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My Watchmen Review (SPOILERS)

For me, there was one scene in the new Watchmen film that summed up its inherent wrongness (spoiler alert): if you’ve read the comic you will know that Rorschach is thrown in jail and escapes (with a bit of help from Dan “Nite Owl II” Dreiberg and Laurie “Silk Spectre II” Juspeczyk) during a riot. As he is about to escape, Rorschach spots Big Figure, the equally imprisoned diminuitive crimelord who had earlier tried to kill him, dart into a toilet. In the comic, you see Rorschach follow Big Figure into the loo, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre exchange a bit of dialogue, and then Rorschach leaves. What exactly happens to Big Figure is left to our imagination, although we are to understand that “bumping” is involved and it is implied in a bit of gallows humour that he “dived head first” into something. It is a tiny, witty scene of the type that the comic is full.

What happens in the film? Well, Big Figure goes into the toilet, Rorschach follows him citing a need to visit the “men’s room” and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre wait outside. But very little is left to the imagination as we see Rorschach descending on Big Figure. The scene ends with blood pouring out of room. Some of the humour is retained, but for the most part it is replaced with horror and gore.

In a nutshell, that sums up Zack Snyder’s approach to the source material. The wit and humanity is pared down to the bone and replaced by a heightened level of gore. In the previous scene where Big Figure’s henchmen are attempting to kill Rorschach, an out of shot throat slit is replaced by a man having his arms chopped off with an electric saw. Earlier still, a scene in which Rorschach sets fire (out of shot) to a child molester is replaced by him hitting the man repeatedly through the head with a meat cleaver. Only Doctor Manhatten is supposed to have superpowers (even if Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt is understood to have achieved near-physical perfection) and most of the characters are meant to be out of shape and retired, yet when they fight they can break bones and walls with their punches, land on their feet from three storey falls and take the most incredible amounts of physical punishment – all in lingering bullet-time (so 1999 – the Matrix was literally a decade ago for Chrissakes).

In short, this is more of a caricature in the public’s imagination of “comic book” violence than the actual comic book. At one point this is made explicit. In the original comic, Ozymandias says at one point: “Dan, I’m not a republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome?” In the film, “republic serial” is replaced with “comic book” – in other words, two fingers to the source-medium. Comics don’t tend to have villains explaining their plans, at least not to the heroes – that is cinema (c.f. a typical James Bond film). It is one of those odd libels that persists, and disappointing that an apparent fanboy such as Zack Snyder chooses to join in with the conspiracy. Still, you’ve got to show loyalty to the tribe I suppose (slight tangent, but I remember reading a review of Road to Perdition in which they slagged off Jude Law’s rather obtuse character as “betraying its comic book origins” – that character didn’t appear in the original comic and was created specially for cinema audiences).

My ultimate beef with the him however isn’t that it strayed from the original, but that generally it has blindly gone along with it. The annoying stuff is what they have kept. Why, for example, is there so much in the introductory sequence about the forties costumed vigilante Solitaire being a lesbian? It doesn’t add anything to the plot, that particular revelation isn’t even in the comic (it is relegated to a footnote in the text backup feature), yet we get a scene of her snogging her girlfriend and another scene of the two of them having been brutally murdered. If you are desperate to cut stuff out, why keep that? The only apparent reason seems to be some fanboy frisson about lesbians – which creeps rather uncomfortably towards misogyny. Why, in fact, is there so much about the forties vigilantes at all, given that – for example – the death of Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl) is not shown and the relationship of The Comedian with the Sally “Silk Spectre I” Jupiter is simplified to the point that we are to understand she was raped but loved him anyway. This is yet more misogyny; in the comic he certainly attempts to rape her, but it is made clear that she is ultimately made pregnant by him by consensual sex.

The different ending is, I have to admit, a slight improvement on the original. It never did quite make sense that you could achieve world peace simply by teleporting a big lump of meat in the middle of Times Square, giving everyone in the vicinity a lethal headache in the process. But changing it creates its own problems. For one thing, if artist Max Shea didn’t help design the “squid monster,” then how is this all tied in with his creation Tales of the Black Freighter (on sale in all good DVD shops soon)? Similarly, if Ozymandias isn’t working on a masterplan that requires genetic engineering to work, then why does he walk around in the last 20 minutes of the film with a hoofing great GM lynx. It is a total non-sequitor, a kewl-looking thing you can pay a CG-artist to animate, but something that otherwise has no relevance to the plot.

Even more problematic is the murder of Edward “The Comedian” Blake at the start of the film. He’s killed because the discovered Ozymandias’ plans, but he only discovers these because he is a spy working for the CIA who is sent to investigate what he believes is a Sandinista Base on a desert island. If there is no desert island, there is no rationale for him to have made the discovery. No discovery, no murder. No murder, no plot.

The main thing that is stripped out of the adaptation is humanity. The reason you care at the end of the comic when New York is wiped out is that for eleven issues you have got to know a small cast of characters who gravitate around a completely unremarkable newstand. It is upsetting when they all die at the end. In the film version, they are just cyphers. We don’t get to know the cops, or the staff at the New Frontiersman. We get to see Nite Owl and Silk Spectre have some really bad movie sex (in far more lingering detail than the comic), but we don’t get to see them cathartically make love at the end. At the end, we see Dan and Laurie grinning ear to ear as if they have somehow won something – they haven’t even had to change their identities as in the comic – but not the poignant moment at the end when we see Sally Jupiter, alone, kissing Blake’s photograph.

The final thing the film gets wrong is the pacing. Time is a constant motif – the atomic clock, the “Minutemen”, the “Watchmen”, Doctor Manhatten’s father’s career as a watchmaker, etc. Its famed nine panel grid works to mark time, with pretty much every frame indicating a similar time period. When larger and smaller frames are used, they are used very deliberately. It is a textbook masterpiece in graphic storytelling.

The film, by contrast, has very little in terms of pacing at all. It retains the episodic nature of the original but because so much is chopped out some of those episodes are very long indeed while others are shortened down to a single scene. As such it all feels disjointed and random where it should feel measured with the scenes following each other in a logical progression. Could this have been fixed? A TV mini-series might have worked better. But ultimately it rather shows film up as a flexible medium. You can tell a different story in a comic simply by changing the shape of the pictures and varying them throughout the story (see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for much more on this). With cinema, you have widescreen, very widescreen and very little flexibility within each film (interestingly, this is something that Ang Lee at least experimented with in The Hulk, but that film is not generally regarded as a great success).

Ultimately, Watchmen is a comic about comics. Originally based on the Charlton superhero universe, the decision to not use these characters themselves ultimately freed Moore and Gibbons up to tell a more universal story. So it is that Rorschach is not just a reinterpretation of The Question, but a satire on the oddness of his creator (and Spider-Man’s), Steve Dikto. Making Captain Atom Doctor Manhatten enabled them to explore wider themes about how superpowers would change the world if they really existed – not necessarily in good ways. The Tales of the Black Freighter interludes, aside from containing yet more nods to Steve Ditko and his contemporaries, explores the essential randomness of how superheroes came to dominate the medium. Stripped of all that, you can still tell a story but you lack much of the essence of the tale that Moore tells.

The Watchmen film isn’t a total disaster. As a tribute to the original it is very flattering. Much of the set design is fantastic. There are little snatches of brilliance here and there where you just wish they’d gone down more in that particular direction. Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of Rorschach is inspired. I’d rather a film maker treated the source material with reverance than with contempt (as is the case of From Hell and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). But V for Vendetta, by no means a great film, was better and more memorable than this because it was ultimately prepared to take more risks with the source material.

Is respectful-but-not-slavish to the original too much to ask? The trail of good comic book adaptations is growing quite long now so the answer is surely “no”, yet the quest for a good Alan Moore adaptation remains elusive. My personal tip for a good Moore adaptation? Skizz directed by Danny Boyle. I’d really like to see that.

UPDATE: Andrew Hickey points me to an article by screenwriter David Hayter which sums up what a misogynist little turd he is, and at least partially explains the thoroughly negative attitude to women in the film.

Nine wishes for 2009 #7: The Watchmen Movie to not suck (spoilers/guesses)

God, all my wishes are getting pretty forlorn, aren’t they? I’ve written about the upcoming Watchmen film fairly recently. What I will add is that I spent the early hours of Sunday morning watching the various promos and video diaries that the production team have been pumping out on the internet about it. The portents are not great, I’m afraid to report.

Two of them give me particular pause for concern, the first possibly unreasonably. This film is about how kewl the Owlship is going to be. If I were a fourteen year old, and this was a Batman film, I would be excited. As it stands, the Owlship is a very minor part of the Watchmen aesthetic: it gives the second Nite-Owl a gimmick (a gimmick almost wholly ripped off from Blue Beetle, unsurprisingly) and gets the characters from A to B. It’s an egg-shaped thing with windows – what’s to get excited about (okay, I’ll admit it – I got ridiculously excited about the Batmobile in the 1989 film. There. Happy now?)?

But to be fair, this film is probably little more than the production team bigging up their contribution. Good for them. Up the workers I say. No, what really worries me is this film about the Silk Spectre. Leave aside the sexed up costume for a minute – I can live with that (although I’ve never understood this longstanding comic book movie tradition of turning superhero costumes into fetish wear). What really worries me is hearing Zack Snyder and the actress Malin Akerman describe the character as some kind of feminist icon. She “kicks ass” – she’s “awesome.” She even represents, ahem, “woman power“.

In the comic, Laurie is actually quite a passive character. She goes along with what her mother wants, then goes along with what Doctor Manhattan wants. Admittedly, she does convince Manhattan to save the world but she doesn’t do it through the power of her womanly fists but through, er, talking. Almost none of the fighting you see in the film clips actually happen in the comic.

Now, I have nothing wrong with strong female characters (although this interpretation does seem to be more of a strong male character in a woman’s body) and I understand that they have to up the action ante for the film. But the overall tone I keep hearing on these promo clips is that the interpretation that Zack Snyder is going for is rather reminiscent of all those dreadful post-Watchmen comics of the late eighties and early nineties.

You remember? When everything went grim, gritty and “realistic”? When Rob Liefield was the hottest artist on the planet (shivers)? The Dark Knight Returns shares responsibility for that particularly shallow period of comic book creativity, but a selective reading of Watchmen is also to blame. The watershed moment was Rorschach winning the Eagle Award for “Character Most Worthy of Own Title.” Yes, what the comics reading public wanted was a strip about a completely insane, psychopathic character which was parodying Steve Ditko‘s Ayn Rand obsessions. Just as a lot of comic readers think that Judge Dredd is an advertisement for zero tolerance summary justice, a lot of the freaks considered Rorschach, The Comedian et al to be heroes.

The Watchmen is about a bunch of misfits who ultimately fail to make a difference. They don’t save the world – in fact they make it a more dangerous place. At lot of people looked at all the pretty pictures and failed to notice that in the late eighties. My current fear is that Zack Snyder was one of them.

On the plus side, the Japanese trailer for the film does look a lot more interesting (I like the JFK appearance – including the revelation of the true assassin), even if the scenes in the “situation room” do look a bit like a camped up version of Dr Strangelove. There may be hope yet.

Why does any of this matter? Well, to be quite honest it doesn’t really. It’s just that while I think I would have preferred it if they hadn’t tried making this particular classic into a film, I’m going to spend my money watching it anyway so it might as well not be a soul-destroying three hours of my life.

Ultimately all I really wish for is that it ends up being no worse than the film version of V for Vendetta, which I have a sneaking affection for. The fact that they took such liberties with V is, in my view, a selling point. I think they got close to the heart of the story (even if they did cop out at the end) in the way that I fear Watchmen won’t.

Pulling off The Watchmen (SPOILERS)

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the upcoming Watchmen film and comic book films for ages. Having just read the first chapter of Dave Gibbons’ memoir of his experiences drawing the comic, Watching the Watchmen, I’ve finally decided to put finger to keyboard.

For a lot of us avid comic book fans, especially those of us who were weaned on Alan Moore’s work in the 80s, this is an extremely anxious period for us. We have experienced the utter awfulness of From Hell and League of Gentlemen. Then we had V for Vendetta, a film that was actually not bad and which swayed between being an almost scene-for-scene reproduction of the comic and a bastard hybridisation with The Matrix. Yet it has made its mark in some quite surprising ways, inspiring the whole Anonymous movement and cropping up here and there in the popular media. It has made its mark.

Factor number two is Zack Snyder. A hitherto hack-resembling director who committed the heinous crime of having his zombies run in his remake of Dawn of the Dead (sidenote: Simon Pegg has now started his Slow Zombie movement, presumably akin to Slow Food), he went on to direct the ridiculous 300. Like the other Frank Miller adaptation Sin City, this was a very close adaptation of the comic original. Also like Sin City, I found bits of it cringingly embarrassing. Unlike Sin City however, I did get the impression that both director and actors were enjoying themselves slightly subverting the material. Or did I just imagine this? I’m genuinely undecided as to whether all the scenes of Spartans cavorting with one another were done with a wink to the audience or with the same level of hyper-heterosexuality of the writer-artist’s original that just happened to come across as camp as a row of tents.

The key question for Watchmen therefore is there more to Zack Snyder than meets the eye? Is he capable of viewing the source material with a critical eye or will we just get another soulless carbon copy like Sin City?

Another factor is The Dark Knight. The Nolan Brothers (I have yet to figure out their relationship with the Nolan Sisters) have made what for me is the best ever “superhero” film, but they did this not by simply adapting an original work but by mashing up some of Batman’s greatest hits, specifically Year One, The Long Halloween and Killing Joke, while the ending serves as a kind of prologue to The Dark Knight Returns*. Alongside Lord of the Rings, it functions as a rebuke to the received wisdom that a comic book adaptation has to be a literal translation of the source material (sidenote: another slight challenge The Dark Knight represents to Watchmen is that fact that the former film has borrowed the latter comic’s idea of using scarring to represent The Joker/The Comedian’s grin). I can’t pretend that the apparently less literal Paul Greengrass version, with its apparently more overtly political edge, sounded fascinating. Is there a danger in sticking rigidly to the source material that it will end up being a period piece about the 80s?

It was interesting rereading the original over the summer. For those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, nuclear holocaust was something we grew up with. Although I didn’t see it at the time, I remember the buzz in the playground when the BBC showed Threads. I remember the horror of When the Wind Blows, a book which still holds enough power over me that I haven’t read it from cover to cover or watched the film. And then there were the more allegorical expressions of nuclear-anxiety such as the BBC’s adaptation of the Day of the Triffids and Survivors. It was this undercurrent in popular imagination that Watchmen was feeding into (even its contemporary, The Dark Knight Returns, revolved around a nuclear explosion and views Superman as having an influence on foreign policy in a very similar way to how Alan Moore regards Doctor Manhattan).

Modern anxieties are somewhat different. In place of a fear of apocalypse we have this more generalised angst about entropy, the death of hope and a nostalgic longing. Those themes, ironically, are picked up in Watchmen, but as the features of a world changed by the existance of a superhuman in it. In Watchmen, the US has had 18 years with Nixon in the White House. In 2008, we’ve had the best part of 28 years with a Bush in the White House. Watchmen offered a vision of a world similar to our own with dashes of unimaginable high technology thrown in, being treated as normal. Imagine how someone from 1985 would imagine today’s world of iPhones and Facebook (sidenote: it is interesting how wrong Alan Moore got it in this respect: the presence of a walking fusion bomb in the government’s pocket like Doctor Manhattan would more likely revolutionise communications technology than it would transportation, although he was probably more on the money when in comes to how fabrics technology would transform fashion). In short, what Watchmen shows us is very representative of the world we have today. That’s a real problem for a film maker approaching the book like it was a period piece. And with that rapscallion Barack Obama going and getting himself elected on a wave of hope and no doubt still in his honeymoon period by the time the film comes out in June 2009, it may be that Snyder finds the Zeitgeist has moved on.

What’s more, the ending of Watchmen – a big explosion in central Manhattan killing thousands of innocent bystanders (sound familiar?) – was supposed to sort out the world’s problems. We now have empirical evidence to show the world doesn’t work like that, but then we don’t live in a world of two opposing Super-Powers any more (two Super-Powers which, in the comic, are duking it out over a little-known country called Afghanistan; how times have changed!). Perhaps the world was that simple back then. Either way, it makes the ending of the comic come across as unbearably naive to these jaded eyes, although in fairness the ambiguous ending with the New Frontiersman editors possibly about to unearch Rorschach’s journal might end up undoing all that. There is simply no way Snyder can get away with not changing the ending without looking like an idiot.

In short, time has not withered Watchmen, but the world has moved on. A slavish adaptation won’t reflect that, and that will be potentially lethal to the whole project. We have just a few months to find out.

* I have to say, I do hope that the Batman threequel ends up being an adaptation, of sorts, of The Dark Knight Returns. It looks to me as if all the foundations have been set, with the main character walking off into self-imposed exile. What better way to kick off the third film, by fast forwarding fifteen years?

I also note they were extremely careful not to show Barbara Gordon’s face in the second film. Set for a return as Batgirl/a female Robin perhaps? Of course, in my dream, it would include the iconic imagery of the Frank Miller original – the horseride into town, the titanic struggle with Superman – but those may be a little too fannish for polite company. Still, they kept the iconic moments of Year One in the first film, so why not?