Review: Watchmen – Slavish Imitation Begets Mediocre Movie

Watchmen is widely acclaimed as perhaps one of the best examples of the graphic novel format around. After reading finally reading through it for myself, I can wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Unfortunately for its highly anticipated movie counterpart, what worked to make such a brilliant graphic novel works directly against its movie adaptation. Sticking too close to its original format for its own good, the Watchmen film tells a tale that feels far too long and is split between too many characters, losing some of the emotional intensity, depth, and clarity of the original in the process.

Watchmen is a classic example of what can happen when the creators of entertainment fail to take into account the strengths, weakness, and differences of the formats available to them. What works in one medium does not necessarily work on another.

I don’t want to sit in a movie theater and listen as Rorschach narrates his journal to me (multiple lengthy times). I don’t want to shift uncomfortably in my seat, periodically checking my watch, as the movie decides to spend an inordinate amount of time telling its tale through flashbacks instead of real-time action. I don’t want the movie to split its time between so many different main characters, not giving me time to get to know or get attached to any particular one of them.

Movies can’t dive into a character’s head like a book (or graphic novel) can, and that’s something Watchmen doesn’t bother to account for, choosing instead to faithfully preserve practically every panel, line of dialog, scene setup, and pencil stroke from its printed counterpart. As a result, it feels alien to its own format.

In one sense, the faithfulness of Watchmen to its source material is something to be praised. After all, it does really and truly feel like the graphic novel has come to life and suddenly made itself visible on a movie screen instead of the printed page.

On the other hand, this results in a distinct lack of reasons to see the movie version rather than simply reading the graphic novels. The movie fails to bring anything significant of its own to the table over what the book was originally able to offer. Moreover, due to limitations of the medium (time and that pesky third person camera perspective, most notably), it does a lot of things quite a bit worse, making it inferior in just about every important sense even though on the surface it seems like a pretty close copy.

I can forgive the movie a lot of its faults simply based on its source material. For instance, what I might call cheesy acting, someone else might call a stylistic reference to the nutty comic book worlds the entire universe of Watchmen was based off of.

Fair enough. When viewed in that light, some of the acting I was displeased with might even be called a success (save for a couple of characters that are just plain old poorly done, but they aren’t enough to ruin the movie on their own).

Let me state this as clearly as possible, just for the sake of clarity: Watchmen is not a bad movie. It is perhaps a little misguided and not as good as it should have been, but it is not bad. It has plenty of redeeming qualities for those willing to endure its missteps.

Even its unflinching devotion to preserving its source material works in its favor on occasion. For instance, Rorschach, one of the most fascinating characters in the graphic novel, is brought to life damn near perfectly in the movie. Even the actor they found to play him looks uncannily like the drawings in the book. He’s every bit as captivating on the screen as on the page, although it does help if you already know his background because the details of his character development are somewhat abbreviated in the movie and lack the full impact of their revelation in the book. Still, he’s easily the most interesting character in the movie.

The visual style of the movie is another pretty solid win for the movie. The CG effects are certainly overdone and can be a little distracting in their ever-presence, but other than that it really does look like the graphic novel brought to life. In this instance that’s a good thing.

For example, the costumes worn by the heroes don’t look like the sleek, modernized outfits worn by Christian Bale’s super-rich Batman or Tobey Maguire’s unbelievably form-fitting Spider Man outfit. Instead they look a little cheap, a little plastic, and a little cheesy. Exactly as they should. The heroes in Watchmen are not superheroes, they are costumed vigilantes who made their outfits from scratch from materials actually found on Earth. It’s wholly appropriate that the seams and zippers show through every once in a while; that they look a little ridiculous. It makes the universe as-told feel a lot more believable.

The rest of the visuals, from cinematography to set design, fit in just as nicely as the costumes. There are plenty of over-dramatic shots that, again, look like they were directly inspired by a comic book panel, but in this case that feels appropriate. It’s clear the makers of this film went a long way to make sure their adaptation would preserve the great art style of the original, and their work paid off nicely.

All the above negativity aside, though, let’s face it, this is a unique movie. Fans of the graphic novel should see this film and will probably have fun while doing so. It may not be spectacular, it may not live up to the source material, and it may not have much in the way of its own voice, but it is still an enjoyable experience to see such a classic graphic novel brought to life on the big screen.

It’s just a shame that material with as much potential as Watchmen couldn’t manage to expand beyond this novelty and give viewers something new – a perspective on story world that even the graphic novel could not give us using the unique storytelling possibilities of the movie format.

As it stands, the movie doesn’t have a whole lot to offer if you haven’t read the graphic novel. Newcomers will likely be slightly confused by the twisting story, which jumps back and forth in time and abbreviates a lot of important background for time reasons. Long as it is, they still couldn’t squeeze everything in. Also, the uninitiated might well be turned off by the needlessly gratuitous sex and violence in this film. I’m no stranger to either nudity or gore, but Watchmen took both of these to levels that felt like glorification, above and beyond what was required for telling the story or setting the tone.

Still, even if the only reason to see this movie was the novelty of seeing the once static panels brought directly to life before your eyes (and to be fair, claiming this as the movie’s only appeal would be quite unfair), it’s a novelty worth indulging as Watchmen nails this particular thrill. So if you’ve read the graphic novels, head out to your local theater and see your beloved characters on the big screen. If you haven’t read the original work, then do yourself a favor and start with the genuine article, rather than this abbreviated imitation.


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4 Comments

Filed under Movies, Reviews

4 responses to “Review: Watchmen – Slavish Imitation Begets Mediocre Movie

  1. Wendi

    Ironic, this is almost exactly my critique. The only thing I would add is that I feel in addition to the problem of medium there’s a question of genre. The book, I would argue is not action-based but more of a psychological drama. Yes there is action, but the focus of the book is the evolving mental state of the characters, and how that is in some ways a reflection of the world they live in.

    The movie, on the other hand, clearly wants to be an action movie. However, it’s operating under the weight of so much story that it can’t quite pull that off- making the violence seem gratuitous.

    We expect super hero stories to be basically in the genre of action. The book challenges this, the movie does not. Imho, at least.

  2. I kept thinking that the guy who played the Comedian was Javier Bardem (I found out later that it’s actually Jeffrey Dean Morgan), but the two actors definitely look alike

  3. An interesting take. I agree with you that the movie and graphic novel format are more than different enough to warrant specific approaches that make the most of the medium. The movie clearly misstepped in this regard.

    Jackie Earle Haley did indeed do a good job as Rorschach. I hear Moore is upset people related to him. I think the movie went out of its way to get you behind that character.

    I did not read the graphic novel and I found the story laborious to follow after a time (and at 2 hrs 43 minutes, there was a lot of time). Wendi made a good point too. It was 1 hour’s worth of action crammed into that time.

    Our takes on Watchmen have similarities. Check mine out if you want. I would like to hear you opinion.

    http://fortresstakes.wordpress.com/2009/03/19/watchmen-2009/

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