Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is a curious thing – like Sin City and 300 before it, it’s an adaptation that tries to hew as close as possible to it’s namesake, visually. Yet, unlike the source material for either of the previously mentioned films, Watchmen is – like Citizen Kane, or The Good, the Bad and The Ugly, or The Road Warrior were films that were “about film,” in a sense – a comic “about comics,” an exercise in form. It is specifically of it’s medium – for example, in the fifth issue, Fearful Symmetry, the page layout is symmetrically layered, spanning outward from the middle of the issue.
“Symmetry frames symmetry and uses symmetry as an essential part of the issue’s sequence. The main character of the issue, Rorschach, has a mask with inkblots that change according to his mood. Most of the time, these blots are symmetrical. The issue begins with a reflection of a skull formed by two reflecting R’s in a dirty pool. This skull is repeated throughout the issue and forms only one of a multitude of reflections throughout,” Roger Whitson said.
And, in a comic, these things can take shape – you can go back and look at both pages and see these parallel drawings at the same time and make sense of their relation to one another, but you can’t really do that in film. In terms of pure plot an adaptation is very possible, but that would be missing the point – it’s principally the same as trying to convey cinematography or editing in narrative writing. And, rather than trying to find the cinematic equivalent to these devices, Snyder’s film seems more concerned with trying to fit in extraneous and over-the-top action sequences at random throughout the story and in trying to replicate Dave Gibbon’s artwork than in trying to do anything formally or thematically interesting.
But even in this, the film feels just a little too clean and artificial – one of the initial conceits of Gibbon’s and Moore’s work was that these were superheroes in a real-world context, where there is grit and grime on the ground and lines on the forehead. Here, that isn’t the case – much like the previous adaptation of Moore’s V For Vendetta but to a greater extent, you’re very aware for the entirety of the film that this is a set, that that’s a costume she’s wearing rather than clothes, and so on. Nite Owl, in the comic, was intentionally drawn with his paunch showing very obviously through his suit, but Snyder has foregone that in favor something “darker and edgier,” more Batman-like by his own admission, missing the point (again) that this is a character who is supposed to look awkward and ridiculous.
And, at times, it seems that Snyder has forgotten that this was what Watchmen was about, in the first place -in particular, the scene of ambush near the end of the film in Adrian Veidt’s Karnak. In the graphic novel, this scene is extraordinarily brief:
And, that’s it. In the film, however, Snyder has taken the opportunity to balloon this sequence out unnecessarily, and have Veidt perform mind-boggling jumps from one end of the room to the other – at one point I even think he hovers in the air for a couple of seconds – while Nite-Owl and Rorschach continue to spar with him, trading round-houses. And, there’s a scene earlier on where Nite-Owl and Laurie are attacked in an alley by a gang of Knot-Tops – while in the graphic novel this scene was not without its brutality, here Snyder takes it to ridiculous, schlocky extremes, with Nite-Owl somehow breaking a guy’s arm in two and Laurie stabbing a guy through the throat while blood just geysers everywhere.
What’s particularly strange is that without all of this excess, there would have been room for all of the things that people felt were so important to the story that Snyder decided it would have been better to forego – the psychiatrist at home with his family, the news-vendor and his relationship to the kid – those things that would have provided a more human element to the story. Still, this could have been accomplished by emphasizing the relationships that Snyder had decided to keep – Manhattan and Laurie, Laurie and Dan, Dan and Rorschach – but, he doesn’t really do that.
In the end, the impression the film leaves is best summed up by Isaac of Satisfactory Comics, who said:
“There were also things I liked about the movie—Rorschach’s death was played remarkably well, for example—but mostly it felt to me overly faithful to the surface properties of the comic while completely missing its soul. I’d compare it to a note-for-note cover of, say, an early Elvis Costello song, played on “updated” instruments and sung by someone who doesn’t speak English and is only repeating the sounds of the words phonetically. Maybe all the right sounds are there, but everything about the rhythm of meaning is screwed up.”
He’s also written a rather interesting article about Zach Snyder’s “fetishistic use of blood” throughout the film, from which the above quote is taken, and can be found here.
It is the most disconcerting thing in the world to be sitting in an audience, and to have that audience laugh it’s collective head off when a prison inmate gets hot chicken grease thrown in his face. I’m sure of it.