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Luke watches the Watchmen

Friday, March 13th, 2009

Two fervent camps seem to be dominating the arena of opinions regarding the recently released Watchmen film.  There have been a small number of moderate or well thought out reviews, but an ideological war seems to be forming between the two differing poles of thought.  It is becoming almost as much a part of the event of Watchmen’s release as the film itself.

The first of these groups are the fan-boy critics who were ready to kneel and service director Zack Snyder before the film was even released.  Any negative remark or insinuation of flaw in the film has been taken not as valid criticism of a piece of work, but as a betrayal of the reviewers own sense of taste.  Any criticism or comment from an outside source is taken as a personal assault.  While showing the ability of Alan Moore’s legendary source material to engross the reader, these reactions illustrate the inability or outright refusal of many critics to separate the source from its cinematic interpretation and treat them as individual entities.

The counter to this reside in the class of critics who hold themselves to be amongst a self-perceived intellectual elite.  Capable of treating film only as an intellectual and technical exercise and denying the importance of film as artistic collaboration, entertainment, and experiment, these are the critics who instantly assume that any film with a comic book or graphic novel as source material can only be enjoyed by the prepubescent or those who get off on what they perceive as intellectual slumming. This camp spends more time crafting witty insults than on discussing the merits and flaws of any given film.

Watchmen is a film that does not play well with those who try to force it to serve one extreme or the other.  This film walks a middle path, failing spectacularly in some areas and succeeding miraculously in others.  With so many central figures and so much plot to cover, the first place the film succeeds is in Zack Snyder’s dedication to the key themes and spirit of the original piece.  Snyder comes out on top with his willingness to fight for what he felt was needed to present the story with the right feel and atmosphere. At just over two hours and forty minutes, Snyder was able to condense many of the most famous sequences, plot points, and character development into the film without overly diluting them with too many super-hero film cliches.  Snyder’s opening scene depicting the Comedian’s death, followed by the long opening credits, a wonderful piece of primarily still image vignettes set to the music of Bob Dylan, manages to compress much of the film’s back-story while setting the scene of an alternate 1980’s time line in which the plot takes place.

One of the problems with the film is that, while the overall quality is high throughout, it never quite reaches the heights set by these opening scenes.  However, I do need to mention a few points which do come close.  The first of these scenes, the origin story of Dr. Manhattan narrated by Billy Crudup, is almost poetic in its execution.  It is also one of the best examples for Tyler Bates’ score.  The second point I need to mention are the sequences featuring Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian.  Morgan’s Comedian is unredeemable in his actions.  During the film we witness him commit atrocity after atrocity with scenes so brutal that the film exists outside the continuum of typical super hero films (much like the original graphic novel redefining many of the comic book cliches).  Morgan’s performance is what truly makes this character. Many actors can play a monster, but very few can make that monster out to be so tragically human as Morgan does with the Comedian.  While you never condone the acts he commits, you can never quite bring yourself to detest him either.

The third high-point of the film is manifested once again, by a single actor’s performance.  It has been said that some people were born to play a part, much like Mickey Rourke completely embodying the role of Marv in Sin City (another comic to film adaptation), but rarely has an actor played a role so well that it seems he walked right out of the pages of the comic to play the role.  Jackie Earle Haley has done just this with Rorschach.  Beaten down, paranoid, wiry, and absolutely unbending in terms of his morality, like may of the characters in the story, Rorschach is a brutal and unapologetic crusader who is hard to sympathize with.  His absolutist views lend the character a certain strength the audience may idealize.  More than anything, the film should be remembered as a personal triumph for Haley, especially the few scenes where he is not hidden behind Rorschach’s mask.  Perhaps this is a sign of a major comeback for Haley, especially after his Academy Award nominated role in Little Children.

The film is ripe with flaws, too, especially some of the casting choices.  While some of the actors I’ve already mentioned turn in solid performances there are several that were disappointing.  There are both key and supporting roles that could have been thought through a little better.  Malin Äckerman seems cast mainly for her physicality and fan appeal, rather than for her performance talents.  While she does have the look of the later day Silk Spectre she really did not nail the internal conflict and the anger simmering just below the surface of her character’s written counterpart.  She comes off flat and lifeless in many of her scenes.  The potential for emotional weight comes off as afterthoughts and throwaways by both her and the director.

Inconsistency of setting was also another problem with Snyder’s work.  For a film that put so much into certain aspects of the setting, such as the subtle sprinkling of pop culture cameos throughout the film, the lack of detail and quality in others was astonishing.  Take a look at some of the character’s wigs, for example.  There were scenes where I thought Carla Gugino’s hair piece was going to slip right off her head.  There were many other elements could have been portrayed better as well.  One of which was the scene showing the aftermath of the films disastrous conclusion.  Rather than the personal, visceral horror that worked so well in print, the changed scene comes off as downplayed and cartoonish.

Overall, I do think Watchmen was a successful and entertaining film.  It had a relatively strong cast and good production and Snyder was a competent, but not brilliant, director.  Perhaps under a different helm, this film would have really shined.  Watchmen could have been an exceptionally laudable interpretation of the graphic novel, but Synder’s staunch loyalty to the source may have been limiting without the risk of subtracting from the dramatization.  The result is a good film that pleases, but leaves you feeling that it could have been something great.

- Luke Copping

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