend most of the time hidden: Billy Crudup, who manages to make a character of Dr. Manhattan despite the fact that it's all CGI imagery (can you believe they wanted Schwarzenegger for the role?), and Jackie Earle Haley, who does wonders as Rorshach. The stand-out character of the series needed a superb performance and Haley, who's made few mis-steps since re-igniting his peculiar acting career slams it home. One hopes that his talent is acknowledged soon.

I was surprised and delighted by "Watchmen," the movie re-creating the same emotions I had reading the book all those years ago. But I wonder how much information one would get from the movie without having read the source. For me, there was recollected information bursting out of every frame, but to someone without the book in their banks those frames might seem over-crowded with useless knick-knacks...instead of pieces of the puzzle. Without that fore-knowledge, is the movie as compelling, or does one take a Manhattan-ish dis-interest?

"Watchmen" is a Full-Price Ticket (Hrn).

* There have been some review complaints of "slavish" adherence to the source material. Whole sections have been lifted, but it's only once in awhile when those sections encompass a lot of material (usually from a God's eye perspective). "Slavish adherence" is simply not true. Even if it was, when was that ever a movie sin? Nobody complained when "Lonesome Dove" stuck so close to Larry McMurtry's novel. Why is it an issue now? Nothing else to write about?

** "Watchmen" grew out of Alan Moore proposing a 12 issue series based on characters acquired by DC Comics when it bought the
Charlton Comics line. DC wanted to use those characters in the regular comic-line, but wanted Moore's story, too. So, Moore created new heroes based on those characters: Captain Atom became Dr. Manhattan; Blue Beetle became Nite-Owl; The Question became Rorschach; Pete Cannon-Thunderbolt inspired Ozymandias; The Peacemaker became The Comedian; Nightshade became The Silk Specter.

*** "Watchmen" is a hard "R" for moments of sexuality, nudity and stomach-churning violence, for instance, characters are meat-cleavered in the head, one criminal has his hands tied to prison bars and his arms sawed off, not to mention the near-occasion of brutal fights—The Silk Specter breaks an arm so hard the bone pierces the skin — and a prison fight ends when a prisoner is dowsed with boiling oil. The movie begins with a bone-crunching fight between The Comedian and an unknown assassin, leading to his being thrown through a plate-glass window a couple dozen stories high. The movie's lone super-powered hero, Dr. Manhattan, explodes people with a wave of his hand. The show I went to, a couple brought their five year old son. He's gonna be in therapy for months.


Jon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon said...

They all dress in the spandex kicking heads for different reasons and their very differences in attitude, sense of justice and heritage are what make the characters interesting, not the justice dispensed.

Having not read the book and not being a great fan of the 'lets' show as much mindless violence in as much grotesque detail as we can' genre, I am probably supremely unqualified to talk about this movie other than I paid for a ticket and spent 2 hours 45 minutes wanting my money back.

Oh, it was fun to try to spot all the historical recreations (Is that supposed to be Annie Liebowitz etc?) but that is just like reading an Umberto Eco book and thinking you get all the allusions.

I even liked the opening fight when the Comedian is killed because it seemed to me to be recreating the frame by frame way the fight would appear on the pages of a comic book.

But I have to disagree with your comment about how the characters are differentiated - maybe in their level of self-awareness but little else. They are all vigilantes who seem to enjoy violence for the sake of it because they are the uber-people. The Nite-Owl and the Silk Specter II's idea of a date is to go to a maximum security prison and kick the shit out of people. It got so old - kind of like the Anakin vs Obi-Won at the end of Episode 3.

It would have been interesting to have seen more than intermittent flashbacks to the things that made them what they were.

Then there was the dialog, and the bad sex, and the cutting. No it may be a flawed masterpiece but I don't think you should give this one a full-price ticket. I think it is an example of someone needing to tell a director that just because you can do something, it doesn't mean you should.

My original comment (deleted for technical not editorial reasons).

Yojimbo_5 said...

(This is my comment to Jon, encouraging him to replace his (I thought)very valuable comment--with some editorial futzing, taking pity on the poor cob-webbed slob I was when I wrote it last night at 2 am)

"I wish you'd left this comment up, because you bring up a lot of good points, some of which I agree with, especially the one concerning the "mystery-men." They are all vigilantes beating up people. They always have been (in the comics). They're all fascists. That's the point. Fascists with good intentions are still fascists. And (to quote Richard Dreyfuss about Oliver Stone) you can be liberal and still be a fascist.

They always were, even the smiley-faced Batman and Robin of the Golden Age (joyously) clobbering thieves (they're just being portrayed more realistic and efficient about it now). Even Superman is the benign Overman who'll still violate your rights at the drop of a reporter/colleague from a 12th story window.

They always were. That was Moore's point back then, and as he says, (his portrayal of super-heroes as if they lived in the Real World) destroyed everything he loved about the comics he loved as a kid, the whimsy, the sense of wonder and the wild imagination. Every kid's Power-fantasy is just another thug now.

But these characters are different from each other while representing facets of the varous super-hero archetypes. Ozymandias is an amoral puppet-master Super-Genius who wants to save humanity from itself by any means necessary, Rorshach is a believer in Absolute Truth-a combination of Private Eye and Masked Man-who wants to preserve the truth he's worked so hard to uncover, Nite-Owl and Silk Specter are legacy heroes: he's a techno-whiz with too much time on his hands and a desire to do good, she's a woman who's still operating on her girlish fantasies (and frankly she doesn't know any other life given her background)—they're both adrenaline junkies and closet-fetishists who haven't seen action in too long and get carried away. The Comedian is American foreign policy made flesh (a necessary evil in the 40's, which wraps itself in its own self-interest and seemingly-earned entitlement to be World-Cop). Dr. Manhattan is the logical extension of the God amongst Men: at some point he loses touch. Superman isn't Superman without growing up with the Kent's and the Daily Planet Staff (You need to have the "man" in "Superman" as comics writers like Alex Ross have written about).

The Full-Price Ticket stands. You won't get nearly enough out of this movie on the small screen, and it's a great interpretation of a seminal work of comics fiction, one that has been the blue-print for Super-hero interpretations ever since, for good (and) ill. And "Watchmen" is as cinematic a construction as can be--it's very much a movie-storyboard ready to be filmed. Not only did it need to be done--it would be stupid not to."

Jon was quite vocal about his dis-like of the major superhero movies of last year--specifically "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight." Condensing his argument to the unfairly restricting nut-shell, he objects to the over-violent portrayal of these "Super-men" (not just because his kids want to go see them and he's a concerned parent, but..) because they're mindless, interminable ugly slug-fests without much point.

Yup. My point is that that's usually what they are--"When Titans Clash" is the slammed-into-the-ground cliche that Marvel uses.

Even when they're not extended cage-matches (ala "Superman Returns" which a lot of "fans" of comics grumbled about), there's that creepy notion that "Supes'" thinks nothing of spying and listening in on his lady-love's intimate bickering with her new lover. Ewwww. (And Jon, I have to replace those screen-caps, the review stays).

These guys are creeps. Rights-crushing, bone-breaking overlords. They came into literary being when Hitler came to power, and they mushroom-clouded on screen during the Bush years. A helpless people feeling powerless welcomes benign Over-people.

But there's no campy "Zap!" "Pow!" censoring the fist-fights anymore. We see the contusions, hear the bones breaking, as close to movies come to making you "feel" it on a visceral level and without the hospital bills. I see nothing wrong with that, frankly. Anything else would be (can I say this now?) "Putting lipstick on a pig." And it calls into question just what these "heroes" are.

I think that's healthy.

(Of course, with the crowd I saw the movie with Friday morning--I'm surprised they were up and around--those subtleties might be lost, although I heard some sympathetic "Ooooh's!" and "Yowtch!"--the real world equivalent of "Zap" and "Pow"-- during the fight scenes. They felt the pain.

This would be a good writing assignment: "What sort of Super-hero movie would Jon like?" I thought of one scenario: the hero who wants to do good works in order to make himself obsolete--but then, that's "Watchmen."

John said...


I like the review, and your conclusion that it's a full-price ticket. I think you're spot-on with your take on the acting, the directing and the source material. I saw the film twice, and am considering seeing it a third time.

One thing that you didn't write about is the obscenely difficult task that Snyder tackles with Watchmen. He's created the super-hero group film that DC and Marvel have been hemming and hawing about for years. While Justice League and the Avengers are likely to happen someday, I haven't seen anything yet... and what I've heard sounds unpromising.

It's incredibly difficult to have 3-5 well-rounded characters that all have different sub-relationships, are all designed to look cool, and are all cast with believable (if not outstanding) actors. The Watchmen absolutely rocks on this front. Haley and Crudup are outstanding. I even got chills the second time during Rorshach's final scene. And the rest of the cast fill in admirably. I actually found myself liking NightOwl quite a bit more in the film than in the original book.

The biggest knock I've heard (that I agree with) is that the subplot with Silk Spectre I and II wasn't fleshed very well. It leaves the daughter seeming like a vapid sex-pot in typical Hollywood fashion... rather than a confused woman with very little core of self-identity and serious problems with her mother.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Boy did I have a brilliant reply that Blogger lost!

Let's sum up: Agreed.

But if he had a difficult task crowding in 3-5 rounded characters, "Watchmen" has many more than that and so "Silk Spectre II" (Laurie) was the one to come off uni-dimensionally (save the adolescent joke).

But that's the way it's always been, both in this instance and comics in general. Comics just don't know how to handle a woman.

In this instance, in Moore's story, Laurie's Charlton comics inspiration was "Nightshade," a shadow mage. The only thing the two characters have in common is they're both girl-friends to the atomic-powered character, a kept woman, not a lot of depth there. And as Moore is a kink-meister, he made Silk Spectre more in line with 40's characters like Phantom Lady and The Black Canary, who were basically ass-kicking Petty girls in bondage gear (There was recently a hue and canary-cry from parents' groups over the Barbie/Black Canary doll over the leather and fish-nets costume).

Laurie is more of a plot device than a character: she's the audience surrogate giving us a look inside the super-group, as well as being the binding character through the plot, and the Reason To Believe. On a character level, she, like Nite Owl are legacy characters who, because the've come to The Cause second-hand, do it for the dress-up and the action: they're power and adrenaline junkies. And Laurie, growing up in a super-hero household, doesn't know any different.

But women are notoriously badly-written in comics. In the Silver Age, women were ball-busters, harpies, villainesses or insane--in Jean Loring's case, all four. And she was a lawyer. Read a Silver Age "Lois Lane" comic, it's like reading "I Love Lucy The Sociopath." And things have gotten only marginally better. As we've discussed, no one knows how to write Wonder Woman and she's one of DC's "Big Three" heroes. I think the day will come when they write her like an individual, as opposed to Representative Of The Gender.