The Dr. Manhattan Transfer

'Watchmen' movie poster with group shot of six main characters — Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, and Comedian — on a rainy city street, dark with neon signs, the Owlship high above

It’s a given that Watchmen the movie won’t be Watchmen the book. The content
of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel is utterly bound to its form — via the reader’s ability to linger, to focus on a panel within the context of a page, to flip back and forth between pages when images recall other images or time periods collide. And its original release as 12 issues over 14 months had the added effect of demanding that each chapter be considered as a distinct unit within the larger framework.

Since a film can’t approximate the physical form of a book or the narrative form of comics, the best way to echo this inseparability of content and context would be to express Watchmen in ways that fully exploit the art and artifice unique to film, but aside from the title sequence Zack Snyder’s adaptation doesn’t really do that.

Watchmen is set in a world where costumed crimefighters have been around since
the 1940s, but true superheroes — or any beings with actual superhuman powers — were just the province of comic books until a lab accident created Dr. Manhattan in 1959. It opens with the murder of The Comedian, source of that iconic blood-stained smiley-face pin, and plays out in late 1985 with glimpses of the earlier days of such characters as the gadget-laden Nite Owl, sexy Silk Spectre, and disturbed, trenchcoat-wearing Rorschach. Masked adventurers were outlawed in America in 1977 unless sanctioned by the government, which The Comedian was and Dr. Manhattan still is;
his nearly godlike abilities dwarf those of Superman (who’s as fictional in Watchmen’s universe as he is in ours) and are the main deterrent to nuclear war between the Soviet Union and a United States led by Richard Nixon in his fifth term as President. [I’ve written a primer with more information about the comics should you be interested.]

One way in which the movie could have reflected Moore & Gibbons’ meticulous approach is by playing with visual symmetry and asymmetry, as well as paid more attention to flashbacks and Dr. Manhattan’s perception of time. Why the hell didn’t the movie, as the book does, open tight on that smiley-face pin and pull out? How come there aren’t more dissolves between shots that position characters similarly, or creative uses of film stock and filters? I’m more familiar with the language of comics than the language of film, but I think there was too much would-be reality and not enough of the surreal hyperreality that Snyder brought to 300.

300 was a surprisingly faithful translation of Frank Miller’s work to the screen. And even with Watchmen the movie as it stands, I respect Snyder for trying. He reportedly agreed to make it only because he knew that if he didn’t someone else would — likely someone with less affinity for the original work. So with visions of 300 and Miller
& Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City dancing in my head, I was guardedly optimistic that, wow, the Watchmen movie is finally happening after all these years and it might be... good.

The Watchmen movie isn’t exactly bad. But it has no reason to exist if it’s merely another so-so superhero movie, albeit one dealing explicitly with “grown-up” subjects often cited as implicit in the superhero genre — fascism; violence and power as sexual surrogates; theology and messianism. Sadly, its exploration of those subjects is generally underwhelming, while many of its vital components are poorly realized.

combo graphic of six individual character posters for Ozymandias, Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre, Comedian, Rorschach, and Nite Owl

I want to be clear that my disappointment with the movie comes not only from its ineffectiveness in adapting the book but, even more crucially, from its ineffectiveness on its own terms as a complex but crowd-pleasing film. While Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter & Alex Tse excise certain scenes, subplots, and supplementary material (some of it adapted on a companion DVD available later this month) and wisely alter details of the denouement, on the whole it may try too hard to follow the plot of the graphic novel at the expense of the big picture.

The fact that costumes were reworked doesn’t bother me a bit; it was necessary to
make the characters who see action look cool — Nite Owl’s suit rocks — and effectively distinguished the “modern” heroes from the campy, long-john’d adventurers of the ’40s and ’60s. I do think the filmmakers made a fundamental mistake setting their Watchmen in the past: To me, the salient point isn’t that the book is set in 1985 but that it’s set at the time it was published. Updating the story’s sociopolitical backdrop from the Cold War to today’s global situation would be both more relevant and more accessible. Audiences unfamiliar with the graphic novel have enough thrown at them without adding a fifth-term Nixon in the era of “I want my MTV” to the mix. I know I’d like to have been spared the disconnect of seeing The Comedian fight in 21st-century, Matrix-style “Bullet Time” right after his television screamed at us that this was an alternate universe of two decades ago.

The R-rated material in Moore & Gibbons’ book for the most part served the story beyond simple shock or titillation. Snyder’s film ups the F-word count noticeably and lingers on gore; his intention may have been realism, but the effect for me was superficial and distracting. Also distracting was the soundtrack, which made at least one bad choice for every good: Using Leonard Cohen in a superhero movie once is ballsy, let alone twice, but the crowd at my screening laughed — at the film, not with
it, and not for the first or last time — when “Hallelujah” played as two characters consummated their relationship. Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” felt appropriate, as it did in the book, but using Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” for the opening montage was thuddingly literal and anachronistic, and the needle drop on Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” jolted me totally out
of the story.

The portrayals of Adrian Veidt, alias Ozymandias, and Laurie Jupiter, the younger
Silk Spectre, were terribly flat. Just as egregious was the decision to animate Dr. Manhattan using motion-capture instead of simply painting Billy Crudup blue, letting him act onscreen, and limiting the use of computer trickery to the character’s glowing aura and related effects. That’s half of the major cast at odds with my suspension of disbelief. Even dispassionate characters like Veidt and Manhattan should engage me emotionally, which isn’t possible when one of them sounds like he’s reading off of cue cards while trying to either master or hide some kind of accent and the other’s mouth doesn’t quite form the words he’s speaking most of the time. Your mileage, as they say, may vary; certainly friends of mine have disagreed.

I can’t deny that it was often slightly electric to see even an approximation of these characters embodied on the big screen, although for the most part it felt as if I was watching one of those fake movies briefly depicted in Hollywood-set satires precisely because of what ridiculous ideas they are. Jeffrey Dean Morgan was spot-on as The Comedian, whom I always thought looked like a brawny Dabney Coleman. Patrick Wilson completely overcame my reservations about him as Daniel Dreiberg, the latter-day Nite Owl — it’s not that he isn’t a capable actor (rent the brutal Hard Candy for stunning turns by him and a pre-Juno Ellen Page), but that I didn’t believe he’d be right for the mild-mannered, mothballed Dreiberg, yet he owns the role of what is essentially Clark Kent as Batman. Seeing Dr. Manhattan build his crystalline structure on Mars,
or The Comedian fall to his death in the first act, or the patterns on Rorschach’s mask actually shift as Jackie Earle Haley growled his lines was awesome from a fan perspective. Haley was perfect casting, despite looking in a certain light like an even more weathered Danny Bondauce; I believed that this petulant psychopath might be living the only sane response to an increasingly insane world.

The key to the characters of Watchmen, in fact, is that they’re all doing exactly that, reacting and rationalizing in their own ways — even in the climactic death of one character at the hands of another, who reluctantly accepts that revealing the clockwork manipulations of the story’s mastermind may not be in humanity’s best interest. Eddie Blake, The Comedian, started doing dirty work for the powers that be even before all non-sanctioned superheroes were outlawed. Dr. Manhattan, the being formerly known as Jon Osterman, stays at a government facility for his own reasons, with Laurie Jupiter as his kept concubine; her mother, the original Silk Spectre, lives at a rest home in Arizona, romanticizing her past. Dreiberg has retired, telling himself that he’s happier not challenging authority, sharing regular beer nights with his predecessor, the first Nite Owl — who unlike Dreiberg revealed his true identity and wrote a book. Adrian Veidt has also made his double life as Ozymandias public and profited from it, building a business empire that would be the envy of even his namesake, Rameses the Great; it’s telling, however, that Ozymandias is best known as the titular subject of Percy Shelley's poem about the arrogance of human nature, which includes the famous imperative “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”

Watchmen isn’t the greatest graphic novel ever produced, nor is it my favorite. The dialogue is often melodramatic, and its least satisfying aspect is its climax — not the best place for a weak link in the chain. But on the whole it’s very, very good, a crowning achievement in the form and certainly one of the few graphic novels that truly reads like a novel. It’s also an inescapably important locus in the timelines of the superhero genre, the comics medium, and the comic-book industry, at once illuminating, wallowing in, and transcending their interdependent histories in all its pulpy glory.

If you loved or even simply respect the book it’s almost impossible not to root for the movie, because that’s all most people will ever know of Watchmen. Of course, as with any adaptation, the book doesn’t go away just because the movie exists. What frustrated me most about the film is not that it failed completely, because it didn’t; it’s that based on what Zack Snyder et al. put onscreen the potential was there for it to better reflect the creative mechanics of the graphic novel and to be a much better movie, period.

Movie posters © 2009 Warner Bros. Entertainment. Characters and logo TM DC Comics.

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