watching the watchmen

For me this movie was the equivalent of the Futureheads cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love.” Of course it’s not as good as the original, without which it doesn’t mean nearly as much, but despite its brashness and eagerness, it’s still extremely enjoyable, and depending on who you are and what you expect it to do, it works.

You’ve probably heard that the music in this film is distracting. It is. Sometimes (“All Along the Watchtower,” “The Times They Are A-Changin'”) the song works: it’s appropriate in mood and lyrics, and if it’s a little too obvious and straightforward, that’s forgivable. Other times (“The Sound of Silence,” “99 Luftballons” — even though the latter IS an 80s song about Cold War tensions leading to nuclear war) it stands out too starkly, and at best serves to remind us that we’re watching a film that’s about the planet we live on, alternate history or no. And then there’s the use of “Hallelujah” (the Leonard Cohen original, not the more-famous-these-days Jeff Buckley cover) to soundtrack the Nite Owl/Silk Spectre softcore sequence, which is a bad choice on pretty much every level. Probably the best musical quoting is the Philip Glass music used in the Dr. Manhattan section of the movie; yes, it was written for its own movie, but it’s also the least recognizable piece for most of us, and it’s incredibly lovely.

What you’ve heard is true: Malin Akerman, though better than I thought she’d be, still flatlines on several important scenes, though some of them are opposite Carla Gugino trying and failing to play her older self and it’s hard to decide who’s worse. But the guy playing Ozymandias, whose name I don’t even care to remember, is easily the weakest of the key players, barely convincing us that he’s awake, let alone the smartest man in the world using every resource at his disposal to try and save it from nuclear war. More on this in a moment.

Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl) is better than some of the reviews are saying. I don’t agree that Philip Seymour Hoffman would have been better; in a different version of this movie, maybe, but even in the comic Dan Dreiberg isn’t really the schlub that Hoffman would have been asked to make him. Wilson is dorky and awkward but still convinces you that he could have fought crime effectively within the decade; Hoffman, as impressive an actor as he is, would just have seemed comical. So Wilson’s fine.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan (the Comedian) is fine, too, though not quite as good as they’re saying. There are a lot of lines he just reads but isn’t really feeling. It’s a challenging role, for sure — the guy’s an asshole, but he’s also roundly human and complex, so even though you never really like him, you have to understand him and the shaded feelings others have about him. Morgan gets close enough, but he could have gotten closer.

I don’t like Billy Crudup much, but he does a mesmerizing job posing for and voicing Dr. Manhattan. It’s easy to see why this is the character that fascinated Roger Ebert enough to earn the movie four stars. And then there’s Jackie Earle Haley, whose raspy delivery in the trailers worried me but turns out to be perfect if only in a meta- way: Rorschach is, after all, a perfect lovechild of Bale’s Batman and Ledger’s Joker, and a damn good sendup of both. But he’s more than that, and my worst fears are probably going to be confirmed — though the guy is obviously unglamorous and psychotic (like Ledger’s Joker), he’s going to strike a chord (like Ledger’s Joker) with a certain kind of fan who thinks he’s an admirable badass. Haley gets the guy inside and out, though, and though I don’t quite agree with the way he delivers his last lines, I otherwise have zero complaints.

look & feel
Generally awesome. I like that some of the newer costumes have more body armor, and that the old ones are just flimsy spandex. I love the vivid colors, though Ozymandias should have had a lot more gold in his costumes and scenes and a lot less black. Yes, it’s stylized, but mostly avoids the tableau style of 300. A little more realism would have been truer to the book, but it doesn’t kill the film. And the Dr. Manhattan sequence is gorgeous.

There are a few odd squibs, though. The old age makeup is pathetic, and “Nixon’s” nose is just silly. Bubastis looks like an afterthought, just barely more convincing than the lions in I Am Legend (and they SUCKED).

Much has been made of the supposed shot-for-panel faithfulness from book to movie, but it’s exaggerated. Will you recognize key images from the book in the film? Yes. Is that all there is to the movie? Definitely not.

Turns out it’s filmable. Not in its entirety, obviously, but the flip side of a story constructed (to paraphrase Alan Moore himself) like a jewel with many facets that reflect and enhance one another is that you don’t need all the facets to tell the story. It doesn’t sparkle as much, but it’s still a jewel.

Of course, I’ve read the book at least three times (and I’m starting on the fourth), so it’s hard for me to tell how this stuff feels to someone who hasn’t read it at all. I recognized minor characters like Hollis Mason and Moloch as soon as they appeared, but will the audiences pick up who Mason is based on a slow trackback from stacks of his memoir Under the Hood? Will they get that Moloch was once a sinister villain if they can’t quite decipher Matt Frewer’s increasingly eccentric line readings?

The new ending is the biggest problem. It’s not that they changed it, it’s that what they changed it to is really difficult to follow, and doesn’t really make any more sense than the original ending. Even so, it might have been fine if the character responsible for the secret plot had seemed benevolent or at least beyond suspicion at first (as opposed to seeming like a Vulcan Nazi from the get-go), and if that character genuinely seemed triumphant and happy at the end. Instead we get basically a moustache-twirler, and in general the character’s story is handled so poorly and stupidly that it’s hard to believe anyone really understood it. As a result the ending has no emotional heft and feels way too long.

Luckily, a ridiculous amount of what leads up to it is pretty wonderful. The story is remarkably fluid considering that it basically follows the comics in focusing first on one character, then on another, and honestly, flipping through the book afterward, I couldn’t find a lot that they missed (apart from the Black Freighter, which I think could never really work intercut with the main story the way it was on the page, and which of course is to be released separately). The Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach each get their spotlight sequences, and each totally works.

Oh: what Rorschach does to the child killer he corners is changed from the book, as you might have heard. Like the change to the ending of the film, this change was made for good reasons but doesn’t quite work. This time it’s too abrupt and simple, rather than being too drawn out and complex. Instead of being Mad Max or Saw, it’s Dirty Harry, though that’s arguably even more appropriate for Rorschach’s story.

Yes, the martial arts are over the top, though I’d argue that with no superpowers you’d have to be pretty effective at hand-to-hand combat to be a decent (still living!) costumed vigilante.

Yes, the blood and gore are WAY over the top and totally unnecessary. They’re distracting, too “look at me! I’m freaking gross!”, too obviously bones thrown at those looking for 300-style carnage (perhaps including Snyder himself).

Yes, the sex is over the top, but only in that one scene, and I’ll take a fake orgasm in a movie any day over a fake hand amputation.

but is it good?
It’s way better than it should have been. It might even be better in some respects than V for Vendetta, since it rarely tries to make the story contemporary in theme, doesn’t add any love stories that weren’t in the source, and mostly remembers that its heroes aren’t really that heroic. But which of the two Alan Moore comics I prefer depends on what day you ask, and I suspect that’s how I’ll continue to feel about their two flawed but still remarkably respectable film cover versions.