Watchmen Review – Look, Ye Mighty, and Despair – The Unique Geek


watchmenfireThere are a billion reviews of this movie, and there were a billion articles in advance of it.  The demographic I fall into is well-represented already as far as online criticism goes.  (What, a white thirty-something wannabe writer who read the comic as a boy is talking about the film?!  That’s a perspective I hadn’t considered!  Link me!).  I write this without any conceit of a unique perspective, but as a record of my personal experience in order to compare it to that of others.

I’m in my mid-thirties.  I have always known Watchmen as a collected work, so my “cred” doesn’t go all the way back to the individual issues.  I didn’t find it by “accident,” (even less cred!) It was first recommended to me by a comic store employee in the late ’80s, and since that time I have probably read it all the way through (including the text documents) three or four times.  I have flipped through it to revisit the art or favorite scenes many many times, but the last time I read it cover to cover was probably ten years ago.  I wanted to re-read it in advance of the movie, but my thought was seeing it without being hyper-aware of each panel would enhance my ability to judge it as a film.  Like, if I knew everything that was going to happen, it would cheapen the experience.

watchmen-art-730301Some things are unavoidable, some plot elements you don’t forget.  I know who the bad guy is.  In the early scene where Nite-Owl goes to warn Veidt someone might be trying to kill him, Veidt receives this news with his back to Nite-Owl, and we see a little smirk, a tiny tug at the corner of his mouth.  Knowing he’s the villain makes it difficult for me to see that as anything other than either, “Hee, the fool is warning me that I might be trying to kill me!”  or “As the paragon of human genius, I predicted you would come here, and I take a small pleasure in seeing it happen.”  Someone unfamiliar with the story might think the smirk meant, “Me, in danger?  Laughable!”  I can’t know.

I have read some amazingly-detailed reviews of the movie from people who are obsessed with the book, and you get things like, “The scene in the lounge where Dr. Manhattan explodes Moloch’s henchmen is a betrayal of the novel!  All it shows is gore!  In the comic we see Moloch’s horrified face.  It’s supposed to indicate his realization that the human era is ending!  Here it’s just a cheap effects scene to wake up the back row.  FAIL!”  I think that’s interesting, for sure, but my brain doesn’t work that way.  I don’t have a deep-enough understanding of the novel to generate a thought like that.

So, what I wanted to do was experience it in as much of a vacuum as possible.  To try and see it like someone who had read some Jane Austen in middle-school would enjoy seeing Pride and Prejudice on tv many years later.  I remember Dr. Manhattan ends up with Mr. Darcy, but how?

So, I held out for an IMAX screening.

The opening scene is fair enough at first.  An old guy flipping channels is a cute way to start establishing the universe. It’s an alternate ’80s, but not terribly different, ok.  He likes girls!  He stopped on a channel with a girl on it.  Celebrities are just like us!  “Unforgettable” had a little comeback back then.  I remember that, and hey, it’s Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon all of a sudden.  Terrible, off-putting slow motion scenes and completely unrealistic fight scenes.  Hey, the television got shot, but the music is still playing.  Lame!  Oh, wait, there’s the cover of the graphic novel, the sloppy smiley face.  I’ve seen that on posters!  Oh, the crash through the window is fucking cool and just like the comic.  I’m back in.

Then what proves to be the movie’s ultimate achievement, the historical montage.  A fucking masterful blend of music, image, color and narrative.  It entertains and conveys information perfectly, seemlessly building a foundation for a story without intrusive voiceover and thrilling with crazy alt-history collages.  The Times Square victory kiss between the super-chick and the nurse is a triumph of modern cinema.  Perfectly paced and executed.  Just brilliant.

Then it gets less focused as we meet all the principals and it tries to get going.  The way it jumps around makes it difficult to craft this review in a purely straight-forward way, so I’m going to have to match the movie’s capricious scattery!

Rorschach is fantastic.  They nailed it with the casting, and the effects on his mask are mesmerizing.

It’s been really interesting to see how movies deal with covered mouths.  Like, the Green Goblin in the first Spider-Man is terrible, just terrible Japanese opera bullshit.  Long, boring scenes where he shakes his fist and a frozen mask bobs.  In the Fantastic Four, they hide Dr. Doom in the shadows or under his hood as much as possible to minimize talking without moving lips.  In Iron Man, they nail it by taking us inside the mask, and here they give us something awesome to look at.  The dripping, changing blots are cool and eerie and fun and make you forget the voice-acting was done months later and miles away.

watchmenminutemenHis scenes are fun and cool, his being savage and driven “sells,” though I was put way off by his seeming super-powers.  He’s able to jump really high, and he has the same kind of Asian-magic fighting technique and ability the others have.  I think the concept is supposed to be that the only one with any kind of “power” at all is the godlike Dr. Manhattan.  Everyone else relies on gadgets and weapons (Nite-Owl/The Comedian), ferocity (Rorschach), distracting sex-appeal (Silk Spectre) or rigorous mental and physical preparation (Veidt).

By giving everyone, including a pot-bellied has-been and an eighty-pound chick, mystical ninja properties it takes away from Veidt’s superiority and makes the final fight confusing.

The casting ranges from “excellent” to “she’s hot” with the critical exception of Veidt, who, they have to know, they completely shit the bed with.  He’s unconvincing as anything, really, and it’s not clear at all that he’s supposed to be both the world’s smartest man and the peak of human perfection.  He just comes off as “rich guy who can magically beat everyone up when he feels like it.”

The movie drags. It’s a bunch of talking and characters that seem important and never come back (original Night Owl?) and some more talking and now it’s this guy’s origin, and now it’s this guy’s origin, and here’s another origin, and these guys don’t get origins, sorry.  Also, more talking.  It really only consistantly holds interest with Rorschach’s scenes.  His prison scenes are cool, his battle with the cops is cool.

There are loooong shots holding on insignificant images and perverse short-cutting on seemingly important scenes.  Why do they hold soooo long on that stone angel in the cemetary with a slow pull out?  Why do they show every fucking card fall out of the guy’s briefcase?  But, Silky is in an explosion and then suddenly safe on Archimedes again.  Why a jump in time there?  Random!

The music is really distracting and misses the mark more often than not.  Often terribly distracting.  What function does 99 Luftballoons serve in that particular place?  All Along the Watchtower was necessary, but not without matching the action to the lyrics. Ball dropped.  Much of it was way too loud.  Hallelujah was cringe-worthy.  The end credit music was like, “Fuck you, leave!”  It was like they were happy with Dylan in that opening montage and then stopped trying.

The score was cool, like in the prison riot and stuff.  The incidental stuff was fine, and the muzak version of Everybody Wants to Rule the World during Veidt’s convo with the businessmen was clever and fun, but on the whole the music diminished the experience.  Very poor decision-making skills were employed in its selection and application.

The ability to recreate specific panels from the comics is a stellar achievement.  The attention to detail is remarkable, and I can’t wait to pause the DVD, just as I can’t wait to fast-forward through most of the film.  It occurs to me the best way to experience the movie is to have the powers of Dr. Manhattan, the ability to ignore the linear nature of time.   Maybe we should consider the wait until the DVD’s release as a distracting stream of tachyons.

He was not as terrible as I was worried about.  The trailers make him seem like a blue Jar Jar Binks, and while it wasn’t really the top of the line effects-wise, they made him interesting to look at, and the performance was fine.  I liked him, and thought he did a reasonable job of conveying a character who has lost his humanity trying to remember how humans behave.  Like, he didn’t degenerate into Data or anything.  Captain, What. Is. Love?  He’s circumcised in the movie, and I don’t remember if he is in the book.  It was amusing to think about him being “uncut” before the accident but reforming himself “cut.”

One thing the movie did well, I think by accident, was make me think about the similarities and differences between Veidt and Dr. Manhattan.  Like, Dr. M isn’t human anymore, but he takes the appearance of a natural man (well, a natural blue man) and Veidt is human, the human-est of humans, but he wears retarded armor to appear less human.  Dr. M doesn’t care about people (the structure of a corpse is the same as the structure of a living person) but he doesn’t slaughter them.  Veidt “loves” humanity, and he kills millions of people.

I liked Nite-Owl very much.  He could have been dorkier, but that might have overplayed it.  They could have done a little more to suggest he was out of shape.  His function was to be the relatable one, and he served it.  They push that a little much at the end by having him suddenly be witness to all the important scenes and getting to punch Veidt (which I’m sure does not happen in the source material, and nothing in the movie has suggested is possible).

watchmennewstandI thought it took a lot away from his character to be allowed to see Rorschach’s murder.  He doesn’t see it in the book and that gives him a kind of plausible deniability.  Like, why is it ok?  Oh, well, he kind of smelled and might have told the truth.  I’m down with it, Blue.  Hurry up and zap him so I can get back to fucking your ex.

Having Rorschach’s blood-smear be a Rorschach blot was fucking genius.  The hat drifting down was dumb.

Silk Spectre was attractive, very attractive, but she in particular highlighted some of the weird dialogue choices in the movie.  Like, I don’t think she was a bad actress, because there’s no way to say some of the lines they lifted directly from the comic as speech.  In general, I thought they could have done flash-images to the costume instead of having her describe the costume over lunch with Nite-Owl.  Like, I’m sure he’s seen it.  She doesn’t need to tell him what it looks like.

In the movie – They are eating lunch.  Boring shot through window.  Pointless, random ’80s tune fades out. Silky speaks: “Remember my costume, the leather one with the yellow stripes and the thigh-high boots.  The merry-widow sort of lingerie strap things on there and those shiny gloves?  I used to wear it.  It had a zipper.”

What should have been:

Silky – Remember that costume?

flash to costume

Nite-Owl – yes.  yes, I do.

There are four elements of the film that look like they were in a situation like, “Oh, shit, this is due tomorrow, and I’ve been busy image-sculpting Dr. Manhattan’s cock.”

They were –

1) The casting of Veidt – “Get me Jude Law.”  “He’s not available.”  “Ok, if I can’t have my first choice, I’ll settle for someone who totally sucks. ”  “I’m on it, boss!” “Wait, I don’t want a guy who just sucks a little bit.”  “Got it, chief,  maximum suckage.”  “Don’t disappoint me.  He’s got to really, really suck.”  Mission accomplished!

2) The “old-people” makeup.  Bargain basement.

3) The late ’70s Dr. Who model that filled in for Veidt’s arctic compound.  Fucking amateur hour there.  Would have been better off not showing it.   Worst establishing shot ever.

4) Bubastis.  Why did they even bother?

The pleasures of watching a movie in a theater and reading a book in a chair are very different.  They are as dissimilar as eating a fruit salad and having your mother tell you a recipe for fruit salad.  In the theater, a film is static and linear.  It goes without your control.  You can’t stop it, you can’t slow down if you miss something, you can’t flip back to remind yourself who someone is or why an object is important.  You can’t skip to the end, and you can’t lower the volume if, for example, they’re blasting a Leonard Cohen song at an inappropriate moment.

You read a book alone.  It’s a personal experience.  When you see a movie in a theater, you are there to share the energy of others.  The theater during my screening, though full of people, was mostly dead energy.  Bored folks.  Girls dragged there and dudes fulfilling an obligation to their teenage selves.

I think director Zack Snyder is a guy with a lot of vision, and in a short time he’s put some really memorable images into the public consciousness, but I think an unwillingness to compromise on changing the movie around has doomed it to big opening/massive drop off status.

The big story changes made sense and showed an understanding of how narratives work. The new ending is probably better than the squid.  Cramming in a million details from the novel without knowing what they mean was an exercise in nothingness, though.  It’s a movie, a product designed to entertain and make money.  It’s not supposed to be a frame by page recreation of your favorite book.  It makes no sense to retain all of the conversations about being human, and then make everybody super-human.

The book The Return of the King is three hundred pages of Frodo and Sam climbing a mountain.  They had the good sense to push it around and make an entertaining movie out of it.  The first three Harry Potter movies are slavish to the books, because they were scared of alienating a super-informed audience.  They suck.  The last few HP movies made compromises in order to serve the format of a movie, and they are entertaining.

It makes no sense to make a huge change in one area and then drag an audience around in others.  You have shown a willingness to change something and shown good judgement in your choices, keep it up.  It was almost like he was trying to win a bet, like an ego thing.  I can make the “unfilmable movie.”

And why, if you love the Watchmen, do you want a movie of it?  The only reason would seem to be a craving for acceptance. It legitimizes my taste in reading if Hollywood notices it.  I count!  I have a voice! I need something else to buy.  Sell me something!

They captured some great images, and the movie made me consider and revisit a lot of the themes of the novel with an older, more-experienced mind.  I am grateful to it for that.  I was moved several times by memories of reading it as a boy, because they captured the scene exactly or used the exact dialogue, but…Watchmen the novel is a brilliant, nuanced and significant work of literature.  It is flawed, but it is powerful and intelligent, and it tried and succeeded in saying something new.  Watchmen the movie is a noisy piece of mimicry that tried and succeeded in advertising a forthcoming DVD.  I really don’t anticipate anything good coming out of it.  It wasn’t bad enough to sink comic movies completely but it wasn’t meaningful enough to jump-start a series of original, smart or fun movies either.  There isn’t enough understanding in it to justify the boring parts in-between the exciting parts.

  1. […] they can counterfeit things like movies to fund their operations. DVD piracy has a higher profit Watchmen Review – Look, Ye Mighty, and Despair – 03/10/2009 There are a billion reviews of this movie, and there were a billion […]

  2. mordicai says

    Urgh. Yeah, I haven’t seen it, but this is what I expect.

  3. coffee says

    I kept thinking that the guy who played the Comedian was Javier Bardem (I found out later that it’s actually Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but the two actors definitely look alike

  4. Morghan says

    Well, sitting down and reading it again I decided to google “look on my works, oh ye mighty, and despair” and this was the first hit. I have to admit that there were a lot of little things cut from the movie that I would have enjoyed seeing, but all in all they did as good a job as possible for a major Hollywood production. They were trying to hard to dumb it down for people who would never get the books, but still keep it close enough to what it was to not tick off the fans.

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