I was probably sitting right in the centre of the grand Watchmen debate. I didn’t hate the film with fanboy outrage or the bemused annoyance of the un-anointed. But I didn’t sing its praises in the way many others did. I will freely admit the film is a startling vision, but beyond looking just about right in comparison to its source material, it was poorly handled emotionally and imaginatively. Director Zack Snyder was my primary source of scorn. I don’t doubt the difficulty of the position in which he was placed. No one, Greengrass or Gilliam included, could possibly have pleased everyone with an adaptation of such beloved graphic fiction.
But, while that can be taken into account briefly, his attempt to please as many people as possible meant the overall work was compromised, ending up giving the world and mixed, muddled and messy moving storyboard of frames linked only briefly in the running time. He works so hard to make everything so close to Alan Moore’s print vision that he forgets to differentiate in his own mind between the two mediums. He is desperate to fit in as much dialogue and as many scenes from the novel as he can, in the process sacrificing any creativity which should be brought to any adaptation.
Watchmen feels flat and lifeless on the screen, only managing to break into moments of greatness through the generally good performances and some superlative sequences. Is it not telling that easily the most brilliant moment of Watchmen is the opening title sequence? Tracking the alternative history Moore sets up through visually breathtaking montage; re-appropriating Dylan’s ‘The Times Are A-Changin’ to be an anthem for his history rather than for 1960s America; these are the brave moves taken by a director who understands he cannot possibly fit the source material onto the screen wholesale and must improvise. It’s that moment, when Snyder gives himself the freedom to interpret the source material in his own way, that you feel finally as though a real adaptation is occurring in front of your eyes.
For me, although I think Watchmen is a finer achievement of scale, Dawn of the Dead is still the most successful and satisfying project of Synder’s. Here, he had no qualms about giving his own take on a classic original film, eschewing the political and social concerns of Romero’s original to produce a visceral, thrilling action film. He interpreted the material brilliantly, something he resolutely fails to do in either Watchmen or the turgid 300.
Snyder has now been talking up his next project, Sucker Punch, and the bravery of Warner Bros in putting out his films in the past. I don’t deny WB has become the top major studio for taking risks with its major projects. But Watchmen directed by Zack Snyder is nowhere near the risk which would have been involved in taking on Watchmen by Gilliam or Watchmen by Greengrass (even if his re-contextualisation would have been a step too far). Sucker Punch, which will follow a young girl sent to a mental asylum and her fantasies of escaping alongside her fellow inmates, doesn’t really sound like much of a risk either. Snyder’s Watchmen may not have done the kind of business many were hoping for – although I will continue to argue against that – but this is a project in which a relatively bankable director has recruited five very attractive young women (lead Emily Browning joined by Vanessa Hudgens, Abbie Cornish, Evan Rachel Wood and Emma Stone) to take part in what I predict will be a series of semi-intense action sequences and recall the kind of Grindhouse films Tarantino so desperately aimed for a couple of years back. I don’t deny that sounds entertaining, but I can’t imagine this will provide any evidence to contradict that Snyder is a competent director with a knack for divisive slo-motion action and no ability to harness the emotional core of a story.
Anticipation for comic book adaptations come in very different forms. The Batman movies all suffer from a similar fate in that fans want darker every time, hence the widespread spurning given to Joel Schumacher’s Cyberpunk nightmares during the 1990s. Daredevil suffered a similar fate, although in both cases, little argument can be made for the actual quality of the adaptations, let alone their inability to tap into the desires that fans have of what they envisage for beloved characters. Sometimes, the criticism becomes slightly unfair. Witness the recent news that Fantastic Four is to be rebooted by Fox with a view to providing a darker vision of their super-family strife. The Fantastic Four movies are not great but, admit it, they capture the spirit of the comics very well indeed.
Watchmen is an entirely different beast. You could compare them to other Alan Moore adaptations and the treatment they had, but that doesn’t quite grasp the kind of no-win situation into which Zack Snyder plunged himself by taking on, and subsequently talking up, a film version of Moore’s most revered work. V for Vendetta inspires great love amongst Moore fans but that adaptation seemed doomed from the beginning given the presence in the directorial chair of James McTeigue, the perfect example of what Kevin Smith described as ‘failing upwards’ in Hollywood. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen isn’t Moore’s most revered but it is a brilliant, rollicking set of tales. It should have been easy to adapt but, beset by problems across the board, you can understand why that one fell to pieces. None though carry with them the stigma of adaptation that Watchmen has. It is an distinctly mixed desire amongst fans to see the film adapted anyway. It has often been described as unfilmable, not least by Moore himself, while the likes of Terry Gilliam (who was advised not to embark on the venture by Moore himself) and Paul Greengrass walked on past without managing to bring it to life. So, as this beast arrives, the question is raised as to whether Snyder managed to pull it off, and whether he should have tried at all.
The answer to both is a very tentative yes. Watchmen is some achievement, a linear and entertaining action movie gleaned from source material which never gives any concession to such narrative convention. You could never deny that Snyder has pulled off the adaptation, and for that he should be applauded. But he should not be lauded because, while this is undoubtedly something to see, nearly every problem that this film has offsets the positives and, on both sides of that coin, Snyder takes responsibility.
Snyder is undoubtedly a visual stylist, maybe even auteur, and his fingerprints are smeared on every scene. There are a great number of moments from the graphic novel which get lifted into the film wholesale, itself a visceral thrill for any fan watching. In doing so, he manages to include a number of the bigger themes that the book explores, not to mention the moments of humour that Moore often slips in, a welcome addition to what is a big, serious movie. The title sequence deserves a significant amount of praise, given that it manages to provide the alternative history of Moore’s United States with panache and skill without every feeling like important information is being shoehorned in; it’s a lesson for anyone taking on big, difficult adaptations and how to deal with the fact that five-hour movies don’t tend to sell. The other huge positive the movie has is Dr Manhattan, a brilliant CG/human creation which outstanding work from Billy Crudup, joining Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian in bringing the characters to life with verve and skill. Manhattan’s screen-incarnation is so well-judged and intelligently used, he is easily the most fully-realised and well understood adapted creation in Snyder’s universe.
But, for all the good, the bad and mistepping comes streaming through to match. The minor gripes first. The sex scene, itself used in a semi-comic context in the movie, is incredibly poorly filmed and badly judged by Snyder, coming across like the worst form of late-night, Channel 5 nonsense. Akerman is weak as Silk Spectre 2, an undemanding character which she manages to make completely unbelievable, especially in the S&M variation on the original costume which reaks of at-least partial sexism. Matthew Goode too, whilst relatively good in terms of look and attitude as Ozymandias, is slightly out of place and, although reportedly this was an acting choice, his accent is all over the shop.
The real problems though fall to Snyder himself. He is a director with great visual flair and an understanding of action quotients and slickness. However, his addiction to slo-mo fight scenes and, in this case, astonishing violence in given parts (the alley way and Rorschach’s turning point with a cleaver). Snyder seems far too interested in the slo-motion sequences, themselves extremely annoying and lacking in the kind of pace needed, and ends up fetishising the violence in truly disturbing fashion. It seems as though his history on 300, a far less illustrious project but equally strewn with heavy, slo-mo battles, was more indicative of his overall style rather than his adherence to Frank Miller’s work. Any concentration on the violence in Watchmen is to miss the point of the story, especially when he’s putting in the action sequences in slo-mo and taking up time which should be used to bring in other story parts (most notably the magazine vendor and kid reading comic which frame the story in the comic so brilliantly). It seems to me that Snyder was much more interested in amping up the violence and action scenes and producing a linear movie, rather than managing to balance the more difficult moments in Watchmen with those base elements.
As a director, he can undoubtedly make a film in which you are dazzled by the visuals and the gung-ho entertainment value. But it seems he does not have the ability to grasp wider emotional issues. For that reason, Watchmen doesn’t quite manage to ascend to greatness. But, for all the faults that strew the movie, I would argue that this is the absolute best that Snyder could ever have done and, therefore, he can be rewarded on a personal level. But I cannot help but wonder what a more versatile directorial talent would have made of it. Given all the history though, I think I can just be pleased that Snyder managed to adequately sidestep fucking up the greatest work of graphic fiction of all time.