Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I'm Watching the Watchmen

Grade: B

A three-hour long comic book behemoth based on the most acclaimed graphic novel of all time is bound to divide its audience a bit. That's even more likely when the filmmaker, Zack Snyder, happens to be one of the book's devotees, making an adaptation so faithful you can almost see the chapter breaks between comics. All of which makes Watchmen the answer to this question: what would happen if the geeks got their way?

The result, it turns out, is a deeply flawed but still worthwhile endeavor. For the unaffiliated, the story goes something like this: in an alternate New York City in which Nixon is still president in the '80s and the Cold War is still very much on, superheroes have been forced into retirement. But when someone starts killing off the retired masks, those left need to band together to stop whatever threat is coming.

Seems straight-forward enough, until the book goes off into around 6 comics' worth of backstory. In a super-faithful film, that makes for a real momentum-killer. It doesn't help that even the presentation is the same here, so Dr. Manhattan's time-flashing memories get a good 5-10 minutes, as does Rorschach's discussion with the prison shrink. With Snyder's refusal to let any moment get scrapped, the movie's about an hour longer than it has any right to be.

It's a bit easier to understand his reluctance to cut when you see how well a lot of individual scenes work. His faithfulness thankfully includes the book's pitch black, cynical tone that many in Hollywood would have loved to lighten up. I was also pleasantly surprised to find no 300-style pseudo-animation or other Sin City-like attempts to allude to the movie's comic book origins. This Watchmen sticks to the real world (except Dr. Manhattan. A giant, naked blue guy is gonna seem geeky no matter what).

Where Snyder's 300 experience hurts the movie is in the fight scenes. The book's not all that bloody, but the movie finds ways to amplify all existing fight scenes about a hundred-fold. The Comedian's two-panel death (that's not a spoiler, it's the opening scene) in the comic becomes a ten minute duel set to "Unforgettable." And every single fight scene is drenched with as much slow-motion, graphically cracked bones, and splurting blood vessels as Snyder can summon. Is it necessary or proper? Not at all, but he had to get the 300 in there somewhere.

Yet I'm simultaneously impressed with the film's creative casting. No stars here, just character actors you've seen in drastically different roles. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, best known as the lovable (when alive) Denny on Grey's Anatomy, appears here as the Comedian, the movie's most vile, psychotic character. And he nails it. Ditto Patrick Wilson, dubbed "the Prom King" in Little Children but here geeky and impotent. Billy Crudup, best (perhaps only) known for his role in Almost Famous, is an unconventional choice for Dr. Manhattan, yet that helps give the blue guy a bit more humanity. The only weak link is Matthew Goode as "Smartest Man in the World" Ozymandias, whose fake American accent shifts dramatically between each word.

There's so much more I can fault the movie for. The soundtrack is composed entirely of ultra-popular songs from the last half-century, and usually not even from the '80s ("Sound of Silence," "The Times They Are A-Changing," and "All Along the Watchtower" are three examples). That doesn't just provide the wrong tone, it's uncreative as well. And too much dialogue is lifted from the comics, which as we saw in 300 is never a good idea (though no dialogue could ever be as bad as that in 300).

But despite all its many, many flaws, I have to admit my overall opinion was favorable. Maybe I simply thought Snyder did justice to the book. Maybe I felt the story was strong enough to withstand any cinematic missteps. Maybe I was just excited by the Little Children reunion of Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley, who makes a fantastic Rorschach. Watchmen is not in any way a great movie on its own, and will always live in its source material's shadow. But that doesn't mean it's not still worth seeing.

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