The Videogum Movie Club: Watchmen

Who woofs the Woofmen?

Woof. Perhaps the biggest problem with Watchmen* was how flat-out boring it was. On that particular note, A.O. Scott already got the best zing in with his review in the New York Times on Friday:

Dr. Manhattan’s existence is busy and fairly melancholy, but I do envy him his ability to perceive every moment of past and future time as a part of a continuous present. If I had that power, the 2 hours 40 minutes of Zack Snyder’s grim and grisly excursion into comic-book mythology might not have felt quite so interminable.

“Give me back my zing!” — Zingschach.

But boredom is just one problem, of which this movie has a million. Let’s talk about some of them:

*Unless otherwise indicated, any proposed problems with Watchmen are problems with the movie alone and not at all with the book on which the movie is based. The book is great.

Things start off badly with the opening credits (sorry, Anthony Lane). Sure, they give newcomers a well-paced history of the Watchmen’s origins, but the whole thing is so Forrest Gump-y as to be laughable. Oh, look, Mister Manhattan shaking hands with JFK! I recognize that the (again, great) source material presents this story in an alternate-universe where these characters interact with a cast of real-life historical figures, but that doesn’t make it not silly when you CGI them in and overdub it with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

The movie is visually beautiful. I think we will all agree on that. Every frame is really well designed. It looks really expensive. Especially Dr. Manhattan’s carefully CGI-ed dick, which gently waved in some non-existent breeze.

But lush, willow-tree-dick-filled visuals will only get you so far. They have to work in support of something else.

For example, good acting. Of which there is none in this movie. Well, Jackie Earle Haley was actually pretty good as a mask-less Rorschach. The thing is, I’m not saying anyone in this movie is a bad actor. It was one of those rare instances when you can tell that the fault for terrible performances falls squarely on the shoulders of the director. You get the sense that “visionary” directory Zak Snyder has never met an actual human being before, but that he’s read a lot about them in 20-year-old comic books.

Smarter people than I have talked about the film’s over-reliance on the source material; how creating an alternate 1985 when even a look at the actual 1985 would hold little relevance or meaning to a contemporary audience. It’s true that the Cold War now seems somehow quaint, and/or at the very least, resolved. For a world facing actual conflicts up down all over the place, an elaborate evil villain superhero scheme to resolve tensions between the United States and Russia is an echoless throwback. Nothing tracks.**

But even in simpler terms, the film drops the ball on the book’s remaining salience with its weird insistence on graphic violence. Where the book dealt anxiously with the conflicted morality of violence and the human tendency towards self-destruction, the movie unapologetically basks in it, Eli Roth style. Heads are cleaved in. The walls run slick with blood. At one point, Rorschach is in prison, and he attacks a fellow inmate by throwing a vat of boiling oil in his face. The camera lingered on a gratuitous shot of a man screaming as his eyes bubbled in his head, and the audience, at least the audience where I saw the movie, cheered. Perfect.

Perhaps the problem with adapting comic books (or graphic novels) for the screen, especially when you do such a fastidious job of using the original source material, is that there’s often a translation-feedback-loop. Comic books are a cinematic medium, and often take their visual cues from movies, but they’re not movies. And when you turn them into movies, the effect is like using BabelFish to translate English into Portuguese and then back into English.

But BabelFish loops aside, even as an action movie, Watchmen fails. There are no major set pieces, the fight scenes that do occur are turgid and silly, like they were choreographed by 14-year-olds in someone’s backyard.

And yes, that bad-ideas-jeans sex scene.

Obviously, not everyone agrees with me. Roger Ebert liked it so much he plans on seeing it a second time. And of course Sexman:

Your turn.

**ADDENDUM: This is not a suggestion that the movie should have been a modern update, with Ozymandias faking an Al-Qaeda attack or some Team America nonsense. An updating of the material would not only offend fanboys, it would sap the original text of its actual meaning and render the movie a parody of the book. THE POINT here is that the lack of energy in this political moment provides yet another reason why this movie never needed to be made in the first place. Superheroes are parables, and parables need to be relevant to the life we currently live to have any meaning.