It’s been a year of change. A new president celebrating the worth of comics. A new Batman movie dominating the box office. And so, following the year of the Bat, it seems only right that cinema now embraces this new era and turns its attention to what many consider the Bible of modern superhero comics, the big screen adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Originally published by DC Comics in 1985, Watchmen changed the way we write and think about superheroes. Moore took a big risk and decided to write about these demigods as though they were real people, with insecurities, faults and mental problems — people who didn’t always do the right thing, who made terrible mistakes and hard choices when it came to it. Watchmen was a monstrous novel, twelve chapters packed with an ensemble of misfits, nuclear proliferation, faux newspaper articles, pop culture tunes, Richard Nixon, a short story about pirates and a giant squid, just to name a few (no spoilers, don’t worry.)
Now, as the big screen adaptation of the comic-book bible readies itself for world domination, we here at Smackdown thought it only necessary to push the Watchmen to their limits and pit them against some real comic book heavyweights.
So what kind of test would it be if Watchmen didn’t go toe-to-toe with its big brother – the older, meaner sibling? Who better to take down the newly-crowned kings of hype than the book Moore wrote only a few years before the Watchmen, the other title hailed as one of the most important comics of all time? Who else could possibly be up to the task of bringing the big, bad Watchmen to their flashy, glory-hogging knees?
One letter is all it takes. V.
That’s right. In this latest edition of Smackdown, we’re pitting the Cain and Abel of Alan Moore comics against one another, and we’re not letting them stop til a body hits the mat. It’s brother vs. brother. Moore vs. Moore. Watchmen vs V for Vendetta.
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Watchmen is the story of a group of superheroes struggling to understand how they fit into a world that has moved beyond them, a world on the brink of annihilation and how they might save that world from itself. Superheroism has been outlawed, the US and Soviet Union are locked in nuclear escalation, Richard Nixon is still the president and the Doomsday Clock is at 5 minutes to midnight. Oh and did I mention that someone has mysteriously begun to murder group members? Watchmen a dark, brooding and monstrous epic that questions the moral ambiguities that are so often taken for granted when dealing with superhero mythology.
Upon first publication, Watchmen changed not only the comic world, but the literary world itself. Named one of the 100 best English-language novels by Time Magazine and 50 best novels printed in the last 25 years by Entertainment Weekly, it has received countless critical acclaim and found new fans for decades.
With “visionary director” Zack Snyder at the helm, Watchmen now makes the jump to the big screen and fanboys everywhere are chomping at the bit. Deemed “unfilmable” by Terry Gilliam and having seen the frustrated, shaking heads of Aronovsky and Greengass pass by, Watchmen has been a project mired in development hell. Then production hell. And litigation hell. It’s been a project as tough to make happen as some of its source material may be to swallow and it has been argued and speculated about since its rights were optioned.
Now, as audiences pile into their seats, the same questions start to get a little louder: Will the film be able to hold up to fanboy scrutiny? Will (writer) David Hayter stay true to the source material and if so, for how long? Will creator Alan Moore finally be happy? Can Zack Snyder prove Gilliam wrong? Will — wait, did you say giant squid?
Filmable or not, Watchmen has arrived and the world is ready to finally have these questions answered. And to answer that other one, the infamous, ever-repeated “Who watches the Watchmen?”
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The Defending Champion
To say that comic-book legend Alan Moore hasn’t been a fan of seeing his work adapted for the screen is an understatement. Before 2006, you couldn’t necessarily blame the guy. After all, the first two adaptations of his work resulted in From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, two great ideas forced to die at the expense of placating to the common denominator. So in 2006 as Joel Silver and the Wachowski brothers wheeled out V for Vendetta, the adaptation of one of Moore’s most celebrated works (and well-considered one of the greatest contributions in comic book history), it was no surprise that the scribe was less-than-enthusiastic, distancing himself from the project publicly (even refusing to watch it.)
However, while remaining unrecognized by Mr. Moore, the film is a far cry from its lesser cousins (just ask co-creator David Lloyd.) Premiering to widespread critical acclaim, V for Vendetta boasts of an electric, highly-engaging script, an immensely talented cast and absolutely masterful direction from first-time director (and Wachowski protege) James McTeigue.
Its story revolves around Evey Hammond (played by Natalie Portman,) a young woman living in an Orwellian near-future Britain, where a neo-conservative, totalitarian government brutally oppresses its citizens through the use of fear mongering and force, while simultaneously veiling its ugliness through the proclamation of “Strength through Unity. Unity Through Faith.” Initially a victim of this brutality, Evey is ultimately pulled into the exploits and personal vendetta of a mysterious freedom fighter known only as “V,” who through violence and a lot explosives plans to overthrow the government and push its apathetic citizens into action. His identity hidden by a grinning Guy Fawkes mask and 1600s style cloak and costume (which alludes to the infamous Gunpowder plot…wikipedia it) V leads Evey on a path of enlightenment and social awakening, forcing her to choose a side in the battle for England’s future and ultimately discover the truth of freedom, vengeance, faith and personal responsibility.
Though it seems as though we now live in a post-TDK world, V for Vendetta is the film that really broke the mold for comic book and superhero adaptations, transforming the medium into a source for powerful cinematic art and storytelling. Now, as its infamous younger brother Watchmen prepares to push the superhero/comic genre to the next level, the brooding, little anarchist known as V sits quietly by, sharpening his daggers and rigging his charges, the grin of his mask growing slightly wider.
V for Vendetta vs Watchmen is a messy, all out brawl, a war between two very different beasts trading heavy blows. As each film is grand in scope and boasting of numerous technical achievement, we’re going to need to really sort through each round in order to come to a valid decision.
First, we look to the cast and performances. Watchmen is truly an ensemble piece, using a single murder to push a number of independent stories toward a final climactic moment. I applaud Snyder’s willingness to fully capture each character’s arc and give them their respective fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, not all of the cast capitalizes on it. The greatest performance comes from Jackie Earle Haley as he goes off the deep end realizing the anger that is Rorschach. Captivating both with and without the ever-changing mask, he really steals the show from the others around him. Billy Crudup is solid as Dr. Manhattan, which is strange to hear myself say since the character is mostly comprised of blank stares and a monotone delivery. However, as we are meant to watch Dr. Manhattan fall away from his own humanity to the point of it becoming unrecognizable, Crudup delivers an extremely subtle performance that makes all the CGI needed to realize the character both workable and believable.
The worst performance comes from Malin Akerman, who doesn’t really stand a chance next to Haley and Crudup. Akerman struggles to tread water amid the stronger cast mates and, while she actually manages to do so for some time, she is out-shined consistently by her peers. And then there’s all that dry humping in the Archie with Night Owl. Once that happens, any chance she had really goes out the window.
On another note, Carla Gugino tries valiantly as Sally Jupiter, retired super-heroine and original Silk Spectre, but the crappy makeup job makes it hard to take her seriously and her dialogue doesn’t do much for the melodrama she’s battling to overcome. Speaking of makeup, the Richard Nixon stuff is laughable. It was bad enough that I kept comparing Robert Wisden to Frank Langella (the timing’s really not his fault.) But that nose?! OK, I know it’s supposed to be satire and campy at times, but there are limits after which you just start detracting from the film.
Anyway, the rest of the major cast does a good job with the material they’ve been given. Anyone that can make an owl outfit seem kind of badass is obviously doing something right and Matthew Goode as Ozymandias is stellar casting, if not for some shady dialogue handed his way. (And the tiger just comes out of nowhere!) Regardless, the major problem in the performances lies with what the cast is actually made to do and say, which at times becomes corny and rather dated. And that lies with the script. (More to that in a minute.)
In contrast, V for Vendetta is really a vehicle for Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving to do their thing and it then uses the remainder of its cast to support the stars with a plethora of really wonderful performances. Simply put, Natalie Portman is stunning to watch. One of (if not the) best actresses of her generation, Portman is an everyman thrown into the violent, political chaos that is near-future Britain and she acts as a wonderful representative for the audience. Watching her during the torture segments (as her head is shaved on camera by a set of cold, surgical hands) is absolutely gut-wrenching and she owns every second of screen time throughout the film.
Then there’s Hugo Weaving. Constantly hidden behind an eye-less, grinning mask, Weaving still manages to create a charismatic, engaging character that the audience is not only attracted to, but actually connects with and cares about. His technical ability is paramount, allowing every gesture to feel natural and full of life, yet without ever being too theatrical (except when he’s supposed to be).
Around Portman and Weaving, James Mcteigue fills in the film with some extraordinary talent. John Hurt takes a 180 degree turn from his role in the big screen adaptation of 1984 to become the ruthless totalitarian High Chancellor Sutler, owning many a scene from
the limitations of a giant video screen. Sure it might be easy to be intimidating when your face is 20 feet high, but Hurt really gets everything possible out of that character to create a stunning antagonist that we only see in person once. Stephen Fry steals scenes as Deitrich and Stephen Rea does a wonderful job as Detective Finch, who provides the moral backbone for the story with a beautifully subtle performance that never seems like finger-wagging. If it isn’t obvious already, this first round goes to V for Vendetta hands down.
Round 2 isn’t quite as solid for our mischievous freedom fighter. In an examination of the visuals and technical achievement of the two projects, Watchmen is the clear winner in terms of difficulty and technical achievement. Every frame explodes in visual orgasm, using Snyder’s love of high speed in order to really exaggerate every fight scene, superhuman feat and/or any other possible excuse to move the camera. For the most part, the CGI blends perfectly with the live action (except for some stuff on Mars) and the color-bursting panels of the comic come to life with such jaw dropping beauty its technical accolades are sure to be many.
In contrast, V for Vendetta is a beautiful, yet much smaller film (explosions and fight scenes aside.) The visuals are much more subtle and allow the actors to really drive the narrative, while I would argue that Watchmen is much more about the spectacle of the subject matter. While V for Vendetta does lose to Watchmen in terms of technical achievement, it is also this subtlety that supports the narrative more so than its counterpart. I wasn’t as aware that I was watching a film when I was watching V. Watchmen left me at times caring more about the visuals than the characters, which I would pose is a problem with any film.
On another note, it wouldn’t be a superhero battle if there weren’t some kick-ass fight scenes. Both V for Vendetta and Watchmen have their share of ass-kicking, but it is the latter that really wins this round. Snyder’s fast-slow-motion fight choreography may eventually get old, but for Watchmen it really helped to sell the superhuman abilities of the characters and the brutality that they enjoyed inflicting on their targets. Watchmen is supposed to be mean, and there was plenty of gore and violence to back that reputation up. Couple that unflinching resolve to display the brutality of its heroes with some excellent sound design and V’s fight scenes just simply can’t hold up. They are already few and far between and push to avoid showing too much blood or anything overly violent. V isn’t afraid to kill, but doesn’t seem to do it with quite the same glee as the Watchmen. Fortunately for the former, I believe V is more determined to establish a dramatic narrative and character piece than to focus too intently or give too much space to violence.
Being that both of these films are adaptations of Alan Moore comics (and since Moore is such a hard son-of-a-b*#$@ to please) I think it best to finally look at the films as adaptations and measure how well they are actually able to translate the source material to the screen. Once that is completed we will subsequently examine whether or not their ability to do so helps the film exist as an independent creature and work of art.
V for Vendetta is most definitely inspired by the source material and draws heavily from it, but (much to Moore’s disappointment) the film also makes no bones about changing and updating the material to better adhere to the socio-political climate in which it exists and to speak to the ideas and perspectives of the filmmakers. V is absolutely meant to critique the politics of Bush-administration America and the neo-conservative movement, which is an obvious divergence from the text. However, the script is so layered that to pass it off solely as political allegory is to simultaneously miss the many other ideas it focuses on, including raised questions of freedom, sexuality, faith, anger, vengeance and tolerance, just to name a few. While it is by no means a literal translation of Moore’s work from page to screen, it carefully chooses its manipulations in order to present the audience with a work that exists entirely independently, leaving those that have and never will read the comic to ponder the questions that the film poses.
On the other hand, Watchmen is very much the realization of the source material. It is an incredibly ambitious effort and one that should be applauded. Much like Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City, Zack Snyder and David Hayter were incredibly meticulous in making sure that as many details of the original text were included in the film, creating amazing visuals that make it feel as though the audience has actually jumped inside the panel and clinging passionately to dialogue that would have likely been reworked or cut entirely by any other artists. It even seems that Alan Moore was able to score the film himself, as the pop culture tunes he infused into the text play loud and shameless beneath the melodrama. Sure, things were left out of the final film out of necessity, but it is astounding that Snyder was able to infuse as much of the source material as he did, even going so far as to include the “Tales of the Black Freighter” storyline on a separate DVD that hits shelves today and will be cut into the film at a later date. And though I won’t go into detail I’m glad they changed the climax as they did. The big reveal as it stands now works much better for film than the giant squid (though that is awesome in its own right) and I think it will be much more palatable for audiences. Ultimately, it is obvious that it was Snyder’s every intention to use this film to finally make Alan Moore happy, as there is almost a literal transformation of page to moving image. It is an extremely commendable achievement and should be applauded. Watchmen absolutely wins the translation game.
Unfortunately, that’s also a round it loses. I know, I set you up for that. But let me explain. While it is extremely remarkable that Watchmen holds as true to the original material as it does, it is also this stringent adherence to the text that allows it to at times become muddled and subsequently lose itself. It’s as though the film is at times confused, not sure where it wants to go, waffling between heavy drama and campy satire.
That pop-culture soundtrack I mentioned, while written into the original text, feels out of place once its booming through the theater’s sound system, loud and dated and without the same effect that reading those lyrics have on the page (watch the hallelujah scene and you’ll see what I’m talking about.) Also, David Hayter should have pushed to give himself a little more leeway with the dialogue. Much of it is almost word-for-word from the comic, which if I might remind you is a superhero comic from the ’80s. The dialogue oftentimes is corny, campy and really detracts from anything dramatic that the film is trying to accomplish. I felt the same way with Sin City. Comic book dialogue often reads well, but once people walk around trying to actually say these things to one another, it becomes laughable. That’s why we write a screenplay in the first place.
I place the blame for this confusion squarely on Snyder’s shoulders. It was a fear I had after watching what he did with 300, which was a film I definitely enjoyed, but also equated with the likes of Sin City in that the filmmaker cared less about creating an independent work of art and more about literally translating what had already been done. I don’t know what Snyder’s perspective is because it doesn’t seem to be there. He is an extremely talented technical filmmaker, but in terms of creating cinematic art I am left feeling rather hollow in leaving Watchmen. I heard a lot of philosophical discussion in the film, talks of humanity and love, but felt nothing for the characters. Instead we get nearly 3 hours of watching a bunch of people perform lines they have no real connection to, so while visually stimulating and a technical achievement that should be marveled at, the film leaves you empty.
In closing, V for Vendetta is a piece of art that stands alone. While heavily inspired by Moore’s original work, it draws upon a wonderfully crafted screenplay by the Wachowski’s and some incredible direction by James McTeigue in order to present us with a project meticulously infused with the perspectives and ideas of the filmmakers. If McTeigue’s follow-up Ninja Assassin is to be anything like his first film, I can promise that I will be first in line at the door. His direction shows incredible ability, combining technical skill with an intimate understanding of his talent, pushing his actors to reach into themselves to make the most of the drama while also creating a visual mood that acts as a perfect complement to the narrative. Though it’s a bit early to call, he has shown himself to be one of the most promising new filmmakers working today. V for Vendetta is a film that is all-at-once subtle, honest, exciting and incredibly powerful and a work of art that should be viewed by everyone. Who watches The Watchmen? If you haven’t seen V, see it first.
V for Victory! V for Vendetta!