Sat 07 Mar
I’m completely unqualified to objectively judge director Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of “Watchmen” because, between the ages of fifteen and sixteen, I formed a lasting and surely prejudicing bond with the original Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comic books. While most of my schoolmates were preoccupied with less insular pursuits, I paid good teenage cash for each issue of the mini-series as it was published, rapturously devouring each chapter and patiently, faithfully enduring the long publishing delays that beset the series between chapters.
In spite of all the growing up I’ve done since, all the revelations and disillusions that I’ve been through, I’ve never lost an ounce of admiration or affection for the “Watchmen” story or its characters. For twenty-plus years, I’ve considered it one of the most thrilling, satisfying experiences I’ve had with popular art; it’s still among the best things I’ve ever read.
This then predisposed me to an approving regard for the movie before even taking my seat in the theater last night; as long as what followed was minimally half-good, competent and moderately intelligent, I was sure to be pleased. As it turns out, I enjoyed it not just a little but ecstatically, too. I found it utterly engrossing if glaringly imperfect, and surprisingly smart if heavily grandiose.
I have to admit though that most of what I enjoyed so much was the adaptation of something I knew very well. There’s nothing quite like seeing comic book panels that you’ve pored over for so long suddenly and vividly brought to life. When its performers got down to the business of acting out in detailed form the plot and dialog that I’ve cherished for so long, I found myself nearly tearing up with joy.
Rarely has a film based on graphic fiction treated its original text so much like gospel. “Watchmen” is stunningly, sometimes unnecessarily faithful to the very panels of the comic book, and in a sense it’s not so much an adaptation as an embellishment. Snyder chose to remain remarkably true to the original story, instead focusing on layering a new dimension of detail over the images first designed and rendered by Dave Gibbons.
This world is rife with an exquisite and grotesque textures: the kinetic miasma emanating from an atomic man, his blood vessels coursing just beneath and his deep blue freckles floating just on the surface of supernaturally translucent skin; the diverse sheens of spandex and armor worn by masochistic, costumed adventurers; the mesmerizing fluidity of a bizarre ink that constantly shifts in symmetric abstractions on a woolen mask; and of course blood in an unending array of consistencies from thick to thin, freshly wet to dryly coagulated, even watered down by rainfall and smudged by a thumb.
Though Snyder reinvents a narrow but significant part of the story (amazingly, the result is an even more convincing plot than the original), it’s evident that this catalog of textures is what he’s most invested in. His “Watchmen” is very much still Alan Moore’s (even if he has disavowed the film) and Dave Gibbons’. Snyder has only laid claim to the surfaces, undersides, and intimate close-ups that we were never able to see in the pages of the comics. He’s taken two-dimensional drawings and treated them like blueprints, extrapolated them out into three-dimensional renderings (not coincidentally, relying heavily on computer wizardry in the process). The result has the intricate, tactile beauty of a diorama, as if Joseph Cornell had gotten into the movie business.
Whether the movie holds any intrinsic appeal for the uninitiated, I have no idea. I like to think that I wasn’t so easily enamored by nostalgic wonder that I was completely blind to its other shortcomings. It’s overlong and hammy at times, to be sure. And it bites off more than it can chew in how far it allows its narrative to sprawl; it could have done with fewer ambitious historic re-creations and fewer impersonations of historic figures, and a tighter focus on its central characters and plotline.
Still, I have faith that its core story and characters are inherently compelling. At the very least, the hype in the run up to opening night stirred enormous interest for the original comic books and showed that they are still capable of casting their spell on new readers. In the past few weeks, I’ve seen perhaps a dozen subway riders reading the trade paperback reissue avidly, preparing for the movie’s release. My girlfriend, who does not consider herself to be a comic book-person, finished reading the originals just in advance of seeing the movie — and thoroughly enjoyed both. Some critics are sure to levy the accusation that a film that requires advanced reading of its original text is a failure; for my money, a bit of passive moviewatching that requires — or even inspires — some preparatory reading isn’t the worst thing in the world, by any means.