Skip to main content

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut
(2009)

(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zack Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked, respect for the comic book at times gets in the way of telling a good movie.

The most mystifying thing in hindsight is the thought that this cult property would make enough dough (at least initially) to justify the expense lavished on it; this is the kind of thinking that leads to disappointed studios tutting “Never again” when a TRON: Legacy of Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t make the kind of waves expected (both did decent business – indeed, I’d say surprisingly so given the cult branding – but they simply cost too much). Watchmen’s second week drop suggests a sizeable portion of the audience though they were getting a superhero movie of the kind they most definitely were not, whatever lustrous sheen Snyder may have worked across the surface.

I managed not to read the graphic novel until the year leading up to the movie’s release, so I didn’t come to Snyder’s adaptation with the decades of expectations and preconditions I might have; I certainly appreciated the uniqueness of Alan Moore (and Dave Gibbons’) work, but I wasn’t blown away by it, nor did I recognise it as some kind of hallowed object. So I was open-minded in terms of changes to the text, or even the dynamics of the material.

Terry Gilliam (who threw out a Sam Hamm time-altering draft) famously reached the conclusion that Watchmen was unfilmable, and that if it wasdone, it would probably best be a limited series for HBO (cue this year’s “sequel” to the comic). The notoriously disdainful (and disinterested) Moore commented around the time of the comic’s original release “what I’d like to explore is the areas that comics succeed in where no other media is capable of operating”, which didn’t bode well for an adaptation that could sum up its essence. Elsewhere, his collaborator, artist Gibbons, suggested it “became much more about the telling than the tale itself”, which, if Snyder – and those concentrating on the altered ending – misses something, it’s very much that. Because he treats the telling in a very literal, nuts-and-bolts fashion, in order to get that tale told. As a consequence, it does at times feel like “a thing of bits and pieces” as Richard Corliss put it, the irony being that Snyder is so clearly attempting to make it as much of “a whole” as possible (to the extent that there are three different cuts available).

To touch on some of the more salient issues with Snyder’s take, firstly and most famously, there’s the squid, or absence thereof, and it’s easy to see why it was shown the door. I’m not wholly convinced of the idea Moore appropriated from The Outer LimitsArchitects of Fear (but also found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan and Theodore Sturgeon’s Unite and Conquer), which he even references in the comic book – a cheap way of saying “I know, I know” before anyone else calls him out on it – whereby warring humanity unites in the face of a more salient threat (even with a fake alien invasion backstop conspiracy theorised for years now as a card in the elite’s arsenal). And that’s simply because there’s a “What happens then?” hanging over it – it’s nice for a punchy Outer Limits plot (where itdoesn’thappen), but if you have to spend time thinking about how long a truce would actually last… Well, it doesn’t vouch for either Veidt or Dr Manhattan as all that bright, really. The original leaves the problem of how Veidt will sustain the pretence (so they’ve got a giant dead squid... Are there any more in storage?) while the movie shifts the blame on Dr Manhattan, who absconds into the greater universe from Earth and so doesn’t leave the superpowers much to maintain their unified focus on. Which is essentially to say, I think Snyder swaps out a problematic ending for a problematic ending, but at least one that doesn’t invite immediate ridicule.

Then there’s the aesthetic, which on the one hand feels verycomic book, but on the other, works against the premise of depositing superheroes in a credible, faux-real world. Arguably, the latter’s veryfar from Snyder’s vision, slathered as it is in heightened, kinetic action and bold, vibrant cinematography. Which is to say, I enjoy watching his Watchmen world, but it provides no opportunity to explore the contrasts Moore was aiming for. An element of this is simply being realistic about trying to make Watchmen commercially viable (in which case, you get back to “Should it have been adapted at all?” – one might expect that Paul Greengrass’s version, for all the changes he sought to exact, would have been tonally closer to Moore). So bring on the speed-ramping as Night Owl and Silk Spectre beat the shit out of various assailants and hoodlums. There needs to be some recognisable superhero beats in a movie with this kind of budget; to expect otherwise would have been delusional. But it means that what we have is both out of place and well done for what it is (Snyder is nothing if not a decent action director, that is, when he’s not completely at a loss about what he’s trying to achieve – see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).

That’s only one part of it, though. The other is the violence. It’s perhaps unsurprising, given the chainsaw grue of the Dawn of the Dead remake (an all-time classic, edge-of-the-seat, heart-in-mouth opening sequence though) and hyper-violence of 300, but for some reason Snyder decided this would also be appropriate to Watchmen, a comic with very limited levels of “in panel” violence. Certainly, no bones snapping through flesh, chip-fat fryers in the face or arms severed at the elbow with a chainsaw. It’s not only gratuitous, it’s jarring and distracting, and more illustrative of the frat-splatter mentality he approaches Moore with than probably anything else in the movie, a kind of imaginative short circuit whereby everything reduces to the blunt and obvious (it’s there in the music cues too, since every choice is pretty much an over-used classic, rather limiting the opportunity to create new associations due to the baggage involved).

And yet, there are sequences where he gets the balance exactly right – the demise of the first Nite Owl, for example (not present in the cinema cut) has exactly the kind of necessary impact and restraint. Both the areas of action dynamics and violence rather highlight – as if it needs emphasising, given the broad cross section of his comic adaptations – that Snyder has a passion for the aesthetics over storytelling. And yet, the guy who sounds like an idiot when he talks about Batman’s motivation for killing in BvS also put Philip Glass to the sequence of Dr Manhattan’s genesis, whereby you can only remark upon a talent for the sublime (and to be honest, I don’t even object enormously to other choices here, like 99 Red Balloons or the clearly ironic Hallelujah to Night Owl and Silk Spectre’s admittedly rather adolescently staged sex scene). The opening montage to The Times They Are A Changing, over-obvious as it is, is also highly effective.

And as if it needs saying, two thirds of the leads are spot-on casting. Jackie Earle Haley is a perfect Rorschach – some have complained he’s turned into a more identifiably heroic character here, but I agree with those who put that essentially down to Moore coming up with a “hero” defined by a code and skillset, even if he isunhygienic – Patrick Wilson a reliably doughy Night Owl who looks straight out of Gibbons’ illustrations, Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan gets to say he’s had at least twodecent big screen roles (Almost Famous’s golden god being the other), and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian illustrates the blip that comes with a TV actor having a rare great movie role but entirely failing to develop it into anything further (he’s his generation’s Tom Selleck, basically, although Three Men and a Baby was more a big success than a great part). In each case, I don’t think you could have hoped for better personifications.

I’m not as down on Malin Ackerman as many either; I just don’t think she’s very well served by the adaption and what ends up on screen. The reveal about her parentage is rather perfunctory, lacking sufficient lead-in to make it impactive (and I’m never that convinced by its cachet in sparking Manhattan’s reinterest in humanity anyway). So it’s Matthew Goode’s Adrian Veidt/ Ozymandias where the movie really suffers. Goode’s good in other stuff, but here he’s giving off creepy potential bad guy vibes from his first scene. In addition to which, we don’t get enough of the character to explore his internal motivation; he’s wheeled on as an exposition engine at the appropriate moment, and that’s basically it.

But scene by scene, revisiting Watchmen reveals a movie awash with elements to like, much more so, I think, than dislike, even as the two opposing forces sometimes cohabit the same scene. I like the Dr Strangelove war room just as I don’t like those Nixon prosthetics. I like The Black Freighter animation hugely, but with hindsight, I don’t think Snyder’s found a way for it to seem sufficiently relevant to the main story (that may in part be because I don’t fully buy into it as an effective means of paralleling Veidt’s path, an antagonist fully aware of his actions and their effects, where as the Sea Captain is not, until it is too late).

On balance, I’d rather revisit Watchmen than most of the Marvel or the “proper” DC properties. If the former are very reliable, they’re rarely very surprising, and if the latter are tentatively finding their feet now they’re going in a non-uniform approach, that inevitably means they’re going to vary wildly in effectiveness. It’s a shame Snyder wore out his welcome by getting sucked into the “mainstream” comic properties, as he was perversely enable to display his tin ear for the characters (a gore hound is possibly not going to be the best benefactor for the Man of Steel). I doubt Watchmen is the best version of bringing an impossible property to the screen, but it still gets a lot more right than could have been realistically expected. I’m quite sure Damon Lindelof’s re-envisioning will be just as divisive, if for very different reasons, but the consideration in all these things should be, is it doing something interesting or worthwhile with the material, rather than whether it’s slaying a sacred cow. I’d say Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut is.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was