Ordinary's Just Not Good Enough Today
2009 // USA // Zack Snyder // March 11, 2009 // IMAX Theatrical Print
B - Zack Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen is a dizzying feat of world-building, among the densest and most bewildering I've ever seen. It's a sprawling, exhausting work, one that perpetually threatens to burst from the director's control, and on occasion succeeds in effecting just such an escape. The story Snyder is attempting to tell is simply too vast, too intricate, too discomfiting, too pensive, and too nasty for its nearly-three-hour running time to accommodate. It is, in other words, a glorious mess of a film, offering novel, absorbing sights and themes but also unfortunately susceptible to off-key indulgences and the wearying effect of an undisciplined structure. That said, Watchmen is a fascinating mess, one that calls out to be scrutinized, explored, and savored, like a cinematic collage. It is the not the ur-superhero film that fans might have hoped, but no matter. It will rattle and mystify many viewers, I suspect, especially those who have never paused to contemplate the implications of a world of caped crusaders.
Over two decades ago, writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons collaborated to create Watchmen the comic, now held up as one of the most vital and revolutionary works in the medium. Accordingly, anticipation (and trepidation) regarding the film adaptation has been intense, but—and I say this as a great admirer of the book—I don't want to spend too much time comparing comic to film, or dithering over what was or was not a judicious decision in the adaptation process. Snyder's film should stand on its own, and it's from that perspective that I approach it (for the most part).
The world of Watchmen is one of staggering bulk, an alternate history that begins with the supposition that costumed vigilantes emerged in the early twentieth century to tackle crime. These "masks" were not super-beings, but merely men and women of exceptional physical and mental ability. In a mesmerizing credit sequence, Snyder explicates the details of this Other America, where superheroes hobnob with the century's cultural icons and leave their messy fingerprints all over its seminal events. The nation's first super-group, the Minutemen, eventually collapses as its members are retired, slain, or stricken. Where the Watchmen timeline diverges acutely from our own is in the appearance of a true super-powered hero. Disintegrated in a nuclear accident, research physicist John Osterman (Billy Crudup) reassembles himself by sheer will, emerging as a quantum superman with electric-blue skin and godlike omnipotence. Now dubbed Dr. Manhattan, he joins a new super-group, the Watchmen, alongside a slate of decidedly mundane masked avengers. The alliance doesn't last, however, and the film picks up the tale in 1985, when costumed vigilantism is banned by federal law and Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as President.
Only one mask fought under the banners of both the Minutemen and Watchmen: the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a violent, misogynistic thug with a blackly humorous streak a mile wide. In the film's opening sequence, the Comedian—67 years old but still in phenomenal shape—is attacked in his apartment and tossed out the window by a shadowy assailant. The mystery of the retired superhero's murder crouches over the film, one of several noir tropes woven into the grand tapestry of Watchmen. Indeed, Snyder has created one of the most tonally ambitious films in recent memory, all the more potent for its general success in uniting elements and moods from disparate genres into an ironic epic. Fundamentally, Watchmen engages in a perilous endeavor: a deconstruction of the superhero, and most specifically an assault on the coherence of a genre that would dare to paint costumed vigilantes and science-fiction godlings as "heroes" at all. Moore and Gibbon's comic has seeped into the pop landscape for more than twenty years (often quite subtly), and therefore Watchmen's animating principles may not be as culturally audacious as they once seemed. Still, Snyder's film is so ruthlessly enamored with its own fractured countenance, and presents it with such sweeping indifference for audience uneasiness, that one can't help but stand in awe of the thing. It is a sprawling, unconventional, difficult film, probably one of the most difficult Hollywood blockbusters of the decade.
Superhero films with a vast cast of characters seem to start with superpowers that are visually or conceptually impressive and then tack on character traits that read as either ridiculously tidy or just completely arbitrary. (I'm looking at you, X-Men.) With the exception of Dr. Manhattan, Watchmen's vigilantes are normal people, and thus their personalities are essential to both the film's narrative and its thematic aims. The costumes, gadgets, and methods of the masks reflect their values and flaws, rather than the other way around. Thus, we have the likes of Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), a nebbishy tinkerer who is literally impotent without his cowl and cape. Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) took over her mother's superhero identity out of obligation, and now seethes with regrets and resentments. The bloodthirsty Comedian moonlights as a government killer. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) parlayed his fame into a corporate empire, complete with an action figure line. And then there's Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a sociopath whose twisted code of street justice draws from Travis Bickle, Ayn Rand, and Timothy McVeigh. Dr. Manhattan stands outside this rogue's gallery of all-too-human neuroses, but he has his own problems. His omnipotence and omniscience set him apart from humankind's concerns, and the vibrations of quarks hold his attention more than an incipient nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviets.
Watchmen utilizes Rorschach's investigation of the Comedian's murder as the entry point into a convoluted tale of politics, crime, war, finance, sex, disease, and genocide. Describing the story's intricacies would be daunting, and beside the point. Watchmen's plot is a vehicle for a series of discomfiting set pieces and dialogues that erode and deform the viewer's conceptions of what a superhero film looks like. Watchmen presents itself as both a finger-wagging adjustment to the genre—"This is what a superhero film should look like, if it was remotely honest."—but also as a rejection of the genre's entire form and function. In other words, it's not just a bold gamble, it's twice as bold as it needs to be. Vast, digressive, and shot through with rot and filigree in equal proportions, the film is constantly shifting beneath the viewer's feet. It indulges in camp excess, gee-whiz action, stone-faced satire, unsettling nihilism, and meditative musings, often at the same time. Slathered on top of this tonal hodgepodge are visual and aural witticisms that range from the exceedingly sly to the groan-inducing. The film is not confusing, but it does sometimes seem utterly out-of-control, with Snyder flitting so often between viewpoints and flashbacks, often clumsily, that the films risks toppling over. Both the richness of the underlying source material and the director's determination to convey a comparable depth in the film—however haphazard the result might seem at times—salvage Watchmen from the schematic character that often dooms reverent adaptations. It may be a flawed and frustrating film in some respects, but Watchmen is anything but lifeless.
Snyder has come to Watchmen by way of his damn scary but politically inert remake of Dawn of the Dead and the loud, crude, gorgeous adaptation of Frank Miller's Hellenic gorefest, 300. With those films, the director demonstrated his facility for slick red-meat entertainment and little else. Here Snyder reaches much higher, evincing an unabashed adoration for the complexity of Moore's story, even as he resists the world-builder's penchant for creative thumb-twiddling (*cough* George Lucas *cough*). Watchmen is a hopelessly dense film, in terms of design, story, and themes, but its density serves it well, evoking a coherent and believable stage for its tragedies to play out. In other words, Snyderâ€™s approach strikes me as the correct one for a filmic Watchmen in the same way that Moore and Gibbons' approach was correct for the comic. Unfortunately, Snyder fails to approach his medium with discipline. Watchmen feels comfortable at its current running-time, but it could just as easily be an hour shorter or an hour longer. This suggests a dramatic flabbiness and directorial capriciousness that is at odds with the film's meticulous design. Synder just doesn't seem to put much (or any) value on artistic precision, preferring to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. While that isn't a death knell for a film like Watchmen, which plays out like a disjointed soul-searching of our cultural consciousness, it necessarily renders the film a less than satisfying cinematic experience and lends it a whiff of contempt for the audience.
Equally distressing is Snyder's ongoing affection for gruesome slow-motion action sequences, which suited 300's pornographic blood-letting much better than Watchmen's epic meanderings. While visually mesmerizing and a refreshing antidote to the jarring, hyper-edited scenes that afflict most action features, these sequences don't evoke tension or advance the film's themes. They're pure, gratuitous spectacle, and Snyder would do well to grow out of them. In Watchmen, they actively undermine the film at times. Apologists will inevitably insist that Snyder is demonstrating the horrid consequences of violence, where previous superhero films have veiled it. One of the film's prominent theses, after all, is that superheroes are deeply sick people who enjoy brutality. Perhaps, but the gleeful tone of Snyder's action scenes betray at least a partial intent to pander to adolescent bloodlust.
While Snyder's unrestrained id can be blamed for most of Watchmen's failings, it is also responsible for the film's curious appeal. There's nothing relaxed or delicate about Watchmen. It asks us to contemplate aspects of our pop cultural landscape and (allegedly) shared values that resist scrutiny. With a gleeful middle finger, it rejects reflexive awe for a swath of America's hallowed institutions and idols: knowledge, technology, family, wealth, justice, media, patriotism. Perhaps most uncomfortably, it strips away the alleged harmlessness of our childhood fantasies and exposes them as monstrous expressions of our most self-centered and dysfunctional impulses.