I reread “Watchmen” last week to prep for the movie, and it only confirmed what I have long suspected, since the first time I heard they were making a movie out of it, actually:
Any “Watchmen” movie will suck.
It’s too big, too multi-layered, too heavy with meaning, too good as a comic book to fully translate into a film. The greatest moments of the piece are purely comics moments — The Comedian being flung out of a window, hanging in the air, cutting in stop-motion to the drop of blood on the happy-face button, shards of glass suspended around him like a halo. John standing in the snow, staring at Rorschach, unsure himself what he will do. The frozen tableau of New Yorkers dead in the street beneath a monstrosity. Ozymandias staring in thought after the departing Dr. Manhattan, wondering what he meant by “It’s never over.”
Those are moments that work best in the medium of comics, which relies on the combination of time’s stoppage on a page where you can still see everything else going on around it. Taking that into a movie, which exists only in time, only when in motion, is going to be a challenge for anyone.
Look, I’m not one of those people who think that a great work of art in one medium can never work in another. I’m too illiterate and lazy to go name examples, but you should go think up some for yourself, what am I, Wikipedia? But “Watchmen” … man, it’s dense. It packs layer onto layer of meaning, echoing itself in ways that are just really complex and difficult to pull off. To do it you’d need someone who really understands the source material, who’s studied it and understands its essence in his (or her) gut.
And from what I’ve seen in the trailers, that guy ain’t Zack Snyder.
The first thing that bugs me is that Nite Owl is slim and trim, in peak athletic form. It doesn’t bug me in the same way that, say, Superman’s briefs being too brief bugged some fanboys in “Superman Returns”. I don’t care about that kind of thing. And it doesn’t bug me in the same way that casting Michael Keeton as Batman teed off some people back in the day. Those are cosmetic changes.
But a skinny Nite Owl isn’t freaking Nite Owl! The whole point of that character is that he feels flabby, feckless, helpless, impotent, his whole life out of its rightful shape. He’s not just fat for the sake of being fat, he’s fat for a reason. Taking that away from him is like saying “We can’t have short people in a major motion picture, make the Hobbits taller.” The Hobbits aren’t just small because Tolkien got hold of some bad ‘shrooms, they’re short because their whole point is to show that ordinary, even smaller than ordinary, people can make a difference. That ordinary is the way of the new world, and that’s all right.
What I’m saying is, missing the point of Nite Owl being fat misses such a fundamental aspect of the entire story that I fear the director has completely missed everything else, too.
The visual styling also worries me. What I mean here is that part of what “Watchmen” was about was the concept of taking the every day, grimy, gritty, real world and introducing a fantastic element — Dr. Manhattan and costumed heroes — into it. Moore and Gibbons very carefully built a world on that premise, a world painstakingly realistic in every other facet. That’s what makes all of these changes wrought by Dr. Manhattan believable. And in light of that completely unrealistic element, the costumed regular guys seem all right. They work. They fit.
But from what I see in the trailers, Mr. Snyder has turned the whole thing upside-down. He’s taken the one supernatural element, that feeling of something that’s out of the ordinary, and made it the substance of the whole film. The graphic novel is about an ordinary world with super-heroes in it, while it looks like we’re going to be getting a super-hero movie, period.
A movie is not a comic. It’s not a novel, it’s not a play, it’s not a TV show. It’s a movie. I get that. I don’t expect works of art that jump from one medium to another to be just like, or even mostly like, its source material. But the spirit of the thing has to be maintained or else you end up with some soulless abomination like “Wanted”, where you just sort of scratch your head and go “What was the point of that?” The movie looks pretty, but even that makes me nervous — the novel is dirty, dark, and disturbed. It shouldn’t be shiny and glossy and perfect, which is what I think we’re being given.
A friend asked me one time why, if I love super-hero comics so much, I don’t go to see every single super-hero movie released. And I answered, “It’s because I love super-hero comics so much that I don’t go to see the ones I think are going to be really, really bad. I care too much to see them diminished.” I fear “Watchmen” will be such a film, although I hope — I really, really hope — I’m wrong on this one.