Watchmen in Greater Detail

WatchmenI’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.

Adaptation Is in the Details

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.

Shock of the New

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.

  1. a bit of passive moviewatching that requires some preparatory reading isn’t the worst thing in the world

    Totally. The idea that any work of art should be just as easily appreciated by someone with no foreknowledge and someone with deep understanding of a topic is absurd. This is an argument for making art for the lowest common denominator, for making entertainment for children.

    The more you prepare yourself for any artistic experience, the better. I also intend to re-read Watchmen, issue by issue, before watching this movie.

    Can I just add that as a teenage buyer of the 12-issue comic series, I rankle at the use of the word “graphic novel” to describe The Watchmen, which for you and I was a 12-issue series of thin and expensive comic books. Thank you for not using it.

    While I’m ranting, I also hate it when The Watchmen is called the first grown-up superhero comic and when writers suggest that it somehow changed superhero comic books forever. It did no such thing — superhero comics continued to be stupid. They still are. In fact, to me at least, The Watchmen permanently undermined the superhero comic book genre by revealing the juvenile nature of the whole costumed hero idea. It poisoned the well, or at least revealed it to be a kind of dead end. I pretty much stopped buying comic books after The Watchmen. Not coincidentally, I also lost my virginity soon thereafter.

  2. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect truth be told. The mixed reviews but very positive ones by the critics who I deem as my yardsticks for a good movie were a good indicator for whether I’d like it. The multiple layers of the comic were absent to a large degree but I don’t see how they could have included them without making the film a LOTR-style trilogy of epic proportions. Having seen it with The Girl, who wasn’t familiar with it at all, I was curious to try to approach it from her standpoint — would it hold up on its own and without all those multiple layers?

    I think it did and it’s length didn’t make itself known — a good sign. It was lovely to see how much of the aesthetic carried over and was brought to life, panel-for-frame and the cast were my imagination’s voices and mannerisms brought to motion. I was pleased.

    The only bit that bothered me and that I agree with you on are certainly the bits with historical figures — Nixon being the biggest culprit. Almost a caricature and distracting. I kept thinking of the Dead Presidents masks from Point Break of all things.

  3. I was worried about this movie – especially given the non-squid ending but I find this very reassuring and now I have something to look forward too.

  4. Chris: after I hit publish on this piece, it occurred to me that not only did this movie “require preparatory reading,” it in fact inspired it. I suspect you’d agree with me that that’s a very positive thing. Thanks to the magic power of blogging, I went back in time and added that little bit in the post.

  5. “Whether the movie holds any intrinsic appeal for the uninitiated, I have no idea.”

    Having never read the comic books, I can say the movie held my rapt attention and I never felt confused or bored with the plot and characterizations.

    Some of the gore was over the top, in particular the prison inmate having his arms sawed off after his hands were tied together by Rorshach.

  6. I was waiting for this post because your blog was how I first came to watch the trailer some months back. Having never read the comic book series, I have to admit that this movie was hard to chew on and it didn’t taste good. Other people in the theater thought it was great, most of them were Watchmen-fans chatting about cool nostalgia details while I was trying to keep track of the overcomplex nostalgia-driven backstories of the characters on screen.

    What struck me most was how this (potentially very cool) story arc and theme were destroyed by some of the most pathetic cheesyness I’ve seen on the screen. At no moment could I buy the emotional stuff, I’m sorry. This is especially hard because a felt 80% of the movie were reserved to emotional talk.

    I just don’t like self-referencing in movies and Watchmen was a paradigm of self-reference. So, I guess, it’s a movie for fans.

  7. My own favourite teenage reading and subsequent film was Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. I read the book in 1996 and was completely blown away. The film just a few years later – directed by Gilliam no less – was an even more bizarre and impressive experience.

    From what you’ve said, it sounds as though Watchmen and Fear & Loathing received similarly ultra-authentic treatments.

    Fear & Loathing really confused my friends who came along with me. None of them had read the book. Mind, knowing those guys still today, books were never really their thing!

  8. Thanks for the thoughtful post Khoi. I too made sure I’d be at the comic book store with every new issue — my father and I poured over every panel together, as we had been recommended the comic by a colleague of his at M.I.T.. All these factors emblazoned a certain reverence for Watchmen that I’ve never lost.

    The subtle visual nods within the movie to frames of the novel were a joy. I had read in Wired that shout-outs to the fanboys would be included, and was glad to see em.

    And speaking of those watching who are unfamiliar with the story — my wife enjoyed the structure and narrative arc, in that it revealed more and more about each character in an even-paced digestible format. Like Rorschach, who goes from unlikeable to unflappable.

    I just didn’t expect so much full-frontal male nudity. To break ground here is an added bonus 😉

  9. I was inclined to skip out on the movie, in fear that it would somehow tarnish the legacy of the comics or something snobby like that, but after reading this I thought I should give it a try.

    And I’m really glad I did. While it does have its flaws (I thought the overabundance of licensed music was often jarring), I ended up really enjoying it. Thanks for the recommendation!

  10. So-despite being a comic book geek, I somehow missed the comic book when I was a teenager. But, I absolutely loved the film. It was deliciously ambiguous and let me explore my own feelings about what is moral and just, and what I would do if I could fly around in a cool jet powered aircraft/submarine. I’m looking forward to seeing it again this weekend.

  11. The book was awesome, for me, because it was the first time I fell in love with comic book characters. This speaks more to the writing and pacing than anything else.

    In the movie, the characters seemed too stiff. I didn’t love any of them, but in fact pitied them.

    As a period piece, the terminator dream sequence was amazing. Apocalyptic love: CLASSIC 80’s.

  12. My general feeling about making Watchmen into a movie can be summed up thusly: it’s about as silly as making Citizen Kane into a comic book.

    In adapting Watchmen, the story lost a major component of what makes it such a great piece of work—its comic bookness. (Just as adapting Citizen Kane into another medium you would have lost its filmic qualities—especially the techincal ones like the craned camera, deep focus, etc.) As much as it’s a story about superheroes trying to save the world, it’s also a story about debunking the myth of the comic book hero. And as much as it’s a fine piece of pomo, non-linear storytelling, it’s also really a twelve part course in how comic book stories are told—the ways to relate one comic book panel to another. And this last part, I believe, is really what made Watchmen “unfilmable” as its been called on so many occasions (probably most often by its cantankerous mastermind). It’s unfilmable because one of the intrinsic values of the story is that it is a comic book.

    There are certain things that comics allow for that helped develop some of the themes—symmetry and time—of Watchmen and this relationship between panels is one of them. The comic book’s page-layout holds almost entirely to a grid divided evenly in 18 sections. Most pages had 9 panels, but whatever the configuration was, it held to that underlying grid. While it lent a certain rhythm and structure to the pages look and narrative pacing (the effects of which, I don’t think I entirely understand), it also allowed for a vast use of symmetry in the page designs (see the page depicting Rorschach’s capture). In as much as Watchmen was important to comics with respect to its mature subject matter (it being an instigator for the movement of comics’ target audience from 8-to-12 year-olds to 18-to-30-somethings), it was equally important regarding how its panels tell the story.

    The narrative flashes back and forth in time throughout the story. As Dr. Manhattan says later on in the book, “There is no future. There is no past… Time is simultaneous…” With the comic you can easily move forwards and backwards in the narrative just by turning some pages. By looking at an entire page at once you can see moments in the story happening simultaneously. Rorschach is a character of dichotomies. He sees everything in a prism of good/evil and right/wrong. His life is divided into two periods, when he was Walter Kovacs and when he became Rorschach. His mask is a mercurial Rorschach blotch, perpetually moving to make new symmetries. So the gimmick of using symmetry in the illustrations to underscore his character traits is an obvious enough device.

    In the page depicting Rorschach’s capture (and a number of other pages in book), the coloring of the panels is symmetrical. But the way in which that device functions in the comic is what makes it work so well. The physical motivation behind the color change in the panels is the flashing neon light in the background (The neon light features a symmetrical skull-and-crossbones in its design). The alternating color in conjunction with the ridigity of the grid-based layout acts as a sort of metronome, ticking off the moments until the issue’s climax. And while it functions as a sort of timing device, in order to actually see the symmetry on the page the reader must look at all nine panels at once, such that what’s happening in the first panel of the page is synchronous with the last panel. The symmetry is only apparent by making time stop in the story.

    This is something that couldn’t really be done in film. The comic book ties together these themes of symmetry and synchronicity in a very particular comic book-y way. Certainly the themes portrayed on film, but not in the same manner.

    And this is one of the major strikes against the film. Outside of cutting scenes out of chronological order, there’s little thematic play in its narrative technique. It cops the style of the comic without paying attention to the substance conveyed by that style. Snyder and co. didn’t make much of an effort in that regard. They had an opportunity to create a very striking visual vocabulary (maybe using simultaneous imagery or montage, for instance) and they didn’t. The only elements of the film they seemed to take liberties with were the credit sequence and the fight choreography and physics of battle, which were essentially a Matrix rehash with more blood.

    It was all the fireworks without the orchestration.

  13. I kinda disagree on the points about its “absurd” for someone to appreciate art without any other knowledge as per the first comment response.

    I haven’t read the book, though I am now inclined to possibly do so. I went into the film to appreciate it as a film, not an adaptation and as a film it is quite honestly not a work of art.

    There are many things that go towards a film being a stand out piece of filmmaking and this has snippets of it from great visuals to some form of deep storyline.

    I didn’t find it confusing in anyway but what I saw seems to be in stark contrast to what readers of the book saw. For me it was a poorly acted (bar maybe one or two performances) overlong, slow paced beyond being enjoyable film, and for those reasons it for me is flawed as a film as being a great of cinema.

    I am sure if I had read the book I would have enjoyed it a great deal more however I feel thats a failing of a film not something to be commended.

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