Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Watchmen Review from someone unfamiliar with the comic book

[One of the things the comic book fans are talking about after the Watchmen movie is what will it look like to someone who never read the comic? Most of us are able to help it along a bit, with our knowledge of the comic book, adding layers of stuff to what is not really earned -- the embrace between the news vendor and his costumer during the blast for example. So I thought it would be fun to run this review.]

by Finsof72

Before starting I think it’s first necessary to inform any and all readers that I had not even heard of this Watchmen thing before trailers and hype started spreading throughout the internet like an unstoppable epidemic. Within a few months, the mass hysteria over the greatness that was to premier in theaters in March of 2009 was a little too annoying to ignore, so I researched it and discovered that Watchmen is actually a graphic novel by Alan Moore that most comic book readers put up on a pedestal right next to Halo and God. The novel involves colorful characters in costumes going around fighting crime and a secret plot against them all (according to Wikipedia). My reaction: so? It sounded to me like a typical, clichéd, stereotypical crime fighting story with nothing particularly interesting about it except for the fact that it takes place in an “alternate” 1985, where Richard Nixon still rules (I didn’t make that up). Despite my own personal questions about it, Watchmen apparently doesn’t have the same effect on most people, who revere it with the utmost loyalty and have been salivating over the film since it was announced. Naturally, I had to know what all the fuss was all about. I haven’t read the comic, like I mentioned before, but I did feel obliged to get in on the secret that everyone in the world except me seemed to know and go see the movie.

First impressions were positive. It’s always a good thing when a movie can completely dash all doubts about the stupidity of its setting right out of the starting gate. The film opens with a beautiful flashy montage showing the development of alternate history in which it takes place along with the opening credits that made me completely forget about its implausibility and pulled me into the story’s setting quite well. I was impressed. Good job, so far, Watchmen.

Then it goes south.

The story begins with the murder of a former superhero, who gets thrown out of a window by some guy dressed like a rejected version of the Joker. A fight preludes the death that’s complete with slow motion dramatics and loud sounds to cue hit points. It turns out that, according to Rorschach, a vigilante with a shape-shifting mask and the personality of that recently-divorced guy at the bar, has the feeling that there’s an underlying conspiracy to get rid of all former superheroes, who have been outlawed (think The Incredibles if they ended up in a Grand Theft Auto game). This sets off a chain of stories which are essentially all interconnecting origin stories that lead up to about an hour of present time “saving the world” stuff. There’s a blue God guy named Dr. Manhattan (I’m assuming that’s a really, really bad and obvious allusion to the Manhattan Project), this Batman wannabe who isn’t cool enough for bats so he dresses like an owl, a girl who wears the suit from Kill Bill, and maybe another one or two that were lost in the shuffle of goofiness that is the Watchmen.

Now comes the inevitable criticism, and it really stems from one thing: tone. Watchmen is a movie about guys who dress up in very, very colorful costumes and is supposed to deal with superheroes in the “real world,” which in itself is an oxymoron. It’s hard to take the film as seriously as it wants us to when you have giant blue penises swinging around and “Hallelujah” blaring when one of the heroes finally gets it up after saving people from a burning building. Add that in with the fact that it doesn’t even take place in the real world, it takes place in an “alternate” world, which again takes away the suspension of disbelief. The film tries to mix things that look like pieces of a MadTV skit or a Saturday morning cartoon with downright seriousness, something that was attempted before in Spider-Man 3, and look how well that turned out. If you’re going to try and put your superhero in a realistic setting (um…The Dark Knight) then make it a realistic superhero, not a giant fu*king God-like being who’s practically unbeatable and has a summer house on fu*king Mars!

The acting isn’t very good, and jumps around from overacting to underacting. For example, when Dr. Manhattan goes from a geeky scientist to blue Mr. Clean, he steps into some giant machine to get back his watch (Watchmen, get it?), he gets locked in, and the two scientists behind the glass window practically shrug their shoulders, showing very little, if any, dread for what’s about to happen. What the hell is the point of that machine, anyway? Does it have a practical purpose besides turning people blue? Then, later on, you have the Shakespearean overacting, like from Rorschach. I know he’s a moral absolutist and sees the world in black and white, but seriously, dude, you’re wearing the Invisible Man’s outfit and killing people with hairspray torches, crack a joke once in a while!

I hear an expression sometimes when I ask people if they liked a particularly movie: “It’s good…if you’re into that sort of thing.” I can’t think of any better way to describe this film than that phrase. Watchmen is a movie for people who like Watchmen the graphic novel. Just like U2-3D is a movie for people who love U2. I have no doubt that it remains faithful to its source material considering it runs longer than it takes to actually read most books these days; I don’t see how they could’ve left anything of significance out. It feels like it goes on forever, with the stories all winding down to a single 40-minute climax that would’ve been better suited for a mini-series on the SciFi channel.

Watchmen isn’t bad. It has enough action to keep you entertained, the effects may not be dazzling but they do the job, and Rorschach carries the film fairly well when the other characters don’t. Unfortunately it’s bogged down by its contradictory intentions, its silliness mixed with staidness, its confusing back stories and its unacceptable length. This results in what is no more than an average movie for those who aren’t already in love with its source. There’s nothing particularly horrible about it, but nothing great either. Most of the themes explored have been explored in movies many times over (this includes its ending, which really lacks any emotional gravity) and the effects aren’t anything revolutionary. If you love the original graphic novel, then I have a strong feeling you’ll love the film as well. To us, the mainstream, it’s just another super hero movie, but the people who worshipped the novel over 20 years ago I think will be satisfied by what it has to offer, and that it acts as a perfect companion to any previously established Watchmen collection. For the rest of us, it’s been there, done that, with nothing new to bring to the table.

Running time: 2 hours 43 minutes (there was a misprint at the movie theater I went to that read 1 hour and 43 minutes…imagine my bladder’s surprise)

[Some things I found interesting about this review: the observation that the plot is perfectly normal for a superhero book, seeing the Comedian as similar to the Joker, the fact that the movie makes you think of other movies in the shadow of Watchmen such as the Incredibles, and the notion that the oft quoted observation that this is what superheroes would be like in the real world is not quite right. I made a small edit to this post that is discussed in the comments.]


Curt said...

Here's another, more briefly articulated perspective: my girlfriend and I caught Watchmen last Saturday. I was familiar with the source material, having read more or less everything that Alan Moore has written in the last 25 years. I had low expectations for the film, but my regard for the original comic(s) had piqued my curiosity about Snyder's adaptation. I left the theater satisfied. The parts had certainly been greater than the whole, but I enjoyed the film and felt Snyder did better than I had expected, based on the source material.

Generally speaking, my girlfriend is not a comic book reader and was completely unfamiliar with the source material. I have no idea what she expected going into the film... and I expected her to be disappointed, at best... but she was completely enthralled. She enjoyed the film far more than I did, in fact. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan left particularly strong impressions and have actually compelled her to do something that I never would've imagined: she wants to read the actual comics.

My girlfriend went into the film with few expectations or biases and was quite impressed with the scope of Watchmen's narrative. If the film could work for both of us, then I think Snyder did his job.

Matt Jacobson (formerly Ultimate Matt) said...

Thank you, thank you, one million times thank you. I love nothing more in the world than being right, and this review is EXACTLY what I have been predicting and explaining to anyone who would listen since the concept of a Watchmen movie was first mentioned. It is not a story for non-comics fans and in particular, divorced of context, it doesn't work.

I'm now going to cheerfully ignore any and all reviews to the contrary from non comics fans, in the interest of my being right. Thanks again!

ShadZ said...

I'm sorry to take one line out of the review and obsess. but I don't get what this means:

"The Fast and the Furious is for white kids who want to be black"

I've seen The Fast and the Furious, and I don't know what that refers to.

Jason said...

Geoff, the Comedian is of course similar to the Joker, but isn't the review saying that the Comedian is killed by someone "dressed like the Joker"? Or am I misreading?

Curt, I finally picked my friend (ex-girlfriend)'s brain about the film, having not had a chance to ask her what she thought overall, till yesterday: She said the same thing. She was very intrigued by the story/characters/etc. Much more than I was. Fins seems to think that the fans of the comic will love it and for others it will be just ho-hum, but no, there is anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Roger Ebert being a fairly notable example (he loved the movie, and has never read the comic).

It really seems to be a four-way split: The comic fans who think it made hash of Moore's work by giving it the wrong tone; the comics fans who enjoyed seeing Snyder's take; the non-comics fans like Fins who seem mainly to have been turned off by Snyder's choices ("Hallelujah" during the sex scenes, the amped up violence); and the non-comics fans who I think were able to see an inkling of Alan Moore's thoughtfulness beneath the flash and dazzle.

But yes, it's true that Watchmen is not quite "superheroes in the real world," but I think to say that the problem is you have someone like Dr. Manhattan there misses the point. The point of Dr. Manhattan if you're looking at it through the "realistic superhero" lens is more to say, "What if Superman really existed?" Would he stick around on Earth and continue saving us from doom, or would he at some point just say, screw this, I'm going to Mars, these people can save themselves. Which is still not really "what if superheroes were real", I realize; it's more, what if superheroes were being written by a really cynical Brit?

I am totally cool with Fins' opinion, though I think this confirms what Scott was worried about, that people come to this thing, find it stupid, and go, "I guess the graphic novel must be stupid too." It's a little painful to me to read in the same review, "What was that machine supposed to do anyway, besides turn people blue?" and "I can't imagine the movie cut anything important out." But, so it goes. Or, for that matter, the emotional reaction of the people behind the glass window, which is much more convincing in the book. But that doesn't matter -- as this review shows, plenty of people will just assume that any crappiness in the film (up to and including the acting, sound editing and score) is just a result of bad creative choices in the source material.

Quite a trick on Snyder's part, really. He did it. HE DID IT!!!

scott91777 said...


I did see the movie a second time last night and found it much more enjoyable without the burden of expectation (give it a shot yourself) Once I got past the problems and what other people would think I enjoyed the things that worked (the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, Rorscach... for the most part).


Yeah, what did you mean by the line about the Comedian and The Joker? I was reading it, like Geoff, that you meant the Comedian looks like a rejected Joker.

Jason said...

Scott, I absolutely believe that is true. I know I should just watch the movie without any regard to how it will play to someone else. But I couldn't help it, and Fins' review does seem to bear out the fears you mentioned in your first post in the Watchmen thread.

I do plan to see it again, though, with the exact mindset you describe. (And I agree with you about which three characters were the best, btw.)

Jason said...

Scott, I absolutely believe that is true. I know I should just watch the movie without any regard to how it will play to someone else. But I couldn't help it, and Fins' review does seem to bear out the fears you mentioned in your first post in the Watchmen thread.

I do plan to see it again, though, with the exact mindset you describe. (And I agree with you about which three characters were the best, btw.)

Geoff Klock said...

ShadZ -- i do not know what that line means either. I wanted to put this up pretty unedited because I wanted to get this perspective without my interference; I took that line now so as not to distract, though you guys are welcome to discuss it here in the comments.

Geoff Klock said...

Oh, and on the Comedian as Joker -- I just assume it was the conflation of violence, nihilism, the name, and the smily face button. "Dressed" might have not been the best choice of words here, as it indicates all outfit.

Jason said...

Yes, but my point was that the reviewer seems to be comparing the Comedian's assassin to the Joker. Not the Comedian himself.

Björninn said...

ShadZ: I haven't seen The Fast and the Furious but based on the overall snark I think fins means to be clever more than anything else.

Troy Wilson said...

Jason: Actually, it's a five-way split. There are also the comic fans like me that feel Snyder simply didn't manage to make a good movie, period, quite apart from whether or not he made a hash of the source material (which, yes, he definitely did).

On the upside, the graphic novel is the #1 book - BOOK, not graphic novel - at Amazon right now.

scott91777 said...

There is, of course, the possibility that Fins (or the non-comic fan who sees the movie in general) may, very well, not have liked the comic EVEN IF THEY HAD READ IT FIRST.

Maybe it has nothing to do with the translation; maybe it's just the concept/story themselves that isn't interesting to them.

It's like when you loan your friend that book or movie that you were blown away by; that changed your live and his reaction is "Meh, it was ok I guess"

With the Watchmen movie, we're getting that on a large scale.

ba said...

I kinda thought this review was a joke...was it?

Either way, the whole "he forgot his watch (watchmen, get it?)" made me chuckle.

finsof72 said...

I'm reading the Watchmen graphic novel now and I think it's just one of those things that works better on the page than the screen. Also, the Fast and Furious comment was meant to be a tiny, tiny, tiny funny quip about a social stereotype used to illustrate that everybody has their own "thing." Didn't mean for it to get escalated, sorry.

finsof72 said...

And ba, though it wasn't a joke, it's not meant to be taken very seriously, either. I have a tendency to (try) and put a humorous slant on things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

speedreeder said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
speedreeder said...

I must have read Watchmen 10 to 15 times, in the last 20 years. So I knew what I was getting into.
I went with my girlfriend, who isn't generally a fan of comic book movies or superheroes. BUT she likes movies like the Matrix, Harry Potter Series, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc...
She liked the movie and I thought it was a pretty faithful and well done adaptation. The acting was a little bit dodgy at times, but so's the acting in Star Wars (yes the original trilogy) and Star Trek. Actually, if you think about it, the acting is pretty awful in the Matrix too. Keanu is a fucking terrible actor.
This movie has had a really weird reaction, critics are hating on it. NYT and NPR both gave it bad reviews. But Roger Ebert gave it a great review.

As for myself, I thought it was pretty good, almost great. And people seem to be put off by the gratuitous violence, but I thought the fight scenes made all the characters finally seem like "superheroes." Nite Owl and Silk Spectre 2 really kicked some ass, and the dude that played the Comedian was great, he definitely kicked ass, and played the character with such gusto, he made the Comedian an (almost) likable character. (I always thought he was just a right wink dick.)

In the beginning fight with Ozy, I'm glad he didn't go down without a fight. It was one of the best scenes in the movie!

finsof72 said...

Also, one more thing...I am only a freshmen english student so obviously I'm prone to grammatical mishaps, and the comparison above is The Joker-The Comedian. I was also going to make a 'Robert Downey Jr. in a Lone Ranger Mask' comparison but it wasn't as quick to deliver while trying to maintain humor. Sorry about that, as well. But now that I actually think about it, I think more comparisons can be made...including the name

Streebo said...

Roger Ebert never read the Watchmen either. He felt compelled to write not one - but two reviews.

Streebo said...

Thanks for sharing your review, Fins!

Troy Wilson said...

Scott: I agree that the Watchmen graphic novel isn't for everyone, and it's definitely got its share of flaws.

Likewise, the movie isn't for everyone, either. But if the movie had managed to be what I would call a good movie instead of what I would call a mess, I've convinced myself we'd hear fewer "Meh, it was okay, I guess" comments. How many fewer? Hard to say, given that some people obviously liked parts that I considered awful. But fewer, I think. I really do.

scott91777 said...

Actually Fins, you tend to make fewer errors than me when I write these things, and I liked the Fast and The Furious quip, btw.

Stephen W said...

Geoff- You've probably seen or been sent this already, but, in the event you haven't: http://www.newsarama.com/comics/030910-Batman-Quitely.html

Mikey said...

"Watchmen is a movie for people who like Watchmen the graphic novel."

Well - equally Watchmen is NOT a movie for people who like the graphic novel. Given that it is an absolutely dreadful, soulless, inept piece of shit of a film (whether you've read the book or not).

I agree with Fins, the best bit of the film is the opening sequence, and that's - tellingly - one of the few sections that are original to the film and not trying to cope with the source material.

My girlfriend has read Watchmen because I recommended it, but only in the same way that I suggested she read books by Annie Proulx and Gilbert Hernandez. She is a much better person than me and she thought the film was stupid and hateful as well.

The sad thing is the closing point in Nina Stone's review:

"After we watched this, the people who had read it asked me, and they asked the other woman with us, if we wanted to read the comic after watching the movie. I just said "no, not really." The other woman?

"Not a fucking chance!""

And when I came out of the cinema that's what I was thinking as well. "That was 'one of the greatest graphic novels of all time'?! That's the best we've got?"

I'm glad it's over now, Watchmen has finally been released and comic book movies can hopefully be left to die in peace. (Coming Soon = Wolverine: Origins! Yay!!)

Curt said...

Now, I have seen more than a few "inept piece of shit" films in my time and I would hardly categorize even the worst aspects of Watchmen in that way. As with all genre adaptations, the response to Watchmen has been overtly hyperbolic on all sides of the aisle, particularly from a.) fans of the comic who are upset over the film's tone and b.) general audiences (and a good deal of film critics), who are experiencing genre-burnout thanks to the recent glut of comic flicks.

This movie had its fair share of flaws, but I'm not of the opinion that those flaws ruined the film. As I've said before, the parts were far greater than the whole, but the good most definitely out-weighed the bad. Furthermore (and I mean no disrespect here), labeling this film as "stupid" or "hateful" is fairly ridiculous. I'm sure many viewers were turned off by Snyder's approach to the subject material (at times, so was I)... but in the less-than-grand history of comic-to-film adaptations, Watchmen is most definitely one of the best. The film was uneven and, at times, nearly cringe worthy... but still heads and shoulders above 90% of comic book movies.

I think that Roger Ebert's second review of Watchmen (handily provided by Streebo, above) is particularly worthwhile reading for Fins, Mikey, and anyone else truly (profoundly, even!) turned off by the film. That's not to suggest that Ebert's opinion is correct, and others are not, but his second review is particularly insightful and really examines the things that the film did right.

Finally, as Troy mentioned, the film has brought unprecedented interest to the original Watchmen graphic novel, which is certainly good news for the medium of comics. In fact, my girlfriend ordered a copy of Absolute Watchmen last night, so I guess results vary.

Kyle said...

speedreeder: He IS a right wing dick, just a believable one. Morgan gave my favorite performance in the film, despite the ridiculousness of that stone-shattering punch and how unnecessary the fight was.

speedreeder said...

Kyle, Oh yeah The Comedian IS a right wing dick, totally. It's just that in the book, I never had any empathy, sympathy or feeling for the character. But in the film Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays the part with such gusto, he's hard NOT to like.
The stone shattering punch did interfere with the movie a bit actually, it makes it seem like The Comedian and OZY have superpowers. But the fight was pretty cool, if unnecessary, but cool nonetheless.

finsof72 said...

I might need to see it again. The comic is putting things in perspective a bit.

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