Watchmen, both the comic and the movie, suffers from a kind of Two Face schizophrenia. In the comic, Moore’s dialog vacillates from very good to over-worked “style for style’s sake” pap. For instance, the Rorschach psychotherapist scenes were well done, while a lot of Rorschach’s half-sentence fragments, especially later in the story, felt tin to me, like Moore was simply trying too hard. His plotting has a similarly vexing quality. The intertwining of The Black Freighter theme, the psychological realism of the main characters that plays on throughout the narrative, and moments of the prison sequence are all handled with such finesse that they seem to jump off the page. But each of these are moments of brilliance layered on top of lunacy that, at least for me, take the reader out of the story completely. To put it succinctly, he’ll ask the question “why can’t the comic medium be taken seriously as an art form?” and he’ll answer “because I have a giant alien squid for the deus ex machina of my grand finale.”
As for the art, while it is densely layered with clues, and effective in conveying a realism counter to the ethos of superhero comics, it lacks the dynamism of someone like Mazzuchelli on “Year One”. I think, in particular, of the panel in the first issue when Rorschach is climbing into the window of The Comedian’s apartment; he looks like he’s sitting limply on the windowsill, and didn’t just fly 20 storeys up on a gas-powered grappling gun. Also, and I think you probably noticed, the first sentence of this paragraph was the most pretentious thing I’ve ever written.
Really, Watchmen, the novel (because that’s what Time called it), is something that brings out the pretension in everyone. Either you’re in the “you just don’t get it” camp or you’re in the “I just don’t get it camp.” For the most part, I think I’m in the latter. Oh, I get the story. I get the thinly-veiled allusion to the creeping advent of the Thatcherite police state. I get the evocation of the palpable fear of nuclear decimation (though truth be told, I’m more worried about the midget nutjob with the bad Elvis hairdo than I ever was about the Kremlin). What I don’t get is the adoration and the adulation that gets heaped first on the novel, and second on Alan Moore the writer. Granted I’ve only read three things the man has written; I loved one of them, hated the other, and was lukewarm on the third. But when you love his shortened run on Wild C.A.T.S and the ones you hate and are lukewarm on are The Killing Joke and Watchmen, his most acclaimed works, you kind of get the feeling that maybe he’s not the writer for you.
But he is the writer for a lot of people, not least of whom is Zach Snyder, the director. Zneider, as his friends call him (no they don’t; I made that up), made his mark with the homoerotic swords-and-sandals porno 300, and is an avowed comic fanboy. For him, the license to do this film was the ne plus ultra of his career. Unfortunately, allowing a director access to his personal Jesus often only results in a crucifixion. Scorcese had tried for 20 years to get Gangs of New York made, and when he finally made it the film was almost as long as his wait and suffered from too many ideas crammed too hastily in too much running time. While this movie can’t be confused with Gangs, all the same deficiencies are here. Too much time is spent setting up a murder-mystery plot that, by the end of the story, is meaningless. Too much time is spent showing the day-to-day lives of the now-retired heroes. Too much time is spent describing the culmination of the final plot. This script is a fat girl with a pretty face; if it would just lose a few pounds it would really be something.
Zneider, while not stooping to the level of a Brett Rattner or the dozens of hack directors that pump out cookie cutter “rom-com” pulp every year, is not a particularly talented director. He does have a flair for a fight scene, and that was what made 300 work, because that entire film was a fight scene that only broke long enough to string more laundry-line plot for hanging the dense, dripping fights off of. But here, he takes his one note, that being the slow-mo, then hyper-focus “still”, then speed up again trick, and drives it straight into the ground. He’s the ugly kid that can hit high C, and proceeds to do so long after the candles have been blown out and the rest of the party stopped singing Happy Birthday. He does it throughout The Comedian’s death, most notably when he’s thrown through the penthouse window. He does it when Silk Spectre and Night Owl are fighting thugs in the alley. He does it when Silk Specter is saving people in the burning house. He does it when the assassin tries to ice Ozymandis. He does it when Rorschach is torching the cops. He does it in the Vietnam flashbacks. He does it when Dr. Manhattan gets blown up in his experiment. He does it over, and over, and over again until you swear that the entire movie is being told in slow-down-pause-speed-up time. This movie has a goddamn arrhythmia.
The dual-personality of this movie carries clear through to the acting, which simultaneously redeems and damns it. If by this time it has become rote for people to say that Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) and The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) are the saving graces of the film, it is because it is the truth. Every time either of them are on screen the movie perks up, and it gives you reason to care again. Morgan in particular has that ineffable “star quality” that I think could work in almost any format. I’d pay real money to see a western with him and Jackie Earle Haley playing Wyatt Earp/Doc Holiday characters.
The same can not be said for most of the rest of the cast. Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II is practically unwatchable, delivering every line with the dead earnest of a second-string high school freshman summer-stock theater player. Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II is wildly uneven, going from quiet and serious in the scenes that work, to weird nasal whining that is completely out of left field in the scenes that do not. He has a rheostat marked “Drama” that goes from “Stirling Hayden in Dr.Strangelove” to “Elton John,” and he spends way too much time in the Sir Elton range. Matthew Goode as Ozymandias is, frankly, terrible. He’s as bad as Akerman, only without the benefit of looking good in latex. As for the rest, I thought Billy Crudup was actually very good as Dr. Manhattan, and Carla Gugino as Silk Spectre I is fine, but I didn’t get why she got so much good press for her role. It wasn’t anything special.
What you’re left with is a movie that both enchants and infuriates. There are moments of bliss, like the opening credits which deservedly were hailed as groundbreaking. There are moments of unrelenting boredom, like any scene that involved Ozymandias. And then there are scenes that the only reasonable response to is “what the fuck.” I mean, I like a nice rack as much as the next guy, but that sex scene was just strange. I realize that the director was trying to be ironic and over the top, but it just came off wrong. The use of Hallelujah in the background, combined with the flame thrower into the cloud bank, was just too reminiscent of the oil pump/torpedo firing/etc montage from the Naked Gun movie. While I think the attempt at humor (or at least shock value) was intentional, it took me out of the movie and seemed more at home in a Skinemax ripoff. And some of the fight scenes, in particular the one in the alley, just made me scratch my head. Why take the time and trouble to show the human side of the superheroes, to show that they’re really just normal people, if you’re just going to throw it all out the window by making them do super-human things? I’m not talking about Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II beating up a gang of nameless thugs, that’s fine. It’s the way they do it. A particular moment that sticks out for me is when Silk Spectre kicks a guy in the air, and then kicks him again so that he does a reverse somersault up against a dumpster. I think it would have been more effective if they had used “actual” martial arts moves and some good luck to dispatch the goons, and in the process show that they’re breathing hard and sweating the situation, rather than using wire work and unrealistic comic book physics. I think that would have stayed within the reality of the movie, and done a better job of moving the “realism” theme forward.
After all this I’m left both loving and hating this movie. The moments that I thought worked, the prison sequence, the scenes in Vietnam, were great. I even liked how they were able to change the ending to make more sense (as I said, nobody would take a giant squid seriously). But the parts I hated, either through boredom or a jarring incredulity, I really hated. You can at the very least say that Snyder was able to make a movie that kept you thinking, but whether or not that’s a good thing, in this case, can be debated.
Tags: 2-star, 300, Action, Alan Moore, Billy Crudup, Carla Gugino, Gangs of New York, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode, Naked Gun, Patrick Wilson, Scorcese, Superhero, Watchmen, Zack Snyder