Russell Burlingame Reporting
It seems impossible to imagine that there is more to say than has already been said about Warner Brothers film adaption of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons classic Watchmen. After more than twenty years of false-starts, lawsuits and other obstacles (including a film executive famously declaring it "unfilmable"), it hits theaters in the US this week and, after an aggressive marketing campaign by Warner, has become one of the most anticipated films of 2009. For comics fans, of course, it s been the most anticipated movie of just about every year since 1987, when the first rumblings of adapting the classic maxi-series began to come out.
Zack Snyder, who directed the 2005 remake of George A. Romero s horror classic Dawn of the Dead as well as the film version of Frank Miller s graphic novel 300, has taken on the Hugo Award-winning maxiseries that redefined the superhero genre by challenging and playing on many of its conventions. While postmodern superhero comics have become the rule rather than the exception since the release in the mid-'80s of Watchmen and Miller s The Dark Knight Returns, it s debatable that last year s Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight was the first truly intellectually-challenging superhero film made for the mainstream cinema audience.
Watchmen was...well, at this point exactly what I expected. It was good, it was ambitious, it was about as true to the comics as could be reasonably expected, with a look and casting that really evoked the look of Gibbons' art and big chunks of dialog (as well as some of the most important camera angles) cribbed right from the source material. If it didn't blow me away, I think it's partly because I was fully prepared for it to. The changes they made to the end of the film in order to excise the squid and streamline some of the story was not an inelegant solution, and I think that it will draw the same kind of reaction that the "Warner Brothers ending" to V For Vendetta did--the Moore faithful will be mortified, the newbies will think the movie's ending makes more sense than the book's and most of us in the middle will say, "It could have been tweaked, but after 25 years and getting a good movie, I'm not going to complain." It's certainly not The Spirit, which was...well, despiriting.
The film begins with a sequence that never appeared in the comics-a protracted fight scene between a masked attacker and The Comedian-and then segues into the much-hyped credits sequence that overlays images of the Minutemen and Watchmen characters over Bob Dylan s "The Times They Are A-Changin ." After these two scenes, ten minutes have elapsed and those who have read the source material will recognize the shot that begins on the sidewalk and pans up to the broken window through which The Comedian had been thrown. It s the first of many shots drawn directly from Gibbons art in the film-most of the really impactful images of the comics have been reproduced here, from Dan Dreiberg s lonely sulk in the Owlcave to the topographical smiley on Mars. Much has been made of Snyder s decision to hold over Dr. Manhattan s nudity in the film, which wasn t as much of a distraction as has been suggested it might be...except that where the comics explain it, the film doesn t take that time and so it s likely that the uninitiated will just wonder to themselves, "What s with the Smurf penis?"
The casting in the film is inspired (in a surprise to me, Richard Nixon and other true-life public figures were particularly good) and, along with a script that s almost slavish in its loyalty to the source material, creates a living environment that harkens to the comic s art and universe. Even the modernized, Batman-inspired movie versions of the classic Watchmen costumes aren t as distracting in the context of the film as they are in promotional materials.
Ultimately, though, what s more important than the degree to which it s loyal to the comics is this: The movie is good. It s difficult to divorce the impression made by the film from the impression of the comics, but I m confident that without comparison to the book, critics would be roundly praising Watchmen as a cinematic marvel. It s certainly the best superhero movie ever made, and would have to fall into any serious top ten list of comic book movies, taking its place alongside "serious" films like Ghost World and American Splendor. It s telling of the way that Hollywood is handling superheroes these days that there have been a number of reasonably serious articles to come out declaring The Dark Knight "the best superhero film ever made," and it seems impossible to me that those same minds won t now cede the title to Watchmen, less than a year after the release of the brainy bat-flick
There were, of course a number of concessions that needed to be made in order to make the story work as a movie. The Minutemen and Janey Slater are characters who were largely excised from the film-it will be interesting to see how much of their backstories will be included in the (already-announced) deluxe edition DVD, which will incorporate elements from the Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood direct-to-DVD films (which will see release from Warner Premiere next week). The relationship between the second Silk Spectre and her mother s rapist/teammate, the late Comedian, is not nearly as deeply explored here, either, and the movie is a bit poorer for it. The disdain she has for him is something that really explained why the Mars revelation would have crumpled her to the ground, something that was believable but not impactful in the film. And Dr. Manhattan s ultimate relationship to Ozymandias plan is simplified here-it makes more sense, truthfully, than it did in the comic from a simply logical standpoint.
Ultimately, Watchmen the film is a lot like Watchmen the comic books; it will probably offend some people, it will certainly impress a lot of people who ordinarily would have little use for the superhero genre and it will set a new and hard-to-meet standard for all the big-budget (particularly superhero) films that come after it. Will it revolutionize superhero movies the way it did superhero comics? Time will tell, but all the elements are in place.
Russell Burlingame is a journalist and columnist living and working in New York City. In high school, Russell interviewed Elliot S. Maggin for a review of the Kingdom Come novelization, and since then has worked consistently in and around the comics industry. He interned for Wizard magazine, and has freelanced for Wizard and Newsarama, in addition to a number of non-comics publications, Russell is currently working on a graphic novel based on Cap'n Internet, the comic strip that ran in his college newspaper; and a graphic biography of folk singer Phil Ochs with artist Marion Vitus.
Currently, in addition to his freelance work and his comics projects, Russell writes a number of columns for ComicRelated, including Conscientious Sequentials, The Gold Exchange, What's Perhappenin', Closing Statements, Reflecting 'Pool and To See or Not To See. Russell also takes point on the Hot Shot of the Week feature.
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