With Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen here, a few of us Robot 6ers got together to talk about it through the magic of e-mail. Now, fresh from movie theaters around the world (well, the United States plus Luxembourg), here are Tom Bondurant, Chris Mautner, Carla Hoffman, Melissa Krause and Lisa Fortuner. Join us, won't you?
(Naturally, there will be SPOILERS for the movie and book.)
Does it work as a movie?
Tom Bondurant: I'm not sure that it does. The beginning felt very episodic, because it was sticking so closely to the structure of the first two issues, but on the whole it didn't establish a good rhythm. By the time Laurie had her revelation on Mars, I had forgotten what the movie had specifically established about her relationship with the Comedian. Not that I wanted the movie to drum it into my head, but including the scene (or a version thereof) where she confronts him about the rape would have helped. I thought the ending was problematic too, because the revisions took a lot of the "mystery" elements out of the plot.
Chris Mautner: It really wasn't very good. There were moments, but overall the film felt disjointed and Snyder's flashy, uber-machismo style really did not fit the material.
I think the biggest criticism -- that trying to cram Moore and Gibbons' epic story into a three hour movie instead of a lengthy HBO miniseries -- and yet still remain completely and utterly faithful to the original material -- was a bad idea hold true. As a result the movie really doesn't have any narrative arc. It's more "Let's learn about this character. Now this one. Oh look, here's the Comedian. Here's a meat cleaver being repeatedly shoved in someone's head. The end."
Carla Hoffman: Remember when you were still in high school and discovered critical literature? Guys, this might have been when you donned your first corduroy blazer, girls, your first horn-rimmed glasses. Either way, this was you being a budding intellectual with a head full of thoughts that you were certain no one else had ever thought ever. Your friends and you would discuss Kafka like no one else had ever read it and watch movies because they were in the Criterion collection and that was in the boring section of Blockbuster! You were young! You knew it all! And then your little sister would come in with her iPod and tell you that these songs are soooo meeeeaningfull and embarrass you in front of your buddies. Man, does she have to have that stereo so loud?
This is that movie. Trying so hard to be so smart and having a 14 year old girl at the mixer.
Short answer: not as a film, but a movie, sure.
Melissa Krause: I think it [worked]. I was as emotionally involved with the story as I was with the comic. Actually, for certain characters, such as Dr. Manhattan, I was more so. In the comics, I'd never cared that much for the character and thought he was flat and dry. The movie really emphasizes that as strange and different as he is, there's still a human being or something close enough to count, in there somewhere. In the end, I actually think he was my favorite character in the movie, and that's something that when I read the comics, I never thought I'd say.
Lisa Fortuner: Yes, [it works] very well. They kept the most essential plot and character elements from the series storyline, but changed things just enough to make it fit tightly together. I may be in the minority among comic fans, but I like the ending change because it reinforces Dr. Manhattan's effect on the world.
What really gets me in movie adaptations of books or comics is the addition of a soundtrack. Adding that extra dimension can draw you in emotionally if done right, and while there were a few weak selections for the most part the music enhanced the scenes for me.
Does it set a new standard for superhero movies, like Iron Man and The Dark Knight apparently did?
TB: No, but it did make me want to see a better sex-in-super-vehicle scene.
CM: Yes, but only, as Tom notes, in the "really laughable sex scene" department. That's a moment that will be talked about in years to come as Exhibit A in "what not to do." Unless Snyder was deliberately being tongue-in-cheek. I'd like to think he was, but I really doubt it.
CH: If anything, it set the bar lower. Let's face it, Dark Knight is smart. Watchmen? It's like a B-, still good but there's that minus staring you in the face. This movie is going to make a pile of cash and people might start thinking that camp has the edge again.
MK: Honestly, I don't think that's a fair question. It's such a different kind of movie than Iron Man and Dark Knight. For me, it's kind of like trying to compare Psycho to Scream in terms of horror movies. When really, they’re so different that they probably ought to be considered a different genre entirely.
And I really don't think we can call it a "superhero movie" with any sort of non-tongue-in-cheek seriousness.
I think though it has the possibility to inspire movie makers to make more movies surrounding costumed heroes that don't necessarily fit the traditional comic book superhero mold, and that could be a really interesting effect.
LF: Here's the thing, Dark Knight and Iron Man weren't notable because they added new dramatic dimensions to the superhero movie or because they were especially artistic but because they were actually good movies. Moviemakers are finally learning to put some thought into the quality of the story and acting of superhero movies instead of just special effects. The cast and crew went into them to make the best, most entertaining story possible. That's the bar Watchmen shot for, and it reached it.
I do figure that since it offers a lot more complexity than the normal moviegoer expects in a superhero movie we'll see a definite effect. I expect much the same effect that it had on comic books in the ‘80s. It'll convince moviegoers that superhero stories aren't automatically trash at the same time it inspires a lot of trash from moviemakers trying to imitate it. A brand new standard, though? No. This is just thankfully the level we're at now.
How did your theater's crowd like it?
TB: My crowd was mostly silent, except for a few moments. They laughed at "you're in here with me," Dan's "I need a couple of minutes," and Archie's fiery ejaculation, and they gasped a little at the rape. No clapping at the end.
CM: I suppose I can thank Watchmen for reminding me why I don't go to the movies much anymore, namely that they're filled with irresponsible and rude fuckheads who wouldn't know good manners if it slashed a broken bottle across their face. Listening to the MST3K-lite repertoire of the ladies behind me; the guy next to me who decided it would be perfectly fine to turn on his BlackBerry and answer text messages during the opening sequence; the father who decided it would be perfectly alright to sit in the front row WITH HIS 10-YEAR-OLD SON (every sight of blood on screen during the film made me wonder how deep this kid's trauma would be): I hate you all with a deep, pure fire that burns in the center of my heart and will never die out. Goddamn you all to hell.
OK, I feel better now.
Most of the crowd, the ones that weren't texting, hacking up their lungs (I forgot to mention that guy) or making loud, snide comments seemed to be interested in the movie, though they were taken aback by the violence and nudity and laughed at inappropriate times. No clapping at the end.
CH: Yeah, everyone got some satisfaction from [“you’re in here with me”] but the audience I saw was a little laughed out. The opening credit sequence got chuckles all the way up until the bloody death of the 'lesbian whores', where everyone felt bad for laughing and then it was back to titters.
I honestly cannot imagine what it would be like for someone to have never read the book and seen this (can you imagine seeing the make-up ridden tiger in Antarctica without the book's explination and just wondering WTF??). One of the people I went with saw it at the premiere the night before went so far as to leave before the ending on his second viewing.
MK: My group was very quiet, except for the prison scenes. It got some sparse applause at the end, but ultimately, I don't think it's the sort of movie that really inspires applause. Considering the end and all. I listened to a lot of reactions around me though, and they sounded generally positive.
LF: Well, the coworkers I saw it with all loved it, and we were a mixture of people who'd read the story and people who went in with a blank slate. The rest of the crowd seemed happy at the end, but they were mostly speaking French so I can't say for certain.
Would you recommend the movie to someone who hasn't read the book? To someone who has read it?
TB: A reluctant yes on both counts. I enjoyed enough about the movie to want to see it again (at least an extended director's cut), and there's enough superhero spectacle in it to justify a matinee ticket.
CM: I would definitely not recommend this movie to someone who hasn't read the book yet. Honestly, I think non-comic-reading audience are going to be confused and probably a little upset by this movie. I think box office will drop sharply after opening weekend. I'd recommend it to fans only with the understanding that it's more of a "failed experiment" than anything else.
I should admit though, that there's a strong part of me that's really curious to see the extended director's cut. Either I'm a horrible masochist or just really hoping that with more time and added scenes the movie would be able to breathe a bit.
CH: I will continue to put the book in people's hands. People who don't feel like going through such a tome will get a nudge towards the movie but out and out 'Go see!'? Nah. I can turn up a comic-snobby nose.
MK: I would [recommend the movie] to both. I was very surprised by how Zack Snyder managed to stay so loyal to the comic. Even to elements that I didn't necessarily think would work on the big screen. I liked that they replaced the "threat" with Dr. Manhattan himself rather than the giant squid. It not only avoided a level of surrealism that would probably have lost the casual moviegoer, but it was a very personal blow to Manhattan that I felt led into his departure better than if they had stuck with the comic. (The way that Manhattan was portrayed in the movie, I don't think it would have felt right to see him just ditch the planet otherwise. He needed the added emotional push.)
However, I definitely would caveat that I think anyone who hasn't read the book probably ought to be warned that this definitely is NOT a standard superhero story.
LF: [Would you recommend the movie?] Definitely.
What were the movie's biggest strengths?
TB: Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach and Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl. I thought they sold their characters very well, and I thought Wilson made the most of Nite Owl's Antarctic hissyfit.
CM: The movie really works best when it tries to reconstruct certain panels or sequences from the comics verbatim. I'm thinking of Rorschach's conversation with Moloch or Dr. Manhattan's origin sequence -- for my money the best part of the movie by far. I thought most of the actors acquitted themselves accordingly, especially Billy Crudup, Jackie Earl Haley (though he was a little overemotional at times. I always thought the creepiest thing about Rorschach was he was so unpeturbed) and Patrick Wilson.
CH: If they had made three movies of the Comedian's story, Dr. Manhattan's ruminations on Mars and just Rorschach Rorschach Rorschach!, I'd have paid for each and every one.
MK: I thought the actors were the movie's biggest strength. I'm the opposite of Tom in that I think Matthew Goode did a phenomenal job as Ozymandias. I was surprised that he was so young, but I thought it worked. It fit with the "boy king"/Alexander the Great thing he has going on.
I mentioned Dr. Manhattan above. But I kind of feel the need to say it again, since I can't imagine what it's like trying to act when you're pretty much going to be replaced by a giant blue naked CG figure. But Billy Crudup did such a phenomenal job with his voice (and also, the graphic engineers did very well with expression too) that I really felt for the character.
Everyone else was fantastic too, though shallowly, I kind of think that Patrick Wilson's too attractive to play Nite Owl. He's a fine actor and does a good job, but once he's in the suit... yowza!
LF: Dr. Manhattan [is] a character I couldn't care less about in the comic, but he was the most sympathetic person in the movie and he wasn't radically different. He just had a face and a voice now. Billy Crudup was a really good casting choice.
I thought I'd be picky about him since he's my favorite character from the original story, but I really liked Matthew Goode for Ozymandias. He's young and boyish looking, which drives home not only the "boy genius" persona but the weird innocence in the character.
For the mystery to work, Adrian Veidt has to work as a character. He has to be someone people trust, actually the very last person even Rorschach the High Priest of Paranoia will suspect. In the movie Rorschach follows his own ex-partner around before he even considers Adrian. Hell, those two are in the office looking at suspicious items and basically have to find a computer file labeled "My Evil Plan for Saving the World" before they suspect him. With a young and disarming actor like Goode, that actually works.
Goode's job doesn't stop at convincing the rest of the characters that Adrian wouldn't harm a fly. He also had to convince the audience AFTER Adrian's become a mass murderer that he would only kill a fly if he absolutely had to and that even then he would feel very very sad about it, and do this without being cheesy. This isn't a bad guy who stands around pretending to be innocent and then gloats to the rest of the cast on how he fooled them. This is a guy who kills several million people then tries to convince the guys who confront him that it was worth it so that he won't have to kill another two people rather than just killing the other two people. You have to get an element of ruthlessness and craftiness that's actually backed up by idealism and hidden behind genuine gentleness rather than pretended gentleness. I think Goode managed it.
What were the movie's biggest flaws?
TB: Honestly, I think substituting Dr. Manhattan for the squid did more damage than I'd have thought. Not only did it take away a lot of story material, it basically left the whole world as angry at Dr. M as the mob at the TV studio was. (I don't think the movie reveals what happened to them, either.) There's dark humor in both endings -- Veidt essentially redirects the world's paranoia -- but the movie's seemed more ugly and personal.
As Melissa said, I didn't like Matthew Goode as Ozymandias. I thought he was too young-looking (to me, the Robert Redford of 20 years ago would have been ideal) and too aloof. I thought I would have the biggest problem with Malin Akerman, and she wasn't all that special, but she had more good moments than Goode did (sorry about that).
CM: Lots of bad things have been said about Malin Akerman and they are deserving, though I think a good deal of the blame must be shared by Snyder, who gives her absolutely nothing to do. Here's one of the most interesting, complex female superheroes in comics and they really neuter her. I didn't feel any connection with her or her backstory at all and couldn't tell how she felt about her relationship with her mom, being a superhero or finding out about her dad.
Oh, and Carla Gugino looked younger than Akerman, which was real distracting (especially on top of her overacting).
More to the point though, it seems as though Snyder just doesn't know what to do with actors. He can film a pretty nifty action sequence, but when it comes to dialogue they just stand there, ram-rod straight and spout there lines at each other. There's a scene where Laurie comes to Dan's after leaving Jon. They stand at opposite ends of the screen and talk. I wanted to stand up and yell "get a copy of coffee. Walk. Move. Act for Christ's sake, don't just stand there with your hands in your pockets." And yet scenes like that happened again and again and again.
Oh, and like Tom, I didn't like Matthew Goode either. Though the changed ending didn't bother me that much.
CH: NOISE! It didn't stop!! The "Ride of the Valkyries" got audible guffaws and a wince from everyone I saw it with, I stopped hearing anything Veidt said talking to Iaccoca because of the Tears for Fears music, [and] moments of great drama or acting were just BLOWN TO TINY BITS by the oh-so-poignant soundtrack. Hearing "Hallelujah" makes me nauseous. And it's not just the soundtrack. That fight scene with Silk Spectre and Nite Owl in the prison? Every gesture of their heads, every whip of hair made noise like a Sunday afternoon kung-fu special.
Speaking of Silk Spectre and Nite Owl ... mind you, this might have been just me, but I felt that the rest of the Watchmen were wary of Rorschach because of his uncompromising views and easy-to-open violence. HOLY CRAP THAT GUY'S ELBOW JUST CRACKED OPEN TOWARDS THE SCREEN AAAAAH! And these were the "modest" heroes. It's like Zack Snyder knew he had to make an "adult" movie and therefore cranked up the violence, sex and soundtrack and ripped off the knob. I'm really wondering about that camp aspect now, if it was intentional. Schumacher???
Sorry, the ending didn't have half of the book's impact or thoughtfulness. It felt like a waste.
MK: Well, by the end, I was VERY tired of the 300-esque slow-motion-effect thing. Once or twice, I thought it worked, but it really started throwing me out of the story and giving me flashbacks to Ms. Garrison making coffee on "South Park."
The soundtrack also alternated between moments of brilliance and irritation for me. I was rolling my eyes through “Sounds of Silence” and “Hallelujah.” I really liked the use of “99 Luftballoons,” “Ride of the Valkyries,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” though.
Finally, I wasn't a big fan of the way that the ending didn't really make it as clear/overt that Dan and Laurie did actually choose to side with Ozymandias. I mean, obviously, they didn't let the secret get out, but I thought their reactions gave a bit too much vindication for Rorschach. I suspect this was done for the theater-going audience though. Dan's probably the closest character that the movie/comic has to a recognizably heroic character, so I suspect they wanted to strengthen that impression.
LF: I cringed when they played "Hallelujah" for the love scene. They really could've found a better song for that. And maybe done the whole scene a bit better.
Malin Akerman was a bit wooden as Silk Spectre.
I have heard some griping about the world's smartest man having the password to his computer in plain sight, and having a really obvious cover company but I can file that along with how he tried to get rid of Dr. Manhattan at the climax under Reed Richards Stupidity. I can't see him keeping his porn on the same disk as the business stuff he's trying to hide, no matter how much of a giggle Zack Snyder got from that. He'd keep it on a separate disk marked "Recipes" like everyone else.
Though discussing that part with Melissa, we agreed that "Boys" would have been the most clever title for a folder containing detailed technical plans, launch times and any other information Nite Owl could have used to actually stop Ozymandias.
So, on a scale from Steel/Elektra to Spider-Man 2/Dark Knight, how was it?
TB: I'd say about a Superman III -- not unwatchable, but not really groundbreaking.
CM: Superman III sounds about right, though I might move it a mark down or two (what's below that, V for Vendetta?). It's never boring and there's stuff that works, but it's far from coherent and I would never label it as "good."
CH: It really wanted to be Dark Knight and tried so hard but Elektra just keeps creeping in there.
MK: I don't know that I think it really fits on a scale like that at all, for reasons mentioned above. But I'd put it on the high end as adaptations go. It was fairly loyal to the source material. I had some quibbles, but really no more than I do with any comic book adaptation. And in the end, I had a really good time just watching the movie.
LF: [Tom,] you thought Spider-Man 2 was as good as Dark Knight?
If all else fails, was it worth it to see the Star Trek preview on a big screen?
TB: Oh my yes.
CM: Honestly I was more excited about the Up preview.
LF: They didn't show the Star Trek preview in Luxembourg.
CH: I wasn't given the Star Trek trailer because I'm a dirty Marvel zombie. Maybe if I had seen that I would have been more forgiving.