Midnight is in her eyes, tears drop like a child


Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is impressively ambitious, but its hard to avoid the conclusion that when it succeeds as a film, it’s in spite of him rather than because of his efforts. The grim masterwork crafted by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons across twelve comic books in 1986 and 1987 has long been clanking noisily through the Hollywood pipeline, well before the success of Tim Burton’s or Christopher Nolan’s caped crusader, Sam Raimi’s wall-crawler or Jon Favreau’s armored avenger had happened, giving general movie audiences a fighting chance to properly contextualize the story’s expert deconstruction of superheroes. Across most of that timespan, I thought the work was untranslatable, unfilmable. It wasn’t the dark tone or even the focus on costumed characters that cemented this opinion. It was the simple fact that the work was so dense, full of detail and packed with story, that it seemed foolhardy to try and compact it into a single feature-length film. Yet Snyder (with credited screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse) has created a film that includes a remarkable amount of that original creation, even if he had to push close to a three hour running time to accomplish it. Snyder included so much, and yet so little. It’s hard to identify any particular plot points that Snyder was mistaken to omit. What’s noticeably missing, however, is any sort of overarching point or resonant ideas. Snyder filmed everything and captured nothing.

As he seemingly did in bringing Frank Miller’s 300 to the screen (I haven’t read 300 so I can’t offer definitive commentary on that front), Snyder has approached the original comic panels as templates to his moviemaking. He doesn’t view them as storyboards, but actual frames of film that he’s charged with linking together. That approach is so thorough that he often slows down the motion to better appropriate the static nature of the printed page, characters briefly grinding across the screen as if they’re moving through the heavy depths of the ocean. That fidelity is a dismal choice, but also a saving grace. Much of the film does work, occasionally works wonderfully. There’s a stretch in the middle that features the godlike Dr. Manhattan’s history as he exiles himself to Mars, followed by a consideration of the vigilante sociopath Rorschach that it gripping, smart and, in its willingness to play around with the very nature of narrative, quite daring. Every bit of that praise can be affixed with even more authority to comic book issues that original depicted these slices of the story. Snyder’s default position of rote duplication of the comic book version of Watchmen primarily demonstrates that the work is strong enough to survive any translation.

Most of the elements that can be attributed primarily to Snyder’s vision rather than Alan Moore’s are at best problematic. At times, they’re disastrous. The pop songs dropped into the film are pedestrian and achingly literal. The violence is amped up to a ridiculously slick and graphic level that perpetuates the aspect of the title’s influence that Moore lamented most vocally, that its blood and bruises were taken as a guidepost to the next step for tales of superheroic exploits instead of a warning about treating fisticuffs as a all-purpose solution free of repercussions. And Snyder’s actors often look stranded. Jackie Earl Haley has the fortitude to dig into Rorschach’s rotting layers and Patrick Wilson is admirably free of vanity in capturing the middle-aged slump of the man who once donned a bird costume to nobly, hesitantly fight crime as Night Owl. The rest of the actors, left to the own devices, are flatter and falser. They’re reading lines with the proper inflections, but little feeling is coming through. Like their director, they’re stuck in the mode of recreation. As has been widely celebrated, the opening credits devised for the film do manage to stand as a proud few moments for Snyder. They have a wit and invention that largely lacking from other parts of the film that most clearly bear his fingerprints.

What they’re recreating is strong enough that the film has some drive if no depth, some ideas if no examination, some wonders if no wondering. It is stuffed and full and devoutly accurate, as if breathlessly recounted by the young fan Zack Snyder moments after finishing the final issue fresh from his friendly neighborhood comic book shop. There’s no doubt from watching his film version of Watchmen that he read it and loved. For all that evident enthusiasm, it’s perhaps unkind but not inaccurate to speculate whether or not he understood it.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!” )

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