On this episode of The Nightly Chill, we look at the adaptation of a comic once thought unfilmable, 2009’s Watchmen!
When one of their own is brutally assaulted and thrown out a high-rise window by a mysterious assailant, a former group of costumed vigilantes must solve an ever-growing mystery that threatens not only them but the entire world…in Watchmen.
Watchmen, from director Zack Snyder and based on the classic graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is a flawed but highly enjoyable adaptation of a story once believed to be un-filmable.
Now, yes, fans of the original comic series will find themselves conflicted by the way Synder elects to faithfully adapt so much while also omitting or changing other key details.
Some characters are more confident than originally written or have their backstory glanced over. The ending is similar but notably different. Even the reason why costumed vigilantes are no longer active in this world is almost entirely omitted, despite that still being a core aspect of the movie’s story.
But there’s so much done right here that even some of the more drastic alterations are ignorable if not necessarily forgivable.
IT’S ABOUT CHARACTERS
As grand of a story as the original is, it’s Watchmen‘s cast of flawed and deeply troubled characters that really establishes the comic as a modern classic.
The twin plots that revolve around a murder mystery and a global threat are typical comicbook fair. And in a time when so many adaptations of classic comicbook characters are hitting theaters each summer, such things feel rather mechanical. Even in 2009, when the movie originally released, such plots had been done to death in both comics and Hollywood.
But characters like the masked and hyper-violent Rorschach and the ever impotent Nite Owl struggling to find their purpose in a world that doesn’t want or need them? That’s a strong, engaging story.
Their struggles and arcs are not just a stark contrast to the fairly light-hearted efforts from Marvel Studios (or the more recent, wholly underwhelming efforts from Warner Bros.), but also well-realized despite this being a plot-centric ensemble film.
Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach is an inspired casting choice. Haley seamless slips between a troubled man who has lost any semblance of sanity to a hyper-violent psychopath to a sympathetic, almost selfless antihero.
Patrick Wilson as the middle-aged Nite Owl is a likable, book-ish type who has begrudingly accepted his new life as a private citizen. But his internal struggle as someone who feels as if the world has stripped him of his very manhood just oozes out of Wilson at every turn.
And Billy Crudup’s mostly CGI performance as the man-turned-god Dr. Manhattan carries with it a sense of loneliness and dramatic heft that might have been lost entirely with someone else in the role. Portraying a character who simultaneously has no emotions whatsoever due to his lack of tangible humanity and an inhuman degree of loneliness and heartache that comes along with that is a tough sell. It would have been very easy for anyone in this role to simply come across as bored or unsure of themselves. But Crudup somehow pulls off this balancing act without fail.
That all said, however, the movie is not without its faults. One of the most unfortunate issues is how the movie’s already limited female cast have their roles reduced even more in the adaptation process.
The unfortunate truth of the matter is that the female characters–the mother/daughter pair who share the identity of Silk Specter–portrayed by Carla Gugino and Malin Akerman, respectively–were never large roles. In fact, Moore’s original story reduced them largely to the victim and child of rape, one of several notable if wholly unnecessary story beats glanced over in the final movie. Their contributions beyond this are almost nonexistent in both comic and movie.
Then there’s this bizarre habit Zack Snyder has of stripping key scenes of any emotional weight.
There are several times when a given scene is hamstrung by slow-motion, strange musical choices, or simply emphasizing and focusing on the worst thing possible. Whether it’s a very off-putting sex scene or giving entirely human characters superhuman strength at random moments, it’s likely to pull viewers out of the moment as they scratch their heads and ask themselves “Why is this happening?”
IMPERFECTION ISN’T BAD
That all said, Snyder’s Watchmen is easily his best movie to date. His choice to adhere as much as possible to the source material (both in its written content as much as its visuals) results in a faithful-enough adaptation that is streamlined in the best of ways. The spirit of the story and characters remain intact. And the performances bring the characters to life in a way even Snyder’s faithful visuals could never manage on their own.
This is not a perfect adaptation. It’s not even the best adaptation of a comicbook property. But it is one that works in spite of some glaring shortcomings. And that’s not something you can normally expect to find in those projects Snyder has more creative freedom with.
And despite the way audiences and critics gave the movie a lukewarm reception upon its release nearly a decade ago, Watchmen alway was–and continues to be–a movie worth CHILLING with. And in a time when comicbook movies are the hottest thing every summer, it may resonate more with viewers now than ever before.