So, yesterday I praised the heck out of Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' esteemed graphic novel set in an alternate 1985 in which the world is teetering on the brink of nuclear war. Does the much-hyped film version live up to the expectations that accompany any adaptation of such acclaimed source material?
For the most part, yes. Director Zack Snyder captures much of the spirit of the graphic novel, which offered a refreshingly cerebral take on the "superhero genre". Fans of Watchmen will relish seeing the book's unique imagery represented in live action form. Even as someone who only discovered Watchmen less than a week ago, hearing masked vigilante Rorschach's gravelly narration taken word-for-word from the book, or seeing the action scenes painfully reconstructed shot-for-shot from the graphic novel's frames, enlightened my inner geek.
Watchmen opens with the brutal assassination of a vigilante named The Comedian, whose death sparks theories of a plot against masked heroes. This opening scene, coupled with one of the best title sequences in years (a three-minute montage of moments in the lives of the earliest superheroes, accompanied by Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'"), is arguably the highlight of the film. In just a brief, few minutes, the audience is thrown headlong into the history of this bizarre, alternate reality. It's moving, intriguing and beautifully shot and edited.
Snyder's film remains incredibly faithful to its source material, despite lopping a number of my favourite subplots and sequences in order to get the movie's runtime down to a still-pretty-meaty 161 minutes. Snyder plans to release a director's cut on DVD, containing an extra half hour of footage, which I suspect will benefit the film greatly. (Additionally, an animated film based on the brilliantly dark "Tales of the Black Freighter" story-within-a-story from the original comic is due to be released on DVD in the near future.)
Where Snyder does deviate from the graphic novel (as opposed to excising content due to time restrictions), it's often an improvement. In particular, the villain's ultimate plot, or rather the means by which he aims to achieve it (which I criticised yesterday), is altered here, becoming a tighter, tidier scheme with the same end result. It's difficult to elaborate without spoiling the film, but it's a marked improvement on what was, for me, one of the graphic novel's few flaws. Unfortunately, the absence of the sequences missing from this cut of Watchmen mean we don't fully grasp the scope of the final act's devastation; here's hoping this will be rectified with the director's cut of the film.
Watchmen's faithful transfer to the screen is also due in large part to its cast, which doesn't contain a single A-lister (a major plus). Rather, the film is populated by a very capable group of actors who could only individually be described as "that guy/girl from...". For the most part, all embody their roles with a perfect understanding of the original book's appeal: that Watchmen's characters were not "super" heroes, but rather a random patchwork of real people with real flaws. Standouts include Patrick Wilson (that guy from The Phantom of the Opera) as Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl, Jackie Earle Haley (that guy from Little Children) as Walter Kovaks/Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (that guy from Grey's Anatomy) as Edward Blake/The Comedian. All of Watchmen's characters are mired in a kind of murkiness and ambiguity that more popular superheroes don't even come close to representing.
My only minor niggles with the cast were Matthew Goode (who's almost too young for the part of Adrien Veidt) and Billy Crudup (though that may have more to do with the difficulty of depicting a character who was vaporised in a radiation accident only to regenerate in the form of a bright blue super human who possesses a range of powers, few clothes and an oft-featured bright blue knob, because he is superb in his pre-accident flashbacks). The fact that Watchmen is one of the best-cast comic book adaptations ever is a major boon in light of the story's ensemble nature.
The cinematography, special effects and costumes are all terrific. Special praise goes to Watchmen's superb soundtrack, which features a fantastic assembly of songs, each beautifully fitting and unfitting for the scenes they accompany.
Yet as much as I found to enjoy in Snyder's adaptation, I can't help but appreciate Alan Moore's snobbery that Watchmen could only ever be pulled off within the confines of the comic book medium. The writer told Entertainment Weekly in 2008, "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." I'm inclined to agree.
Even though Snyder's take on Watchmen is probably as faithful as any adaptation could ever get, everything about the story, including its very context, functions so much better in the comic book medium that any transition to film was bound to live in the shadow of its source material. Many of the book's talky sequences, often dealing with heady existential subjects, are much more engaging on the printed page than on the screen. Moreover, the absence of any equivalent to Moore's engaging and articulate written extracts that close each chapter and contextualise much of the story are sorely missed. Meanwhile, the movie's excessive violence, though accurately translated from the book, at times seems like a bone tossed at fans of the so-called "torture porn" genre. In short, the film version failed to leave me with the same sense of awe at the saga unfolding before me as the graphic novel did.
Like its original format, Watchmen probably isn't destined to be crowd-pleasing fare. I suspect it may even divide fans of the graphic novel as much as it will moviegoers (I'm hoping the director's cut will amend most of my bugbears about this adaptation). It also lacks the psychological resonance that made the graphic novel such a landmark in its medium. Nevertheless, it remains a superior addition to the superhero genre, and one that will hopefully point filmgoers towards its phenomenal source material.