Saturday, March 7, 2009

Movie Review: Watchmen (A Tale Of Two Movies)


Not even before the last issue was off the press back in 1987, Watchmen the comic mini-special was optioned off to be Watchmen the Hollywood movie. Yet the road to its eventual realization in celluloid would be a long and treacherous one. Many die-hard followers of the eventual graphic novel proclaimed the property to be unfilmmable. And eventually it even became clear to some higher ups in Tinsel Town that maybe those fans were right.

Anyway, the movie WAS filmed, and thank god for it! Because even before I set out to see for myself whether it would live up to the hallowed collaboration between writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons, and colorist John Higgins -- the film had some lofty aspirations to fulfill. Which is not usually a good thing.

I'm speaking of the (mostly) glowing reviews the film has been raking in from around the world. But one in particular, found here at Mania.com, caught my interest. In his review, contributing writer Rob Vaux mentions that: "If you put a gun to my head, I'd likely tell you The Dark Knight was better."

Well, now that I've actually seen the movie, I can tell you this startling fact: Watchmen is actually the better movie. At least, it was to me. But before I go any further, let me first say that this review avoids any spoilers. This is mostly due to the fact that I'm lazy and do not feel up to the job of detailing the details that would naturally engender a large spoiler warning across the text right around:

HERE!!!

Now, back to the business at hand. Some of you are probably sitting there sick to your stomachs wondering how I could blaspheme so wantonly on what is considered the greatest comic book movie of all time.

Well, confession time folks: I've never really felt as cheery about TDK as everyone else seems to feel. Don't get me wrong, it *is* in fact an AWESOME, KICK ASS superhero movie with an appropriate dark and brooding atmosphere, along with some amazing acting by one particular actor. But it is also a tad boring, not to mention heavy-handed at times. It simply lacked something for me . . . I dunno what. Call it spark, spunk, pizazz -- whatever. It just didn't do it for me as thoroughly as it apparently did for others. Which is fine. I still think it was a great movie, and I love my DVD copy to death.

However, Watchmen is the better movie. This is a statement I'm sure many will disagree with. But it's something I will make no bones about.

Now just let me explain why, and forgive me if I must use TDK as an unwitting example to illustrate my opinions.

Like TDK, Watchmen is lifted from a treasured, albeit briefer, comic book source. And like TDK, Watchmen deals with mature and dark subject matters that are more cerebral than what one is used to finding in films of this ilk.

Unfortunately, also like TDK, Watchmen suffers from some wonky characterization that one can only describe as: indifference. Now, the comics of course have many, many pages with which to work some nifty developments into getting the reader to sympathize with the characters. Naturally, an over two-and-a-half long movie like either TDK or Watchmen will suffer from not being able to use much of the character(s) back stories that appear in the printed form. This is just one of those things we accept as comic book readers heading in to watch movie adaptations of the works we love.

And both movies suffer from making the motivations of the people on the screen very murky and unattractive. TDK's Batman was imposing and tres goth, but he was portrayed a bit stiffly and one-dimensional. Only Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker brought that level of true gravitas that elevated all other performances in the movie (apparently).

Something similar happens in Watchmen. Owing to the obvious ensemble nature of the titular bunch of vigilante crime fighters, there are a lot more principal characters in this movie than in that other one. As such, you have to expect that the characters' stories are going to get short-shrifted a bit. In the GN we're treated to almost chapter-long backstories and flashbacks on all the involved characters. But, in Zack Snyder's film, the director naturally eschews a lot of this in lieu of more "showing" rather than "telling." Which is fine, I understand that. Because even without most of that exposition, the movie still clocks in at a whopping 2:40 long.

So one of the biggest complaints I had with the film, Watchmen, is that perhaps nobody in the audience cares enough about what happens to these people. As someone who has read the source, I already know these characters inside out. They're like old friends to me now. But taking a step back, I can feel for what the non-initiate must be thinking. And that is: What The Hell Is Going On Here? And: Why Should I Care?

And that, my friends, is exactly how I felt coming out of TDK. It had its other shortcomings, but that was the crux of it right there.

So then, where did Watchmen go right where TDK faltered just a step behind it?

In that self-same ensemble nature I just picked on as being the film's chink in the armor. Say what? David, you smoking that bug shit or what?

Well, let me explain. Watchmen's saving grace is that there *are* so many principal characters running around it and doing their own thing. When Rorshach's Chandler-esque monologues get too long-winded, or Jon's brooding too emo, or Laurie's naivete too damned annoying where you want to just grab her and shake her really hard . . . the scene shifts to Silk Spectre (the original, played smashingly by Carla Gugino), or the Comedian, or Nite Owl (both I and II). Point is, there's always someone for the scene to cut away to and give the other characters' subplots a rest until you're ready to deal with them. This weaving in and out of various characters' stories is handled as expertly by Snyder as it was by Moore in the original. Okay, maybe not AS GOOD, but it does Moore's material justice, okay?

In TDK, all we really had was a murky Bats, bland Bruce Wayne, and a fantastically demented (but just a tad trying) Joker to follow for close to 3 hours. And again, I'm not knocking this. In the Batman universe, it's patently impossible to find two characters -- Batman and Joker -- who readers care about more. So this was not a failure on Nolan's part to spice it up with a few more main villains from Batman's gallery. It was just a little taxing for non-fans to stomach.

Back to Watchmen, though. In my opinion, the best part of the movie was Jon Osterman's/Dr. Manhattan's plight. His scenes resonated more (naturally) with my sci-fi sensibilities, and he was also the most sane yet detached person out of the entire Watchmen cast. Maybe that says more about my own nature, though. It's no surprise to me that I would connect more with the metaphysically augmented Dr. Manhattan than the decidedly more pedestrian Rorshach or Nite Owl. That's just the way I roll, I guess. :)

But that's not to shortchange the value the rest of the cast of characters bring to the film. The strength of the characters is the strength of this entire film. They are each so individualized and opposites of each other that it lends a sort of frenetic energy to the pacing of the film. Again, as I've said above, this is because we're never forced to brood too long on any one vigilante's plight. For some, this breaks the movie. For me, it makes it.

What I think Watchmen does better than TDK, also, are the action sequences. One of my strongest complaints with TDK were the fights -- or lack thereof. The principal offender is when Bruce Wayne travels to Hong Kong and suits up to infiltrate a highly secured office building. The take-down happens in less than 3 minutes, with Bats putting down maybe two, three thugs before getting what he came for and zipping back out of the building. Pretty much the whole movie was like that, owing to Chris Nolan's reluctance to delve too long on fight choreography, I guess.

Anyway, Watchmen is a different animal altogether. I've read people complaining online already about the lack of action. And true, the GN was never really high on the combat meter to begin with. But what I love about this movie is that, for those scenes where fisticuffs are in fact called for, Snyder not only delivers, he sometimes extends the battles just for the pleasure of the audience! This is certainly true of the opening scene, and later during the prison escape scene. (Oops, sorry -- minor spoiler. So sue me.)

And boy were the fight scenes awesome! I simply loved every second of it. I would be interested to see some fanboys *try* to say TDK had better. It's not even an issue!

But does fight choreography make a whole movie? No, of course not. But it can certainly make a movie more exciting at times. Especially when some heavy dialogue or exposition scenes just preceded said scenes of glorious ass-kickery!

Lastly, I'd like to make a brief mention about story. Both films suffer from what critics like to carpet-bomb genre movies with, and that would be the hated "confusing plot" label. This, sadly, is an area that is much harder for me to gauge in my reviews. Because, more often than not, I've read the source material!

In Watchmen's case, I know the plot inside-out, so the film adaptation is no more confusing to me than placing Romeo and Juliet on the big screen has been. However, when I sit back and pretend that I know nothing about both movies' plot (difficult to do, I admit), it emerges that TDK is the more muddled. I don't know, maybe, again, that's just me. Perhaps it was that I was more engaged by the pacing of Watchmen to actually *want* to sit forward in my seat and pay attention to how the story was unfolding on screen. Something I can't really say so much about with TDK.

So, there it is in a pretty large nutshell. I find Watchmen to be (pardon the pun) more watchable. And watchable, for me, translates directly into entertainment value. Do I think non-fans will get as much of a kick out of it? Maybe; maybe not. I saw many instances in the movie where someone who has not read the book might not quite grasp why a certain character is behaving the way he/she is. This tracks back to, again, what I said about characterization and the necessary truncating of certain back stories. When I bring Lisa to see this movie, I already anticipate myself explaining a few finer points to make the experience smoother.

So, yeah, I think there will be a difference in opinion between fan and non-fans. Well, really, I can't call them "non fans" -- more like, non readers of the source material. Then again, I know plenty of people who *have* read the GN (and some of them, religiously) who will not be happy with certain liberties taken by the director and screenwriters. I'm a lot less of a stickler for these kind of details than you would expect. So, no, I don't care that the ending has been altered from the way Moore wrote it. I believe the message is still intact, and that's what counts.

Besides, I always hated the way the "final plan" unfolds at the end in the GN. Now *that* would have been truly unfilmmable. Or, at least, too laughable to film, which amounts to the same thing.


Rating: 8/10

4 comments:

Kim Kasch said...

I so enjoyed the show. Blogpost 2morrow. Loved Rorschach - "evil needs to be punished." I could identify most with him but hated that Dr. Manhattan killed him - friends don't kill friends. Made DM a bad guy 2 me. Plus I wanted the squid to be the culprit.

Rodney said...

First, why is everyone I know comparing Watchmen and The Dark Knight? While they are both comic book movies, they are completely different breeds of comic book movie. This would be like comparing a Captain America movie to a Justice League movie. I guess it's because of the timing of their release.

Secondly, I just saw the Watchmen movie, the acting was good, the directing phenomenal, and the writing truly riveting. Forget about "comic-book" movie, Watchmen was a good movie. Period. That being said, I did have one problem with the movie.

The greatest strength of the GN was that it took the concept of superheroes/villians and put them directly into our real culture. Asking of the reader, how would history have unfolded if we had living, breathing avatars of virtue, honor, and uncompromising integrity among us. At the time, it was mind-blowing. And that's the problem. We don't live in that time anymore.

The movie, unlike the GN, has to deal with an audience that has moved past issues with nuclear war and is now dealing with a global energy crisis. An audience that has moved past fears of political fanaticism, and is now dealing with religious fanaticism. An audience that has moved past the disillusionment with the American dream and is now working to deal with the realities that dream ignored. Fifteen, or even ten, years ago, Watchmen would have been, like it's GN origin, a mind-blowing experience. But now, it's just a good movie, dealing with dated issues prominently, while giving token lip service to the concerns it's audience is currently facing.

I enjoyed the film. Judging it on its own merits, it was good film and an exceedingly fantastic testament to its GN source. But it could have been great.

Rodney said...

How's that for my first comment? Hah!

David Batista said...

Kim - Wow, I'm so happy to hear you liked it! And for all the good reasons, it seems. I do, of course, like Rorshach a lot, too. But DM's pathos resonated more with me. I hope Jake and Luke enjoyed the movie as well.

Rod - It was a great 1st comment, actually. Thanks for finally contributing! :)

And I already mentioned the specific reason why I compared the two movies: it was more in response to that review I read. I had a slightly different view than the writer of that piece did, and so I took his point and ran with it.

So, your argument is that Snyder should have updated the comic to reflect modern times and sensibilities? I'm almost certain that was a topic of some discussion when the movie was being blocked out by the director and producers. But ultimately I'm glad they stuck with the timeline from the comics. The nerdgassing from the fans would have been tremendous had they not!

While I agree with a lot of the reasons you give, I think the setting and subject matter works because this is an alternate history. And yes, it might not be as impactful today, but the message is still there and can be easily translated to our current situation if the audience puts even just a modicum of thought into it.

I wouldn't say we've quite moved past the threat of nuclear war. Russia still has tons of nukes, and so do we. The cold war may have ended, but Russia is not dead. Nor is China retrograding. And of course you can never rule out the threat of a terrorist-built dirty bomb or worse -- an illegally attained warhead over the black market.

Anyway, as pure entertainment value the movie worked. And I'm glad to see you agree. :)

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