Wednesday, March 11, 2009

All along the watchtower

It would, of course, be impossible to keep fans of the seminal (and genre-capping) graphic novel Watchmen completely happy. I should know because I'm one of them. 

For a kid weaned on costumed vigilantes, this was a pivotal moment in my obsession with the comic book medium. It was also one of those "final word" experiences that killed superheroes for me, as I expect creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons wanted it to. Here were heroes taken to a realistic logical conclusion--complex human beings with deep character flaws and sordid motivations, and embedded in a world of real politics, social divisions and perpetual conflict. Yet a funny world because in it, to paraphrase Karl Marx, supermen make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing.

Moore and Gibbons succeeded not just in deconstructing the given notions of heroism and evil embodied in the genre, they also created an almost impossibly complex narrative structure by milking every last technical and artistic device that a comic book could deliver: symmetrical panel arrangements, overlapping dialogue, stories within stories, dense symbolic imagery mirroring the foreground action, and the decentralisation of the heroics in favour of detailed social and character observations. While on recent re-reading the effect is sometimes too much all at once, the artistry often being pummelled into submission by the technical genius, there is little doubt that Watchmen remains one of the great comics (er, "graphic novels") of all time.

So what about Zack Snyder's long and long-anticipated filmic adaptation? Well, it is nothing if not ambitious, successfully conveying most of the comic's complex 12-issue plot in 160 minutes. And it is visually spectacular, utilising CGI to replicate the sweeping vision of the original. 

But there the praise must stop, because fidelity to source material soon becomes a dead weight for Snyder as he can only roughly sketch not just the complicated social and political commentary of the original, but the characters themselves. He allows them to remain at the level of cipher, with the notable exception of the disturbed Rorschach (Jackie Earle Hailey, a long way from The Bad News Bears here), who almost manages to hold the film together in a way he didn't need to in the comic.

Worse, Snyder's bombastic approach seems to contradict one of the central thematic drivers of both novel and film: that we are seeing real people in a weird but still recognisable world. He cannot resist making the fights so comic book that you would be forgiven for thinking the vigilantes all have superpowers. So Dr Manhattan, the only one with supernormal abilities, becomes just a more spectacular version of his comrades and his impact on geopolitics seems less plausible than the story tells us it is. And when Ozymandias pulls off an amazing feat to save himself in the final scenes it is less shocking because he already seems physically invulnerable.

Yet such changes (and the markedly altered ending) don't seem to be about a director interpreting a revered work, rather finding technical fixes for problems posed by the original. Unfortunately for Snyder the comic was a triumph of comic book technique, and no film adaptation was ever going to be able to tweak those "unfilmable" elements. Instead of taking a chance and making something that was true to his own vision as well as the comic's conceits and themes, Snyder has succumbed to the fans' anxiety that he would change too much. 

He will now go down as having succeeded very well in a superficial sketch but delivered only a minimum of artistry. By being a slave to Moore and Gibbons' product he's betrayed their drive for artistic excellence, ironically selling himself short by refusing to try to escape from under their long creative shadow.

3 stars out of 5

1 comment:

  1. Don't knock Snyder too hard – he is, after all, allegedly "visionary". :)