Watchmen: Initial Thoughts

The long awaited movie adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic graphic novel Watchmen has finally arrived. It has certainly been a long time coming - my first post on the subject was over 7 years ago, and at that point, the movie had already been stuck in development hell for 15 years, with no realistic prospects... The project went from director to director (including the likes of Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky) until 2007, shortly after the surprisingly profitable premiere of another graphic novel adaptation, 300, when Warner Brothers tapped director Zack Snyder to direct the forthcoming Watchmen. There was some apprehension to the selection of Snyder for this, and he certainly hadn't demonstrated the sort of heft that Watchmen would require, but I was glad the movie was being made.

I just got home from the theater, and to be honest, I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. What follows may turn out to be a rambling mess and I'm sure that my feelings about the film will solidify as time goes on, but for now, I'd like to write my initial impressions. I'll try to be mostly spoiler free, though I'm going to write some stuff in the extended entry that will contain spoilers.

The writer of the original comic book is Alan Moore, and he has repeatedly disavowed any of the attempts to adapt his work. I think this quote from an EW interview is the key to how I feel about the Watchmen movie:
There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can't.
Indeed, many have claimed Watchmen was an unfilmable work, citing the long history of failed productions as evidence. Throughout the years, several strategies were considered. Terry Gilliam wanted to create a monsterous 12 hour epic. Paul Greengrass wanted to update the story to directly address the war on terror (as opposed to the graphic novel's Cold War), a direction I'm convinced would have been disasterous. Ultimately, the man who was chosen to direct had a pretty simple strategy: remain religiously faithful to the original work.

I think it's an admirable strategy, but there are some things that just don't work (like when he changed the story). In particular, some of the dialogue in the film isn't so great. Ironically, many of these are direct quotes from the novel... but what works on the page doesn't necessarily translate well to the screen. There is a melodramatic tone that fits the comic perfectly, while it just sorta floats off the screen and hangs there in a film. On the other hand, some of the dialogue works well. For instance, when Rorschach growls his "You're trapped in here with me." line (one of my favorites from the novel - and while I'm talking about him, Jackie Earle Haley's Rorshach is fantastic, better than I expected and perhaps the standout of the film), the theater erupted into something that was a mixture between a cheer and nervous laughter (which was perfect). Most of Dr. Manhattan's dialogue was suitably incongruous, and the Comedian worked well too. But when the Dreiberg Night Owl whines "What happened to the American dream?" or when a news anchor says "The superman exists and he's American," it just doesn't work.

In the end, I'm not sure anyone could do much better in adapting this comic book into a movie... Snyder got more right than I thought he was capable of... and I'm not sure a better adaptation would be possible. I reread most of the graphic novel this past week, and one of the things that struck me was how many parallel threads Moore and Gibbons were working with, and the techniques they used to illustrate those parallel tracks. For instance, the Tales of the Black Freighter comic-within-a-comic is a microcosm of the whole story, and Moore and Gibbons cross cut between that and the events of the story to great effect. That almost certainly would not have worked in movie form, so I'm glad that Snyder didn't include it (though apparently he did do something that will be released separately). That was one of two big changes in the adaptation, and I think the movie is better for that change. But Snyder does make effective use of cross cutting in several cases (aligning with the cross cutting used in the novel), and the editing in the Dr. Manhattan origin story was much better than I was expecting.

Which brings me to the other major change - the ending. I don't understand why so many adaptations opt to change the ending, especially adaptations that are really attempting to be faithful to the source material. The new ending is basically an attempt to replicate the same outcome of the book without using the same catalyst. The result is the same, but the method is different. I think it just barely works, but I still don't see the need for it (a more spoiler-laden discussion of this will be in the extended entry). I think it was an unnecessary change and while I was willing to accept it and go with it, I'm positive that many fans of the comic will dislike the new ending.

So I think the movie is good, maybe even great, but not perfect and not a classic. It gets a lot of things right - more than I would have thought possible... and while that's actually quite impressive, it's perhaps not enough. It's cliche to say that the book is better than the movie, but that's only because it's mostly true, and this adaptation is no different. My initial take on it is that it's a solid *** (three out of 4 stars) movie. I look forward to the extended cut of the film, but ultimately, I don't see that changing my overall feelings.

Update: Alex didn't think the ending worked at all and MGK thought the whole thing sucked. And this is everywhere, but Saturday Morning Watchmen is brilliant.

Update 3.10.09: Nerdquest comments. We have similar overall views, though we differ on some of the details. He doesn't seem to like the music, which I admit could be a bit much...

Here be the spoilers:

So, the ending. In the comic, a Giant Squid is dropped on New York, instantly killing millions with some sort of psychic ability. The event is made to look like an alien attack, which results in America and the Soviets uniting against a new enemy. Ozymandias/Veidt orchestrated the whole thing, and has to live with what he did, even if he believes it was for the best. This is a drastic simplification of what happens, but it's the basic idea.

Before I move on to the ending of the film, I want to backtrack a bit and talk about one of the scripts not used in this new adaptation. It was one of the first scripts produced. Written by Sam Hamm and dated 1989, the script was pretty faithful right up until the ending. Ozymandias/Veidt figures out time travel and parallel universes, and after examination, he realizes that the only timelines where the human race survives are the ones where Dr. Manhattan never existed. So he attempts to change the past by assassinating Osterman before he becomes Dr. Manhattan. I did not like this ending at all, as it pretty much undermines the rest of the story.

Now, the new movie's ending attempts to retain the spirit of the original comic, but it also sorta has elements of the Hamm ending (I doubt anyone was intentionally trying to use the Hamm ending, but there are similarities). In the original comic, there is a subplot about how Dr. Manhattan and Veidt collaborated to create widespread and cheap electric cars. It's not a tremendously important development in the book, but the new movie tries to elevate that portion of the story (perhaps in an effort to make the movie more relevant to our present day situation). Dr. Manhattan and Veidt haven't completed anything - they're working on a general power source. "Free power" that will rid us of our dependance on oil. However, Veidt had an ulterior motive for this new energy source. He creates several generators, and then uses them to detonate nuclear explosions in several American cities. Because the technology is based on Dr. Manhattan, the conclusion that officials come to is that Dr. Manhattan blew up the cities. So America and the Soviets unite against a new enemy, and the Cold War crisis is averted. Manhattan leaves for another galaxy, just like in the comic.

Does this work? I guess (barely), but I find it uncessesary and there are probably more plot holes that I'm not thinking of at the moment. It's much better than the Hamm ending, at least, but I don't understand the desire to besmirch Dr. Manhattan's name. I find the irony in the "free energy" angle interesting. All the talk about creating free energy and ridding ourselves of our dependency on fossil fuels was just a way to fool everyone. I suppose the one main argument for not doing the giant squid ending is that, you know, it's a giant freakin squid. It might look stupid. I haven't reread the last couple chapters of Watchmen yet, but I just scanned through it. Most of what you see are mounds of dead, bloody bodies along with a tentacle. The main portion of the squid is shown in one full page panel and I think it's also shown in a painting or a TV monitor at one point. I think it could have worked fine, but that's just me.