Into the Snyder-Verse: Watchmen

All right then. Watchmen. I’m going all in with the director’s cut. All three and a half hours of it.

This is not going to be pretty.

The opening fight scene is a mess. There’s zero stakes, since we don’t know who the hell is fighting, although so much of Matthew Goode’s face is in the shot that the mystery here is all but immediately solved. Beyond that, the slo-mo robs the scene of any pacing or drama, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s cartoonish make-up is the first of several bizarre make-up choices the film makes. Okay, not the first, because I guess Robert Wisden, unrecognizable as Nixon, is on screen first.

I remember liking the credits montage when I saw this in the theater. Yes, I saw this in the theater. It’s still not a bad five minutes of the film. I’d say it gives away a lot, except again, no context for a lot of what we’re seeing. The lesbian re-casting of the VJ Day photo rings very strangely in a film that’s pretty anti-queer (which is to say, America’s iconic non-consensual kiss being explicitly shown as non-consensual but recast with girls leans hard into stereotypes about aggro lesbians coming for your wives), but what strikes me most on a rewatch is that they couldn’t time the montage out to the song. Looping the first verse of “The Times They Are A’Changing” is certainly not the worst sin this film commits, but you can’t tell me Snyder needed an extra minute of montage that bad.

The Rorschach voiceover sounds like it’s being delivered by someone doing a bad impersonation of Christian Bale’s Batman. Also, since we can’t see his mouth, it’s not entirely clear Rorschach isn’t saying all this out loud while at the crime scene. Speaking of which, mapping Rorschach onto Batman, complete with nearly supernatural/superhuman abilities to doge bullets and jump off building is the first hint of one of the ways this adaptation goes bad. Snyder falls in love with Rorschach in a way Moore never did.

Why is old Night Owl telling not-as-old Night Owl the members of the original Minutemen? Have they never met before?

I guess they saved on a screenwriter by just having the actors read out of the comics, possibly immediately before shooting the scenes.

Oh shit, this is the version with the pirate cartoons. What have I done?

(NOTE ADDED LATER: God, adding the pirate cartoons is so literal, and so dumb. This gets to why I’ve always disliked people handing Watchmen to comic book newbies. It’s so much about comics that it’s always felt like the equivalent of giving Ulysses to someone who’s never read a novel. In adding the pirate stuff, Snyder fails to make the smart easy shift to having the Watchmen movie be about movies. In his defense, superhero movies hadn’t quite reached the saturation point where a critique in line with Moore’s would be obvious. Curiously, the Lindelhof adaptation seems to be including a critique of prestige cable shows.)

Matthew Goode has superhumanly bad hair in this film. I’m trying to step back and wonder what it would be like seeing this without having read the book. Because it seems to me Goode is immediately telegraphed as the Big Bad via every possible trope. He’s the stereotypical pale and fey variant on male homosexuality that kind of screams villain, and has a mildly Eastern European accent to boot. At least, I think that’s what the accent is. Regardless, it is clearly unAmerican and includes a slight and inconsistent lisp. Thus, evil.

And at the thirty minute mark, we run face first into the problem of Rorschach’s voiceover. Comics are a polyglottal medium. Some individual comics may adopt one character to take over the narrative voice/captioning, particularly in contemporary comics. But in 1986, it was still standard practice to have several voices vying for the mic, possibly wrangled by one overarching authorial narrative voice (the epitome of this, for me, being the Angry Claremontian Narrator who would regularly castigate characters inside the text). Within Moore’s Watchmen, Rorschach’s journal voice is cordoned off, distanced. We are looking at it rather than through it.

Film voiceovers work differently, and have markedly different effects on what we’re seeing. Unless deftly handled, they become the authorial voice, the speaking voice of the film. So here in his second major voiceover, we have Rorschach spouting some serious homophobia. And because we’re not looking at it but through it, because it is directly shaping our sense of the narrative rather than striking the narrative at an angle, this homophobia becomes legitimized in the film.

Yeah, honestly at this point, I stopped making little notes. Mostly because drinking. But let me talk about a couple things.

I cannot understand how Patrick Wilson is so wooden in this movie, especially after seeing Aquaman. Wilson can handle schlocky dialogue with aplomb, but here every note is flat and clunky. When you have a collection of solid actors and none of them seem to be able to do anything with the material, it seems like maybe that’s a directorial problem?

Blue glowing wang is the only brave choice this movie makes, I’m going to say.

Every musical cue screams big budget. There’s no nuance to the picks, they are the most obvious songs you could go with, from “The Times They Are A’Changin’” over a montage of the late 20th century, to “Sound of Silence” for a funeral scene, to “99 Luftballoons” to signal “IT IS THE 80s NOW”, to Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable,” deployed with an odd ignorance to the song’s afterlife when it was resurrected by Natalie Cole in 1991. And the only thing worse than using “Hallelujah” in your movie is using it to score a sex scene. I’m not going to kink-shame folks who want to bone to Leonard Cohen, but maybe don’t.

Enough people have written about the rape plot in Watchmen that I don’t feel like I have to, but as is often the case, there’s a visceral brutality to sexual violence on film that other media lack. So yes, it’s a problem that comes from the source material, but adaptation doesn’t do it any favors.

Overall, it would be fair to call this a VERY LITERAL adaptation of the source material: images, transitions, framing shots lifted directly from the page. But in the attempt at a one-to-one translation, it misses…the whole point. I will ‘fess up and say that Watchmen is not my favorite comic book. I respect the hell out of it, but I have trouble loving it nowadays. It suffers for its imitators (and in some cases its fans) and at times falls into the thing it seems designed to critique. But my least compassionate read on the text wouldn’t end up where this film does, and that’s worth looking at.

For a moment, consider Moore’s Watchmen as one of the late 20th century’s Great Male Ambiguous Texts, alongside Taxi Driver and Fight Club, although I don’t think it belongs there necessarily. I’m of the opinion you need to willfully misread Taxi Driver and Fincher’s Fight Club, while Palahuniak’s novel has a lot more room for ambiguity. Nevertheless, these are all texts that offer up a critique of a certain form of masculinity by pushing it to an illogical and dangerous extreme, only to see some people celebrate the form of masculinity being critiqued. It’s reductive to say that Watchmen is all about this, but Rorschach certainly shares creative DNA with Tyler Durden and Travis Bickle.

Watching a college freshman tack a poster of a mohawk-sporting DeNiro on his wall, or hearing about idiot dudes who start their own fight clubs inspires nothing more than head-shaking depression, but here we have a fully developed misreading of a text, and it really does illuminate what goes wrong (for me) in Snyder’s DC adaptations.

So I want to zero in on the point of méconnaissance here, which seems to me to be a combination of two things. I think it starts with The Dark Knight Returns. Miller’s central gambit, his major addition to the Batman mythos at this point, is the possibility that Batman is a straight-up psychopath. Just the possibility of this reinvents and reorders the character for decades. And it’s a good idea, a good path to try out for a character that’s been around since the 1930s.

More recently in comics, Tom King has tried out a similar tack. Batman is suicidally depressed, throwing himself into deadly situations with not just disregard for his own life, but a kind of constant ideation. It’s an extension of The Dark Knight Returns’ opening pages, with Bruce Wayne meditating on what constitutes a “good death.” And it’s been a rich vein for King, resulting in a lot of good comics. It’s also not what you want for the permanent state of Batman, any more than the overprepared paranoiac of the 2000s was, or Miller’s gleeful sadist. All of these ideas or aspects are worth exploring, but each has a bad endpoint, which is, ultimately, Batman becomes villainous. They become validations of the thesis Moore rejects in The Killing Joke, that Batman is one bad day away from being as bad as the Joker.

Now let’s imagine Teenage Zack Snyder reading The Dark Knight Returns. Miller’s Batman is less of a critique than a version, an exploration of an endpoint for the character (for this reason, I’m in favor of imagining all of Miller’s work as a kind of non-canonical Millerverse, with Batman: Year One, All Star Batman & Robin, and Superman: Year One all part of the continuity that results in the DKR Batman). But like that kid putting up the Travis Bickle poster, Snyder reads Miller’s Batman as unambiguously heroic. Once you’ve made that mistake, it’s easy to conflate Rorshach with Batman, missing Moore’s critique entirely.

Moreover, if you adopt Frank Miller’s Batman as the moral center of your thinking, you inevitably end up suspicious of Superman. It becomes impossible to imagine a Superman who is good for the sake of being good, rather than out of some compulsion or set of limits. Because Batman is all about morality as an intersection of compulsions and limits. Miller’s Superman: Year One sees him suffering from the same lack of imagination.

Snyder’s Watchmen previews the ways in which he’s going to misread Superman and Batman. It’s not that reading the characters through the lens of Alan Moore would ensure the particular bad takes on the characters that Snyder lands on: Moore’s Miracleman and The Killing Joke offer more nuanced versions of both (I’m leaving out “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” and “For the Man Who Has Everything” because they’re more about Superman stories than they are about the character). It’s the misreading of Moore’s late period view of superheroes (late in terms of his golden age of superhero output), influenced by Miller, that lands you with Superman as a killer alien (juxtapose this with Dr. Manhattan, an alienated killer) and Batman as a fully justified sadist.

“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” -Frank O'Hara

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