Thursday, March 26, 2009


I don't pretend to be an expert on graphic novels. I read WATCHMEN a while back. I remember lots of splendid detail, every single panel crammed with lovingly chosen details that beg to be noticed, and a batch of characters whose backstories were interesting and elaborate enough for me to not mind the rather simplistic murder mystery plot (somebody is killing off ex-costumed heroes) at the story's core. The big climax seemed rather anti-climactic, a big statement about ends justifying the means or something, I couldn't help feeling that the creators had bitten off more than they could chew. But folks loved it, and continue to love it. Over the years rumored film versions were bandied about, including one from Terry Gilliam, but nothing ever came of it.

And now the movie is actually here, and I was simply dreading it. It is directed by the publicity-anointed "visionary director" Zack Snyder, who made the bizarrely successful and thoroughly evil film 300 two years back. WATCHMEN impresses occasionally with a simple competence that I wouldn't have expected from Snyder. There's a lot of crap to wade through, make no mistake, as our "visionary" packs on the "cinematic" stuff all over the place: he makes damn sure that each shot is a big showstopper. It isn't enough for Snyder to show a cemetery, he has to begin on a closeup of rain running down a statuary angel's face and then pull back and back and back through the wrought iron gate and all the way back up and out so we can see the hearse at the cemetery gates, with "Sounds Of Silence" on the soundtrack, yet. And Snyder's fondness for slow-motion hyperchoreographed fights and really revolting violence can make parts of the film difficult to watch without giggling or wincing. Make no mistake, the line between Serious Depiction of Graphic Violence To Make A Dramatic Point and Just Getting Off On The Sight Of Blood is crossed early and enthusiastically. And the nudge-nudge references to other films (certain scenes involving the the President discussing impending war are set in a mock up of the famed War Room from DR. STRANGELOVE, for example) don't really add much besides the satisfaction to a quick viewer of having Gotten It.

For all Snyder's slavish attention to stuff like this, there's something inert about the movie. I think that the film's biggest problem is pretty simple: it is hard to get terribly invested in the people being shown onscreen, largely because we never learn much about them. Big chunks of backstory are hinted at, but never really fleshed out satisfyingly; I imagine that the extra hour of footage apparently coming on the inevitable Director's Cut DVD will clarify a lot. As it stands now, though, only Jeffrey Dean Morgan's grinning sociopath The Comedian, Jackie Earle Haley's splendid Rorschach and Billy Crudup's CGI-enhanced Dr. Manhattan manage to generate much in the way of interest. The sections concentrating on these characters (Rorschach and the Dr. especially) are far and away the best in the film. Haley manages to project a very real danger out of thin air with his empty stare, and Crudup's sweet dreamy voice is a nice surprise. Alas, Patrick Wilson is left high and dry in his sputtering romance with the appalling Malin Akerman: I dare you not to be reminded of Andy Garcia valiantly trying to romance Sofia Coppola in GODFATHER III. Wilson and Akerman's slow-mo love scene, accompanied by Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is painful to watch.

And someone named Matthew Goode delivers the worst performance of the year and possibly the decade as Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias. He seems to have graduated from the Gerard Butler School of Acting, where all lines seem to have been learned phonetically and all actors seem to be overcoming heavy accents or serious speech impediments or both. The character's solemn pronouncements seem rather silly when expressed in a bizarre monotone with bad diction. Goode is aiming for some kind of Dark Superman but comes off more like a luuded out Elmer Fudd.
I couldn't escape a degree of "so what" about the film, ultimately. This sort of thing has been done before. Films like Tim Burton's BATMAN RETURNS and Nolan's Bleak Chic reboot of the franchise BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT have pretty well stripped costumed heroes of any romantic notions we might have had of them, and Nolan's films went out of their way to jam Big Themes into the mix. I'd bet that a good deal of WATCHMEN's thunder has been stolen by the incredible worldwide success of THE DARK KNIGHT in particular. WATCHMEN's big speeches are as lamely written as any in THE DARK KNIGHT, and I can't blame Patrick Wilson for being unable to make a line like "(w)hat happened to the American Dream?" provoke anything other than laughter, coming as it does from a man in an owl costume.
I was certainly not a fan of either of Nolan's Batman films, but they at least try to wrestle convincingly with the Big Themes they address. I can give Nolan and his pair of films an A for Effort that I just can't bring myself to give to that Snyder guy. All costumed hero movies made since WATCHMEN's publication owe a big debt to its pioneering example. What a shame that WATCHMEN itself has been brought to the screen in such lackluster fashion.


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