Who bungles the Watchmen?

Is the tacky adaptation of a holy grail of geekdom particularly pertinent given the grave dangers facing the real world? No, but this is a blog, so a certain degree of flexibility is permitted.

The midnight crowd was comprised of the typical mixture of nerds drawn in by their indelible loyalty to the source material, costumed fellows and lasses with far too much free time, paint and latex on their hands, neophytes drawn in by the hype and cranky cynics who paid $7.50 knowing that they were going to leave the theater with a sour disposition.

I belonged to that last group, sitting through the trailers and waiting for my unrealistic expectations to be dashed against the rocks, pulled back out into sea and then mauled by sharks.

No one really cared when “Benjamin Button” heavily deviated from the source material, the short story wasn’t a bestseller and the movie was ultimately a stirring piece of sentimentalist entertainment. The first two “Harry Potter” movies stuck incredibly closely to the books, and few fans seemed to mind, their vision of the books were put, note for note, on the screen. With “Watchmen”, the handling of the material is completely different issue.

“Watchmen,” if one is to keep it ‘pure’ and unaltered, basically cannot be filmed. It’s an intricate, ridiculous torrent of philosophy, psychosis and paranoia. Its themes run from whether or not to compromise ones morals at the risk of becoming obsolete, the burden of carrying a forced legacy, whether or not superior beings inherently posses superior morals and are thereby should be able to judge society and ultimately, it pushes utilitarianism to its breaking point and leaves the reader adrift in an ambiguous tempest.

Notice that in that description, there’s no mention of any awesome fight scenes, gratuitous sex or gore galore. Like few comics before it (and “Watchmen” is a comic book, not a graphic novel) “Watchmen” focused on characters who all possessed deep flaws, none of the heroes seemed particular heroic. They’re at times impotent, neurotic, detached from humanity, delusional and completely human. While at times too ridiculous to personally relate to, they’re always intriguing sketches of humanity’s fringes.  It’s also important to note that there’s no undercurrent of good versus evil, despite how some characters may few the comics conflicts. When one of the heroes succeeds in his plans to better the world, there’s no conclusion as to whether or not what he accomplished was actually for the better.

Watchmen watching you
Obviously, adapting a massive, intricate comic such as this would require a deft and gentle hand, which so-called “visionary” director Zach Snyder can’t seem to bring to work with him. “Watchmen” looks pretty enough, it directly lifts scenes and camera angles from the panels of the book, and it helped that Dave Gibbons, the artist of the comic helped in the making of the film. Despite many of the reactions from students after the movie, a film that looks nice doesn’t equal a good film.

The comic includes rape, grisly murders, frequent nudity, sex and at one point, unrelenting gore. But it all serves a purpose, and as bizarre as it may sound, it’s done tastefully. The rape sequence in the comic is brutal but never gratuitous, leaving the reader with an intense hatred for the rapist and immense gratitude for the hero that pummels him during the act. In the film, it’s a tacky and gleeful fight sequence, proud to mix violence and sex to draw in that precious male, teenage crowd. The film doesn’t focus on the horror of the rape, but bathes in the sex and violence.

In the same vein, the violence previously mentioned in the comic always serves a purpose and is never without ramifications. Two of the main characters bend over exhausted after quickly fending off a few attackers. In the film, they take a savage glee in the violence, happily tearing apart scores of attackers in an alleyway. I mean literally tearing apart, one guy’s forearm is split in half.

The point that this and a later sequence in which the two characters rescue several people from a burning building serves in the comic is to give their lives meaning, for them to rediscover they sense of worth they drew from their vigilante activities. It even cures erectile dysfunction! And while the film retains the wonder cure for flaccidity, it does so by showing these heroes reveling in barbaric bloodshed, grinning throughout. It doesn’t help that a rendition of the classic tune, “Hallelujah”  taken from a 70’s porn film is tossed into the sex scene, which in and of itself is simply porn put on the screen.

It’s in these hollow scenes that the film loses all artistic merit. Just because you have some of the violence portrayed in the comic doesn’t mean you’re on the same level. Just because you can have a lengthy sex scene showing off a wealth of positions doesn’t mean there’s emotional depth attached to the actions. The question Snyder asked himself whenever given the chance to include something obscene was not, “How does this affect the characters? What implications do these actions have on their state of mind?” but, “How much blood can we have? How much longer can we show her breasts?”

Winding down what is turning into an admittedly lengthy post, it’s curious to see that the most gratuitous, stomach-churning instance of gore in the book, a multiple page depiction of the terrible aftermath of one of the hero’s plans, not included in the film. At every other chance, the violence is ramped up to ridiculous degrees in the film, but when given the chance to show the destruction and bloodshed in such a way that it makes the reader and viewer question the choices made by all of the characters, to look back on the universe created by Alan Moore and try to make a moral decision to either begrudgingly accept or condemn said hero’s logic, the film opts out.

It shows a battered city, a technically impressive scene of destruction and mayhem that in the end, reflects the film perfectly. It succeeds on a visual level, it certainly looks as nice as a ruined cityscape can, but there’s no humanity to it. There’s just a visually interesting, but ultimately hollow shell.


1 Comment

Filed under Hollywood, Morgan

One response to “Who bungles the Watchmen?

  1. Chris Lorch

    Hey Morgan, I found this an interesting perspective from a clearly avid fan of the novel. The post had to be long to review a movie in production and anticipated for so long and a hefty 2 hour, 40 minute duration.
    Hopefully I can offer a differing perspective to the Watchmen the film which I also saw in a fanboy- packed theater last night. I have always been more of a Marvel fan, as my uncle Tom DeFalco was Editor-In-Chief there for a while. We’re waiting for The Avengers gang over in that party, but I do admire the reality the DC comic adaptations Watchmen and the new Batman films are bringing to the scene lately.
    The reason I describe my background is that Zack Snyder shares your perspective in originally being a fan of the novel before considering the film. According to the inteview I posted below, my perspective is the one he wants to hear after the movie’s release, because I have not yet read the Watchmen novel.
    What I can compare this comic-film adaptation to is the Marvel series. Especially in light of Marvel’s Spider-Man 3 failure in 2007, which really could be the only way to describe that film in honesty, Marvel has recently taken a turn for the better in the new “Hulk” and “Iron Man.”
    As my uncle Tom explained, the problem in the first Hulk movie is that the Hulk didn’t start smashing until halfway through the film. That needs to be the attitude of some of these superheroes. Smash first, ask questions later. The difference between the first Hulk and the new “Incredible” version, they did it by keeping the film moving along. Admittedly, this film is more dense and complicated in content than the Hulk, and does have points where the character and the audience have time to reflect on the violence that just occurred.
    Although the characters could take a little more time to consider ramifications of their violence, for the sake of storytelling and sheer popcorn glee we need at different junctures of the movie, the characters almost need to laugh, and take delight in kicking some bad-guy butt and keep going.
    Considering the “deft and gentle hand” that Snyder should have taken to the film, this movie was being touted as “from the visionary director of 300,” so I didn’t enter the theater expecting him to hold back any more than Leonidas held back on the Persians.
    Take, for instance, Snyder’s favorite scene where pre-Rorschach kid bites an older bully’s cheek off in slow motion. It could have been one of the most striking, and for lack of a better term, gross scenes in the film. And who was the sharp-toothed child actor? That’s right, Snyder’s very own son.
    It’s family that counts in a bleak world, just another moral we learned from Watchmen. And I guess I can dig that. With the Comedian dead, we could all use a good laugh.

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