Watchmen is great. Dana’s review is basically right, so consider this a “me too” and an expansion on certain themes.
As all nerds now know, the movie changes key events from the end of the graphic novels. I think that the major change was the right decision: giant psychic squid are awesome, but pretty random. What director Zach Snyder did is better, but he should have worked through the consequences of those changes better. For instance, did the scientists in Antarctica still have to die? Leaving that needless death makes Adrian Veidt more of a monster than he is in the comic, a change which ripples throughout the final act, to the detriment of the movie. Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias didn’t quite survive the translation from panel to screen in various other ways, which is probably both an acting problem and a writing error. The Veidt of the book is tortured over his actions, while the movie’s Veidt is a little too much like the comic book villain he insists he isn’t. In the book, that denial means something different than in the movie. In the book, all the characters are villains if viewed the right way, but their villainy has a heroic tinge. Or perhaps their heroism has a villainous cast to it. Either way, this is more interesting than the consistently evil portrayal of Veidt.
The movie’s successes are rooted in the literal translation from the static but energetic art by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins. That translation could easily have made the movie seem overly staid or formulaic, but the generally excellent cast and solid direction kept it from feeling stale, even if you knew what was coming. People I watched it with hadn’t read the novel, and I don’t think they felt like they were missing important plot points.
I thought the weakest actor was Malin Akerman, who plays Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre. Akerman is gorgeous, and like all of the cast, matches the appearance of her character in the comic perfectly. The problem is her line delivery, which too often seemed unengaged with events around her.
Rorschach, played by Jackie Earle Haley, however, was superb. Played with a voice reminiscent of Christian Bale’s Batman, Rorschach captures the lunacy, isolation, and self-aggrandizement that would surely follow the background and training that produce Batman in the less realistic comic world. Patrick Wilson’s Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl is what comic nerds think a superhero should be, equipped with a secret lair, a flying headquarters equipped with flamethrowers and Gatling guns, his own night vision goggles and special outfits for special environments, he’s perfect. Then again, he’s also a chubby, middle aged man whose only companion is a retired superhero. When he takes up with Silk Spectre, he can’t maintain an erection except in costume. He has the technical capacity to carry out the slaughter of criminals that Rorschach dreams of, and the sense of justice which Rorschach can play along with, but his sanity and social standing repress him, prevent him from following down Rorschach’s path.
Dr. Manhattan is the Superman equivalent. An accident in a Manhattan Project laboratory transforms him into a god-like being, capable of multiplying himself, of teleporting, of shrinking or miniaturizing himself, and of watching subatomic particles at play. Where Superman does much of that without losing his humanity, Dr. Manhattan drifts away, becoming bored with living things and the travails of the Cold War playing out around him, even as President-for-life Nixon relies on him as the ultimate deterrent to nuclear war.
Critics at the New York Times and New Yorker dismissed aspects of the movie, in some cases dismissing comics out of hand (an attitude ably knocked down by Adam Serwer), or missed the point of both movie and source material. Yes, it’s set in 1985, at the height of the Cold War. Do these critics really not think there’s anything to be learned from considering that historical epoch? Are they equally dismissive of movies set in World War II, expressing confusion that “Somewhat remarkably, [the] film freezes its frame of reference in the 190s”?
When Denby writes, “The problem is that Snyder, following Moore, is so insanely aroused by the look of vengeance, and by the stylized application of physical power, that the film ends up twice as fascistic as the forces it wishes to lampoon,” does he understand that Moore (and Snyder, near as I can tell) are not advocating for this sort of vengeance, are not reveling in brutality themselves, but are calling attention to the ways that comics and movies romanticize violence in a way that is itself fascistic? How he managed to watch the movie (and apparently read the graphic novel) while still thinking that any of Rorschach’s journal entries are meant to be taken uncritically forces one to question Denby’s skill as a critic. If you’re looking for people who “romanticize violence in a way that is itself fascistic,” you could look no further than Rorschach. And Rorschach is, by general consensus, a psychopath who has given up on arresting criminals. To think he’s a Mary Sue for Moore or Snyder badly misses the point.
The smart watcher or reader will look further, and will see Ozymandias, striving to but world peace with the lives of slaughtered millions.
And the smarter viewer might just look beyond the text, and recognize that same megalomania in anyone from Ronald Reagan or Maggie Thatcher, or the Bush administration’s neocons, from whose utopian schemes to build peace from bloody war we are still struggling to recover.
A key theme, developed more by Snyder’s movie than Moore’s novel, is the idea of Dr. Manhattan-as-God. With that in the mix, we may seek parallels more broadly. It’s not hard to read Watchmen as a critique of the way our discourse is undermined by the simplistic effectiveness of violence as a solution in comics and movies. But comics and movies are not the only place where we are urged toward persistent submission to the whims of an all-powerful being whose works we know only from written tales of perfect justice. Having just emerged from the Presidency of a man whose favorite philosopher was Jesus (“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”), it isn’t unreasonable to extend Alan Moore’s questions about the role of superhero mythology in modern society to ask whether belief in God is subject to such questions.
That’s reading well beyond the text, but I think it’s fair to say that the text informs such questions. In many ways, the movie and the book are asking us how the world might be different if we knew for certain that God did exist, and was taking sides in geopolitics. And what if, as some theologians argue, God is dead, or has abandoned his creation, what does that mean for politics, and for the people who relied on the existence of such a being to maintain balance? Again, the book and movie give us a way to engage those grand questions.
Denby dismisses Watchmen by writing: “Amid these pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race—a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity—to be bothered with lesser plights.” No question that the movie and the book are laced with pompous grabs at horror, and too much time is spent fussing over the fate of the human race, at the expense of actual human suffering. But Moore and Snyder know that. They aren’t offering a vision of some ideal world, an escapist fantasy about how they wish things had gone. They are criticizing the people who rely on fictions policy prescriptions, especially fictions that engage in vulgar metaphysics that place more weight on the fate of humanity than on the fate of humans. I wonder if we could find such people in the real world?