Lifestyle of the American Superhero
Starring: Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman
By Tom Bevis
I want to begin by talking about Zack Snyder. I want to find the person who started calling him ‘visionary’ and punch him in the throat. Let’s take a look at his catalog. He’s got the Dawn of the Dead remake, which is mediocre at best. Then he’s got 300, which most people went with their base instincts and latent homosexuality and dug the film because of its unfiltered gore and leather g-strings, completely disregarding the film’s lack of story and content. And now, he’s got Watchmen. The thing is, his two later movies lack any individuality at all. Instead, he cranks out the visual flair of the original comic. So, if cashing out on someone else’s success is visionary, then yeah, I guess you’re right. But I don’t think it is.
Now, we can talk about Watchmen. The film takes place in an alternate 1985 in which Nixon has served three presidential terms, science is extensively developed, and a few brave men and women took up cues from their fictional colleagues and dared to become superheroes. This term is used loosely, as only one of the characters actually have any super powers. The film follows the lives of these masked vigilantes as tensions rise between the United States and the Soviet Union.
I usually don’t say this, but in order to understand Watchmen as a film, it is imperative that you understand it as a comic book. This is because unless you read the comic book, the movie not only won’t matter, but it’ll make very little sense. It’s obvious by watching the film that director Zack Snyder doesn’t understand the book and therefore doesn’t understand how to adapt it to the screen.
Watchmen – the graphic novel that you’ll find today – consists of twelve issues with two to three story arcs intertwining throughout (even more if you count the Tales of the Black Freighter and various prose interludes). Instead of eliminating whole story arcs that are unnecessary to the story overall, Snyder instead cuts each arc up and picks bits and pieces of each, creating a cramped cluster of loose plot lines and events instead of a single, cohesive film.
As a result, the film lacks any semblance of cohesive focus. The overall subject of the film is never clear – the plots shift with the rapidity of an optometrist shifting demo eye lenses. The viewer is left asking ‘so what’s the point?” Right up until the supposed ‘point’ is suddenly slung at the audience and it no longer matters. The conclusion of the film has no build-up, no development, until the climax spews up a string of forced connections that are so vague they hardly have any power.
To drive the spear into the matter of Snyder’s lack of understanding, let’s talk about the film’s fight sequences. While Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is the only one with genuine super powers, the other members of his class seem to have been blessed with superhuman strength, senses, agility, and endurance. I can easily imagine Snyder falling into directing these splatter-punk horror movies ala Eli Roth (oh, wait, he has) because the fight scenes in Watchmen focus more on the brutality of the violence rather than the rhythm of the motion. In each sequence, Snyder is more concerned with how much blood is used and how it’s portrayed than he is with how the actual fight plays out. As a result, each fight is a rapid succession of flying blood, graphically breaking bones, and flying bodies. Even the characters who are supposed to be more sedate in their fighting style, choosing to dispatch their enemies wind up violently killing them. This is evident in a scene in which Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) are attacked by a group of gang members in a back alleyway, in which every bone of the enemies’ being broken, every skull shattered. This sort of violence is more apt for their devil-may-care colleague, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). In fact, Rorschach’s penchant for extreme violence is one of the reasons he is generally disliked by his cohorts. But everyone in the film has the same extreme bloodlust.
Snyder is unable to tastefully and logically balance the level of brutality in his fight sequences. In one scene in particular, Rorschach is shown hacking down the center of a criminal’s head, long-ways, with a meat-cleaver. Snyder has the same problem with taking intimacy in moderation. A romance scene between two central characters, meant to be short and intimate as in the comic, is instead stretched out to around ten minutes, becoming a scene more fitting in a soft-core pornography.
So the story and adaptation are obviously flawed. Snyder fans still have hopes of technical achievements. Well, there aren’t many. The first hour of the film is a combination of flashbacks and present narrative, each set meaning to relate how each major character knew the now-deceased Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan). The structure works in a comic form, and a more skilled director could have pulled it off. Snyder, however, composes a loose string of vignettes in a pattern that resembles five minutes of present narrative, ten minutes of flashback, then a two minute musical interlude before repeating again with a five minute piece of present narrative. This pattern gives the film a choppy, uneven, and unstable pace that is quick to irritate the audience.
Snyder even seems to get the music wrong. It seems as if this is Snyder’s first time dealing with licensed music, and an obvious attempt to use music to establish the time period is made (although, in the closing sequence, he sells out and uses a Bob Dylan cover performed by My Chemical Romance – to which he directed a music video, the only current period song in the film). However, the songs used in the film have little-to-no relevance to what’s happening in the film and often ruin the mood of the scene. It’s almost as if Snyder picked his favorite songs of the decade and threw them in wherever he could force them instead of choosing meaningful songs that relate to the subject matter.
The film’s acting and casting is double-sided. On one hand, actors such as Jeffery Dean Morgan and Patrick Wilson shine in their roles. Morgan fits perfectly as the apathetic, rugged Comedian and delivers his line seamlessly. Wilson, also, captures his character with full understanding of who he is supposed to be in what is probably the best performance in the film. Haley’s performance as Rorschach, however, seems stock, borrowing too much from past performances (the most obvious being Christian Bales’ Batman) and not submitting enough originality.
The weakest links in the casting are easily Ackerman and Crudup. Ackerman reads off her lines rapidly, obviously unaware of the meaning of a comma, and tries to accent each bit of dialog with a melodramatic head tilt that just comes off seeming ridiculous in its repetition. Usually in contrast with Ackerman’s overdramatic stance is Crudup, who sounds as if he went to the Tobey Maguire School of Acting. Every line and statement, which should be powerfully delivered and show deep thought and insight, is spoken timidly with all the power of a newborn kitten.
Perhaps the only thing Snyder got right – what’s rapidly becoming his specialty – is capturing the visual feel of the comic book. Again, this is far from being ‘visionary,’ but it’s definitely an indicator of skill and an attentive eye. The hues, tones, and shadows all match the book perfectly. As with 300, Snyder even goes as far as to take exact panels from the comic book and brings them onto the screen. While this is a beautiful nod to the comic book, it is overall a novelty and does little to help the film’s general quality.
Most of you know me, and I’m not one of the troves of Watchmen fans who preemptively hated the film because Alan Moore had come out and said it was a bad idea. I was looking forward to this particular piece, and no one was more disappointed than me when it didn’t turn out as it should have. My bottom line, though, is unless you’ve read the comic book, Watchmen is going to have little effect on you. Because of Snyder’s weak grasp on the subject, the audience in unable to either fully understand or even care about what is happening on the screen. So, I must urge you: before you dish out the money to see the movie, go check out the comic book first.