March 8, 2009

Watching the Watchmen

I'm glad I didn't write this on Friday night.

That was the first time I saw Watchmen, and on the way out of the theater, I made several remarks indicating that a) Watchmen was a terrific movie and b) it was on par with The Dark Knight.

Those statements are not exactly accurate.

Watchmen gets a lot of things right. It's beautiful to look at, and it's entertaining. The opening credits, a recap of the early years of the Watchmen timeline set to "The Times, They Are A-Changin'" by Bob Dylan, is an inspired idea bordering on genius. Scenes like the Comedian/Manhattan Vietnam flashback, the rape, the Manhattan-on-Mars monologue/flashback and the Comedian/Ozymandias fight are staged perfectly. Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan absolutely nail Rorschach and The Comedian. And the new ending is, in my opinion, better than Alan Moore's original (don't tell him I said that).

Upon my second viewing, though, the movie's flaws stood out. Chief among those is director Zack Snyder's music choices, which are unspeakably awful. Granted, the use of "I'm Your Boogie Man" during the riot scene was another spot of genius. However, "99 Luftballons" over the first few moments of Laurie and Dan's dinner was a bit too jarring, and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" blaring throughout the strangely long and graphic sex scene sparked laughter more than anything else. "The Sounds of Silence" at the funeral and "All Along the Watchtower" in Antarctica were beyond absurd. Music is supposed to accompany the movie, not take you out of it, and those two songs could not have seemed more out of place. I don't care if lyrics from "Watchtower" are mentioned in the graphic novel, that doesn't mean the songs need to be shoved in our face. Quentin Tarantino he isn't.

But there was more to it than that. In the end, Snyder's devotion to the source material has been his undoing. He correctly realizes, over the course of the first hour, that The Comedian is the driving force behind Watchmen. It's no coincidence that all of those scenes are among the best in the movie. However, Snyder takes almost an hour to cover material that is only 1/8th of the graphic novel. By then, it's up to the other characters to carry the weight, and they're barely given anything to work with. Even the prison sequences with Rorschach, arguably the most interesting aspect of the graphic novel, fall short.

Too many of the scenes were also given the wrong feel. I understand that a comic adaptation with a budget of around $150 million is not going to be particularly introspective and subversive, but there was no need to turn the tenement fire into a death-defying adventure for Silk Spectre and Nite Owl. There was definitely no need to have Rorschach say "my pleasure" instead of "my perspective" during the attempted attack by Big Figure, and there was also no need to make Laurie only mildly perturbed by Manhattan's attempted double team. In fact, Akerman's horrible performance led to a lot of her scenes coming across strangely, and it makes you wonder how Snyder could be so hit-or-miss on his casting.

Watchmen is absolutely worth a view, and if you enjoy the graphic novel as much as I do, you'll be very impressed at how well Snyder brings some of those scenes to life. In the end, though, after Iron Man and Dark Knight set the bar so much higher for comic book movies, the expectations for an adaptation of one of TIME Magazine's 100 best novels were too high to be met by a visually dominant director like Snyder. If he could have figured out how to condense the rest of the movie as well as he did in the opening credits, we'd be talking about this movie for years to come. Instead, it's merely a faithful but flawed adaptation of a truly classic piece of comic literature.

In retrospect, they should have just made this instead:

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