I know I’m a week late to the Watchmen party, but because the movie undertakes such ambition for itself, I feel the need to comment. First of all, though I have heard bipolar opinions — both cheers and jeers — I myself bestride the happy medium. Watchmen neither completely succeeds in its ambitions — of being faithful to the revered source material, of being a stirring reflection of our time, of being a masterful screen story, of being a piece of philosophy — nor does it entirely fail in any of these categories. So follow me on a tour of the highs and lows of watching Watchmen.

The source material, like many of these groundbreaking graphic novels, is prurient and misogynist. Why anyone would try to leave those elements intact in a present-day adaptation is difficult to understand, especially when the adaptation is not so faithful as to refrain from tampering with the ending of the movie (as Hitler so humorously opposed).

What’s more, the change to the ending works great on screen and only makes me wish the screenwriters, David Hayter and Alex Tse, had been more confident in making the movie into a movie. (Another major change, putting much of the exposition of world’s alternate history into a credits sequence based around photographs, worked great too.) Key elements were going to have to be cut to fit the running time, that’s sure, but the graphical-match transitions between scenes are one of strongest stylistic elements of the book Watchmen and viable replacements should have been sought if matching the style was so important for convincing the fanboys to endorse the film.

As lengthy as the movie is, it is quite boring at times, mostly during the long dialogue scenes and long, repetitively jerky hand-crank action scenes. Where it soars is in the poetic imagery: Dr. Manhattan’s crystal palace, dark figures emerging in bright doorways.

These images, brought to life from the Dave Gibbons art of the comic, are stunning. Director Zack Snyder, as he proved on 300, is an equal opportunist in celebrating both the male and female human form. Some of the effects work, as in the first introduction to Dr. Manhattan, with its kid-who-just-learned-After-Effects shrinkdown shot, were as cheesy as any cheesy effect from a well-intentioned B-movie.

The sound design is a split decision as well. One thing that could not be copied from the graphic novel is the sound — and in terms of sound effects it was wonderful. I loved the kshing of the smiley face button as Nite Owl flipped it in slomo towards The Comedian’s coffin. The music, on the other hand, was gratingly in-your-face. The soundtrack is comprised entirely of iconic songs, many times played ironically, as with “Unforgettable” but more often simply on-the-nose. “Flight of the Valkyries”, immortalized for all time as the soundtrack to Vietnam helicopters in Apocalypse Now is ineffectually applied to the Vietnam sequence of the film; “All Along the Watchtower”, with its lyrics referencing a Joker and a Watchtower as Rorschach and Nite Owl fly to Veidt’s ‘watchtower’ to confront him about the joker Comedian, a scene that lacked only a character called The Thief for the music to make it seem like a bad musical.

The original story is so misogynist, and so overt in the fetishizing of superhero regalia

Continue reading about Watchmen (spoilers)… (one couple can’t climax until they’ve seen each other in their spandex) that I almost forgot that Laurie Jupiter (Malin Ackerman, good) is as well-drawn a character as any. The other characters that stand out in this adaptation are Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley, great) and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, awful).

Patrick Wilson, as the second incarnation of Nite Owl, is as good as he’s been in anything, although his stiff style of acting still bothers me. Here he reunites with fellow Little Children cast member Haley, who shows a different side of sexually-disturbed psychopathology. Rorschach is a disgusting individual, and I’m not exactly sure why two straight arrows like Dan and Laurie would ever chuckle at the thought of him throwing a mentally ill person down an elevator shaft, much less spring him from prison.

The prison sequence is one of the movie’s most effective, but is among the least effective in terms of advancing the plot. Having read the book only a few months ago, I was able to follow the plot with no difficulty. I’m not sure a cold audience member would feel the same. There’s something choppy not only in the chunky adaptation, but the clunky insistence on things being funny that aren’t. The main symbol, of a smiley face with a blood-spatter, is a thousand times more effective than having characters natter on about what a joke everything is. It’s hard to take their high-school existentialism seriously and still take a plot about costumed heroes in an alternative reality with a third-term President Nixon seriously at the same time.

And maybe because the movie takes itself too seriously, it rarely loosens up and becomes a movie. I’m not talking about camp. The last thing we need is another campy superhero movie. What I’m talking about is the fact that the war room in this film is clearly patterned after the war room from Dr. Strangelove. That was a funny movie about nuclear war.

In Watchmen, the nuclear destruction of the world’s most populated cities has all the gravity of a rotten peanut. Maybe it’s just the storytellers sympathizing with the absent Dr. Manhattan, whose voice sounds like air escaping from a minimally-inflated balloon. The deific Doctor is detached from the fate of the human race. And then he isn’t. He is smarter than the world’s smartest man, but somehow can’t defeat him nor have personally arranged the plan that he later agrees to. It just doesn’t add up, even on a quantum mechanical level.

The Comedian’s view of human nature — as something immutably vile — is what this film validates, as morally repugnant a conclusion as its character of conscience, Rorschach. Dan and Laurie, the two do-gooders, agree with their silence that it will take mass nuclear annihilation to bring world peace, but the movie doesn’t even have decency to make this conspiracy long-lasting. In what is the supreme irony of the story (and its funniest and most Strangelovian), Rorschach’s diary lands in the crank file of New Frontiers newspaper (– newspapers: remember those things with information printed in columns on cheap paper that people used to read? No wonder they kept the story set in the 1980’s –) just at the moment they have no news to print. We are to assume this unravels Veidt’s plot and his high-priced peace. I rather liked his cover plot, the one about a source of infinite energy being the ultimate peacemaker. That rang true in our Age of Oil Wars.

Which brings me to my final equivocal point. The release of this movie is both perfectly timed and ‘ahead-of-its’ timed. A world wracked by political corruption and rampant street crime will probably be half coming true any day now. The main villain is a titan of industry who thought he was smarter than a too-complex system. And yet it is not George W. Bush third-terming it in the White House. The White House is run by that guy, Hope O’Change. It isn’t the commie Ruskies we’re fighting, it’s the Islamofascists and our own capitalist greed.

The story of the Watchmen is as much an anachronism as the old superheroes it catches in sepia flashbacks, a snapshot of 80’s paranoia, Orwell’s 1984 viewed from the year 1984 but without all the prescience. As a series of film images, director Zack Snyder has succeeded in making enduring cinematic iconography. The philosophy, on the other hand, expired when the generation the book was created for grew up and found the world to be devoid of blue-glowing supermen and full green-greedy businessmen.

Will the mainstream understand Watchmen?
Who isn’t watching Watchmen? (Hint: it’s Alan Moore.)
Fox goes for a piece of Watchmen‘s action

Xeni Jardin reports on the effects work
MoviesOnline interview with screenwriters Tse and Hayter
Screenwriter Hayter pleads with fans to give movie a second chance