Monday, March 09, 2009
Who Botches The Watchmen? -- Anyone who's stopped in here a time or two knows I love and respect Roger Ebert's writing a great deal, so I find myself in the somewhat unusual position of siding with comics critics like Tom Spurgeon and Tim O'Neil in not really much liking the film adaptation of Watchmen, while Ebert loved the film so much he has already written about it twice, once in a formal review and again in his more personal online journal.
Watchmen is a graphic novel I hold in pretty high regard, despite the oft-mentioned weakness of its ending, somewhat analogous to the ultimate revelation of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane: both works are so entertaining, engrossing and (most importantly) formally ambitious that they represented paradigm shifts for their respective artforms, film for the better, comics usually for the worse. When I interviewed Alan Moore a few years ago for an NPR-affiliated Public Radio station, he mentioned that he felt somewhat responsible for the dire turn superhero comics made in the wake of Watchmen. To be certain, that phenomenon is not Moore's responsibility, no matter how much he regrets the end result of the book's influence. Director Zack Snyder, like all the awful superhero comics writers that have aped Moore's superhero masterwork, sees the surface but barely comprehends the underlying complexity. More urgently, Watchmen's imitators in comics can create all the dark, grim, moody, crappy murder mysteries they want -- from Meltzer to Straczynski, from Johns to Bendis, none of the superhero writers who've tried to tap that vein have ever demonstrated even a tenth as much understanding of the medium of comics as Moore possesses, or a hundredth of his imagination.
Snyder's film is virtually all about grabbing the facile elements of the book and pretending to be much better than it ultimately is, kind of like an eight year old dressing up in Dad's clothes. They don't fit well and the kid can't figure out how to tie a tie, but at least the shirt's on top and the pants aren't backwards.
Which is to say, as I did on Twitter immediately after seeing the film, "Sort of like a live action trailer for the book. OK, but doesn't capture the beauty of Moore and Gibbons's collaboration." Many moments were fun to see up on the screen, like Rorschach and his end-is-nigh sign, or Rorschach eating Dan's beans, or Rorschach...well, you get my point. I did think the actor playing Dan did a great job of conveying the innate schlubbiness of the character, but the choice of going supercool-Matrixy with the costumes instead of staying true to the material cuts the guts out of one of the main themes of the story, that putting on a costume doesn't changes your essential nature, as much as you might want it to. Just as, I guess, getting the job of turning Watchmen the graphic novel into Watchmen the motion picture into a movie doesn't mean you'll necessarily get it right, as much as you and a million nerds might want you to.
Someone said that the movie is probably the best adaptation that could have been made from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's work, and that might actually be true. But the point only serves to highlight the stone-cold fact that, as a movie, Watchmen is most of all irrelevant. The book represents a high-water mark for creative ambition in its native medium, an achievement unlikely to ever be matched or exceeded, especially in the superhero genre. The movie represents two hours I spent one Saturday in a theater, and nothing more. If Snyder wanted to translate a few cool scenes from the comic book onto the big screen, well, he did that. If he wanted to demonstrate why people still read, analyze and adore the comic book 25 years after its debut, he could not have failed more completely.
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