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A Lifeless Ordinary

Ambitious graphic novel becomes a listless comic-book movie


By Violet LeVoit | Posted 3/4/2009

Montage, schmontage. You wanna make a movie the Zack Snyder way? All you need are three speeds—slow, fast, and filler. Slow's for things audiences need to notice, like a man crashing through a plate glass window or a bullet piercing a woman's calf in a spray of hamburger. Why waste time composing shots when you can just drag the action through digital molasses and provide the visual equivalent of a kid pointing and squealing, "Lookit! Lookit!"? Once you've grabbed the audience by the shirt, crank it up to fast for the superhero battles—kicking, punching, flapping capes, and unrelenting subsonic whooooshes, as if F-14s were buzzing everyone's ears like houseflies. Don't worry if the audience needs a breather. A big talky graphic novel like Watchmen has plenty of scenes full of exposition, character development, and emotional content. You know—filler.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal graphic novel Watchmen was widely regarded as unfilmable for decades, a truism that's immediately apparent to anyone who's read the 12-issue magnum opus that's packed more tightly with symbolism and subtext—the superhero myth, American hegemony, 1980s nuclear dread, human frailty, the impossibility of heroism in a world without moral absolutes—than most non-graphic novels. How would Hollywood behave once it got its dense and unthinking hooks into comicdom's most sacred text? With great reverence, it turns out—but unfortunately, reverence and respect are two different things.

There's a few good moments in the movie Watchmen, and one of them comes right at the beginning, right after retired superhero-cum-mercenary the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is thrown to his death through said plate glass window. The title sequence flashes back through an alternative history of the 20th century, where costumed heroes such as the Comedian and Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) are found not in funny pages but walking among us—collaring bad guys, posing for newspaper photos, kissing girls in Times Square on V-J Day, and strolling past crowds into Studio 54. Then an awesome rival surfaces in the form of an unlucky physicist torn to subatomic pieces in a nuclear accident. The reborn Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a blue Buddha of nude statuary, able to rearrange matter, teleport, and see into his own past and future. Suddenly the crime fighters in tights look a little silly in comparison.

But once the title montage, with its warm nostalgia and clever promise, fades from the screen, we're left to trudge through the "filler" of how this alternate reality operates. Costumed heroes now a thing of the past, Silk Spectre lives in secluded retirement while her adult daughter Laurie (Malin Ackerman) is now shacked up with the cosmically distracted Dr. Manhattan. The former Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) is a schlubby, tubby professor type living over a secret hideout full of dusty gear, and the decayed streets of New York are policed only by the psychopathic vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). Someone is targeting the former heroes, both the small and crude ones like Rorschach and the elegant self-made supermen like Ozymandias (Matthew Goode, channeling David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth). Is it too much foreshadowing to introduce a superhero named Ozymandias while the Twin Towers are visible in the distant skyline? Maybe, but there's never a sense that Snyder is aware of his own literary allusion. He does make sure to pipe Tears For Fears's "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," into the background, though.

Snyder must have been pegged to direct this movie because of his work adapting the graphic novel 300 for the screen, and how he translated Frank Miller's account of the Battle of Thermopylae into a paean to rectus abdominii—an auteur fixation that' s repeated here in Dr. Manhattan's own impressive belly cleavage—thus hopefully assuaging the fears of Watchmen fans worried the movie wouldn't be faithful to the source. But Watchmen's biggest problem, ironically, is that it's too faithful. Snyder treats the original text as an inviolate storyboard, ignoring how different the panel-to-panel flow of comic time is to cinematic time. His strict interpretation goes right to how his actors aren't allowed to speak in the naturally interrupting rhythms of human dialogue, as if trying to approximate the self-enclosed quality of the word balloon. And while all the recurring smiley faces of the book are duly included, they're folded into the narrative in such a perfunctory, checklist way that they're suddenly bereft of meaning.

There's a ghost of metaphor still lingering inside this movie, a vague feeling that something deep and meaningful about all this flash and dazzle must be hovering beneath the surface. But trying to grab hold of it is impossible, and the viewer is left feeling like a dog trying to dig to freedom through the concrete floor of a kennel. At one point Dr. Manhattan observes that, from his near-omniscient perspective, a dead person is no different than someone still alive, because their bodies contain the same number of particles. Watchmen suffers from the same misguided logic. All the ingredients of Moore and Gibbons' seminal graphic novel are present, and faithfully assembled in the correct configurations. But someone forgot the spark of life.

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