When it was first published in 1986, Alan Moore’s graphic novel epic “Watchmen” helped redefine comics, pulling superheroes from the honey-sweet boy scout era into a complex world of vigilantism and corruption. Last year in film”, “The Dark Knight” did something similar, redefining its genre and medium with gritty realism, complex motivations, and flawed heroes. Both ushered into their respective mediums a real sense of consequence to being a superhero, dropping the prefix “super” from hero and and replacing it with “human.” Now after decades of development hell, the “Watchmen” cometh to film, and with its arrival we are obligated to ask: has this film, like “The Dark Knight” set a new standard for comic book films? Let’s find out.
Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” is an ultra-loyal adaptation of Alan Moore’s tale of a band of retired superheroes who find themselves dragged through their sordid pasts after the mysterious murder of one of their own. Visually arresting, “Watchmen” never fails to have sex with your eyes. The CGI is top-notch and Snyder–as in “300”–once again shows how flashy comic book adaptations can be. Adding to this are Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach, and Nite Owl–newly introduced heroes who homage popular favorites with a fresh take. The action is nicely staged and orchestrated for a surreal, comic book feel. But most of all Zack Snyder has captured the human fallibility of these heroes and their ethical dillema, making the film all the more ambitious and daring in its scope and tone.
The Defending Champion
Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is a beast of a film, and is ruthless on its heroes. In a newly transformed Gotham, Batman and Co. (Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon)race to crush the remnants of Gotham’s mobs only to be impeded by the almost supernatural arrival of The Joker. From there, the situation spirals out of control climaxing in a tense, emotional scene between the three heroes of the film–a confrontation that leaves them battered, compromised, and unsure. As we know, Heath Ledger’s performance goes without saying; the Academy got one thing right this year. The action is top-notch, serviced by both amazing cinematography and musical scoring. And as always, writer Jonah Nolan delivers a complex, nuanced script that insured the film’s box office success due to its many layers uncovered only through multiple viewings.
At first, this was difficult and then…it hit me. This Smackdown mimics the type of boxing matches where you watch the two combatants circle one another, weighing each other, gauging their strengths and weaknesses. Their reputations and skill sets are well-known and well-earned. The suspense is thick, the anticipation is high and then, the fight bell sounds, and one delivers a crushing blow to the other and the fight is over before it even began.
“Watchmen” is an embarrassing, heartbreaking mess. Like Snyder’s “300,” the film whores itself to style instead of substance. “Visionary” director Snyder pimps Alan Moore’s nuanced novel out for cheap thrills, overblown violence, and flashy set pieces. What’s worse is the irony of it all for “Watchmen” is dogmatic in its reverence to the source material, the film being an almost frame-by-frame, line-by-line replication of the graphic novel on film. But as with all dogmatic slobbering, the result is something hollow and arranged that misses the point. You think a film topping out around three hours would have enough time to realize that it is a film and not a comic book.
This is what Nolan realized with “The Dark Knight.” The film is based on two Batman graphic novels: Alan Moore’s (yes, same Alan Moore) Batman: The Killing Joke and Jeph Loeb’s The Long Halloween. However, instead of lazily reproducing Moore’s Batman tale line-by-line and frame-by-frame, Nolan distilled both these graphic novels to their source, finding the character’s essences and the plot’s thematic spirit. Then Nolan translated, molded, and created a film that serviced those characters and those themes within film’s unique freedoms and constraints. He did his work as a director, realizing that comics are designed and scripted for certain reasons–the prime one being that you are both reading and watching art. This is not the case with film, where the directness or cheesiness of dialogue cannot hide in the visual art before your face. You watch and listen, making the experience much more cohesive.
“Watchmen” suffers because “Visonary” director Zack Snyder can’t envision a film past a comic. An example: dialogue. With such groan-inducing lines such as “I should’ve had that abortion” and “What ever happened to the American Dream?”, the film proves that how something reads in our heads and how something sounds to our ears are two totally different things. Dialogue in comics serve a different purpose than film; just as dialogue in a stageplay is different than film. How Synder missed this is beyond me. So we have lovely lines such as “John may see a lot of things, but he doesn’t see me.” But these are only quick examples of dialogue from a whole horde of bad lines that have now set the English language back decades.
Compounding this is how lost the film gets in the structure of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, which was a 12-issues series spanning over a year and was plotted as such. Snyder and Co. did not bother plotting and crafting the graphic novel into a three-act structure…or even a five or six or one-hundred act structure. Instead, we have a big mass of “stuff happening,” a series of events lacking causality that meander through irrelevant backstories and trite plot revelations only to finally overdose in an arbitrary “twist” realization that vomits up some anti-climatic ending. But hey…it’s pretty!
A great example of this poor structure and editing is the first hour of the film. Following the Comedian’s murder, the retired heroes gather to pay their respects at the funeral. As the funeral plays out so subtly to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence”, each heroes reflects on their various meetings with the sadistic Comedian. So instead of a twenty-second funeral scene, we get 30-minute funeral scene bloated with the backstories of six heroes, only one of which is even relevant to the film’s “plot.”
That’s if you can find the plot. At first, the movie seems to be a murder mystery. This is dropped an hour in (yes an hour because you still have two hours to go), replaced by a mildly-interesting exploration of a god-like superhero and a numbingly-uninteresting romance between two washed-up heroes. Oh, and something about renewable energy is going on…but that gets lost in stride. However, at the end, the film backtracks to the murder mystery, conveniently solves itself, then jumps to the renewable energy subplot which in the end proves to be a pretty important “subplot” that is intentionally forgotten during the film because the filmmaker’s lacked the talent to properly mislead the audience. This isn’t structure. This is…I don’t know. It’s not enjoyable, that’s for sure.
But this isn’t all. What Zack Snyder film would be complete without gratuitous violence? Now granted, Alan Moore’s graphic novel is rather violent. However, this violence is contained to Rorschach and The Comedian, both of whom are sadistic psychopaths faking super-heroism. For Snyder, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are also sadistic, breaking the bones of muggers, snapping their necks, causing compound fractures, and killing thugs without remorse. Where is there heroism? Where is their growth? There’s something humorous here: Snyder diverges from the source material–finally–but screws it up by vilifying two otherwise sympathetic heroes. But again, style over substance.
By this time you’ve noticed I haven’t talked too much about “The Dark Knight.” Refer to my earlier metaphor. “The Dark Knight” doesn’t even have to try; it’s not in the same league as “Watchmen.”
But I feel the difference in the quality of these two movies is found in comparing two scenes:
“The Dark Knight” is a film about consequence. In the film, Batman’s actions have appreciable and visible affects on the world around him, as do the actions of Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon. These add stakes and layer to their characters as they are not simply meandering through the plot; these decisions/actions propel, control, and complicate the situation the characters find themselves in as they battle crime. Reacting to their actions and compounding the situation are the drastic, unpredictable actions of The Joker, despicable acts that challenge the very moral fiber of our heroes as they make their hard choices. This forms a cycle of escalation–a ruthless volley game–that launches us to the film’s tragic ending. Being that the The Joker has tested each heroes’ morality, it is fitting that the heroes must face one another in the end. And in this confrontation, the dramatic questions are explored and answered. “Watchmen” attempts something similar, with all the heroes facing one another, supposedly exposed just as Batman, Gordon, and Dent are at the end of “The Dark Knight.” However, since there has been no consequence to their actions and character–since they have made very few interesting or relevant decisions–these heroes feel sort of lumped together, or worse contrived together, only to wax philosophical about the film’s overblown, over-stated, over-rationalized themes.
Lastly, I want to touch on rules and stakes. Something that was remarkable about “The Dark Knight” is the fatality and severity of death, harm, and destruction. In the film, judges, police officers, and love interests are murdered with abandon. Characters are disfigured, emotionally tormented, etc. At the film’s opening, Batman’s costume is worn and saggy. Later, Bruce Wayne takes off his shirt to reveal a painting of bruises, scars, and stitches to which Alfred replies, “Know your limits, Master Wayne.” This is physical humanity, and it works wonderfully in creating suspense and consequence in that every knife, every gunshot, every explosion…they all do or may cost human life in a real way.
“Watchmen” again fails at this. All its main heroes have ridiculous superhuman abilities, walking away unscathed from otherwise bone-crushing, paralyzing assaults. No one seems capable of being killed unless Dr. Manhattan (i.e. God) does it. And Dr. Manhattan, who is suppose to represent this dangerous and new “super”-human threat the likes of which have never been seen, is a moot, if not redundant, point. He emerges in a world of invulnerable heroes with ridiculous super-strength, speed, and senses. It’s just…another one, and it robs the film of the graphic novel’s point here. It also dumbs down the suspense; it actually kills it. The battles, like the film, are stylized but they are rarely dangerous since we know the heroes cannot be harmed. What makes this offensive is one thing: it’s never explained. We have no idea whatsoever why these heroes can do these things and thus, with no knowledge of why, we have no knowledge of any weakness that could make any fight seem…I don’t know…really a fight. The graphic novel of course hides the implausibility of their heroism in the typical comic book suspension of disbelief…but this is film, and it requires different rules.
Really? “The Dark Knight” thrashes “Watchmen.” In the film and graphic novel “Watchmen” asks: who watches the Watchmen? If there is any justice in this world…no one.