Monday, March 16, 2009

Watching the Watchmen

I never thought it was a good idea in the first place.

When it was first announced that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic book masterwork THE WATCHMEN would be adapted to the big screen many moons ago, my hackles were raised like never before. This had been back when no less of a cinematic legend Terry Gilliam had been initially attached to the project. It just didn't feel right. In order to transform Moore/Gibbons' vision to the screen, I feared that much would be lost. Too much, in fact. I didn't want my WATCHMEN corrupted or diminished in any way, shape or form.

Of course, this applies to any literary work and those who embrace their worth, a situation that has been occurring since the dawn of adaptation. In recent years, LORD OF THE RINGS comes to mind. On a smaller scale (in the brain and taste department, that is) look at all the hub-bub over the TWILIGHT crossover from book to film. The two mediums are separate, but it's difficult to accept those terms when one form can reduce the other's appeal by ineptitude, wrongheadedness or just plain bad judgment. WATCHMEN had enormous credibility going in since it is one of the main reasons comics became elevated to a legitimate art-form in the first place. WATCHMEN truly is iconic.

WATCHMEN was the pinnacle of my comic reading period, a complex, brutally involving tale of superheroes and their legends turned inside out. At that time, I knew nothing would match the power of that series and I began to slip away from the comic world once and for all. I still hold onto the original issues to this day, the last puzzle pieces to a huge collection, most of which lost in a home fire in 1986.

As time passed, the project seemed to lay in development limbo in Hollywood, passing from director to director, mostly from the post-Boomer era-Aronofsky, Greengrass, even Michael Goddamn it to Hell Bay. Finally came someone I considered to be the flavor of the month. Zack Snyder was set to helm WATCHMEN, but somehow, I didn't raise my shields. He showed promise in in both the actually unnecessary remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD and the successful 300. The latter proved the viability of live action CGI work after the disastrous SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW earlier in the decade.

I remained guarded until last summer when the WATCHMEN trailer ran with THE DARK KNIGHT. While the rest of the world waxed Christopher Nolan's apple over his overrated triumph, I walked out of the theater whistling a tune in the future tense in anticipation of Snyder's film.

With the legal wrangles potentially tying up the release, WATCHMEN still managed to sally forth until the inevitable parade of fanboys came marching over the horizon, heading for the very first previews and prone to tear the film and Zack Snyder a new asshole collectively. Naturally, in true geek fashion, the backlash (aka snivelling-ass whining) began. "They changed too much!" "They didn't change enough!" "It's no DARK KNIGHT!" Naturally, this was speculation since most of this filtered out before the film's actual release. It's this kind of knee-jerk (emphasis on the jerk) that has raised my ire since I grew from being a fanboy myself and into a fanman. It's this kind of petty snarkiness that is deeply embedded in the geek community like a computer virus, the same kind of attitude that holds it back when it should be basking in the glow of legitimacy.

But the geeks aren't the only culprits. We've got the media to thank (or blame) as always. Because we are world that exists merely on instant gratification, the opening weekend box office figures did not blast into the stratosphere and WATCHMEN was immediately besmirched with the worst label a possible: "A disappointment".

With that extra anxiety pulsating in my subconscious, I set out last Sunday afternoon for a fifty mile roundtrip to the wonderfully refurbished and full digital projection equipped Roseway Theater on the other side of Portland to finally take in the film that I had both dreaded and eagerly anticipated. Add to my discomfort a sinus headache and upset stomach that nearly made me turn the car around and go back home, the signs began to point to "Waste of a Good Sunday Afternoon".

I am so pleased to proclaim that the signs were wrong.

WATCHMEN fulfilled its potential and is indeed the best comic book movie yet. Zack Snyder pulled off the seemingly impossible task of successfully translating Moore and Gibbons' vision to the screen visually, spiritually and philosophically. This intricately plotted, multi-charactered epic comes as complete as I ever would haved hoped. Should it have been a mini-series instead? Maybe, but it isn't and never was headed that direction, so the argument isn't just moot, but non-existent. What stands now looms large, overshadowing ridiculous nit-picking and needless speculation on what could have been. This isn't a Reader's Digest condensed version. Maybe critics who claim it doesn't breathe because they've forgotten how. It was have been so easy to go the Stephen Norrington route, he being the hack director of the wretched LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN adaptation and just hit the bullet points of Moore's story, turning WATCHMEN into an empty, however well-tailored suit. But armed with David Hytner and Alan Tse's screenplay, Snyder has taken the high road. While this is an incredible visualization and realization of the source material, WATCHMEN lives and breathes as its own special entity, one with brains, flesh and blood.

Oh, and what blood. Snyder didn't restrain himself at all in the violence department, updating the ZAP, BAM, POW of more innocent, naive times to the present of CRACK, CRUNCH, SPURT.

This movie really pushes the R rating in the violence department, overdoing it to the extent that it does become repetitious,but, hey, this ain't no cartoon. If Wile E. Coyote were to arrive on the scene, he'd be a rabid, snarling, drooling predator who would have his skull crushed by an ACME anvil in an explosion of crimson splat

There is also a pretty graphic softcore sex scene, widely criticized by geeks uncomfortable in their own underwear, that plays out beautifully in the story. The speculation is over. This is how superheroes screw! Grow up, for chrissakes.

The cast gives WATCHMEN life as well. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, the masked brute at the end of his rope, is a real find. He seems to be the love child of Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr. Billy Crudup transcends the CGI restraints of Dr. Manhattan, putting to rest in my mind any debate over the viability of this approach for this character. Patrick Wilson's Night Owl is a pitch perfect riff on pre-Frank Miller Batman type hero. It's also great to see a couple of veteran character actors like Stephen McHattie and Matt Frewer (aka Max Headroom) with some decent screen time for a change.

Not all the cast members reach this high level. Matthew Goode as Ozymandias is serviceable enough, but really needed to command more presence that he was able to muster. And Malin Akerman's acting skills are bit bland for her part as Silk Spectre, though she is involved some of the more uncomfortable melodramatic pieces of the story.
However, if one cast member rises above and beyond the call of duty and makes every single one of his scenes an instant classic, it is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. Talk about nailing a character to the wall and owning it. I have no hesitation in saying that Haley gives a performance equal to Heath Ledger's Joker. He is just that strong. While some dim bulbs have compared his gravelly delivery to Christian Bale's, it is not only an unfair comparison, but wrongheaded as well. Bale seemed to push his voice more to compensate for his diminished appearance next to Ledger. Haley becomes a naturally feral beast, uncompromising and more than makes up for his smallish stature with mighty authority, demanding your every attention while on camera. When finally unmasked, the actor soars, especially in the jailhouse sequences, some of the best in the film.

I would have to criticize the length of this film. I'm really tired of long-ass movies, even one that kept me as riveted as this does. What the hell ever happened to intermissions anyway? One scene could have been lost at the end without any problem,because, goddamn it, I had to pee like Seabiscuit's nephew. But, even though my head still throbbed and my bladder was about to absolutely explode by the final credits, WATCHMEN made me want to torture myself because I didn't want to leave it alone for a second. it is that good. (When the credits rolled, I flew out of the theater like the fucking Flash, careful not to leave a piss trail in my wake)

Still, well done, Zack Snyder. You pulled it off...and you did so masterfully. I am relieved.

And the best thing about WATCHMEN that I can add?
I can't wait to see it again.
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