Massawyrm's promised (and belated) spoiler heavy dissection of WATCHMEN!!
Published at: March 11, 2009, 9:33 a.m. CST by merrick
Hola all. Massawyrm here.
(Hey gang, for those who have been patiently (and impatiently) waiting for this, I apologize for its lateness. It’s been a rough few days. Seriously, fuck this week.)
Fanboy. Film junkie. Dork. Comic book nerd. Use whatever word you want. We all have a name for what it is we do – but around here we’ve become fond of the term geek. And geek culture is in a weird place right now, divided by a film and our feelings on it. And part of me is elated by this – after all, that is exactly what we geeks do. As much as we might try to pretend otherwise, we are nothing but a group of hyper-consumers who love to over-intellectualize our media and define ourselves with our fandom. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s the natural progression of things. My father grew up fascinated by Trains and WWII movies and carried those passions on through his life. His father grew up in love with Cowboys and Gangsters and carried them on through his life. And for each of us Hollywood was there to sell us products that played upon that love.
I love super heroes and space monsters and broadswords and blasters. And odds are so do you.
The problem comes when people begin expecting something out of geek culture. I’ve talked to people who are disappointed in those of us unhappy with the film. After all, since it was made FOR US we should support it, right? We should appreciate it, right? We have. We are. And we will continue to. By doing what we geeks do best: over-intellectualizing our media. We talk about it. Debate it. And if there’s one thing a geek loves more than a good debate about comic books and science fiction films…it is a good ARGUMENT about comic books and science fiction films. And that’s what’s been going on for almost two weeks now after the first embargo busting reviews leaked online followed by the flood once the embargo was lifted. And now that the film is in theaters the genie is out of the bottle altogether.
This weekend I saw the film for a second time, slipping in just before the theater went dark. I went alone. I didn’t want to see this again with friends or co-workers, I didn’t want someone leaning over to crack jokes or to recognize a buddy’s giggle every time blue dong flopped out. When I saw WATCHMEN the first time, I was watching Zack Snyder’s ADAPTATION of the greatest comic book story ever written. This time I went to watch Zack Snyder’s FILM. And I found it a decidedly different experience.
First of all, before I get into specifics I want to clarify something. I think Zack Snyder is a visual genius. Say what you will about his ability to adapt a work, his comprehension of the message in his films or his obsessions with physical perfection and his glorification of ultra-violence. All of these things bear discussing and no doubt disagreement. But his visuals are gorgeous. He paints with film like no one else. He conjures images that no one else seems capable of mustering. Snyder possesses a singular ability to not only look at something and imitate it, but to make it so surreal that it transports you to that world. There is so much visual information lurking in many shots that sometimes you don’t see the jokes or the layers until a few viewings in. While I might take issue with what he does with story, I cannot find fault with the painstaking attention he gives to every single shot in his films. He is obsessed and it works for him. And I respect that immensely.
And much of what I love about WATCHMEN is contained in those shots. He certainly put me in the world of the WATCHMEN, walked me up and introduced me to Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan, and then flew me around in Archie. He gets so much of WATCHMEN right that I certainly understand those critical of the disappointed who talk about this being as close to a true adaptation as we’ve ever seen. I can follow along in my graphic novel and see shot for shot where he took it from the comic – and I can even see how he improved upon it. Where he took the comic and filled in the blanks visually, making even the most mundane frames interesting.
But the other thing I love about Snyder’s WATCHMEN is its shorthand. Together with David Hayter and Alex Tse, Snyder abbreviated many of the dialog heavy scenes into perfectly executed smaller bites – he took drawn out, complicated threads and simplified them to the point that they were felt without being overly explained, while only rarely OVER simplifying them. In place of Rorschach’s eloquent nihilistic explanation of how the child killing affected him they give us the brilliant line “If God saw what any of us did that night, he didn’t mind.” And it hits notes better than the speech did. The film is peppered with moments like that – perfectly adapted scenes that take what the book was saying and condensed it. There’s also not a single thing that I MISSED from the book that was omitted rather than changed. Everything that was cut didn’t belong in the feature. Not the Black Freighter, not the newsstand, not the cops, not the Psychiatrist’s wife. MAYBE Jon going back to Gila Flats, but I didn’t miss that while I was watching it either. Only after.
Over all, upon my second viewing, I enjoyed the film. I love whole chunks of it, while simply enjoying others for what they are. I think Snyder made a very interesting film that will introduce an entire generation to a really great book and will come to be debated and ultimately accepted as one of the great works of this decade.
It is a great, visceral ride. But intellectually I have problems with it. The biggest of which that I have yet to reconcile deals with the ending. As my previous review stated, every major issue I have comes from the changes there. And frankly, I think the problem is that Snyder got too close to the comic, that he spent too much time playing to us in the early days of preproduction by carrying around a Copy of WATCHMEN and telling us all that he was using it as a Bible for the making of the film. Had he not done that, had he said “Look, I’m making my version of the film. I love the book, but come on. It takes 5 and a half hours just to listen to all of the dialog read at proper speed. But I promise you I will capture the spirit of WATCHMEN.” Would the geek press have flayed him alive? Almost certainly. But we would have walked into this looking at it as HIS film rather than OURS. And when the film looked like it was our WATCHMEN, it really threw many of us for a loop when it suddenly takes a wild turn. The film, for the most part, IS WATCHMEN. Until the end. As the saying goes : so close, and yet so far.
Snyder didn’t just make a Rated R version of WATCHMEN. He made a VERY Rated R version of Watchmen. Almost every set piece sticks out as if to say “You thought the comic was adult? Wait till you see what I do with it.” When Rorschach kills his first criminal he doesn’t just burn him alive by chaining him up, setting his house on fire and watching from outside – he hacks him to death with a meat cleaver. When the assassin ambushes Veidt, he doesn’t just shoot the secretary by accident - he also blows Lee Iacoca’s brains out. Daniel doesn’t just strip Laurie in Archie the Owlship and presses the flamethrower button for the sake of comic metaphor – they fuck in front of us with plenty of slow motion thrusting. Then they hit the flamethrower. When Rorschach ties the hands of Big Figure’s goon, they don’t slit his throat – they lop his arms off with a power saw. When Dan and Laurie beat up thugs (whether in alleys or in Prison) they don’t just clobber them and bloody their noses – they burst bone through flesh. Dr. Manhattan doesn’t just poof people out of existence – he pulps them into explosive goo that showers body parts away so violently that they stick to the ceiling.
In fact, there is hardly a single element of this book which Snyder doesn’t amplify. He gets up into your face and makes it more extreme, more adult, as if to constantly say “This is an ADULT comic book movie. For mature watchers.” These elements become hyper violent, hyper sexual. The types of things that insures that this is a film meant to be watched and understood by adults and only adults. Until the ending. Then it becomes decidedly Hollywood. Much less complicated. And much, MUCH less adult.
The first real problem with the ending comes from making Manhattan the OMINOUS FOE. This just opens a whole can of intellectual worms that will fester and pester and annoy you as you try to wrap your mind around them. Let me get this straight. OUR nuclear deterrent, OUR hero, the very model of American power in the world, goes nuts, kills 15 Million people…and that’s going to bring the world together? Our toy blows up several major cities and the rest of the world won’t hold us accountable? Really? And when he ups and leaves, we assume that everyone will believe he will live forever and remain a constant threat? This leads you down a road of possible futures that seem too farfetched even for a deranged super genius like Veidt to envision. The reason the original extra dimension invasion concept worked so well was the fact that it was entirely unverifiable by science, posed an unending threat and didn’t implicate anyone. In fact, by happening to us (much as we would see a decade and a half later in the real world) a tragedy of this magnitude would earn us the sympathy of the rest of the world, smoothing the peace process. By happening to the other superpower and several other major countries, it runs the risk of the blame game.
Next we run into the problem of the big hollow hole that was once New York. After seeing every hit result in a broken bone, every violent scene turned into a ballet of carnage, every small death turned ultraviolent – we are treated to 8 pages of heart wrenching, stomach turning, blood curdling aftermath turned into a flash of light and a smoking crater. When Manhattan and Laurie show up in New York just after the attack, they are literally wading through bodies. These people didn’t dies quickly in an instant. They died horribly. Painfully. With the images of madness telepathically burned into their brains. It is a cornucopia of death and destruction so grotesque that it truly forces us to confront whether or not it was worth it. On September 11th roughly 3000 people died. This event is 1000 9/11’s. And the book asks you very bluntly: Can you live with that? To save the world from itself?
The books premise, from Rorschach’s violent antics to Dr. Manhattan’s intervention in human politics to Veidt’s murder of 3,000,000 people, forces you to consider whether or not the ends truly justify the means. And by not forcing the audience to confront those images, by not showing them a devastated New York, by glossing over it with a bright flash and a big hole, you never force the audience to really weigh the price against the product. They simply get a math problem worthy of Dr. Manhattan himself. 15 Million Lives to save 6 Billion now and untold billions later. Would you kill one out of every 400 people to achieve world peace? One person in 400 who (as Laurie says at the end of the book) “…can’t disagree or eat Indian food, or love each other…” anymore?
Then there’s the problem with how it all goes down and who says what to whom. This gets jumbled around in a way that neuters some of the greatness of the ending. Because one of the best parts about the end of WATCHMEN is seeing who it is that has just (possibly) saved the world. A violent radical right wing conservative, an egg-headed liberal megalomaniac idealist, a thoroughly detached scientist, a middle aged burnout who longs for nothing more than reliving his glory days of winning the big game and fucking the cheerleader and a messed up broken girl with daddy issues who just wants to be loved. Ladies and Gentlemen, your WATCHMEN starting lineup. And nothing punctuates these points so profoundly than the reaction of these characters to one of the greatest endgames in comic book history. But not here. Here the end results are much the same, but the meanings are lost.
Rorschach, the books one true hero (depending on the way you look at it) still gets his hero’s death in the snow. But it’s no longer alone. In the book Only Manhattan knows he’s really dead. Everyone else really doesn’t care. But here we get the Hollywood “NNNNOOOOOOOO!” from Daniel who needs to protest to punctuate an already incredible death scene (seriously, almost everything with Haley is BETTER than in the book). Why wasn’t Dan there in the book? Because he was off fucking Laurie. She’s so put off by what she’s seen, so messed up by what she is party to, that she has to feel human. She NEEDS to feel loved. So they sneak off to a pool and screw. Dan, rather than being party to witnessing his friend’s death, is instead off getting his happy ending: he’s won the big game and now he gets to fuck the cheerleader.
And once Dr. Manhattan is back from wiping Rorschach off of him, he goes to talk to Laurie, who is instead in the arms of another man – so he visits Veidt and gives him the speech that Snyder has him give to Laurie instead. In the book it is an ominous, cold, disconnected approval of what Veidt has done. He’s done the math. But he’s also seen the future. And he’s pretty much sick of our shit, so he leaves. Here, with Crudup’s gentle delivery, it becomes a tacit approval of Laurie’s relationship with Dan, a necessity to maintain the illusion of his menace and he smiles and leaves to go play god somewhere. After regaining some semblance of humanity. And Veidt is simply robbed of Manhattan’s final fuck you – the veiled hint that leaves him entirely unsure of himself for the first time in the entirety of the story.
So while Rorschach still dies in the snow, Manhattan still leaves, Veidt still changes the world and Dan and Laurie still run off to live happily ever after, it is all somehow different. Hollow. Less vague, less (as Manhattan puts it) complicated. And MUCH LESS adult. It is, simply, less. When all is said and done, Snyder has created a much more easily digestible, mainstream ending that gets the pieces right but puts them in all the wrong places.
On its own, watched as its own film, it is a fine ending. It gives a satisfying end for most everyone. Rorschach has someone who cares. Laurie has someone who needs her. Dan has someone who gets him. Veidt has created a new empire. And Manhattan rides off happily into the sunset with a newfound sense of humanity. That’s a fine ending to a film.
But not to an adaptation. Not of WATCHMEN. Hence my displeasure upon my first viewing of it. Personally, I can’t wait to see Snyder’s directors cut to see how the film is modified – if anything changes or if it is simply MORE. I’m fine with both. No doubt we’ll all have this conversation again, hopefully sooner rather than later. But until then I remain mixed.
Until next time friends, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.