The Watchmen movie represents the best failed adaptation of Alan Moore’s work so far, and in the context of the difficulty of getting it made, and working at adapting it, a qualified success.
This movie had the strange position of being an extremely-hyped movie full of characters no one has ever heard of. Inside the interior landscape of comics, Watchmen was our Citizen Kane, the masterwork that innovated or perfected comics as an artform. There was no way they would fit everything into a movie, and this was something I was prepared to accept. My concern was if they could match the tenor and complexity of the ideas from the comic. The answer? Kinda.
There was a lot to like in the movie. Not unlike 300, Zach Snyder was using the comic seemingly as a storyboard. The visuals were compelling, and often delightfully eighties. Dr. Manhattan, and his abilities, are realized in a way that can be said to help evoke his character; as he makes objects levitate around him, in a perfectly synchronized waltz of machinery or clothing, his inhumanity and detachment from these very events help sell the disconnection from society that is central to the story. Rorschach’s portrayal was also close to the comic, showing the kind of intelligence and fearsome single-mindedness that such a vigilante career would demand. The other characters are on a spectrum of proximity from their source material. In all of this, we saw a love and partial understanding of what made Watchmen important, and what made it work. A morally ambiguous ending, complex human relationships and a political atmosphere that most of today’s moviegoers wouldn’t remember were communicated clearly.
That said, there is a fundamental disconnection between source and film. Part of the inspiration of the original comic was to bring reality to spandex. Alan Moore loves his characters; he writes them too well and too honestly to do use them as foils for mocking something else. But this reality is stressed; other than Dr. Manhattan, everyone is completely human, having no abilities that would be considered super-powered. In comparison, most of the main characters are jazzed-up in the movie. They punch through walls, throw knives with unerring accuracy, make leaps or throw their enemies farther than human muscles allow. I don’t know if this was because as a director, Snyder wanted to increase the excitement of the action, or if this was a subtlety that was fundamental in my enjoyment in the book, but not something that Snyder realized or cared about. If they were in tights, they must have been at least somewhat super, right?
This would be my major problem with the film; it couldn’t dare to be subtle. Though I was happy to see the film clearly set in the eighties, the blaringly loud music from that era, rather than providing counterpoint to certain scenes, instead seemed comedically overdone. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah during a sex scene made me laugh out loud at what could have been a tender moment. Many of the famous lines in the comic are said, but they are delivered in what seems like a stab for coolness, ending up shy of the grandeur or pathos that was clear in the writing of the comic.
The experience of watching this movie was one of constantly being relieved or annoyed at different choices. As a movie, it seems to stand on it’s own. People enjoyed it and continue to talk about it. I applaud the creators for having the bravery of making it as close as they did, while at the same time being disappointed by the potential lost in what they chose to change. If Snyder had duplicated the psychology of the characters to the same extent that he had duplicated panels from the book, and had the bravery to let the characters be depressingly human, we might have been struck by more than the ending. We might have taken a closer look at the heroes we let entertain us.