In his defence, Zack Snyder really loves Watchmen. This film is a labour of love, a dedication to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, an immaculate recreation of a great book.
Unfortunately, sometimes love is not enough. Or, perhaps more accurately in this case, love is too much. Zack Snyder adapting Watchmen to film is a lot like someone falling madly and devotedly in love with you on a first date: Barring some pretty exceptional circumstances, it’s just going to end up feeling creepy and awkward.
Alan Moore once said that Watchmen was unfilmable. For the sake of argument, we can say that he’s cranky on general principle, but his opinion gains some credibility when Terry Gilliam agrees with him. One of the biggest problems – beside Watchmen being rooted in superhero tradition and the very form of sequential art – is that there’s so much going on. Many characters, many storylines, all criss-crossing one another and frequently jumping about chronologically. It’s a lot to fit in to one movie, requiring someone to decide what’s important and what isn’t.
Snyder decided that almost all of it is important and had to be on the screen, which has the unfortunate effect of making none of it important. At 163 minutes, Watchmen is full of plot and happenings, barely taking any time to breathe or relax – and this is the short version, with an “Extended Edition” DVD expecting to take up most of a long weekend. It still feels harshly edited, with characters disappearing for long stretches – the Comedian is absent for most of the middle third, making Laurie’s revelation on Mars seem jarring. Snyder’s kept many of the cameos and callbacks of the book, but they lack meaning because the context has been stripped out; the film, like the book, ends on the New Frontiersmen office, but it’s the very first appearance of the extreme right-wing magazine and likely meaningless for anyone who hasn’t read the book.
The reality is that something had to give for Watchmen to function as a film. Perhaps the Minutemen, perhaps Laurie’s relationship with the Comedian. Probably at least a few of the Nixon scenes, laden as they are with bad impersonations and excessive prosthetic noses. Snyder probably could have cut about 15 minutes off the running time by eliminating all the slow-motion action shots.
Watchmen also runs into some of the problems Sin City had with excessive faithfulness: Dialogue and narration that works on the page doesn’t always work when spoken aloud. Rorschach’s journal doesn’t work nearly as well when heard, and Jackie Earle Haley’s growly Christian-Bale-Batman voice doesn’t help. And just on general principle, narration tends to be more intrusive in a film than on the page; comics tell a story through a series of moments, and occasionally require narration to fill in the gaps, while film is more immersive. “It was dark when the murderer returned” is entirely superfluous when it’s plain to see that it’s dark.
Snyder’s occasional bouts of independence don’t add a whole lot to the film, either. The violence is cranked up about a dozen notches, and to little dramatic impact; if anything, showing Silk Spectre and Nite Owl to be just as vicious and violent as Rorschach erases the differences between the characters. The explicit sex scene adds nothing, in addition to being excruciatingly awkward and not the least bit erotic.
Snyder often sets up battles between faithfulness and innovation. The costumes are generally upgraded from spandex to the more cinematic leather/body armour, which is a perfectly reasonable change. But when Ozymandias appears to be wearing body armour, catching a bullet doesn’t seem nearly as significant. The setup goes MIA as well, resulting in a scene that looks a lot like the book but holds little of the impact. In fact, much of the finale lacks the oomph it has in the book, perhaps because Snyder’s rushed through so much of the story to get here.
This all sounds terribly negative, but I didn’t hate the film by any means. The set designs and costumes are excellent, and it certainly looks like Watchmen. The actors are generally good; not exceptional, but the rushed nature of the film leaves little time for nuance. The opening credits sequence, almost entirely of Snyder’s own creation, is a beautiful thing, though the emphasis on the Minutemen is lost shortly thereafter.
Watchmen is rather frustrating, because at times it comes so close to really getting it, and you can tell Snyder really does want to make a great movie out of a great book. But his devotion to the source material hamstrings his effort: The book was innovative and experimental, and a successful adaptation – not mere translation – demands more than just a scene-for-scene recreation. It needed a director unafraid to put his own stamp on the material, someone who wasn’t afraid of cutting that scene or enraging a particular segment of fandom.
It’s ultimately rather pointless. It’s not great, it’s not bad, it’s just there. It doesn’t stand up to book at all well, nor does it stand on its own with any strength. It’s interesting to watch, but perhaps not for two and a half hours. An ambitious failure would have been far more interesting than the safe and predictable homage Snyder produced.