Watchmen

Watchmen

Poor Zack Snyder. He strikes me as an amiable sort of fellow, maybe a bit of a hack, but a hard-working guy with a great fondness for detail. But he could never win against the legions of fans devoted to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's landmark graphic novel Watchmen. They're up in arms over the few changes to the story in the film. And they're up in arms over Snyder's surprisingly faithful adaptation. "He lacks vision!" they cry.

Indeed, perhaps Snyder does lack vision. But with a vision as truly unique and eccentric as the one Moore and Gibbons gave the world back in 1986-87, I think you almost need to have it adapted by someone who's not hell-bent on cramming in his own vision on top of everything else. (It's well-known that Terry Gilliam tried to make this film twice.) In the end, especially for the millions of moviegoers who had not - and will not - read the graphic novel, it's for the best that Snyder delivers a fairly intact version of the story without mucking it up too much. And Alan Moore, who as per tradition has refused to have his name credited or even accept any money(!) for the rights to his property (Gibbons received all the dough), may have the last laugh: the success of this film will likely increase sales of his book by a tremendous amount.

I myself have a weird relationship to this film. My first introduction to the material, after avoiding the graphic novel for two decades (friends tried to get me into it back in 1987, but I associated superheroes with the X-Men comics I stopped reading when I was twelve), was actually the screenplay. Then I read and researched the graphic novel. Then, in January 2009, I saw Snyder's three-hour director's cut, in mostly black and white and without final sound effects or music. So seeing Watchmen in the theater yesterday wasn't so much an exercise in comparing the comic to the movie, but in comparing the 3 hour cut to the 2 hour, 30 minute cut.

What went missing? Well, hopefully you'll find out on the DVD, which promises the more fulfilling longer cut. And watching the film in the theater, I noticed some changes in how I felt about it. Malin Akerman, who plays superheroine Silk Spectre II, has been blasted for her flat, valley-girlish performance, but her work gets a little better on the second viewing. (It's still a cut far below the strong performances of the rest of the cast, especially Jackie Earle Haley as the right-wing vigilante Rorschach.) And there are one or two moments in the film that are genuinely moving. But the dialogue - taken mostly word-for-word from Moore's text - is often pretentious, the song cues are too obvious, and the sudden bursts of gore (where the graphic novel merely had buckets of blood) seem, well, comically gratuitous, like Snyder just couldn't help himself.

That said, while I can now claim to be pretty familiar with the graphic novel after being paid to dig deeply into it, I'm not going to praise it as a flawless work. I mean, it's incredibly original, and it was certainly revolutionary at the time. But in my opinion, its last chapter is rather clumsy, Gibbons can't draw women well, and many of its references and inside jokes are more heavy-handed than most fans would admit. In short, it's not unimprovable. I actually prefer the altered ending in the film. And I liked seeing human actors breathe real life into the sometimes stiff characters. (Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian is especially effective.)

In the end, I'm sure this film will be a weird and possibly entertaining experience for Watchmen newbies, and a slightly satisfying experience for the Watchmen faithful. But it's not revelatory, it's not groundbreaking, and although it's pretty flashy on the big screen (I even saw it in IMAX), it will be more rewarding to wait for the longer cut on the DVD.