A Day Late and a (Hundred-Millon) Dollar(s) Short: Catching up with Watchmen

by robbiefreeling
March 20, 2009 2:30 AM
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They say that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that goes for having one, too: I’m thus forever on the record as saying that I more or less enjoyed Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (now experiencing a precipitous box-office decline at a cinema near you). It’s not that hindsight has led me to hate the film: I still think that as a feat of big-budget engineering it’s fairly impressive, and that its vivid color palette and broadly variegated mise-en-scène elevate it, at least as a visual experience, above the studied gloom of The Dark Knight (which still looks, to my eyes, like a dull, reactionary non-event). But I am already second-guessing my statement that Watchmen “remains faithful to the spirit of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s seminal, Reagan-baiting graphic novel.”

Yes, the film retains its source material’s setting (an alternate-universe version of the 1980s where Richard Nixon is still the President and the superheroes who helped him to forge his authoritarian grip have been legislated out of circulation) and its basic narrative thrust (the murder of one retired crime fighter leads his former colleagues towards the revelation of an apocalyptic conspiracy perpetrated by one of their own) has been more or less unmolested. The characters have been designed to look as exactly as they appeared on the page—best in show is the glowing blue lab-accident-victim/atomic-age demigod Dr. Manhattan (played, avec CGI enhancement, by Billy Crudup)—and so have most of the key images, including the numerous acts of savage, lethal violence.

And there’s the rub. It would be overstating the case to say that Moore and Gibbons were “interrogating” violence, but they sure as heck weren’t endorsing it. The relentless brutality of Watchmen’s world wasn’t meant to be persuasive. And in those instances where the tone seemed to be wavering, it was possible to adjust your interior voice accordingly (for instance, when I read Frank Miller, I imagine his ersatz tough-guy prose as read by Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, which greatly improves the process). No such luck onscreen, though, where you’re at the mercy of the director’s sensibility—in this case Snyder’s kicky, rabble-stoking bloodlust. (If the Klingons eventually open a cinematheque, I suspect he’ll be the first candidate for a retrospective).

Click here to read the rest of Adam Nayman's review of Watchmen.

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  • Mark | March 22, 2009 3:27 AMReply

    Well yeah the celebrity/superhero icon thing is interesting, now that you mention it. I think the movie is getting a bit too much credit for a-ha moments of self-satisfied cultural recognition but then again as we have established I am able to direct more vehemence towards this movie than it, strictly speaking, deserves.

    And I should have said that I quite liked your review -- coincidentally you zeroed in on a couple of minor-but-significant-because-the-only deviations, namely the gauntlet fight scene during the prison break and the close-up cleaver to the scalp, that registered specifically for me as evidence of what little it is that Snyder brings to this project.

    I did not notice the file marked "boys", but that is... interesting.

  • Sergio | March 21, 2009 8:49 AMReply

    There is also the file on Ozymandias computer that is clearly labeled "boys"

  • brotherfromanother | March 20, 2009 7:21 AMReply

    Hi Mark,

    Bowie, the Village people -- not signifiers of homophobia for me but an intersection of superhero and real-world celebrity that I've never really seen articulated before. Blaming Zack Snyder for the world's ills elevates Zack Snyder beyond his wing-nut station, but if my review somehow gave the impression that i'm on board with his worldview -- which I am not; that guy seems like a jerk -- then I do apologize. Which, combined with my apology for giving Watchmen a pass in the first place, makes me seem like a pretty sorry guy.

  • robbiefreeling | March 20, 2009 7:18 AMReply

    I'll let Adam respond to that one.

    But yes, Hack Snyder might literally be to blame for all the world's ills.

  • Mark | March 20, 2009 5:51 AMReply

    "Check out who’s at Studio 54 with Ozymandias during the opening credits".

    You mean the Village People? If that's who you meant, I kinda read that moment as a fanboy's homophobia channeled into the sort of uncomfortable joke wherein the presence of flamboyantly gay people is supposed to be an implicit kitsch-factor joke. (It is arguably also a reference to Ozy's rather fey affect, which in the context of his role in the movie comes off as... well, a fanboy's homophobia.)

    I am, arguably, trying too hard to blame Zack Snyder for everything that's wrong in the world. Pay me no attention.