by Drew Morton
Please note that minor spoilers may be disclosed in the following review. Please read with caution.
"No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise."-Rorschach
While Rorschach's (Jackie Earle Haley) proclamation may be possible to uphold as a superhero, the refusal to compromise on behalf of the filmmaker in the process of literary adaptation is impossible. As film theorist André Bazin wrote, "Faithfulness to form, literary or otherwise, is illusory: what matters is the equivalence in meaning of the forms." In other words, Bazin is arguing that each medium has its own modes of representation, thus the struggle for formal fidelity is a lost cause and that the main objective is that the adaptation should capture the original work's essence. Bazin continues, stating, "All it takes is for the filmmakers to have enough visual imagination to create the cinematic equivalent of the style of the original."
Zack Snyder's ("300") attempt to adapt Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's "Watchmen" (1986-1987) is compromised but that is the only possible way an adaptation can work as a film. He captures the Bazinian essence of Moore and Gibbon's work, a deconstruction of the superhero mythos, with an aesthetic that also captures much of the style of the original graphic novel (to the degree it is possible in film). Will die-hard fans be disappointed? No doubt, but quite unjustly. Even with Snyder's compromised ending, which ultimately can be interpreted as being more devastating than the climax concocted by Moore and Gibbons (although the film lacks a sequence on par with the opening pages of the comic's twelfth volume), Snyder's ambitious attempt is the best that could be done in a feature film. That is, until we get a look at that "Ultimate Director's Cut" DVD with the additional footage (most notably "Tales of the Black Freighter") Snyder had to leave on the cutting room floor.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, "Watchmen" takes place on an alternate timeline beginning in late 1985. The United States won the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon has been elected to third presidential term, and the only man standing between nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. is “Dr. Manhattan” (Billy Crudup), a human nuclear bomb who stands on the American side as a nuclear deterrent. The film, like the comic, begins with the murder of Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a retired superhero formally known as "The Comedian." While clues point to robbery, the sociopathic Rorschach believes that the death of "The Comedian" could be the beginning of plot to eliminate former costumed heroes. Hoping to foil such a conspiracy, Rorschach warns his former partners in crime fighting: Manhattan and his lover, the beautiful Silk Specter (Malin Ackerman), the Batman-esque Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), and the smartest man in the world, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). Collectively dubbed the Watchmen, the group initially disregards Rorschach's theory. That is until Dr. Manhattan is forced off Earth, making the possibility of nuclear war a near certainty.
This complex story, as readers familiar with the book will attest, is existential that the typical comic book and the film is much the same. Much like last summer's "The Dark Knight," "Watchmen" is not concerned with action scenes and obligatory fights. As the film's antagonist notes in the film's climax, "I'm not a comic book villain," and, like the film, he is not treated as being the product of a fantastic world far outside our own. While Snyder does bring an unrealistic edge to the action sequences (particularly his manipulation of time via cuts and slow motion), these techniques, much like those of Sam Peckinpah, become a means of deconstructing motion...just like a comic book. Instead, "Watchmen" as both a graphic novel and a film favors the approach of making comic book and superhero fans think about the motives and actions in what becomes a study of ethics. In this study, it is only the murderous and sociopathic Rorschach who is able of following any sort of moral code...even if it is demented in its adherence to rejecting compromise.
For the most part, Snyder’s direction is precise. His graphical style captures Gibbon's graphics and layout perfect...right down to the book's fearful symmetry. The framing and camera movements mirror those of the book, a treat for avid fans of the book and Gibbon's art. Moreover, Snyder's work with the actors is quite accomplished. Jackie Earle Haley, the former child star of "The Bad News Bears" who recently made a come back with fellow "Watchmen" star Patrick Wilson in Todd Field's underappreciated "Little Children," continues his streak of embodying sociopaths perfectly. Patrick Wilson captures the sadness and longing for a greater goal in life, something all retired heroes must face. Crudup's performance, ultimately hard to judge due to the alien-ness of Dr. Manhattan, is quite accomplished (particularly in the segment in which he reflects upon his accident, which is supplemented by a wonderful choice in music). Matthew Goode is adequate and neither shines or stalls at Ozymandias.
The film, while being as close to perfect an adaptation as I could have imagined, is not without its flaws. For the most part, the film and Snyder do a fantastic job of drawing out the background of the individual characters and the past of masked heroes in general very well (particularly during the film's opening ten minutes and the beautifully executed credit sequence). However, the one character who seems to receive the short end of the narrative-stick is Nite Owl. Snyder establishes his background, but not to the degree that the backgrounds of Dr. Manhattan and the others benefit from. In addition, Malin Ackerman's performance, while being far from bad, seemed to be the weakest out of the leads. However, her character is the most clichéd in the book, so perhaps Ackerman just did not have that much to work with.
The most glaring flaw in the film, however, is in Snyder's choice of end credit music. The film, like the book, ends on a relatively quiet scene but it is entirely displaced by a terrible cover of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" by My Chemical Romance. While Dylan's version would have been fine and in keeping with the period music used (listen for a Musak cover of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" in Ozymandia's office) throughout the rest of the film, the My Chemical Romance version is loud and obnoxious and seems like it was fitted for an entirely different film than the one just watched. Hopefully, Snyder and company will alter this for the DVD release; it is really quite offensive.
In close, "Watchmen" is a tough film to evaluate: it is hard to tell if it will play as well to those who have yet to read the book. While I certainly felt every piece of it clicking, I have read the book numerous times. Snyder has made an adaptation that is as faithful and accessible as possible, a compromise that is ultimately successful. Snyder, to borrow from Bazin's model, not only captures the essence of Moore and Gibbon's novel but also demonstrates a "visual imagination" that creates the impression of Gibbon's layout and graphical style.