Shiny Shelf


By Lance Parkin on 14 March 2009

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

I thought I knew what to expect from the ‘Watchmen’ movie, and that it would provoke a strong reaction from me. However… it managed to catch me out, because I came out of it with no idea what my opinion was. The conventional wisdom, that ‘Watchmen’ is unfilmable, has clearly been disproved but a week later, I’m still not sure whether I like it, and I think I’ve worked out why.

I like the comic. To the extent that I think there’s a strong case that anyone who doesn’t understand how great it is so clearly lacks judgment that they should lose the rights to vote and own property. Zack Snyder’s movie adopts an entirely proper reverence to the original. While other
adaptations of Alan Moore’s stuff have decided to ditch all the, y’know, Alan Moore stuff, Snyder retains everything word-for-word (at one point, tellingly, a character threatens another with a circular saw, but threatens to ‘roast’ him, because in the comic he’s using a blowtorch). It’s so faithful that you can actually sense the moments the original issues end.

Because the movie is taking all its cues from a comic that works, it works. It makes the mistake that most people do, of seeing the material as incredibly ‘dark’ because the first issue is narrated by Rorschach,
the darkest character. ‘Watchmen’ is not dark. This sounds absurd – it does, after all, feature rape, a man getting boiling chip fat thrown in his face, a dog eating an abducted girl, a pregnant woman being shot in the stomach and plenty more things besides. But look at the palette – it’s all bright colours, neon and brash decoration: as lurid and rainbowy as an episode of ‘The Monkees’ or the Adam West ‘Batman’. Rorschach is just one voice, and the comic encourages the reader to see him
ironically, rather than sympathetically – he’s right about everything, but only by coincidence. That’s just one of the jokes in a comic that’s full of sight gags, visual and verbal puns and ironies. Tellingly, the movie adds gore that the original only suggests, and it’s just not as witty. Other reviews have lauded the opening credit sequence, and that’s where all the colour and jokes are.

The right cast could have brought a whole new dimension to the material. Snyder’s cast don’t do any harm (although Malin Ackerman tries her damndest), and Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan certainly embody their characters but don’t go beyond that. Only Patrick Wilson’s
Nite Owl feels like an actor engaging with the material and reaching for emotional truth (if he was playing against Jennifer Connolly, as he did in ‘Little Children’, they could have brought a real emotional core to the story). The cast are all ten years too young to sell the basic joke of the movie – that the superheroes are entering middle age and are a little past their prime. My fantasy ‘Watchmen’ cast would be a bunch of 80s has-been actors – a nice cheap option, as Quentin Tarantino has
discovered, because you get a nice combination of experience, hunger and
connection to the material. Ally Sheedy as Silk Specter, Matthew Broderick as Nite Owl, Mickey Rourke as the Comedian, Rick Moranis as Rorschach, Tom Cruise – obviously – as Ozymandias. Snyder didn’t want the actors to overshadow the movie… which sort of misses the point of any movie that doesn’t have R2D2 in it, but also undersells the core of the story – that these are real people who happen to have been superheroes. That sense is completely lost, in a mass of slo-mo wire-fu fight sequences (virtually none of which are in the comic). When Nite Owl and Silk Specter consummate their relationship in the book, it’s pervy and cathartic and fetishistic and telling and sweet all at the same time… in the movie it’s become a sex scene that would be almost exactly as erotic if Gordon Brown was in it. But… the movie’s just
fine, and leagues ahead of most action-adventure or science fiction movies.

There’s a central issue with the movie, not a ‘problem’ as such. It can be best explained this way: we need to see more of Ozymandias to sell the ending… but we do in the comic; Ozymandias suddenly has a CG
leopard thing at the end… yeah, it’s Bubastis from the comic; it would have been nice to see more stuff between Rorschach and the psychiatrist… we do in the comic. I’m not playing the standard fanboy card of ‘I liked it, but I don’t know what the non-fanboys will make of it’. I
don’t care. The non-fanboys have had over twenty years to read one of the most important novels of the twentieth century, a vast number of them have – far more ‘normal’ people have read ‘Watchmen’ than, say, ever read an issue of ‘Iron Man’ or the ‘Justice League of America’. I’ve read
it, I’m not going to second-guess anyone who hasn’t. Seriously, if you don’t already know about ‘Watchmen’, where have you been? Tellingly, all the ’spoilers’ that have
leaked or feature in reviews are about what’s missing from the movie, not what’s in it.

The problem isn’t one of incoherence or incomprehensibility… the movie makes far more sense, hangs together much better than, relies less on affection for the source material and goodwill from the audience than, to pick an example, ‘The Dark Knight’ – or, for that matter, ‘The English Patient’, ‘The Order of the Phoenix’, ‘The Return of the King’, ‘Milk’ or ‘Atonement’.

Zack Snyder’s movie functions just fine, in places it’s brilliant. It’s ‘bold’… although it’s a highly-specialised sense of the word, given
that the director and credited screenwriters were half as old as they are today (all still in high school, in fact) when all the bold bits
were written. Five stars, two thumbs up, 98%, destined to be a classic… but the problem with the movie is this: it adds nothing. Why settle for five stars out of five when the book’s worth at least seven or eight?

When it comes down to it, ‘Watchmen’ feels like the novelisation of a novel. I can’t think of a single reason why you shouldn’t just re-read the book.

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By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

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