Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why I don't like Watchmen

I'm moving from my old blog underabundant.com
MARCH 18th 2009

I read Watchmen a long time ago. I had borrowed it from a friend who recommended it highly. I believe I was between jobs at the time (or bored) and was more or less just passing the time. I had already read V for Vendetta and passed on 300 (on first glance). Watchmen was a pretty interesting read, at that time, and I had a pretty high regard for it as an interesting piece of comic-bookary.

However, on second reading I was not so impressed. Now, I've already read the argument that it's hard to adapt Watchmen because it so perfectly works inside the comic-book format. This is correct, but not at all in the way these reviewers actually mean it to be. The comic book form encompasses a format that meanders, where a series (especially Watchmen, which is a finite miniseries) is drawn out as long as possible. Comic writers try to extend the length of a story-line ad infinitum. Also, most every comic book is so generically written that the dialogue is really impossible to act out as a live actor. Comic books also never really care about timing, which film is ALL ABOUT. The flaws of comic books certainly create a big problem for adaptations for cinema because of its flaws and tropes, not the format.

The Comedian

The fact is that film is concise and comic-books are not (ever). Cinema can show 1.5 hours are someone's life in real-time, or show snippets of action over the course of several weeks. It can show you 1 character with huge character development, or dozens of interrelated ones more superficially. But one thing cinema can't do is all of that at the same time. Watchmen, like many comic books, has no pacing to speak of, and does not really move along in a classic drama fashion. Comic books are serialized, you know like those by-gone film series before they invented the talkie. They come out in issues and every issue has to have some plot development, some action, some laughs etc. Every issue might have a typical story-like arc and then it starts over again. This is what goes on in theWatchmen, it's not like a novel adaptation because it is so much more jaggedly arranged. The screenwriter had to take all the character introductions (peppered around the series), all the plot arcs, resolutions, and have them all make sense together somewhere within 3 hours. Comic books are just trying to peak your interest until the next issue. It just has to be so interesting without giving anything away to quickly.

Overall, I really do think there is enough interesting content in Watchmen to make an interesting story. But the problem is that there is a lot of everything else too. Thanks to the fanboys the filmmakers are expectations to cover everything, because it's all canon. You can't cut out Rorschach eating beans, or even his dialogue when he's eating them. You're recreating history and it should be to the letter. This is a bigger problem for Watchmen because it was a miniseries. It's overall story is finite and perhaps it's just short enough to have people imagine it might be covered by one film. If you make a Spiderman story you can pick and choose between the numerous battles that he had with the Green Goblin or make a new one up; it's been done over so many times (and at this point, mediums) that there isn't too much issue with changing it. But for Watchmen, New York was only destroyed once, and not by the vague John-signature thing, it was destroyed by some ridiculous squid monster that was only vaguely referred to in some distant sub-plot.

Like many comics, Moore blew a lot of air into the story, comics can do this; in fact they have to do it. Making your story arc cover so enough weeks so he had to introduce myriad characters like the news-stand people, the pirate-comic sub-plot, the detectives subplot, the actors on the island subplot, etc. They are easily removed from the story without affecting the outcome or understanding of the story itself. They link in superficially in the sense that they never interact or effect the characters; but they are witness to things that effect the ending of the story, but they are so vaguely inferred that they don't really give and hints or mood. They just confuse and distract. On my second read of the book, I actually was so frustrated by the fake-newspaper clippings and the lame-pirate tale that I just skipped over them all. Some of the story is unique and interesting, the rest is just chum. I'm sure lots of people remember the pirate story or the detectives, but it's really not as interesting as the core story and it doesn't move the plot along either.

Novels are difficult to adapt because they tend to be so abstract that it is difficult to communicate them visually. Character's fantasies or thoughts have to reach some kind of compromise with the directors and actors performing them. Comic books are not so poetic and abstract, but are still difficult, often they are mostly dialogue and complex action. To me it seems as if many of these dialogues where never read out loud or acted out by the authors themselves while they were writing it. There are countless times in Watchmen where you can see actors struggling with dialogue that doesn't fit or who's mood is hard to pin down. John, the invisible demi-god sounds like an emo-teenager for the first half of the film. The characters' constant depressive moping is like heavy like a weight on the actors; it's just TOO depressive to really emote without having the actors blowing their brains out soon after.


It's pretty curious to see the moments when in the comic, really fast action is paired with a minute or so of dialogue. It's normal in the comic book world to have someone say "I'm so fast that I'm severing your spine with this one strike..." while at the same time showing that action. Now, doesn't the explanation take a lot longer than the action? I thought that cinema was a medium that used exposition as a crutch, but practically every graphics box in a comic is full of text explaining what is happening at that moment.

It's Zack Snyder that has had to keep these details in as if he's adapting a holy-book. This is not an unreal limitation. Many of these types of comic-book movies live and die by what the fan-boys say about it. You could practically sing along to the movie if you've read the comic. It also impacts what he can do visually too. I noticed that the film is more or less a panel for shot remake of the comic. Case in point is Night Owl's abandoned subway lair. The lair is always shown from the same angle, and the 4th wall is never ever depicted (just like the comic book). Snyder does not have to opportunity to imagine any other angles or surfaces that are represented in the comic book already. It feels rigid and hacked together, as if they couldn't afford the other half of the set.

Isn't this kind of sad? The only way that Snyder could have escaped these traps would have been to just do a re-imagining of the story, taking the best parts and not bothering with the worst ones or the parts that don't fit. Working with a comic book you have to try and cut as much dialogue as you can and work hard to get the plot actually moving. Spiderman is cartoon and gets away (well not with me) with retarded dialogue, Watchmen's self-important seriousness makes it retarded when it keeps those tropes. He tried to remove bits like where Night Owl and Silk Spectre served the victims of the fire coffee but it's still there, still there just enough for the fanboys. Snyder can be blamed for the music though, it was ridiculous, 70's hits and Bob Dylan songs belong in vietnam movies and feel very out of place in this film. It's rather cheap way to try and contextualize things, and it misses it too. If you read Watchmen, it's and all eighties comic book.


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