Zack Snyder made a film and called it Watchmen

Just saw Watchmen this afternoon. Rough draft thoughts, scattered between seeing the film, driving on my commute, and teaching my 6 pm class…

Snyder’s film desperately wants us to take it seriously. I think it wants this too much, actually, and uses small tweaks in the source material (“The Crimebusters” are renamed “The Watchmen”; the Lovecraftian space squid replaced with the terrible power of Dr. Manhattan sans Dr. Manhattan; Veidt’s insistence that he is not a “comic book supervillian”) to try and persuade us that he’s not just making another shitty Fantastic Four or Daredevil movie.

I have no doubt Zack Snyder has read Watchmen; his production team’s vision of these characters and this world are about as close as film could ever approximate to the way this would look with live actors. He does seem to have “reverance for the source material” (this is all in the party-speak/hype, of course) as far as lighting his stages and populating them with props go, but he has yet to demonstrate that he actually understands comics—or more particularly—why/how the narratives he’s chosen to adapt into film fundamentally work as comics.  This may be mostly irrelevant, of course, because Snyder is a filmmaker, and for the most part I guess that’s fine for most comics adapted into film. Watchmen is an exception though, I think, because so much of what makes this particular narrative work is its problematization of not only the medium of comics, but also the nature of serial/miniseries and superheroes as constructs. Snyder is a competent filmmaker by Hollywood’s standards, and as such he compensates for what gets lost in translation when a comic becomes a film with conventional, Hollywood ham-handedness (namely: throw a bunch of money at it…) that gives us super slo-mo action sequences and CGI motion capture effects.

I guess the point I was trying to make above is that Snyder’s film lacks both texture and texuality, and these are both things critical to Watchmen becoming a cultural darling in the first place. Snyder has made sure to use Juvenal and Percy Shelley and Bob Dylan, yeah, but those moves are really just window dressing; they are props used at least in part to convince us that the production team has actually bothered to read the source material (something I don’t say flippantly, by the way—this is important if Hollywood is going to continue to rape and pillage comics for its ideas). Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons wrap their text in and around other texts, cutting up and folding in (hence their nods to Burroughs and Nova Express aren’t just clever marketing tricks), constructing and disrupting. There is no “meta” game being played in Snyder’s adaptation; it is trying—some length painfully trying—to represent what a filmmaker might see as essential in Watchmen; the problem inherent is that Watchmen is anti-essentialist on almost every level.

I should take back a little bit of what I just said. There is a “meta” game being played in Snyder’s film, but it’s not very clever and causes more concern for me than delight. Young Walter Kovacs/Rorschach is played in the film by Eli Snyder, who not only is the director and producer’s son, but also played Young King Leonidas in Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s 300. Two things on this:

1) This deliberate and obvious choice links Rorschach to Leonidas in a way that is uncomfortable because it syllogistically argues Rorschach as the de facto hero of a story that is—well—challenging the entire notion of herodom. Again, let’s retreat to the source material: Miller’s depiction of Leonidas (which, of course, is an obfuscation of the actual historical figure through at least two pop cultural lenses—Rudolph Maté and Herodotus) is one that unswervingly shows him as magnificent, powerful and heroic. Moore’s depiction of Rorschach is very different, and not in a binary-oppositional sense of difference but easily in a more Derridean sense of différance.  Rorschach is a construction of the law Walter Kovacs would like to see tattooed onto the face of everyone in New York City, but because laws are written—constructed, if you will—they are incapable of expressing the moral certainties inherent to any idea that would bear the signifier “hero.”  Kovacs retreats—not into herodom—but into the name Rorschach, and thus falls back into language itself.

2) I’ve seen Oliver Stone pull this trick so much with his son Sean that it borders on absurdity. Stone is certainly not the most subtle of auteurs working in film (neither is Snyder), so to cast one’s own child—a son, nonetheless—as the “young hero” is very much stating the obvious: we are supposed to cheer for that character in his adulthood,  and if we don’t, we are not only slighting the director but bringing his children into it. In short, it’s something of a dirty trick—even (especially?) if it’s not intentional—when filmmakers pull this crap on us. Memo to directors: you are not clever for putting Little You in your own films, just like you are not clever when you cameo in your own films. Even a film called Being John Malkovich wasn’t directed by someone named John Malkovich. Knowhaddimean?

That’s certainly enough for right now.  Still distilling…

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4 responses to “Zack Snyder made a film and called it Watchmen

  • lena

    As someone who hasn’t yet read the comic (I know, I know), I came to the movie without all of the biases that come with book to movie adaptations. With that being said, I thought this movie needed some work. Overall, I thought it was worth seeing, but perhaps parts of it could be better explained or quite frankly, taken out.

  • Trevor

    I, too, think the film is “worth seeing,” but then again I’d say that pretty much about anything. So let me say this instead: Zach Snyder’s production team saw a Hollywood film somewhere there in the source text, created that to the best of their collective abilities, and whatever that is, is what they called their film called Watchmen. It is by nature derivative, both of the comic series and also of Snyder’s other projects, and I congratulate them as far as that goes.

    What the film actually communicates with its own energy and aesthetic I’m not at all sure, but I *am* sure that I left the theater thinking “well, they gave it a shot I guess”; I also left with the feeling that I can still easily distinguish between Snyder’s portrayal of these characters and my own (because in comics, the only performances are the ones *the reader* constructs…). I don’t know if this would be true if I picked up the trade paperback tomorrow and started reading, so I’ll be very interested to hear your thoughts once *you* do.

  • lena

    It is on my shelf right now. I couldn’t resist reading it after seeing the movie. This will be the first comic that I’ve ever read. Which is… an interesting experience for me.

  • Trevor R.

    Hey Trevor, it’s Trevor from WR241. I love what you said here, it’s getting the gears spinning for me. I agree with you about the “they gave it a shot” feel. As a movie it was entertaining, and I did enjoy the bits of fan service they placed about (such as the credits) but it wasn’t Moore’s Watchmen. It is hard to enjoy a movie while still finding it lacking. It was certainly Hollywood, though in some ways it fails to be very Hollywood by trying to stay faithful. I feel like there is that potential to be either a great popcorn flick or a great literary adaptation but starts slipping into mediocrity by trying to be both. As I said in class, it’s no Dark Knight. Snyder is an excellent director of photography, gets the art tone down but I don’t think his hands were really the ones to actually direct.

    Also there is a lack of depth at points that makes my inner fan boy scream in rage. Jackie Earle Haley as Kovacs/Rorschach was a brilliant cast but I wanted more. It was a waste of a great actor because we only get a glimpse of the duality of the two characters. We don’t get the sense that Kovacs is the mask. Also Ozy was horribly cast. Yeah we get a pretty boy who talks like he is intelligent but at no time did I feel like I was watching the world’s smartest man or someone who could toss the Comedian out a window. Along with this both silk spectres failed to do anything that carries the aspects of the characters they are supposed to be. Plus there is the whole failure to capture Dr. Manhattan’s mars dialogue and its awesome power.

    All this aside I absolutely promote seeing the film, but don’t rush to the theaters. It is entertaining but I want the title to read “Zach Snyder’s Watchmen” instead. My one hope is that it will bring more people out to experience what Moore and Gibbons created first hand.

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