Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
June 2024 --
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Ego Tutela Custodiae Custodie

Directed by Zack Snyder

Review by Terence Chua

Let's put it this way. Zack Snyder was always going to disappoint somebody.

Let's put it another way. People who had no experience of the original novel, who went in expecting a superhero movie would have been dismayed, if not outright shocked. Note to non-comics people: it's R-rated for a reason, folks. Don't bring your kids. Don't even bring your parents. And if you're easily influenced by darkness, don't bring razor blades. On the other hand, fans of the book, who went in expecting to see the novel writ large on the screen, would have been disappointed to see how much was actually left out, how much was changed, and what was emphasized.

One accusation that you can't level at Snyder is that he didn't try. Lord knows that for the last two decades everyone has been saying that Watchmen was unfilmable. Whenever the subject's come up in conversation I've always expressed my opinion that the only way to do it justice was to do it as a television mini-series - six or twelve one-hour segments. Or maybe not to do it at all. I would have been happy with that.

But damn if Snyder didn't manage to pull some of it off. I've also said before that there's a huge difference between comic books and screen, and I'm not one to demand slavish faithfulness to the source material in an adaptation: what's important is that the story hold together first and foremost as a screenplay, and that it adheres to the spirit of the source material. Good examples: Spider-Man 2, X-Men. Bad examples: Daredevil, The Spirit. I'd also mention Batman and Robin, but that's like invoking Godwin's Law for bad superhero movies.

That being said, Watchmen the movie treads a very fine line between faithfulness to its source material and outright OCD. The fact that it holds up as well as it does despite Snyder's tendency to blow up comic book panels into live action is testament to how cinematic the original is, despite playing as much in the "novel" side of the equation as it did in the "graphic". If nothing else, the way Snyder succeeds here in a way that 300 didn't probably says more about the mindlessness of Miller's story there as opposed to Moore's here.

Moore, of course, will spit venom at it (as he's said) no matter what. Some will decry the differences or the different emphases. Some will raise the three-minute sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, or the stylized ultra violence that goes beyond what was in the novel itself, elevating it to an almost fetishistic level. Some will complain that Ozymandias didn't have the same presence as he did in the novel, that the motivations for Dr Manhattan's change of mind on Mars aren't made clear, or that Laurie's revelation as to her paternity wasn't as subtle or built up. Some will point out that the non-squid ending doesn't necessarily improve on Moore's original - some will prefer the original, some will say the new ending makes as little sense as the original did.

But then again, if those things are what you want, why not read the graphic novel? I'm not trying to be glib or do a "Love it or leave it" kind of suggestion here - this movie is Snyder's creature as much as it is Moore and Gibbons's. All the stuff you miss, all the stuff you want, it's in the graphic novel. Snyder picked and chose because he had to condense what is probably the densest graphic novel ever in terms of prose and imagery in one compact package into close to three hours. And it would have been longer - in four months we'll see the cut with the Tales of the Black Freighter story integrated - but in the end Snyder made the director's choice. Because inasmuch as the movie is aimed for fans, it must be made for a general audience as well. It must hold together.

So it's not just as simple as "leave the squid alone". If you sit down and examine where that element comes from, you have to factor in Max Shea, the island, the death of the psychic, even the Black Freighter and Jon and Adrian's final conversation in the novel for it all to come together. If you want to build up Laurie's paternity, you probably need to run through her entire life story like in the novel, with not just Eddie and Sally's confrontation outside the Crimebusters meeting but also when Laurie confronts Eddie at the cocktail party after she finds out about the attempted rape. Moore and Gibbons weaved a tapestry as intricate and as connected as Jon's Martian Crystal Clock, and if Snyder failed it's not because he didn't try, but because it would have expanded the film so much more. At some point you've just got to put it aside and try to colour within the lines you have.

I won't dwell much more on the differences between the novel and the movie. By necessity, the movie is superficial - relatively speaking. The movie posits two basic philosophical questions: ends justifying the means, and the effect that God would have on society if He was an empirical instead of a metaphysical reality. The book starts there, but doesn't end there. Moore goes off into big ideas about quantum physics and non-linear time, the morality of vigilantism, the joke and miracle of the human condition, synchronicity, stuff which for lack of time (and space) the movie can't really touch on. Ultimately, Snyder made choices and it's up to the individual member of the audience to decide if those choices were correct.

I have my issues with the movie. I do think the violence was fetishistic as opposed to realistic (which was Moore's intent). I do wish that Laurie and Adrian would have been better acted. There are others, but in the end, they're nits. And if nits are all I can pick, then I'd say that the movie worked on its own terms. It didn't insult my intelligence, it broadly hit the right notes. The best/worst criticism I can level at it was brought up by the wife of one of the friends I watched the movie with (hi, Juliana!): there's no real build-up. There's no real sense of suspense as you reach the climax of the movie, which is true. I didn't notice it because I was expecting and got the episodic structure of the movie much as it was in the novel. So when the climax comes, for a movie it's almost anti-climactic for someone who isn't really familiar with the original.

Bottom line, I enjoyed it, was entertained, and don't see any betrayal of the original. It's not the best superhero movie ever, but it certainly is the most adult, and it's so much better than I expected and/or feared. In the end, it's still not a patch on the original, nor should it be a substitute. I'd still point people toward the book rather than the movie because there's just so much more in the former. And I also concede it's hard for me to judge if it made sense to a general audience because the book has been in my head for 23 years.

But do I think it's worth a watch? Hell, yes. Just be aware of what you're going to be getting. But for those people who walked out, I actually find that more indicative of the movie's success in bringing Moore's dark vision to screen than an actual failure.

© 2009 Terence Chua

Terence Chua lives in a secret volanco base somewhere in the Pacific, where he watches dozens of TV shows and movies, often simultaneously, while reading comic books and playing video games. During the day, he fights crime.

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