Your humble host admits it : I’m a geek. A die-hard comic book, sci-fi nerd. Always have been. Always will be. But I flatter myself that I’m a geek with taste. While my friend and loved ones may debate that, I steadfastly believe it to be true. As such, while I love comics, I pride myself on the fact that I only like good comics, and only like good movies based on comics. And the reason I like good comics is down to one guy : Alan Moore. Before Alan Moore’s “Swamp Thing” blew my mind around age 12, I read garbage like “Spider-Man” and “Fantastic Four.” After “Swamp Thing” and, especially, “Watchmen,” I was more interested in Crumb, Clowes, Los Bros. Hernandez, Kurtzman, Krigstein, Deitch, Miller (back when he was good) and Wolverton than I was costumed heroes in tights. That’s because Moore and artist Dave Gibbons made the ultimate statement about the entire superhero genre with “Watchmen, ” and if there are any profound questions left to be asked about costumed adventurers, they’re just reiterations of questions already asked—and answered—by this absolutely seminal work. Nothing truly new is left to be touched on. The superhero archetype has been mined for all it’s worth. “Watchmen” was at the time, and remains to this day, the final word on the subject. Anything and everything since is an echo, an aftershock. “Watchmen” is the earthquake, and it’s a 10 on the Richter scale.
So yeah. The prevailing wisdom is that “Watchmen” is the “holy grail” of superhero “graphic novels” (God, how I hate that term), and for once the prevailing wisdom is absolutely correct. With that in mind, please understand that I can’t be impartial about this film because I love the book so much. I’ve dreamed about seeing this story adapted to the silver screen since I was an early teen. And only now that it’s come and gone, and I’ve seen it four times, do I actually feel like I’ve absorbed what this means to me sufficiently enough to be able to sit down and actually review it. Sometimes I still have to literally pinch myself to make sure that yes, it’s all real and I’m still here, living in a world where there has been a “Watchmen” movie.
The twists and turns this project went through over the years have already been documented to death elsewhere, suffice to say that Terry Gilliam couldn’t do it, Paul Greengrass couldn’t do it, at least two studios couldn’t do it, and no less an authority than Moore himself declared that it was probably unfilmable. I thought so, too. I’ll take the man’s word for anything.
Enter Zack Synder. The least promising name attached to this project over the years is the guy who got it done. The guy who made an absolute hashed-up mockery of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead.” The guy who gave us “300,” the least-inspired adaptation of a comic ever committed to celluloid—and considering how dire most comic adaptations have been, that’s saying something. And now he toughest comic ever to adapt to the screen was in the hands of a guy who had produced nothing but drivel? Needless to say, I was underwhelmed at the prospect, but when he did what Gilliam and Greengrass couldn’t and actually finished the thing, I knew I’d see it anyway. On opening day. It’s not like I even had a choice. This was a seminal moment in my life, pathetic as that sounds (okay, and is).
I went that first night with my best friend, a fellow “Watchmen” geek and we sat there in silent awe for 2 hours and 45 minutes, just taking in the spectacle. Here it was, finally. In and of itself, that was enough. We were seeing “Watchmen” on the big screen and we weren’t dreaming.
Confession time : the first time around I was too awestruck at the very idea of seeing a “Watchmen” movie at long last to even form a concrete opinion about what I’d just witnessed. There were some vague impressions floating in my mind, though, not all of them terribly positive : it was perhaps too literal. Snyder fell back too often on the easy way out he took with “300″ of just using the panels from the comic as storyboards and committing the pre-existing images to film. The performances were uneven. The whole thing felt like a condensed “Cliff’s Notes” version of the book on film. It felt too dense and impenetrable, I imagined, for someone who hadn’t read it to possibly enjoy it.
And you know what? Three subsequent viewings later, I still think all those criticisms are valid. It is almost painfully literal. There are tons of images lifted directly from page to screen. The performances are an incredibly mixed bag, with Jackie Earle Haley as the psychopathic Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the sadistic anti-hero The Comedian hitting the ball out of the park, Billy Crudup delivering the goods when the god-like Dr. Manhattan is delivering his lines in a detached and dispassionate monotone but struggling when his living blue deity has to show any sort of emotion, Patrick Wilson delivering an absolutely average performance as Night Owl (which may be the point since his “everyman” character is supposed to be the very definition of bland mid-life failure), and both the original (Carla Gugino) and new (Malin Akerman) Silk Spectres, the only female characters of any significance in the film, giving absolutely stilted and wooden performances that do nothing to explore the richness of the material available to them that, at least on paper, explores the strained relationship between a washed-up ex-superhero mother who never got over leaving the limelight and forced her daughter into the same line of work to live vicariously through her even though she clearly wanted nothing to do with such a lifestyle, and Matthew Goode completely missing the boa tin his turn as Ozymandias, the world’s smartest man and wealthiest business tycoon who comes off as completely listless and uninterested in everything, even his “master plan” that the entire film hinges on . And yes, I do think it’s probably well-nigh impossible for someone who doesn’t speak the language of the book to really understand, much less enjoy, the film.
And we can add more gripes to the list while we’re at it. Snyder’s selection of musical cues ranges from the inspired (“The Times They Are A-Changin’” during the film’s marvelous opening credits montage, one of Synder’s few truly original sequences and the best couple of minutes in the film as we see the entire history of superheroes in the “Watchmen” universe unfold in flashback from) to the overly-obvious (“The Sounds Of Silence” during The Comedian’s funeral sequence) to the what-the-fuck-was-he-thinking? (Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during the poorly-staged and-shot softcore porn sequence that passes for a “love scene” between Night Owl and Silk Spectre). The pacing that works so wonderfully in the comic as we go from flashbacks of past sequences of significance in all the characters’ lives to the action in their world-on-the-brink-of-nuclear-annihilation alternative 1985 is disjointed and jarring on the screen. The scenes of still-President (he’s in his fifth term after Dr. Manhattan wins the Viet Nam war for him) Richard Nixon and his cabinet, including Henry Kissinger, are both unnecessary and not terribly well-executed.
But the movie soars in points, too. The previously-mentioned credit sequence montage is a true thing of beauty, and between this and the other completely original piece of —ahem! —auteurship on Snyder’s part, the drastically-changed (and quite effective) ending, it’s obvious that he should have taken more creative initiative to really make this thing his own rather than try so hard to stay almost overly-true to the source material (another term I hate, but just used anyway). Visually, it’s a feast of riches. The bleak color palette Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong use is absolutely perfect in conveying a society on the brink of apocalypse. The CGI effects, which I normally despise just on principle alone, are amazing, especially the sequences that take place on Mars in Dr. Manhattan’s constructed “crystal ship.” The action sequences, particularly the fight scenes, are incredibly well-staged and timed, with dramatic ultraviolence punctuated by slow-mo shots and freeze-frames seamlessly and with genuine panache. The costumes are inspired and absolutely believable both functionally and stylistically (Rorschach’s “floating ink-blot” mask, in particular, is just plain awesome). And while there are parts any lover the book will wish were in there but aren’t, everything that needs to be in there is. This is “Watchmen,” for the most part, as opposed to somebody’s take on “Watchmen,” and Snyder quite clearly shows with every frame that he knows this book, he gets it, he understand what makes it tick and why it’s so revered by so many. He understands it all too well, in fact, to the point where he blinks when given the opportunity to truly make this project his own and instead chooses to remain absolutely faithful to Moore and Gibbons’ story. So if there are things about “Watchmen” that don’t work on film, well—that’s because it was made to be a comic story, and in his quest to translate it as near-to-verbatim (visually speaking, as self-contradictory as that, I’m sure, sounds) as possible, Snyder has missed the opportunity to well and truly make a “Watchmen” movie and has made, instead, more a moving comic book (not to be confused with the “Watchmen Complete Motion Comic” DVD release, which is pretty damn cool but another subject for another time).
After three viewings on the theater, though, I must say that each time I liked it better than the last. Those parts that grated seemed smaller and of less significance. Those parts that stood out began to soar. My qualms never fully went away, but each time I was able to appreciate just what Synder was able to achieve here all the more. And flaws and all, this is still a remarkable work, and certainly one of the most visually arresting and accomplished films you’ll ever see. Sure, I wish Snyder had chosen—or been able, as such the case may be—to really bring this rich and complex work to full life in a new medium rather than just settle for translating it. But a partly-realized “Watchmen” is still so far superior to a fully-realized any-other-superhero story that I don’t want to quibble too much. Snyder gets it right on the surface, and hits and misses when he tries to probe beneath it. The hits outweigh the misses, though, and while it’s maybe not exactly the “Watchmen” movie I would have wanted, it’s plenty close enough, and feels more and more “right” every time I see it.
In the months since “Watchmen” hit theaters to middling box office numbers (when a movie that takes in around $110 million domestically is said to have “underperformed,” that tells you it must have been pretty damn expensive) fan circles have been abuzz about just what would be included in the “director’s cut” DVD/ Blu-Ray release. Well, I’m pleased to say I know.
When word got out that there was going to be an extremely limited theatrical release of Snyder’s director’s cut in just four cities and that Minneapolis was going to be one of them, I was pinching myself all over again. This just seemed too damn good to be true. But true it was. And despite an unfortunate change of venue from the downtown theater just a few blocks from my office to a lifeless, warehouse-style multiplex in the far-flung, most distant and, frankly, depressing reaches of the south suburbs due to unspecified “scheduling conflicts,” I was still all over this like flies on—well, you get the idea. So, what do we “Watchmen” geeks get in the director’s cut that wasn’t already there in the two hours and 45 minutes of the original? I’m glad you asked (or I asked for you, if you want to be technical).
First off, it’s longer. Not by a tremendous amount, but the 24 extra minutes make a big difference. Mostly it’s just an extra minute (or less) at the end of a scene, but it flows much more smoothly. The pace of the story feels more natural and less “choppy.” The scene-to-scene transitions flow more seamlessly and naturally. It nearly negates my criticism of how “disjointed” the original theatrical cut feels. There are some completely new scenes, too, but not too many. We get the younger Silk Spectre chaining her government handlers and going “on the run.” We get the shocking and brutal murder of Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, in a tragic case of mistaken identity, and we get to see the inconsolable rage of his successor when he hears the news a few minutes later, followed by an explosive frenzy of brutality on his part (a shame this was ever cut because it’s Patrick Wilson’s finest minute or two of screen time). We get a brief exchange between a newspaper vendor and a comic-book reading kid that formed a popular running subplot in the comic but was completely excised from the original film version (as well as a way-too-quick glimpse at the comic the kid is reading, “Tales Of The Black Freighter,” the full animated version of which has been released as a stand-alone DVD and will be woven into the main body of the film in the “Ultimate Edition” DVD/Blu-Ray due for December release).
In short, we get more. And in this case, at least, more makes it better. Sure, there’s still some stuff hard-core fans like myself will wish was in there that’s not there–yet. But rumor has it that Snyder shot something like six hours or so worth of material. With the director’s cut hopefully doing well when it hits the store shelves on Tuesday, and the “Ultimate Edition” hopefully being a popular Christmas-time purchase, maybe it’s not too much to hope that a “super-ultimate edition” will be in the offing someday. The theatrical cut runs two hours and 45 minutes. The director’s cut runs about three hours and eight minutes. The “ultimate edition,” rumor has it, is slated to run around three hours and 31 minutes. Much as I despise the multiple-purchases-of-the-same-movie scam the studios run known as “double-dipping,” in this case I’m more than prepared to do it if the success of these multiple releases means we might—just might—get four, or even six, hours of “Watchmen” somewhere down the line.
So is the “Watchmen” director’s cut perfect? No. Is it an improvement? Most definitely. The previously-cut material not only fleshes the film out, it breathes more life into it, creating a more fully-realized, and truly cinematic, adaptation. It feels more like an honest-to-goodness film and negates, or at least greatly lessens, some of my earlier criticism of the original cut’s “comic-book-that-happens-to-be-moving” nature. It provides a more satisfying viewing experience while still leaving you hungry for more. And it’ll be out on DVD and Blu-Ray on Tuesday. I’ll be first in line, with my wallet open. Because I’m a sucker for all things “Watchmen,” and it hasn’t disappointed me yet — even if the film took some warming up to at first.
I still can’t imagine what a newcomer to this story would think of Snyder’s film. I’d really love to know — I’d even be willing to have my memory erased for a day to see it with a fresh set of eyes for the first time (as long as I got it back the next day). But I can’t change what I am, and what I am is a guy who has loved “Watchmen” since he was 14 years old. For someone like me, this movie is almost everything I could ever have hoped for. It may not have seemed that way at first, but the more I see it, the more certain of it I become. This magnificent director’s cut solidifies that view all the more.