Friday, March 6, 2009

The Watchmen Movie

I went to go see a midnight show of the Watchmen movie. Sure, it's late, and I do need to be at work tomorrow around 7:30 in the morning, but that's okay. My justification is that I have patiently waited twenty-three years for this movie to come out.

I'm a comic book collector, err, I used to be. I've only had time to commit to one hobby (or two) at a time these last few years, and comics have fallen by the wayside. But I remember the Watchmen well. I started with issue #4, I recall the interesting cover on the rack and picked it up based on cover alone. I read it, and I didn't know what to think. Mind you, I was "only" twelve at the time, but no stranger to comics or literature. I was intrigued, and after #5 was bought and read I had to find the three back issues I was missing; back in the day it wasn't too hard do actually. After getting these, reading from the series from the ground up, I was instantly hooked.

Alan Moore's literary work has been rightly lauded with praise ever since. He took comics from "kid's stuff" to being squarely in the world of legitimate writing, and the term 'graphic novel' came into its own, not coincidentally, around the same time. Was the Watchmen the first? No, but it set, and still holds, the bar. Even the art, by Dave Gibbons, was outside of the box and turned heads. It wasn't dynamic, it wasn't fantastic, it was...real. To see superheroes portrayed so realistically, both in character and in physical form was breathtaking. My nineteen year old niece is in college right now and had the Watchmen as part of her required reading in an English Lit. class.

It was truly unlike anything I had ever read before, and I couldn't get enough. These were monthly issues, remember? You had to wait from one month to the next just to get to the next chapter. What this meant though was that I would re-read the issues I had over and over again, hungry for the next issue. Excuse my verbosity here, but I just wanted to lay the ground work here that yes, I have indeed been waiting a long time for this movie. Now we move from the four color world to the big screen. Am I going to have to edit my Top Five post? Are my expectations too high? Let's see...

Line for line, the dialog matched each word of the comic. I could've sat there and quoted the movie all night like I had seen it a thousand times. Visually, you could take still frame after still frame and match them with panels from the comic verbatim. This was a literal comic-to-screen translation.

It was also the Watchmen, a key distinction here. It was not a glorified super hero flick. It was not a four-color romp. It was dark. It was dirty. It was ugly. It was violent; a painful violence, not exciting fisticuffs. Moments made you squirm, they made you sick with fear and disgust at the depths that man can sink to. At times it was sexy, even tender, but these were moments set between all the shades of darkness in the world. The heroes of the story never make a glorious ploy to save humanity, they wade through the mire like the rest of us.

There are sacrifices to be made to all stories when they make it to film, and there were here as well. There's an amazing wealth of sub story and background that support the overall novel; sadly it were these very back stories that couldn't (understandably) make it in the film. Although some of those characters still make it in visually at least, and you know instantly who they are when you see them. Other than these glaring omissions, which would have been impossible to pull off in three hours anyway, I can find very little fault with the film.

It was the movement, the motion of the scenes unfolding that make the movie stand out in my mind. What had been static images (still striking nonetheless) in my mind now had a life of their own, and the gaps in between the panels of the comic, where my mind played out the movements, were now visualized in front of me, yet, they weren't too different than what my mind's eye made out two decades prior. I had one problem with all of the slow motion sequences however, they did feel a tad too much like the Matrix at times. The fight scenes were bone crunching enough, they didn't need to add any extra flair to them. If based on nothing more than visuals alone, from print to screen, the Watchmen stands without peer.

To the hardcore fan, yes, you can become nitpicky about many small details. But they are small details. Example; as Big Figure's goon "gets in the way" of the cell door while in prison, in the comic, he is removed from the scene via box cutter, in the film, it was an entirely different (and far more graphic) implement. Same effect, just a subtle difference. These very minor details become trivial at best, people getting that critical don't want to accept their beloved comic book has "sold out" in the first place. There many such departures, true, but for every one detail changed or left out, ten more were dead on.

Dialog delivery, at times, could use some work, but the script itself remained very faithful to the original. Entire word balloons of conversation were left in the film word for word. It's a story, driven by what the characters think, do, and say. It's not an action flick, and I think more than a few in the sold out audience tonight weren't expecting as much 'talking' as there was. Character back stories and origins were handled exactly as they were in the comics, and even a good portion of the flashbacks were not only included, but done so in a creative way that made sense and added to the depth of the movie.

My one complaint? I have a total head scratching moment with the ending however. I won't spoil it in its entirety here, not yet anyways, but I don't understand why the need to make such a huge change however, and what purpose it served. I don't think it was to modernize the story, but it just made no sense to me, period. The film wasn't ruined because of it, but for those keeping score at home, it was definitely a body blow that came out of nowhere. To have a near-perfect translation from book to film, and then to completely alter the origin of event signaling the end of the story, well, that just made no sense to me.

The actors were largely unknown to me, which I thought was a nice touch. You weren't distracted by 'Huge' Jackman running around as Wolverine, or what a good job Ron Perlman was doing as Hellboy. The actors were their characters and they didn't have any prior associations to affect the viewer's perception. The soundtrack was really great at times, and really "wtf?" at others. It included Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix, and many others, the latter actually fit with one of the scenes of the film too. The title of issue #11 was "Two Riders Were Approaching", and opened with two of the main characters trekking across the frozen void of Antarctica. In the film, this scene opened up with the song All Along the Watchtower, from which the original issue's title was taken. It was this extra attention to detail in moments like that which really made something already good...better. At other times I was left wondering where they felt the need to put 80's pop song "99 Red Balloons" in there though. I didn't mind the Bob Dylan opening montage, but I'm thinking an orchestral score throughout the movie would've done a better job in the end.

I'm not going to give it a rating, it feels wrong to put a label as such on it. I'm a big fan of everyone making up their own minds. If you have read the series, and have an appreciation for such work, go see it, you won't be disappointed. If you haven't, go see it anyway, the subtle nuances might be lost a little, but it will still delivery in ways you forgot that a movie could. I may need to go back to that Top 5 List after all and do a little editing, it'll fit somewhere in there...


  1. Okay, that response was high-larious. If I let myself, I could get carried away with the dning too, I guess, but the film had too much goodness packed in it for me to go off the deep end. Here's an article about the changed ending interviewing the script writer: