The 1986 Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons noir-superhero-dystopia comic, Watchmen, is filled with sledgehammer puns (both visual and verbal), on-the-nose coincidences, strenuous symmetry, and willfully anti-realist dialogue.
Sometimes these unsubtleties attain a creepy cuteness — one character muses on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and a computer screen prompts, “Password incomplete. Would you like to add a rider?” — while at other times Moore’s obsessive, urgent style attains real artistry. The comic’s philosophical questions are posed with the same relentlessness: You think that there is some meaning in our suffering and that life is more than the punchline of a dead-baby joke? Tell it to Kitty Genovese! Tell it to Hiroshima! But Zack Snyder’s powerful adaptation — condemned by Moore with the ritual denunciation he offers whenever his work is filmed — strips away too many of the nuances, grace notes, and complexities that the comic offered. He’s produced a Watchmen that is necessarily smaller than the sprawling original — but also, and unnecessarily, coarser.
The comic became famous for attacking superhero genre conventions — the assumption that vigilante violence is a sensible, humane response to crime, for example — but actually did at least as much deconstructive work on detective-story conventions. Watchmen begins with the murder of the Comedian, an aging vigilante turned government black-ops goon; Rorschach, a costumed crimefighter who didn’t retire when the government banned vigilantism, enlists all his old comrades to find out whodunnit.
Detective stories are mysteries with solutions. Objects in the world become clues, charged with a meaning we could discover if we had the skill. Making your detective a guy called Rorschach, his face masked by an ever-shifting inkblot display, is one way of suggesting that there is no solution. There is no real meaning underlying events and objects; there will be no restoration of the order shattered by crime. Watchmen asked the question, “What does one death matter?” and gave as many conflicting answers as there were characters.
The movie mostly shoves the “meaning of life” questions to one side, focusing instead on more movie-ready questions about the proper use of violence. That’s almost certainly the right directorial choice — the thing is already so long it should come with an intermission — so my quarrel is not with the choice to focus on justice vs. peace but rather with the fact that Snyder treats even that question with unnecessary crudity.
There are some fantastic moments in this movie. The opening-credits sequence is stunning: a montage giving the history of the Watchmen world, in which the nuclear age was the dawn of the superhero. A painting of the voluptuous vigilante Silk Spectre adorns the Enola Gay, the Comedian assassinates John F. Kennedy, the Village People mug in the background as industrialist Adrian Veidt makes his debut. The movie may even do a better job than the comic at conveying the weight of the past, the way that irrevocable past events trap us into trajectories of escalating violence and horror.
And, briefly: Many of the actors do good work. Jackie Earle Haley manages to be a convincing Rorschach despite acting most of the movie without his face. Patrick Wilson, as the resigned (in both senses of the word) vigilante Nite Owl II, has great chemistry with everyone. There are hilariously perfect moments, like the thunderclap punctuating Veidt’s promise to “make war obsolete,” and the major change to the story’s ending works quite well, making the film’s climax much more cinematic than the comic’s without distorting the book’s themes.
But this is an exceptionally violent movie that wants to say something about the nature and purpose of violence, yet frequently undercuts itself by choosing cool or shocking visuals over consistent characterization or theme.
The amount of gore seems to vary based on what would be “cool,” so you end up with a world in which the main difference between an alley fight and a prison riot is that people bleed less in prison. Similarly, the pregnant woman the Comedian murders in Vietnam is basically a person-shaped prop; I think he bleeds more from having his face cut than she bleeds from being shot dead. Similarly, and even worse, the final scenes of destruction in New York are filmed without any sign of human death at all. Ordinary, non-superhero characters rise up in the air in an eerie, balletic scene — and then there are a lot of wrecked buildings. No blood, no mess, no shadows burnt onto the walls: no sense of human individuals having been destroyed.
And that choice goes directly against one of the main themes of both book and movie: the crucial difference between protecting “human life” and protecting individual, unique human lives. And yet Snyder makes many choices that undercut this distinction: the choice to erase any exploration of non-superheroic characters, for example; or the choice to erase virtually every marker of Laurie’s personality (her on-and-off smoking habit, her choice to use the ethnic surname “Juspeczyk” rather than her mother’s assimilationist “Jupiter”).
Both comic and movie are deeply conflicted, and have no ultimate “message” or answer to the frightening questions they raise. But where the comic’s internal conflicts arise because conflicting points of view are given equal time and equal poignancy, the movie’s internal conflicts stem more from a lack of concern with the way visuals can undermine narrative.
– Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, D.C. She blogs here.