I finally got to watch one of my favorite pieces of literature come to the screen.
To any self respecting, hardcore comic geek, of which I count myself among, the name is as meaningful as the words Citizen Kane or The Godfather are to film fanatics. In many instances, this is the book that changed the way many of us looked at comics. It was maybe the first book to really earn the title “Graphic Novel”, as the seminal work by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was no mere flight of fancy or boyish adventure, this was storytelling on a level that the industry had never tried up to this point.
Watchmen, along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns to some extent, challenged our ideas of what a comic book could really be. This was a book where every character was flawed; disconnected millionaires and sadistic mercenaries for our own government. There were heroes that had retired and gone soft, and kept women who cried out for the freedom of beating criminals half to death.
There was a god that used to be a man who was ambushed and sent into exile by the very people he had spent his life protecting. Finally, the character you identified and rooted for the most was a sociopathic madman, who had replaced all of his humanity with as brutal a version of justice as I’d ever seen in a comic before. Then Alan Moore gave us that ending.
In the late 90’s I was coming into my own as a comic fan after years of not even looking at those “funny books”, and I was grabbing any major book I could find trying to take it all in. I even started working at a comic store to supplement my income enough to afford this habit and then a friend of mine suggested that I read Watchmen. He actually worked at the store too, and what he had done the previous week was to “borrow” the copy we had at the store, took it home for the weekend and brought it back on Monday before the owner realized it was gone. He had suggested I do the same thing, but instead I went ahead and bought the thing, and I still have that copy a decade later, just a lot more worn out.
So I took the thing back to my dorm room and read it cover to cover, and I’ll be honest with you, I don’t remember liking it all that much. The things I had come to expect from great comic works, like last-stand battles for our protagonist and an unbelievably heroic ending; well those things didn’t happen. The book actually made me feel a little stupid, like I just wasn’t getting something that I felt I should be. Turns out, I was right.
Over the next decade I’ve read Watchmen time and again. Each time the book becomes greater, showing me something I hadn’t noticed before, letting my ever growing maturity see things that I couldn’t the last time I read the thing. Watchmen becomes more fully formed every time I experience it, its pages more a part of my own personal standard as to what a great book should be. It was as if there was a special club I was now a part of, but now the club rules have changed.
With the movie version of the book out there, everyone can experience Watchmen on a grand scale. This thing is everywhere, but it also makes the story more open to scrutiny. Even if the movie and book are separate, Zack Snyder’s attention to detail and slavish devotion to the book’s original story make it a little tougher to take criticism leveled on some other movie with superheroes in it. This is Watchmen damn it! I shouldn’t have to feel the pinch on my consciousness when Radio DJ’s and Cable TV hosts give reviews of “meh” or when friends have really weird nitpicky complaints about the adaptation.
Then again, after taking in the movie twice now, I’ve decided that I don’t care about those complaints. Sure, the movie may not be perfect, but the movie out in theaters right now is also as much a work of art as I’ve ever seen from a Superhero movie. This is a film that takes chances and doesn’t try to hide anything that made Watchmen such a great work in the first place. There are no cop outs or heavy rewrites of this mythology (other than the ending, which still totally works). Dr Manhattan doesn’t have to wear pants and the Comedian is still an attempted rapist and a cold blooded murderer.
What you end up with is a movie that is as faithful to its material as possible, hitting every major plot and character point, while still being able to stand on its own as a great film . Not going step for step, page for page, like Sin City and not adding in entire subplots like Snyder did in his own 300, he manages to know where he needed to tell his story and where he only had to show us visually where things need to be place held.
Case in point, for the uninitiated, Alan Moore wrote pages and pages worth of back story in text sections of Watchmen, giving us explanation on why the world of Watchmen is the way it is. Most famously in there are excerpts from the autobiography of a hero named Nite Owl, entitled Under the Hood, which gives details about his life and career as a crime fighter. Much of this history is given to us in a brilliant montage at the beginning of the movie version. Knowing how to use the forms of film and music, we get moving photographs of many of these important universe changing events, all while Bob Dylan’s The Times Are a-Changin’ plays on the soundtrack.
Snyder’s use of music throughout this movie is pretty much excellent, even using pieces quoted in Moore’s original text, like the aforementioned Dylan song as well as Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower. What I really love about his choices though is how he’s able to use them for either suggesting time period, my favorite being a genius use of Everybody Wants to Rule the World, but also how he’s able to use the songs to give Watchmen as real a world feel as possible.
This is a story that has never taken place in a fictional city like Gotham or Metropolis. Watchmen happens in New York and Viet Nam, and while these are alternate timeline versions of these cities, they’re still very much the same places that we would recognize. By putting scenes to songs that are as much the cultural fabric as Watchmen, he automatically suggests its validity in the world it takes place in. Those are the songs those people would be listening to, because their world is our world, just with a few differences.
Still as much as I love the book, I love even more that the movie lives and breathes on its own. First off, the original material doesn’t have a lot of action. I don’t know that a Zack Snyder movie will ever be made that doesn’t contain a ton of action in it, and frankly, I’m just fine with that. Snyder takes suggestions from the novel and then turns them into visceral pieces of art, using slow motion in a way as distinctive as John Woo was able to do in his heyday in Hong Kong.
No one seems to film a fight scene these days with the same impact as Snyder, not intent on using cheats like “shaky cam” to fool you into thinking a fight is more intense than it really is. While film makers like the Wachowski’s use slo-mo as a way to exhibit grace in the middle of mayhem, Snyder emphasizes brutality, slowing down after the blow has already been struck, making you see the results of violence. This may be putting too fine a microscope on his action style, but I’m just happy to see a guy put together action with his own signature.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that Watchmen contains some of the best fights of the superhero genre, ranking up with the super brawls of Blade II, Spider-man 2 and Superman II (lot of 2’s there). Not held back by its rating like some films (X2), over stylization or shoddy camerawork (Batman Begins) or the stupid mediocrity of its film makers (The Fantastic Four), Watchmen delivers on its men in tights taking down scum with awesome ferocity. It’s not even that his fights are particularly brutal; they’re just amazingly choreographed and shot, but still have the fluidity of an actual fight. These are people skilled in fighting and using martial arts, but at the same time these are not martial arts fight scenes.
Alright, I could go on and on about the movie’s fights and action scenes in general, but I’m going to cut this off here. I’ve got a ton more things I want to talk about, such as where the book and film differ in a few more places and the boatload of awesome performances, but I’m going to hold off until next week.
In closing this week though, I’d just like to say that I’m still ecstatic this movie is out there. This is one of the most important stories that I’ve experienced in my life and I’m glad that its out there for mass consumption, in a form that can give fans the experience they need. I’m planning on seeing it again this week and I hope that many out there will take Watchmen in at least once.