I told everyone I had no plans to see it, and I didn't have any such plans. The possibility fell into my lap, much like both of Zack Snyder's last two movies, to see it with other people for free. In all three instances, I went in with some kind of advanced knowledge, in all three cases of the source material and trailers. In the case of Dawn of the Dead (the version that sucks, from 2004), I had a then-friend's recommendation. I had free tickets for 300. I had a ticket that would otherwise go to waste this time.
I still hated all three movies.
I'm not going to review in my normal fashion here and give you a synopsis. For a synopsis, read the book. In fact, read the book. Seriously. Go. It is ABSOLUTELY worth your time, I do not care who you are. If you appreciate good writing, read this book. Don't read any more of this pseudo-review until you have read the book. I'm going to spoil some things, insofar as the changes that I do not appreciate--mostly because they show an appreciable lack of appreciation for the work of Alan Moore (and, inexplicably because of his involvement, Dave Gibbons). I am, however, also going to discuss in general terms some of the failings of this film and Zack Snyder's approach to film in general, as well as failings of the cast, the script, the effects and the music supervisor (who should be fired) and the composer (who should have been sued for plagiarism after 300 anyway). This is a movie that fails for reasons like Revenge of the Sith: it has every aim to be good, it has the background, the budget, the plot, the pre-made events, characters and ideas, yet it wastes all its effort on the visual and everything else suffers for it, and the movie collapses into an unpleasant, clumsy and obvious pile of exploitative garbage that insults not only the work it's based on, but also the audience watching it.
I will have to begin with a brief discussion of what Watchmen is and what it is not, however, to frame the idea that this film fails so utterly in a context that can be understood by anyone unfamiliar with my viewpoint, the book, or the details or ideas behind it (such as someone who read it like I did the first time--rapidly and without a careful eye, probably skimming the intermittent text-only material). Alan Moore set out to create a story that would re-frame the world as one in which masked heroes existed, something that was very much in line with his re-write of Marvelman in the 1980s, or even the approach he took to Len Wein (who actually edited Watchmen) and Bernie Wrightson's Swamp Thing. In none of these cases was Moore setting out (in the vein of someone like Garth Ennis) to poke a stick at comic heroes with a condescending sneer, but to examine them and look at them through a different lens. His twists on characters, unlike that of Sandman, written by his occasional reference Neil Gaiman, drew upon the existing histories and simply darkened, rounded and expanded their worlds (or occasionally restricted them, such as drawing Swamp Thing more and more out of the superhero world). Watchmen did not do this, per se, only because it was required as such by his then-publisher D.C. Dave Gibbons has been credited by Moore and history as being heavily involved in the creation of Watchmen, but primarily in terms of look and style, as Moore notoriously scripts his work down to details (a single 30 page comic getting 101 typewritten, single-spaced pages, for instance), though he also bounced ideas of Gibbons, and Gibbons rounded and added some details himself.
Watchmen is a book that does not kick dirt in the face of superheroes and their fans, and it is not a book the suggests Moore hates superheroes (though of course he's done with them, as it is his rather mercurial nature to be, and finds them boring now to write or read), nor that he feels the need to tear them down or re-arrange them. It is more in keeping with Frank Miller's contemporary The Dark Knight Returns, which DID take an existing character and re-create him as something other than what he was--an extreme example of Batman that had a comparatively small reach within the books that followed. This isn't to say its influence itself was small, so much as it melded with existing ideas (instead of replacing them). Moore and Gibbons' work pushed all the books by looking at the idea of heroes on the whole. It's an examination, beyond that, of what is right or wrong, philosophically, and an examination of American society and the iterations that might result from the existence of real masked heroes.
I'm going to go out on an extremely short limb here (one that effectively has adamantium scaffolding to support it, if you'll pardon the reference) and say that Zack Snyder doesn't quite get it. Alex Tse and David Hayter's script is pretty faithful to the original novel, as is the look that Snyder's film has. The music chosen often refers back to quotes Moore used (occasionally on the advice, suggestion or recollection of Gaiman, apparently) inside the novel. And yet, it all comes together and seems to think that these things are enough. Imagine that we have a famed novel, and from it we draw exact descriptions, tracking down actors who look exactly like an author described, and place scene changes exactly where chapters end and start, that we read descriptions carefully and take down the dialogue and replicate the words and the placement of a single flower down to its petals. Imagine that's the research we've put into replicating that novel. Does that really sound like it will capture the SPIRIT of that novel? Well, in case you are still stuck under a rock with your fingers in your ears, refusing to believe that something with images can actually have literary value, that is almost exactly what has happened here. This is a valuable novel of extreme intelligence, density and high concepts. It's not a "funny book," though it's also not the single greatest work of the century or some such drivel. As with any true reach for equality, in this case between media, it is not something that replaces, improves or otherwise interferes with the existence or quality of any other medium. It is not superior to text for having images, nor to moving images for having complete control of expression and keyframing of scenes. It's another medium, as Moore himself would tell anyone. It's a medium that uses image and text, and does things with them no other medium is, or ever will be, capable of. Even if one moves them to an electronic format, the idea of Scott McCloud's label of "sequential art" is essential to the idea of the comic book, and removing it from that is an essential change.
This is the first problem with what Snyder has done, and a somewhat ironic one, after a fashion. He does not understand that faithful film translation of simultaneously visible and placed panels will never be able to replicate the exact experience of the novel, nor its pacing, ideas or emphases. We see the moment of revelation in someone's face after seeing it blank, not all the moments in between, unless the author is either stupid or feels the need to emphasize the moments between. The lack of the white space (or black line, or jagged edge, or bleeding blur, or whatever the authors use) makes a huge difference in what is perceived. It's clear from watching this film that the people behind it have absolutely no understanding of that fact. Attempting to translate Tales of the Black Freighter, the comic-within-a-comic onto film fails to understand the intrinsic separation. While the comic was (wisely) removed from the film for pacing reasons, the fact that it was filmed at all, without question about what the differences are, shows a lack of understanding. It's one thing to move from a panel that is a story within the story you're reading directly to a panel that is the story you're reading, or to have overlapping dialogue written in a panel of the main story coming from the secondary story. I will applaud the film for making me think about the brilliance of this, but not for failing to understand it themselves. The closest representation, then, would be to make it a movie-within-a-movie, but that's something else again. It's not the same kind of pseud-meta-fiction to have films within films, because it is a different medium.
This is the exact reason (amongst many similar ones, like the ability to intersplice panels of the Comedian's assassination with the investigators discussing it) that Moore and Terry Gilliam (whose voice is of a filmic weight so much greater than Zack Snyder's, it's a wonder they didn't cause the very cameras to fail to film this movie) called the book "unfilmable." It absolutely is just that: unfilmable. It is inseparable from its medium, much the same way that Citizen Kane cannot be excised from film, as much of Welles' art was invested in the visuals and stylistic choices, and the reason that most novel adaptations also seem to fail, even if they are good on their own terms. This is the thing that Zack Snyder utterly fails to understand in any capacity. It is with slack jaw that I watch him refer to the idea of this as "unfilmable" as some sort of bizarre challenge for him to faithfully re-create Doctor Manhattan or correclty set out the plot points in the right order for a film. He simply didn't get it, doesn't get it, and won't get it.
But, despite his endless claims to being utterly faithful, and those of his rabid fans who refer to his using the novel itself for storyboards or asking the cast to carry it around and make their dialogue more like the book, he makes changes. Some still insist that 300 is perfectly faithful to its source material, despite the bizarre and nonsensical (and utterly inexplicable) inclusion of monsters, mutants and goat-headed people--all pulled from a book that had humans, elephants and one terribly deformed human. Many will insist (and already have) that this movie is faithful. In many respects it is; some panels are replicated with a smart eye toward a realism that contradicts the primary coloured original (in contrast to the only perfectly successful exact translation made, Rodriguez and Miller's Sin City), but this is the only intelligent decision made in twisting the constraints of the original material. It would be mind-numbing to list the minutiae the that have changed, but the issue is that many of these elements actually matter.
I am not, I must interject here, someone who insists on absolute faith to a work. I've been accused of it, but it simply isn't the case. If it were, I'd've been alongside the other folks decrying the organic web-shooters of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, or the multi-generational teaming of the first X-Men. I have been known to complain about X2, about Blade (though I've yet to see it, I know enough of what has changed by virtue of the fact that the original Blade was a murderous psychopath, and by no means any kind of calm, controlled badass--at least in my favoured period for Marvel's "horror" books, being the early 1990s) and about 300, to name a few. My issue with 300 was simple enough: it bored me, the style wore on me and it just kept rolling on and on and on and on, contradicting itself with concurrent image and dialogue ("Only the hard..only the strong," says Leonidas...as he accepts a loving gift from his wife). I think the changes made were ridiculous, but more importantly unnecessary. However, in watching the movie, my distaste came from the style of the film itself, as I thought I'd just hazily forgotten the mutant and monster elements. I still didn't like it, prior to discovering I hadn't suddenly forgotten those elements. X2 and Blade are more indicative of what truly irks me though: ignorance and changes to character. I've already noted the changes to Blade, and I've never been big on modern, over-slick American martial arts-oriented films, nor the slicker forms of action-horror (though I've relented some there, hence my decision to finally see the first two films). I'll probably never watch the third film because of the changes made to the Nightstalkers, who were my introduction to Blade--with one character changed to something else entirely, and another weakened from his prior, more gothic origins.
X2, however, is a perfect example: a series and group of characters I am quite familiar with, turned and twisted into something flat, amorphous, uninteresting, repetitive and lacking in depth--under the hands of a schmuck who admits to hating comics, or at least looking down on them (anyone who knows me has almost certainly heard the story that informed me of that fact). Lady Deathstrike is robbed of origin, motivation and even character, not even managing to hold the room to have any of these returned to her later, with her prior interesting origin turned into "she's another Wolverine," which is a role already taken by the now film-deceased Victor "Sabretooth" Creed. Wolverine's own origin is reduced to re-nationalizing him as an American and making him the subject of a crass military experiment, instead of a deeply buried conspiracy. The man behind it, originally in an allegorical story about religion, is turned into anti-mutant whacko #284,183, with all elements of the controversial idea of religious motivation utterly excised. This is the kind of change that annoys me and bothers me, because it shows a lack of courage, a lack of imagination and a lack of understanding. The X-Men are there, especially in the hands of the young Chris Claremont, to serve as the objects of any number of prejudices, to explore those things by allegory and parallel. Now they're the subject of big ol' stunts, special effects and sawed off soap opera melodrama.
Zack Snyder aims for the same, and shows the same kind of understanding of the material he's working on. The revelation and change of the existence of Doctor Manhattan is reduced by the misnomer of "superheroes" being applied to anyone and everyone who wears a mask and fights crime. It is an explicit delineation in the book between the two, making Doctor Manhattan the one and only "super" hero. This, of course, is only the beginning--an irk that only some of us would notice, and an even smaller percentage would care about it (were it the only change, I likely wouldn't have cared, though I still would've noticed). Similarly, the title is made clumsily obvious by changing the Crimebusters to the Watchmen. Why? I don't know--he thinks the audience is incapable of simple understanding? It reminds me of The Ring's insistence that its title refer to a literal, well, ring--one of light. Why is this kind of change necessary? Who cares if people don't understand the title? Half the time, they associate the title with the film and don't think about it. But this is also minor. Mispronouncing Rorschach's name is also minor, and more of a personal pet peeve (this will be close enough to a first experience for many, as well as a heavily re-inforced one for most, that its pronunciation will likely take over, and it's ugly to my ears).
But some of these details I bring up to show that it only takes a minor change to change the tone or ideas within a work: now Nite Owl's costume hides his nerdy, retired paunch, despite the willingness to show it in any uncostumed scenes. This serves Snyder's imbecilic goal of increasing the "badass" quotient of the film. Silk Spectre II now looks like she has walked out of a bondage shop, but this is mere annoyance by comparison. Ozymandias, however, is an utter failure to capture anything of the spirit of the original. He's dark and gloomy in costume, utterly in contrast to the bright ray of loveable übermensch (and not in the Doc Manhattan sense!) golden boy that his comic form is. It is, then, a strong hint of future events, and a ridiculous one at that, that counteracts the proposed effect of them. By removing the brightness, one is left with an image that fits instead of seeming shockingly incongruous. The difference between comics and film comes into play with Manhattan's infamous genitalia. He has a full-fledged blue penis and testicles, something that a comic can, by virtue of artistic style, draw only faintly so that your brain understands that the character is naked without being distracted by it. I actually found it less distracting than the reactions I heard prior to my viewing would have suggested, but it still seemed a little--almost emphasized.
Most grotesquely, and I realize how strange this may sound coming from a horror fan, the violence is intensified to cartoonish levels. A slashed throat becomes electronically sawed off arms, seen as stumps, falling away, splashing blood, a fallen corpse, more bloody stumps. A psychopathic murder that brings to mind Mad Max is changed to an impassioned meat cleaver butchery (any description that makes a scene sound like a Cannibal Corpse song cannot be a good thing). The hint of murder that brings about this "justified" execution is subtle but horrifying in the book, hamfisted and disgusting in the film--what was once a nondescript bone between dogs, thus seemingly innocent at first, is now shown to have a child's shoe at the end of it, as if one can't connect the dots without the director's help. A single misfired shot that kills a background character to emphasize the speed of the movements that follow is replaced by numerous zoomed-in shots of bullet wounds hitting numerous people and spraying their blood and insides out of exit wounds as the once-implied-to-be-rapid movement is shown in obnoxious and ridiculous slow motion. Bizarrely, the violence of the scene as written is removed--where it the scene once emphasized as the brutal and rapid maneouvres of the proposed victim, now it becomes an orgy of spraying blood from the proposed assailant. This kind of change is bizarre and inexplicable, and only feeds many of the poor choices in the film.
The first violent scene I described is the one most ridiculous, offensive and almost lasciviously filmed; there's no need for it, no call, and certainly no need to focus on it afterward, as it encourages the modern mentality to think of it as a "cool moment," completely out of keeping with the intent of bruality in violence that the book endorses. The scene itself is used in the book to splash blood on Rorschach and show his utter indifference to this, while the following scene that is changed from a lighter and a sarcastic and malicious hacksaw offer to a vicious cleavering also shows a change in Rorschach, as does the decision to change his method of breaking a toilet from using his own foot to using someone else's head. This is not in keeping with the jaded, desensitized, militant, psychopathic and sociopathic character of Rorschach, and the movie doesn't understand this. There's a reason he kills a pedophile by placing him in a combustible environment and coldly offering him a hacksaw to free himself from handcuffs and not viciously hacking at him with a meat cleaver. He isn't that passionate, he isn't that emotional, except when his true face is shown against his will, when Walter Kovacs is forced out into the cruel world against the will of his stronger persona of Rorschach. Snyder doesn't get this, and offers no such hint to Jackie Earle Haley who plays him. They even go so far as to choose to make Rorschach a superhuman acrobat and martial arts expert. In the book, he slowly scales a building, in the film his grappling hook brings him flying up into the window; in the book he scales ladders, in the film he leaps off walls as if it were that deep pit in Super Metroid and he lacked things like ladders; in the film he pointlessly drops to a prehensile and superhuman grip of one hand in blinding motion to support himself. It's utterly unbelievable and out of keeping with the idea that he is a normal person physically--as is everyone else but Doctor Manhattan. This is where the idea of "superhero" being different is further destroyed by the moronic director who refers to all the characters as "superheroes," showing he doesn't even understand the simpler concepts, let alone the philosophical ones.
The third instance, the misfired shot, serves to further the denigration of the image and character of Adrian "Ozymandias" Veidt (whose adventurer name is inexplicably mispronounced once at the beginning of the film without correction). Veidt in the book is, as mentioned earlier, a golden boy, a brilliant role model with bright blonde hair and a friendly smile, under a shining gold costume (spandex, I think he actually says flat-out). He's the model of success in all senses. The film version, played by the inadequate and scrawny Matthew Goode, is distant and somewhat mischievous in appearance, furthering the stupid decision to hint at the film's progression. While there's a disturbing coldness to the book version, it works because it is disturbing, which is a feeling one gets because it is not in keeping with this perfect role model image. The moment when he is attacked, the blood mostly fills his own hands and his attacker's face as he mercilessly beats him in a series of ultra-rapid movements and attempts to force a poison capsule away from his mouth. This is now bloodless, for reasons unknown to me, as they were happy to shoot extra innocent bystanders and spray their insides across the screen.
This is indicative of the intrinsic problem of a stylistic hack like Snyder working on a piece that is composed primarily of philosophy, depth and intellectual ideas, interspersed with violence that then seems shocking, brief, momentary and brutal, always to enhance character, scene and events--not to enhance style. Shockingly, disturbingly, frighteningly, unbelievably, Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II are attacked in an alley just like in the book--but proceed to mercilessly kill a number of their attackers, to the point of actually deliberately snapping necks. This was utterly out of character and seemed to scream out that Zack Snyder's obsession with violent images was indeed purely exploitative, prurient and masturbatory. It's not "cool" (though many in the audience clearly thought it was, which means the wrong impression is being given about these characters), it's disturbing. I take no issue with violence in film--I flock toward it much of the time, be it mild, brief, intense, disturbing, amusing or any other form--but when it flies in the face of characterization it sits wrong and offends me. Here, Rorschach is the only hero willing to kill; that is part of what sets him apart, and something about him that bothers everyone else. This is omitted, to the point that, hey, all the heroes kill people happily. What on earth were they thinking?
By far the worst offense on this front was actually the infamous rape scene. When the soon-to-be victim begins undressing, a near pornographic close-up on her now mostly-revealed bosom is absolutely disgusting and nauseating when one knows what is coming. When one doesn't know what is coming, it (hopefully, assuming one remembers the shot occurred) becomes rapidly so afterward. The exchange that breaks up this attack is also modified, failing to capture the character dynamic that makes it up, once again ramming into the face of any discerning viewer that the authors of this scene did not correctly read the book as written. This is not a subjective matter insofar as instances such as this: there is a clear-cut case for why Hooded Justice (who stops the attack) responds in exactly the ways he does at exactly the times he does, but these are modified and/or removed. The scene is matter-of-fact about the undressing and violent and unpleasant about the attack--something Snyder apparently felt the need to make more erotic, which is...beyond words.
And of course, Snyder is incapable of reigning in his endless love for the momentary slow motion, which was not new in Dawn of the Dead or 300, let alone now, and never serves to enhance--as a master like John Woo might--but to draw attention to itself, often ruining action scenes by saying, "Hey, look at all the AWESOME slow motion!" instead of letting it speak for itself. I was momentarily enthralled by an action scene in a prison that I knew was a bit beyond the book, but was surprised I didn't mind--until the slow motion kicked in and utterly ruined the scene by drenching it in the kind of style that is called "music video" or "comic book"--terms I'm uncomfortable with as a fan of music videos and comic books, and think can use such approaches more effectively by virtue of being a different avenue or medium. It often serves to re-emphasize the already prurient approach to violence, too, which just makes it all the more unappetizing.
I mentioned, though, that failures extended beyond this. Acting is good on the parts of some, even very good--Haley is excellent as Rorschach, but no one knew to tell him (or apparently he didn't read carefully enough to know himself) that Rorschach is cold, monotone and lacking in emotions when masked. He does not raise his voice or emphasize. It's all in a cold montone, as Moore himself makes clear when reading the words he wrote (as excerpted in Dez Velynz' The Mindspace of Alan Moore). Jeffrey Dean Morgan is pretty good as The Comedian, but seems unsure of much of the role, and a little uncomfortable with the darker elements of it. Patrick Wilson is great as the second Nite Owl, but is too focused on being "a nerd" as Dan Dreiberg, constantly scrunching his face into a perpetual look of smelling something unpleasant and accusing the source of said smell simultaneously. Billy Crudup brings some character to Manhattan, but his voice is simply too soft and light, with emphases that show too much emotion for so many to miss that he has any. The two names that I was mostly pleased to see (or disappointed, considering what they were in) were Matt Frewer, who plays aged villain Moloch and Stephen McHattie, who plays the aged original Nite Owl/Hollis Mason. I was very pleased with both performances, probably the only two in the entire film that actually captured their characters (though the reliable Rob LaBelle does well as Jon "Doctor Manhattan" Osterman's former colleague Wally Weaver, he's not working from a specified a character).
Otherwise, performances range from passable to dismal, with Goode, Carla Gugino as the elder Silk Spectre and Malin Akerman as the worst offenders. Goode is slight and brings too much menace to a shiny hero, while Gugino is reminiscent of, I think it was a Back to the Future-aged-up Lea Thompson, utterly false and unbelievable as a woman of 67, acting too old physically and too young emotionally, not even once bringing to mind the image of Sally Jupiter. Malin Akerman is simply awful, through and through, with dead, wooden readings, serving primarily as eye-candy and little else--especially for her ridiculously near-pornographic (no "near" if one counts softcore) scene with Dreiberg/Wilson.
The most appalling offense is the musical choices of director Snyder and whoever else was involved. Great songs are put to comically obvious or ridiculously inappropriate use throughout--whoever expected Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" next to softcore porn, or Hendrix' version of "All Along the Watchtower" inexplicably playing behind the image of an airship crashing into Antarctica? That one especially felt like a last minute cram for the awful and stupid "watch"-word connection. "The Sound of Silence" is played over a funeral, but a funeral for that of...The Comedian?! Who came up with this? Who in their right mind--no, there can be no right mind involved. Much has been made of the ridiculously stupid and obvious choice of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" over a montage of, guess what? Multiple decades! But nothing was so embarrassing as the moment when Doctor Manhattan appears in his war-winning role in Vietnam--to, oh dear lord, I can't believe I actually saw this, "Ride of the Valkyries." I could not believe anyone would stoop to such ridiculous crowd-pleasing nonsense, not even Zack Snyder.
To complement great songs abused (to say nothing of an atrocious cover of a Dylan song by My Chemical Romance: "Desolation Row" as done by a slickly-produced punk band--in sound, I mean, not a declaration that this lame band IS punk) we have the musical thief Tyler Bates, returning to work with his hack after being openly accused of the effectively proven theft of real composer Elliot Goldenthal's work on the brilliant Titus, directed by Julie Taymor, adapted from the work of a great writer, heavy on style and actually GOOD. Hmm. Bates' score is laughable, saccharine and melodramatic over scenes of the ridiculous and unbelievable romance between Dreiberg and the younger Spectre.
Of course, the final complaint is the most obvious: the ending. Much has been made on all sides about this change (if you have neither seen the movie nor read the book, I implore you to stop reading this now and go read the damn book, please!), but it's often mis-represented as an issue. As is often the case when I rail against changes to an established work, the old humdrum argument of, "but you can't bring it ALL to the screen!" is brought up. This is a strawman argument, at least for me, though. My issue is not with the fact that it IS changed (except with regard to Snyder's insistence that he was faithful) so much as the choice of HOW to change it. Including the involvement of a KNOWN character, an omnipotent one, one with nationalist associations and public identity, utterly stomps on the idea that was put forth in the book. It's glossed over into a cheap ending that doesn't address the concepts behind the change, and fails to note the obvious arguments against it. The idea originally was to unite humanity behind a common foe that was not human and could not be tied to any country, group or even person. All of that is utterly lost, because it is assigned to a person tied to a country. To add insult to injury, Nite Owl is now shown to have conflict with Jon--for no reason--over the fate of Rorschach, and even eventual involvement. This whole scene made for the first time in my life I ever seriously felt the urge to leave the theatre. I laughed at first, because it was incomprehensibly stupid, then it just kept going and got worse and worse. This isn't right for the characters or the story, and the idiot in charge doesn't get it.
Do yourself a favour. Don't see this movie. It's an insult to its viewers and to the excellent work it's based on. Go read the book and be happy, I beg of you.