Oh, I so enjoyed this movie.
Oh, it's so going to fail at the box office, beyond fan boys seeing it over and over.
Comic lovers finally have exactly what they wanted, a movie that stays as true as possible to the source material over the length of the movie. Sure, there are some things missing—the Tales of the Black Freighter story is not even mentioned, the ending is different (had to be, keeping in mind the amount of thought most people spend watching movies), Laurie doesn't smoke—all of these make sense, and the movie is still more than two and a half hours long. But all the things that separate the comic Watchmen from the standard fare are what is going to keep mainstream movie-goers from enjoying this movie. Some will go, and they'll be unhappy, and word of mouth will just kill it. I expect this to be out of the big theatres in about four or five weeks, if the people in the audience at my showing are any indication.
Basically, the general movie-going public thinks they know everything there is to know about comics. They can name characters and maybe even identify them when they see them. And they believe that the plot and movement of stories is so simplistic that you really don't have to know very much or even THINK very much while reading. So comic-based entertainment like TV shows and movies must be the same way. And until recently, creators of those TV shows and movies did very little to dissuade that opinion. Character development is Cyclops dying or Peter Parker facing life without his Spiderman powers. (This, incidentally, is why Heroes did so well and is now falling apart. You basically tell the X-Men story using "everyday people" and audiences will eat it up. But when you start doing the time travel and relationship twists that X-Men has had over its lifetime in a period of weeks, even the most virginal of fans will see the ongoing manipulation and get bored.) But comic readers are not surprised by this kind of story-telling; these kinds of plot twists happen regularly. And so, if you will, their resistance is up and they demand bigger and better things. And Moore and Gibbons granted it, taking comics to the next level (if only briefly) by making it into literature. Steven Grant has a wonderful blog up this week on Permanent Damage about why Watchmen (the comic) is so good (http://comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=20319). Watchmen is literary: it has character development beyond villain of the month, it has symbology, it has a freaking theme for heaven's sake. And comic fans rejoiced—Watchmen represented the potential of their medium.
Zack Snyder, director of Watchmen, is clearly one of those fans. He has lovingly recreated image after image from the comic into the movie. And the result is a daunting piece of cinema that requires its audiences to THINK about what's going on, just as any good piece of literature will. As Mrs. Speculator and I were discussing this last night, a couple of comparisons came to mind. In some ways, Watchmen is a lot like Ang Lee's Hulk, with its emphasis on developing character and relationships. And like Hulk, the focus of the ad campaigns has been the tremendous action in the movie, but viewers of the film quickly learn that such action is very rare. If you've read Watchmen you know there is not much hero versus villain action, and the commercials I have seen really do represent the better part of the action sequences in the movie. The rest of the time is spent with people talking and remembering, not what the avid fan of action fare generally pines for in their movies. And like when I saw Hulk, the people in the audience grew restive at the non-action parts. The other movie I am reminded of is The Fountain, a movie I just loved and spent a great deal of time thinking about. It was not straightforward story-telling and aggravated the generally impatient movie-goer. And the climax of the movie is brilliant, but subtle and unexpected, and movie-goers that regularly expect overtures of emotion and sound at their climax were completely lost by the movie's ending. So goes Watchmen, where the conflict that drives the story rests in the background for most of the movie, hinted at and commented on by the characters, but not brought into the foreground until everything is moving at break-neck speed.
So, as a fan of good writing and good comic books, I really enjoyed this movie. It is beautifully filmed, clearly using the comic book as its shooting schedule. Scenes are packed with details that repeated viewings will only make more delightful (in fact, that was Mrs. Speculator's biggest complaint—at least with the comic, she could stop at a panel and take in all the detail). The acting is a little mixed, but only because Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach is a tour de force. Patrick Wilson's Dan Dreiberg is played dead on, but the character, while vital to the story, is such an ordinary guy, that it feels like there is very little acting going on at all. Matthew Goode's Adrian Veidt is something of a cipher, not a major character in the story at all until he has to be, but even then he is overwhelmed by the raw intensity of Rorschach. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays the Comedian brilliantly throughout the flashbacks. If there is a weakness, it would be Malin Ackerman's Laurie Jupiter, who just seems to waft alogn from scene to scene with little direction, only showing determination in the scenes where she becomes Silk Spectre. And of course, this approximates her role in the story—only really coming to life when she puts on the costume—but Ackerman is too detached from what's going on when she is Laurie, so much so that it distracts some. Harder to evaluate is Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan. It's ironic that the most powerful character in the story pretty much does nothing throughout the course of the story, mostly standing around and pondering ideas bigger than humanity. And Crudup does this well, though it's difficult to tell where Crudup ends and the CGI begins. The special effects surrounding Dr. Manhattan in every scene he plays are tremendous and tend to obscure the character, a foreshadowing of the notion that we are remembered by our actions more than for our presence that resonates at the end of the movie. So, if the measure of an actor is how well they play the role they have been given, Crudup talks and ponders aloud very well…and glows blue pretty well too.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, so much so that I am going to see it again this evening. I expect that my non-comic-reading companions will be distressed by the moral ambiguity that is the climax of the film. I expect that again I will be immersed in the alternative 1985 and a word where superhero exists and have affected the culture in dramatic ways, such that being in costume, let alone fighting in one, is a crime. I look forward to more viewings of this down the line, including the director's cut DVD promised for Christmas, when The Tales of the Black Freighter will become available. But then I am a fan who has spent many hours reading the book and measuring it against the best its genre has to offer as well as yards of good science-fiction writing to compare it to. It really is pretty much all that a fanboy could ask for and perhaps an indication of why we shouldn't always get what we ask for.