Watchmen, the film adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s deconstructionist superhero novel, was a manufactured “bomb” from the moment we first heard that the doomsday clock started ticking. Before production even began, we had comic book fans and well-read pedants exclaiming that this was the unfilmable novel, perhaps one that the world didn’t need. Naturally, this notion provoked studio heads who bought the rights to the novel, not to mention 3-D anarchists like Zach Snyder, who prides himself on being the it-hack director capable of reconstructing anything from zombies to Spartans in digitally affected, surrealistic backdrops.
After Watchmen’s niche audience grudgingly accepted the fact that this was a story doomed to be visualized by a contemporary audience now fashionably nihilistic (or at least as nihilistic as the PG-13 rated The Dark Knight appeared to be), came the well-publicized legal battle over Watchmen between Fox and Warner Bros. Then came predictions by comic book and industry experts that the movie would probably fail to live up to exceedingly high expectations. Then came a barrage of savage reviews from pseudo-critics on the Internet, and a few ho-hums from established critics, with some occasional enthusiasm from high profile critics like Roger Ebert (Hi Roger! Please stop stalking me) who gave the film four stars. Finally, came premature predictions that the movie would tank after opening night, followed of course, by the reality of a slightly disappointing $55 million-dollar two and a half day total.
Watchmen was a film not only destined to fail in the mainstream, but designed to fail by its own internal structure. Comic writer Alan Moore wrote the book to desecrate the idea of the conventional and inspirational superhero comic book, a genre that Hollywood continues to hold dear. That Watchmen was visualized as an anti-superhero movie in every way (no name actors, a lack of action in all the right places, happy endings, likable characters) only prophesied that it would provoke a mainstream society that held cliché-ridden films like Spiderman and Ironman dear. That Watchmen’s most devoted fan base declared the movie (and comic book) to be the Citizen Kane of all things geeky and precious, all but guaranteed that it would get an Orson Welles’ film reaction—awed, angry and disenchanted.
The fact that Zach Snyder was so intent on keeping Watchmen as faithful to the original source material as humanly possible (at least with hounding studio executives hovering over his shoulder) could only mean that this anti-climactic story would depress non-comic fan audiences, and leave them feeling resentful at the film itself instead of the morally ambiguous characters and certainly not at their own human nature—which as movie implies, causes all of the disappointment we inevitably feel in life.
The fact of the matter is that Watchmen mainly disappoints moviegoers who already have preconceived notions: what the movie should have been, or what a superhero movie is supposed to represent. Instead, mainstream audiences are exposed to deep philosophical questions, graphic violence, bizarre sex and nudity, and a phenomenal running time that clashes with the fast-paced, no-brainer mentality that is supposed to be the quintessential action-hero film. Meanwhile, comic book fans of the original series are left bewildered that their favorite parts of the comic were left out, or that director Snyder visualized the written word in a slightly different manner.
Obviously, the film has some fairly obvious flaws that were probably unavoidable: there were a few instances of miscasting (namely both women in the movie, Malin Akerman and Carla Gugino) though surprisingly, even the weakest performances were believable. Some of the dialogue seemed stilted, though to do away with these important scenes would have betrayed the book all the more so. Lastly, there were editing and length problems that were bound to test a production that was converting a five hour mini-series into a two and a half hour movie. As easy as it is to fault Snyder for staying too true to the material instead of making Watchmen his own unique vision, it’s hard to imagine any other working director pulling off a better production than what we saw. Of all Hollywood directors that could have done Watchmen, how many besides Snyder could have made the final result so Kubrick-esque? Any film director that includes tributes to Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey in his superhero flick has got some hefty ambitions.
I believe Watchmen will age well and become a cult classic, regardless of its initial box office take. I think countries overseas will feel the message in a better capacity than America, who has been fed fast-food cinema too long to appreciate the subtleties of a home brewed original concoction. This action-adventure art film plays better on a second viewing, since the first viewing only succeeds in shocking the audience into a respectful silence, and then provokes them with the most avant-garde of film techniques that teeter on the brink of camp and Oscar-winning drama. The second time you watch the film you catch more nuances that make the film feel more complete, as opposed to the flawed or unfinished masterpiece that everyone thought they saw.
It’s a given that film adaptations never quite live up to the novel’s cinematic potential. Watchmen is no different, at least in terms of jarring emotional affect. However, I believe the film is a fitting complement to the book and does successfully destroy the Hollywood Superhero Movie (from hammering down the goody-goody hero archetype of Marvel Comics, to even overpowering the absurdity seen in Superhero Movie). Of course, with such great destruction comes great peripheral failure. Did evil supervillain Snyder honestly believe he could destroy this genre without alienating the traditional hero-loving audience who actually make those 100 million dollar opening weekends possible? It’s hard to imagine a Watchmen film that wouldn’t tank in America, unless of course it compromised the core story’s artistic soul, by casting Tom Cruise as Adrian Veidt, or added a few cameos by Superman and Flash, or “pumped up” the dour climax, or made the film a family-friendly PG-13 event. Perhaps Watchmen’s most ardent admirers, and coincidentally, the ones who hate the film most, just can’t accept that a Watchmen movie was incapable of becoming a “hit” by our narrow-minded standards.
Some movies are made to fail in the real world and only find their redemption on DVD and cable, a venue audiences are more relaxed (with the pause button nearby) and more vested in a quaint story that runs almost four hours. (Indeed, the director’s cut DVD edition will be even longer than what you saw) Perhaps the movie will be better appreciated as the rest of the year unfolds and we are treated to more popcorn-motivated drivel like Star Trek, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Terminator: Salvation. In fact, this is a bankable prediction, since Watchmen’s less than spectacular box office take will probably scare studio suits from ever allowing such a moral and subversive travesty on screen again. Watchmen will be remembered as a victim of its own pessimistic ambitions (or at least the studio’s confused ambitions) and has only reached the capacity that it allowed itself. Citizen Kane it is, though such lofty comparisons come at great “cost.” Grade: A