Sunday, March 15, 2009

Watchmen: Warner Brothers' Sacrifice to the Fanboys

Watchmen had a pretty good opening last weekend, but has dropped off considerably this weekend, barely beating the remake of "Last House on the Left." The fanboys all went out on opening weekend, were lukewarm about what they saw (giving it a CinemaScore grade of B), and are now waiting for the "director's cut" dvd (three hours and ten minutes- just what the movie was missing- more minutes!) which will probably be released some time this summer.

It's possible the movie will make a huge profit on dvd, and might become a "classic" as some people are suggesting, its reputation growing despite the fact that the general public "didn't get" this "artsy" movie. Or, it might end up like "Mystery Men," a movie that I greatly enjoyed when I saw it in the theaters and expected to catch on on dvd, but of course didn't. In fact, most people I know, fanboys included, are allergic to that movie.

Looking back, it's difficult to understand exactly why Warner Bros, which has done so well with Batman- both artistically and financially- decided to spend $150M on this particular comic book property, when they have access to so much else. Another Superman "reboot." The Flash. Green Lantern. Wonder Woman. Sandman. Plastic Man. I'm sure there are others even more obvious that I'm not thinking of. "Watchmen" is over 20 years old. I first read this issues as they were released when I was 13 and I was over the moon about them. It has a dense, complicated structure that admirably masks its plot holes. It also had lots of sex and violence (for a superhero comic book, anyway). And of course, Dr Manhattan's pecker. It is admired by comic book fans but not well-known outside of that small (and rapidly shrinking) group of people.

It only makes sense that for whatever reason Warners wanted to thank the fanboys by giving them a slavishly faithful adaptation of the comics industry's "War and Peace". As a "thank you" for providing the movie industry with the only really reliable source of hit films right now- comic books.

As Alan Moore has suggested, comics should not be storyboards for movies. Zack Snyder's previous comic book adaptation, "300," worked as well as it did because the source material was a bare-bones story about a fight. That was basically it. "Watchmen" has at least six main characters and almost all of them have complicated backstories set against a mystery involving attacks on them, in a fully-realized alternate reality.

The comic book is structured like a comic book. And Snyder basically used the comic book as a storyboard. Sometimes it worked fairly well, but mostly it didn't. I remember in the original book how much I loved the scene in which Laurie and Jon are having sex, and he replicates himself so that she can have a three-way or a four-way with him. That scene that felt so fresh and unique on the page was dull and lifeless on the screen. A comic book's images don't move, while motion pictures do- that's why the word "motion" is in there. And as either Alejandro Jodorowsky and/or Will Eisner have pointed out (sorry I can't find the quote to link to) comic books are not movies. They seek to create an illusion of movement within a static frame. The rules of pacing and structure are inherently different.

The movie felt listless, as if it were trying to hit everything in the book as quickly as possible and just get to the ending.

And then there's the ending. It was always the weakest part of the book. Even when I was reading the original issues I wondered why anyone would think that would work.

A vagiant cthulu squid teleports into New York, destroying buildings, killing people and driving the survivors mad with some kind of psychic attack is somehow supposed to bring about world peace? Wouldn't it be even more likely to start a massive, worldwide war, as these rival countries (many of whom have leaders who think the end of days is coming) sought to assert their way of thinking on the rest of the world before the rest of the alien invaders come? I forgave it because it was so compellingly rendered in the book. Dave Gibbons' illustrations sold it, and yeah, maybe it seemed a little naive to me but what did I know?

But the new ending, in which Dr Manhattan is framed for the attacks, makes even less sense, and would be more likely to cause an even bigger war. Dr Manhattan was an American. He was given shelter by the American government for years, and single-handedly won the war in Vietnam. So if the rest of the world believes he's gone crazy and attacked multiple cities at once, why for crying out loud wouldn't every other country in the world gang up on America?

And who the hell is Ozymandias to make the decision?

And why, in a nearly three hour movie, do we get multiple scenes with Richard Nixon, but none with his Russian counterpart?

And why did Dr Manhattan have to kill Rorshach? I understand it from a thematic perspective, but storywise it makes no sense. He's a paranoid crackpot- who would believe him?

Anyway, the fanboys got the movie they wanted, an almost shot-for-shot remake of the original graphic novel, and very few people outside of the fanboys even care.

The movie is interesting to look at, and the actors all did a pretty decent job (although it was distracting that Dr Manhattan spoke with the same voice as the "for everything else, there's MasterCard" guy). Billy Crudup and Jackie Earl Haley are all getting high marks from critics and fans, and deservedly so, but I think that Patrick Wilson deserves some credit, too. He's been good in "Little Children," "Lakeview Terrace," and now this. He's a good looking guy- resembling a former high-school athlete whose best days are behind him, so he carries with him a hint of sadness. It works as Nite-Owl.

There's a lot to admire, but I don't think I would have understood what was going on without having read the original source material, which is deadly for a movie. It was almost like watching Cliff's Notes.

But the comic book movies that do well do not stick so closely to the original source material, and now that "Watchmen" is going to struggle to get to $100M domestic, it seems unlikely that a major studio is going to spend very much money to make another such adaptation.

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