Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dr. K's Obligatory Watchmen Review

So, I got around to seeing Watchmen today at the local theater. My goal of finding a time during the day when I could see the film alone was foiled by a couple who came in just as the previews were starting. At least it wasn't the older couple who were in line in front of me to get tickets. They were asking the cashier if they could buy tickets for a screening that had 30 minutes remaining, and then go to the next screening of the same movie and leave with 30 minutes left. While I applauded their willingness to embrace a nonlinear narrative, I also thought that this was a really stupid request. I also pegged them as the type that would need to seek each other's input on plot developments during the movie, and I really hoped they wouldn't be going to the same movie as I.

Luckily, they weren't going to see Watchmen, and I became increasingly grateful of that as the gory violence and porn-quality sex unfolded on the screen. (By the way, does Patrick Wilson have a clause in his contract that he has to show his bare ass in every movie? Or at least every movie in which he co-stars with Jackie Earle Haley? It's not a complaint, but a legitimate question.)

Like most people who know how to read, and most people who read comics (the latter, I would add, is not a subset of the former), I'm a fan of Watchmen. I was 16-17 when the maxiseries first came out, and I bought each issue on a monthly and semi-monthly basis. I had already been an Alan Moore fan when it came out, thanks to my local comic shop owner recommending his Swamp Thing to me when it first started. I agree that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen is the pinnacle of achievement in the superhero genre.

But I still liked the movie. A lot.

Everything else from here is going to be spoilerific.

I'm going to start with the end, because that's the part of the movie I've been chewing on the most since seeing it. Much has been made about the fact that director Zack Snyder and the writers chose to change the ending of the original graphic novel, where Ozymandias creates a giant, psychic alien squid and transports it into New York City, killing millions and motivating the Soviet and American governments to put aside their differences and attack this alien threat. In fact, Snyder was pretty straight up about this in the run-up to the film's release, and a lot of comic fans got worked up about this big change.

I was surprised, however, at how well the new ending fit within the framework that was set in the original comic, and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse logically built on that framework to set up the ending they created. Instead of a psychic alien squid, Ozymandias creates several devices that mimic Dr. Manhattan's power and then sets them off in various major cities around the world in an attempt to frame Dr. Manhattan for the massive destruction. The belief spread quickly around the world is that Dr. Manhattan launched these attacks because of his dissatisfaction with humanity. The effect is similar to the original: the world powers band together to combat this common enemy.

There is, though, a key difference: the world now operates under the fear that Dr. Manhattan will attack again if he is further displeased. In the end, Ozymandias has created a new religion in which Dr. Manhattan is a kind of Old Testament-style God, teaching humanity lessons through massive violence and destruction. The fear that Dr. Manhattan is watching motivates the world-wide peace that follows.

The film plays with the religious implications of Dr. Manhattan throughout, making the ending both appropriate and ironic. When Laurie tries to talk Manhattan into saving the Earth from nuclear destruction, he comments that God doesn't exist based on his observations. Clearly, the existence of Dr. Manhattan challenges most conventional religious beliefs. During a flashback to Dr. Manhattan's origin, we see his sidekick Wally Weaver give a TV interview where he announces that God is an American. And most notably, in a flashback to Vietnam, Viet Cong soldiers surrender to Manhattan and supplicate themselves to him as well. Despite his basis as a scientifically created superhero, his power and mere existence inspire a religious level of awe, and it makes perfect sense that many humans would look at him in this way.

In the end of both the comic series and the movie, Dr. Manhattan leaves Earth to create new life somewhere else; however, in the movie he announces this plan to Laurie, and not to Ozymandias, which implies that he's learned about the value of life from Laurie. This I don't buy as much as the scene in the series. Directing this plan to Ozymandias is much more ominous and much less hopeful than the corresponding scene in the movie. Nonetheless, it still makes sense in this context that Manhattan would take on this new mantle of God and play it out even further.

The ending is also consistent with Ozymandias's fascination with ancient history. Ozymandias's interview early in the movie, where he explains his resolution "to apply antiquity's teaching to our world," foreshadows the Biblical destruction that he has planned. It also makes him appear even more cynical about humanity, that they would buy his "practical joke" that plays on their fear and their reliance on faith and religious belief.

I don't really have any significant complaints about the rest of the movie. There were some minor things left out from the original, but I don't find the film lacking in their absence. Some things that are more subtle in the comic are instead made explicit in the film: Dr. Manhattan announces that the Comedian is Laurie's father, and the scene where Dr. Manhattan kills Rorschach is more clearly a suicide than in the comic. But on the big stuff, the film gets it right. The violence, when it appears, is brutal, as it should be. Nothing about the scene where Dan and Laurie are attacked in an alley glorifies the violence that occurs, and I found myself looking away as Dan breaks a guys arm right into the camera. And in that violence, and the characters' responses to it, the film gets one of the key premises of the comic series: One has to be a little off in order to dress up in a costume and fight crime. Like in the comic, Dan is impotent when he isn't Night Owl, and the film doesn't shy away from the fact that he and Laurie get a sexual charge from brutally beating up bad guys, despite the fact that they ridicule a villain who is turned on by the beatings he receives.

I'm interested in seeing this movie again. For one, I want to see it with someone who hasn't read the comic, as I felt while watching that I may have been filling in gaps with information from the original (I know I did that, for example, with the appearance of The New Frontiersman office at the end of the movie. The film really does nothing to establish that as a right-wing newspaper read by Rorschach.). I also want to pay closer attention to earlier scenes in the movie. Snyder frontloads a lot of visual information in the early scenes, especially during the opening credit montage, and I think the film will overall bear multiple viewings (though minor flaws may also get amplified later).

Many fans of the comic reject the very idea of a Watchmen movie, rightfully pointing out that the original story functions as a commentary on the comics medium, and such a commentary would be lost in the transfer to another medium. Also, I respect the desire of those fans to keep their experience of the comic pure. With that being said, I still think the story made the transfer to film well, and I don't think it's necessary to qualify an evaluation of it with phrases like "It's good for what it is," or "At least it didn't suck." It's a good movie, and it still manages to capture the spirit of the original source.


snell said...

I like to think that, on some level, the movie functions as a commentary on superhero movies, thus continuing and extending the process of the comic. Take, for example, the "dorky," homemade costumes of the Minutemen compared to the latex and leather fetishwear the modern heroes where...that strikes me as keen observation on the marketing of superhero films then vs. now...not to mention a deliberate contrast between how such things can be presented on the comics page and on the screen.

Anonymous said...

Have to disagree with about the new ending. Aside from being the only time the movie stayed away from gore, it simply doesn't work. The world banding together against a threat they know (Dr. Manhattan) and can blame a single world power (the U.S.) for doesn't have the same resonance as the horrific unknown of a space squid.

It also fails on the basic premise. If Manhattan is leaving Earth, and announces it, doesn't that make it a little hard for the world to fear his future wrath?

The film further undercuts the bloody achievement of Ozymandias by giving Dan a speech about what he has done wasn't good for the world, instead retarding our development for all-time.

So the ending is 1) less important, 2) won't work for the future, and 3) undercuts itself immediately.

Chad Carter said...

The movie ending works better. Moore's original ending doesn't make sense to me these days. If our world culture has never encountered actual alien beings, at any point, and Doc Manhattan is the only "powered" hero, then where is the precedent of alien invasion or threat of invasion that would band people together that immediately? It's actually ridiculous to assume a jaded, pessimistic world would automatically come together because of a giant vaginal squid. Doc Manhattan having been "god" to Man for decades, now displeased? Much more logical.

Anonymous said...

something that stands out to me about Watchmen is the amazing character development; they do a great job making each person in that movie a whole, unique person

Anonymous said...

I saw it with my wife (who hated it). I thought it was well done and pretty well matched the comic, but I came away feeling that maybe Moore is right. This is a comic not a movie and should just stay as a comic, it will never have the same impact in any other form. Also I felt the director showed his imprint a bit too much especially with the violence in the fight scenes. As far as the ending, it probably made more sense than Moores ending.

Anonymous said...

Saw it today. The book was more in depth, and I kind of missed the freighter story, but I really enjoyed the movie--esp. the visuals.
I was most struck by how much more powerfully the message of the story hit me with the movie than with the book. That may have been because I took a couple of weeks digesting the book.

I think Haley's performance was exceptional. I wasn't disappointed in any of the others either.

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