An action or adventure film
"We don't do this thing because it's permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we're compelled."
Human nature is a complex term that has defied philosophers, psychologists, and scientists for as long as humans have existed. The notion that humans are inherently good or bad is part of it, with numerous philosophies arguing that there is an inherent "goodness" in humans and that we strive to do what we believe is right, sometimes even if it puts us at odds with the law or others. That's part of what is encapsulated in the above quote, and in the essence of Watchmen
. The quote is what rogue vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), arguably the lead character of the novel/film, tells his psychiatrist to justify his vigilantism and his actions "beyond the law". He *has* to do what he does, and there's no point in fighting it.
I was introduced to the Watchmen
world a couple of weeks ago when I decided to read the novel. I was never compelled to see Snyder's film, perhaps because of a lack of familiarity with the source material, my overall indifference or dislike for Zack Snyder's aesthetics, or because of the polarizing reception it ultimately got. But when I saw the 2019 TV series gathering serious buzz and praise in social media, I thought if I should reconsider. Thanks to Nameless who encouraged me to read the comic first cause I absolutely loved it (read it twice within the last two months). I've never been much of a comic book expert, but the complexity of the characters, the beauty of the artwork, the attention to detail on how the panels flow, the depth of the story and how it unfolds... it was impressive. Still, perhaps for the reasons mentioned above, I tried to keep my expectations on check regarding the film.
Set in an alternate 1985 where, among other things, superhero activities have been banned, Watchmen
follows a group of former heroes as they deal with the murder of one of their past members called The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). This murder spurs Rorschach to investigate while trying to alert or recruit his former colleagues: Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias (Matthew Cooke), Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman), and Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup). The latter is the only one that has actual superpowers, which came as a result of him being trapped in an atomic whatchamacallit during the early stages of the Cold War. Each of the characters are forced to face their own nature as each struggles to do what they believe it's right.
From the get-go, the task of adapting the novel puts a baggage of dread over whoever takes it. Creator Alan Moore has expressly disavowed any adaptation stating that what he and Gibbons created is meant to work only as a comic. Still, attempts to make a film out of it have been in and out of the oven since the mid-1980s. Once-attached director Terry Gilliam tried his hand at it and after walking out called the project "unfilmable". Most fans and critics consider the depth and complexity of the themes and structure of the novel to be too hard to translate to a feature film. Still, after his success with 300
, Snyder - a self-professed comic book fan - was tapped by WB to bring the project to life. In a 2008 interview, he said he was introduced to comic books in general at an early age by his mother, and compared Watchmen
to "the music you feel is written just for you". So perhaps in a way, he felt "compelled" to do this film.
The problem with the film adaptation is mostly two-fold for me: First, the breadth of themes, stories, and subplots of the comic is indeed so ample and complex that the film ends up feeling neutered and incomplete, and by consequence, what does make it to the film feels rushed and abrupt. Second, despite Snyder's apparent appreciation of the source material, the way he adapts it indicates there seems to be a misunderstanding of the general themes and goals of the comic book, which range from a general deconstruction of the traditional superhero by presenting them all as flawed individuals and not "uber-cool bad-asses" to a misrepresentation of the motivations, the psyche, the nature of some of the main characters, most notably Rorschach. On the contrary, Snyder seems more interested in portraying kick-ass heroes and extreme violence with little of the subtlety and nuance of the novel.
A third issue is that, although Snyder's overall visual aesthetics seem to be on-point and he does have a talent for emulating on screen exact panels of the comic book, sometimes he does it at the expense of the story and the performances. His strict adherence to the source material ends up feeling like a checklist of moments to put on screen, and makes the performances feel trapped inside boxes with no room to breathe and little organic flow from one setpiece to the other. Add that to the vast amount of themes, stories, and subplots I mentioned above, and the result can't help but feel - again - rushed and abrupt.
The film still manages to work on some levels. Like I said above, the overall visuals are sharp and there are a couple of notable performances that keep things afloat. The most notable is Haley, who was a fan of the novel and actively sought out the role of Rorschach. His performance is perhaps the biggest plus the film has and, despite the trappings that the script puts him in, he still maintains many of the nuances of the character. Morgan and Crudup are also pretty good in their respective roles. On the other hand, Cooke, Wilson, and Ackerman's performances are subpar. Wilson and Ackerman, who might be the closest the audience have to identify with, lack any chemistry and feel more like empty characters. Finally, Cooke's performance is not only weak, but he is extremely miscast for the role.
One of the main themes of the novel and the film is the validity of the actions of these so-called "superheroes"; the fact that they are compelled and insist in doing what they do, and derive pleasure from it. Even thought it's not always portrayed effectively, each of the characters are faced with the same struggle: they *have* to do this; it's in their nature, even though people might not agree with their methods and even when the results aren't the ones they expected. The same can be said about adapting this novel. Countless people said they shouldn't, some tried and couldn't. In that aspect, I give props to Snyder, for being compelled to take this enormous task in spite of what others might say, and trying to make something out of it, even though we might not agree with his methods and even when the end result isn't the one we expected.