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Watchmen (2009) -vs- The Dark Knight (2008)

Beau DeMayoThe Smackdown

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.

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The Challenger

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.

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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.

The Scorecard

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.

The Decision

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.

21 Comments on Watchmen (2009) -vs- The Dark Knight (2008)

  1. The Dark Knight Is The Best DC Comics Film Ever Made.

  2. Beau… You rule as the King of Comix on this site! Did you go to ComicCon? You should be delivering lectures!

  3. Perhaps, in terms of structure, Watchmen may have been better served being made as a TV series, which would have allowed a lot more wriggle room for each character. The story (as published in comic form) would have been able to ebb and flow more easily within the serialised format, so for me, I think the structure of the material lends itself to TV more readily that film. Your thoughts?

  4. Beau… I really think you win this round. This post has generated more comments than most any recently and most people seem to agree with you. I don’t know why, I just liked WATCHMEN. Sometimes, I think, you don’t need a good reason. A movie just works for you and this one did for me but, obviously, not for everybody else. Oh, well…

  5. I completely agree with what you say about structure! I found myself looking around the theatre waiting for an ending, mainly because the plot line was sporadic at best.
    On another note, I think Rorschach’s character started to explore the severity of death concept that “The Dark Knight” so eloquently depicted; however, “The Watchmen” definitely did not even break the surface compared to Nolan’s film. It almost seems as though Snyder only presented the fact that Rorschach could have, possibly, begun to explore that idea.

  6. I have yet to get my hands on the book so I can’t really compare it with the film in terms of how well it was adapted,but I can agree to say that it had extraordinary visual style but lacked substance.
    There were only a few instances where I found myself interested in Watchmen—the murders of the Comedian and Rorschach. The rest of the time I was distracted by the film’s music, flashy effects, and pretty pictures because I wasn’t interested in the shallow dialogue and dull character relationships. I don’t say this to criticize its faithfulness to the book, but rather to agree that books and films require different rules when attempting to tell a story. With the Dark Knight, I felt completely different because both substance and style were balanced, which is obviously why the film was so successful.
    At least after seeing Watchmen I can put reading the book on the top of “my priorities” list, so that I’ll hopefully find the story more enjoyable.

  7. I think she was talking about Rodney and I’s fascination with blue phallic monuments.

  8. Watchmen just doesn’t feel like a film to me. There were instances where it began to resemble one- when the narrative spotlights Dr. Manhattan, the murder of the Comedian. But just as the flasy cinematography and snappy dialog begin to congeal into a definite plot, Snyder’s verbatim adaptation hurls the film into a different and unrelated direction. It was an ambitious and noteworthy effort to capture Watchmen in its entirety like this. For me however, Watchmen is something that cannot be bottled up into a single film.

  9. Looks like Sherry needs a snorkel!

  10. Testosterone? Isn’t this an argument about comic books?

  11. Too…much…testosterone…can’t…breathe…

  12. The Dark Knight will remain on top of the comic-book film pile for a while yet. Watchmen, as a comic book, not as a film, will remain on top of that particular pile for a very long time, if not forever.

  13. Imagine me as Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl after Rorschach’s death in the movie.
    “But I dearly loved THE DARK KNIGHT. I’ve seen it three times now, it’s fantastic. But, and I know this will elicit howls, I think I might like WATCHMEN just a little bit more. There… I’ve said it…”
    **drop to my knees**
    **shaking fists**

  14. It’s funny you said that because I’ve been thinking about going in and talking about well… giant blue phalluses… Haha

  15. Both were good for different reasons. Its just a matter of opinion. While i agree th Watchmen film probably cant top TDK, i surely dont believe TDK can top Watchmen as a novel alone

  16. And not a mention of all those giant blue penises? Beau, you’re slipping.

  17. Is it? At first glance, it may seem that way. However, both films have some startling similarities.
    1) Both were influenced by works by Alan Moore.
    2) Both deal with this idea of escalation following a superheroes introduction. Dr. Manhattan ignites a international escalation. Batman ignites a city-wide escalation.
    3) Both portray heroes that are exploring and teasing the boundaries of what is right and wrong in vigilantism. Harvey Dent, Commissioner Gordon, and Batman all struggle with the ethic dimension of their actions–how far will one go to save Gotham? In Watchmen, we have much the same. Ozymandius struggles with this, as did the Comedian.
    4) Both blur the lines between heroes and villains. While The Joker is the villain of TDK, the true villain is revealed to be Harvey Two-Face; he owns the climax. Both films have their heroes facing off with one of their own in the climax, a face-off that will ultimately decided the virtuosity of their fates.
    5) Both embrace a very modern perspective in relation to their heroes.
    I think they are ripe for comparison.

  18. I feel comparing these two films is like comparing apples to Snickers bars… I like them both for different reasons.

  19. I have to disagree Beau. I do enjoy your style of writing and you made some valid points, however I absolutely loved the Watchmen. It felt real and relevant to modern society.

  20. Well, I have to appreciate the literary firepower of MOVIE SMACKDOWN to have both Beau DeMayo and Stephen Bell writing such passionate takes on WATCHMEN. This is just one of those times in film when you understand another person’s point-of-view but, hell, you just respond to a piece of art and that’s that. I REALLY LOVED THIS FILM. So far, it sure seems that critics and audiences have been divided on the matter but, for me, it just worked wonderfully. Yes, I see its flaws but I feel detached from them (like Dr. Manhattan, I suppose). I read the graphic novel in 1986 when it first came out and have been waiting for the day it became a film and, simply, I wasn’t disappointed. Naturally, it’s technically beautiful but, for me, it’s as much a growth in the comicbook film genre as THE DARK KNIGHT. So, the question is, for me, not whether I liked it but whether it would win either of these Smackdowns. Clearly, for me, WATCHMEN gets an early round knock-out over V FOR VENDETTA, a film I found cold and odd. But I dearly loved THE DARK KNIGHT. I’ve seen it three times now, it’s fantastic. But, and I know this will elicit howls, I think I might like WATCHMEN just a little bit more. There… I’ve said it…

  21. How is the poll tied at 50%??
    Watchmen isn’t even comparable to TDK.
    Check out how it stacks up against V for Vendetta later today 🙂
    And Beau, I think we know where this is heading.
    TDK vs V for the third bout of the round robin?

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