(The Ultimate Cut) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zack Snyder’s faithful, but not faithful enough for the devoted, adaptation. Many then appraised the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices).
I wouldn’t go that far; indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity. But it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form, and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked, his respect for the comic book at times gets in the way of telling a good movie.
The most mystifying part, with hindsight, is the thought that this cult property would make enough dough (at least initially) to justify the expense lavished on it; this is the kind of thinking that leads to disappointed studios tutting “Never again” when a TRON: Legacy of Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t make the kind of waves expected (both did decent business – indeed, I’d say surprisingly so given the cult branding – but they simply cost too much). Watchmen’s second week drop suggests a sizeable portion of the audience thought they were getting a superhero movie of the kind they most definitely were not, whatever lustrous sheen Snyder may have worked across the surface.
I only eventually read the graphic novel in the year before the movie’s release, so I didn’t come to Snyder’s adaptation with the decades of expectations and preconditions I might have; I certainly appreciated the uniqueness of Alan Moore (and Dave Gibbons’) work, but I wasn’t “blown away” by it, nor did I recognise it as some kind of hallowed text. Consequently, I was open-minded in terms of changes to the text, or even the dynamics of the material.
Terry Gilliam (who threw out a Sam Hamm period-altering draft) famously reached the conclusion that Watchmen was unfilmable, and that if it was done, it would probably be best as a limited series for HBO (cue this year’s “sequel” to the comic). The notoriously disdainful (and disinterested) Moore commented, around the time of the comic’s original release, “what I’d like to explore is the areas that comics succeed in where no other media is capable of operating”. Which didn’t bode well for an adaptation seeking to sum up its essence.
Elsewhere, his collaborator, artist Gibbons, suggested it “became much more about the telling than the tale itself”, which, if Snyder – and those concentrating on the altered ending – misses something, it’s very much that. Because he treats the telling in a very literal, nuts-and-bolts fashion, in order to get that tale told. As a consequence, it does at times feel like “a thing of bits and pieces”, as Richard Corliss put it. The irony being, Snyder is so clearly attempting to make it as much of “a whole” as possible (to the extent that there are three different cuts available).
To touch on some of the more salient issues with Snyder’s take, firstly and most famously, there’s the squid, or absence thereof, and it’s easy to see why it was shown the door. I’m not wholly convinced of the idea Moore appropriated from The Outer Limits’ Architects of Fear (but also found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan and Theodore Sturgeon’s Unite and Conquer), one he even references in the comic book – a cheap way of saying “I know, I know” before anyone else calls him out on it – whereby warring humanity unites in the face of a more salient threat (even with a fake alien invasion backstop conspiracy theorised for years now as a card in the elite’s arsenal).
And that’s simply because there’s a “What happens then?” hanging over it – it’s nice for a punchy Outer Limits plot (where it doesn’t happen), but if you have to spend time thinking about how long a truce would actually last… Well, it doesn’t vouch for either Veidt or Dr Manhattan as all that bright, really. The original leaves the problem of how Veidt will sustain the pretence (so they’ve got a giant dead squid… Are there any more in storage?) while the movie shifts the blame on Dr Manhattan, who absconds from Earth into the greater universe and so doesn’t leave the superpowers much to maintain their unified focus on. Which is essentially to say, I think Snyder swaps out a problematic ending for a problematic ending, but at least one that doesn’t invite immediate ridicule.
Then there’s the aesthetic, which on the one hand, feels very comic book, but on the other, works against the premise of depositing superheroes in a credible, faux-real world. Arguably, the latter’s very far from Snyder’s vision, slathered as it is in heightened, kinetic action and bold, vibrant cinematography. Meaning that I enjoy watching his Watchmen world, but it provides no opportunity to explore the contrasts Moore was aiming for.
An element of this is simply being realistic about trying to make Watchmen commercially viable (in which case, you get back to “Should it have been adapted at all?” – one might expect the Paul Greengrass’s version, for all the changes he sought to exact, would have been tonally closer to Moore). So bring on the speed-ramping as Night Owl and Silk Spectre beat the shit out of various assailants and hoodlums. There need to be some recognisable superhero beats in a movie with this kind of budget; to expect otherwise would have been delusional. But it means that what we have is both out of place and well done for what it is (Snyder is nothing if not a decent action director, that is, when he isn’t completely at a loss about what he’s trying to achieve – see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).
That’s only one part of it, though. The other is the violence. It’s perhaps unsurprising, given the chainsaw grue of the Dawn of the Dead remake (an all-time classic, edge-of-the-seat, heart-in-mouth opening sequence, however) and hyper-violence of 300. Yet, for some reason, Snyder decided this would also be appropriate to Watchmen, a comic with very limited levels of “in panel” violence. Certainly, no bones snapping through flesh, chip-fat fryers in the face or arms severed at the elbow with a chainsaw.
It isn’t only gratuitous, it’s also jarring and distracting, and more illustrative of the frat-splatter mentality he approaches Moore with than probably anything else in the movie: a kind of imaginative short circuit, whereby everything reduces to the blunt and obvious (it’s there in the music cues too, since every choice is pretty much an over-used classic, rather limiting the opportunity to create new associations due to the baggage involved).
Contrastingly, there are sequences where he gets the balance exactly right – the demise of the first Nite Owl, for example (not present in the cinema cut) has exactly the kind of necessary impact and restraint. Both the areas of action dynamics and violence rather highlight – as if it needs emphasising, given the broad cross section of his comic adaptations – that Snyder has a passion for the aesthetics over storytelling. And yet, the guy who sounds like an idiot when he talks about Batman’s motivation for killing in BvS also put Philip Glass to the sequence of Dr Manhattan’s genesis, whereby you can only remark upon a talent for the sublime (and to be honest, I don’t even object enormously to other choices here, like 99 Red Balloons or the clearly ironic Hallelujah to Night Owl and Silk Spectre’s admittedly rather adolescently staged sex scene). The opening montage to The Times They Are A Changing, over-obvious as it is, is also highly effective.
And, as if it needs saying, two thirds of the leads are spot-on casting. Jackie Earle Haley is a perfect Rorschach; some have complained he’s turned into a more identifiably heroic character here, but I agree with those who put that essentially down to Moore coming up with a “hero” defined by a code and skillset, even if he is unhygienic. Patrick Wilson makes a reliably doughy Night Owl who looks straight out of Gibbons’ illustrations. Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan gets to say he’s had at least two decent big-screen roles (Almost Famous’s golden god being the other), and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian illustrates the blip that comes with a TV actor having a rare great movie role yet entirely failing to develop it into anything further (he’s his generation’s Tom Selleck, basically, although Three Men and a Baby was more a big success than a great part). In each case, I don’t think you could have hoped for better personifications.
I’m not as down on Malin Ackerman as many either; I just don’t think she’s very well served by the adaption and what ends up on screen. The reveal about her parentage is rather perfunctory, lacking sufficient lead-in to make it impactive (and I’m never that convinced by its cachet in sparking Manhattan’s reinterest in humanity anyway). So it’s Matthew Goode’s Adrian Veidt/ Ozymandias where the movie really suffers. Goode’s good in other stuff, but he’s giving off creepy potential bad guy vibes here. from his first scene In addition to which, we don’t get enough of the character to explore his internal motivation; he’s wheeled on as an exposition engine at the appropriate moment, and that’s basically it.
But scene by scene, revisiting Watchmen reveals a movie awash with elements to like. Much more so, I think, than dislike, even as the two opposing forces sometimes cohabit the same scene. I like the Dr Strangelove war room, just as I don’t care for those Nixon prosthetics. I like The Black Freighter animation hugely, but with hindsight, I don’t think Snyder’s found a way for it to seem sufficiently relevant to the main story (that may, in part, be because I don’t fully buy into it as an effective means of paralleling Veidt’s path, an antagonist fully aware of his actions and their effects, whereas the Sea Captain is not, until it is too late).
On balance, I’d rather revisit Watchmen than most of the Marvel or the “proper” DC properties. If the former are very reliable, they’re rarely very surprising, and if the latter are tentatively finding their feet now they’re going for a non-uniform approach, that inevitably means they’re going to vary wildly in effectiveness.
It’s a shame Snyder wore out his welcome by getting sucked into the “mainstream” comic properties, as he was perversely enabled to display his tin ear for the character (a gore hound is possibly not going to be the best benefactor for the Man of Steel). I doubt Watchmen is the best version of bringing an impossible property to the screen, but it still gets a lot more right than could have been realistically expected. I’m quite sure Damon Lindelof’s re-envisioning will be just as divisive, if for very different reasons, but the consideration in all these things should be, is it doing something interesting or worthwhile with the material, rather than whether it’s slaying a sacred cow.* I’d say Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut is.
*Addendum 05/08/22: Lindelof’s take, in going all-out woke for broke, succeeded mainly in rendering void several strong ideas he had for furthering Watchmen plot-wise.