Jacob Farley and Maggie McMuffin took some time out of their respective crimefighting to re-watch the Watchmen and write a dual review. Time hasn’t been kind to the film.
Note: Jake and Maggie watched the theatrical version and not the much longer director’s cut because they have lives to live. Jake has a baby on the way and Maggie has memes to make. They agree that the additional material probably wouldn’t have changed their opinion.
JACOB FARLEY’s RE-VIEW
Jake: Watchmen the movie is a distillation of every wrong lesson comics from the ’90s and 2000s took from Watchmen the comic.
Welcome to Jacob’s Comics Corner!
Hi, true believers. I’m here to talk a little about Watchmen, the comic and the movie. I’ll spare you the usual boring shit about the history of the movie (at one point, Terry Gilliam was going to make it!) in order to bore you with some other dumb bullshit, because it’s time to “well in the comics…” all over this review!
WATCHMEN THE COMIC by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is one of my all-time favorite works of art. I’ve been reading it and returning to it for nearly 20 years at this point, and I genuinely find new connections and ideas every single time. It is dense with thematic meaning, some of it thuddingly obvious and some of it remarkably subtle, and all of it operating at a level of focus and intent rarely seen in any creative endeavor, much less in superhero funnybooks. That should not be read as a dig at superhero comics, mind you, a genre of entertainment of which I am quite fond. Instead, it is merely an acknowledgement of the level of craft involved in a book like Watchmen. It wouldn’t be any kind of hyperbole to say that reading Watchmen for the first time at age 18 has had a profound impact on the rest of my life.
If you’ve never read the comic, a brief overview will suffice—beginning publication in 1986, Watchmen was Alan Moore’s attempt to reckon with the “reality” of a superhero/vigilante mindset. Initially planning to use pre-existing DC Comics characters for this purpose, the psychological realism, sexual dysfunction, and realistic violence which the story hinged on gave DC cold feet about allowing this. Moore then decided to just make up his own characters who would be extremely reminiscent of existing heroes (Dan Dreiberg’s Nite Owl, for instance, is a rich guy with a flying animal theme to his outfit who uses gadgets and martial arts to fight crime, not unlike Batman or, more directly, the second Blue Beetle), but nevertheless distinct creations in their own right.
The story takes place in a world where the publication of Action Comics #1 (the debut of Superman) kicked off a real-life craze for costumed vigilantism beginning in the late 1930s. We come into the story in the 1980s, a 1980s which has been profoundly affected by the presence of these costumed vigilantes. (For instance, we find that Richard Nixon is on his 5th presidential term for reasons which are only alluded to.) These folks don’t have any actual superpowers, they weren’t bestowed with great power by destiny, they aren’t exercising great responsibility—they’re just people who are willing to put on weird pajamas and go get in fistfights with people. So we are constantly confronted with the question of “why”? What is driving these people to do this? Moore dives deeply into this question for each character, and the answer is different for each—one was pushed into it by her mother, another saw it as a great branding opportunity, while for a third it’s a sexual kink, and on and on. I should note that there is ONE character with superpowers—his name is Dr. Manhattan (previously John Osterman)—a Cherenkov-blue naked man who was given incredible power over all matter in a nuclear accident. He’s not handling it well, psychologically speaking.
There is a plot. It involves a murder investigation which is not what it appears and, while it is perfectly serviceable, it is not the point. To discuss this, though, we must come to ZACK SNYDER’S THE WATCHMEN.
Here is my take on ZACK SNYDER’S THE WATCHMEN, which I have come to after a decade of returning to the movie and the comic—it is a gorgeous surface adaptation. It looks very good, the costumes are (mostly) great, the casting is (mostly) superb, the acting is (mostly) excellent. The problem is that Zack Snyder left the heart of the story out.
Watchmen is about compassion.
In order to write this book, Moore (and thus the reader) had to dive so deeply into each of the major character’s psyches, that they become almost real—Rorschach, the brutal vigilante with the tragic childhood, who had a psychological break when faced with the senseless murder of a kidnapped girl; Silk Spectre, the young woman who never had a chance to follow her own dreams because of her overbearing stage mother who forced her into costumed crimefighting; Dr. Manhattan’s struggle to emotionally connect with a species and planet which he increasingly feels he is no longer truly a part of—each of these characters have inner lives and tensions and peccadillos that help us understand them as the messy, complicated humans they are. There are no noble aliens protecting an adopted homeworld, or dark knight crusaders protecting the streets here. Just some folks.
Snyder is a little less interested in all that stuff. What Snyder likes is the big picture “cool” stuff—the fistfights, the sex, the exploding gangsters. All that stuff is great and can be lots of fun, but what makes Watchmen special is that all of that cool stuff is just the icing on the psychological realist cake. Meals that are all icing rarely satisfy.
There are a few key things I’d like to point to in support of this.
1. Snyder’s overall neglect of the Laurie (Silk Spectre) plotline. This cuts to the heart of the issue—it is a very tough story about very difficult, complicated emotions. Through the course of the comic, we learn that a character named the Comedian (whose murder kicks off the plot) attempted to rape Silk Spectre’s mother in the ’40s (the Silk Spectre of the main plot is the daughter of the original Silk Spectre). This was a fairly well-known incident in-universe, having been detailed in tell-all book published by one of the costumed heroes of the time. What Laurie will eventually come to learn is that the Comedian is in fact her father, with her mother and him having eventually had a consensual sexual encounter which resulted in her birth. This fact had been concealed from her for her whole life, and learning it shatters her conceptions of the world. This is also a key factor in Dr. Manhattan’s emotional epiphany—that such a violent event could, eventually, result in the existence of someone he loves as much as Laurie is, in his words, the “thermodynamic miracle” that proves the value of life.
Not a lot of that makes it into the movie, context-wise! Instead of both Laurie and Dr. Manhattan reaching the epiphany that all life is a genuine miracle and worthy of wonder and love despite the crucible of violence from which it emerges, we just have ol’ Doc Manhattan use his time powers to tell Laurie what’s up with her gross dad.
2. Now, to be fair, Rorschach is one of the most misinterpreted characters in all of comic book history, much less just Watchmen. In the popular conception, he is the cool Batman-type who never gave up (vigilantism was eventually made illegal in the world of Watchmen, and when the story starts, only Rorschach is still active), who refuses to compromise, who is so tough and cool and dangerous that an entire prison full of criminals is scared of him. This, you will note, is basically how he is presented in the film (excellently cast and portrayed by Jackie Earle Haley).
Here is what Snyder leaves out of his portrayal from the comic—Rorschach smells bad. Rorschach is a bad detective. Rorschach is a misogynist and homophobe. Rorschach is a voracious reader of far right-wing conspiracy newspapers. Rorschach is a violent maniac whose main investigative strategy is literally to walk into a random bar and start breaking a random person’s fingers until someone tells him something he wants to hear. He admits to doing this to at least 17 people during the course of the comic (we don’t see them all) and NONE OF IT LEADS ANYWHERE. If Rorschach were a person in our world, he would be one of those QAnon guys who winds up shooting up a pizza place.
But in Snyder’s mind, this guy is cool as hell.
3. The Comedian’s murder. The Comedian is a character I haven’t touched on much so far—his murder kicks off the plot, and he had a significant impact on the history of both the individual characters (see Laurie’s story above), as well as the broader world of the story. (For instance, it’s implied he assassinated Woodward and Bernstein before they could break the Watergate scandal.) In the comics as in the movie, his murder opens the story, and we see it intercut with detectives investigating the scene of the crime. In the comics, we can see that the Comedian, for all his combat experience and fighting ability, is swiftly overwhelmed, beaten, and killed. (This is actually something of a clue as to the real identity of the murderer.) In the movie, however, this is turned into quite the fight scene, with a beefy Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian literally breaking concrete apart with his bare-fisted punches and extensive choreography. Is it “cool”? Yes. Does it do anything for the story beyond just looking cool? Well, I think you can guess my answer there.
Of course, none of this is especially surprising, given Zack Snyder’s filmography. 300, Sucker Punch, Dawn of the Dead—all flashy, good-looking movies. All very focused on what looks cool, what gives the biggest rush in the moment, how to make everyone look extremely badass and awesome to the max. And there’s nothing wrong with that! It just proves to be a poor fit for the material, because what Zack Snyder likes isn’t complicated moral stakes—it’s looking dope. In highlighting everything he loves about Watchmen, Zack Snyder robs it of everything that makes it special.
A FEW OTHER THOUGHTS
- The casting really is great. Billy Crudup in particular gives probably the best possible performance as Dr. Manhattan. Only Malin Åkerman as Silk Spectre II struggles, and I think that has more to do with the focus of the story completely moving away from anything approaching a coherent arc for her character.
- The credits are spectacular. This and Dawn of the Dead show Snyder really knows how to do a killer intro.
- If you’re familiar with the comic, you’ll know the ending is changed fairly significantly in the movie. I think the change is quite stupid, personally, though I am open to the argument that the original ending in the comics would be difficult to pull off onscreen. If you want to fight about it, please reach out to me on the internet and I’ll be glad to do so.
— Jacob Boshart-Farley
MAGGIE MCMUFFIN’s RE-VIEW
Maggie: I read Watchmen for a boy and quickly learned that all boys are wrong about Watchmen.
This is a movie that ten years ago I thought was alright. I don’t tend to hate movies the same way lots of other nerds do. I even like to re-watch Academy Award-Winning Suicide Squad even though most of it commits the worst sin a movie can commit: being boring.
Watchmen is a fine movie in a shrug your shoulders sort of way. If it were on TV I might watch it but I cannot see myself voluntarily selecting it from Netflix again.
Watchmen the comic is…well, Jake just told you all that. I just don’t have it in me to talk about how groundbreaking the thing was. I read it multiple times back when I thought reading Alan Moore would get me laid (it did but not, you know, well) and that if I squinted my eyes and ignored his rape-happy tropes, it was politically sound. The movie was not the book but, hey, Snyder adapted it as well as he could have. And by that I mean I now realize that if you watched this movie with the sound off or just looked at stills you would say, “Wow, what a perfect adaptation!” The problem is when people start talking and you hit literally any script changes or emotionally charged scenes. The acting choices make no sense, which I am blaming on directorial choices because this cast is really reeeeally fucking good. And everyone is cast well. Even Billy Crudup’s insistence on never showing emotions is mined for moments of brilliance here, and Dr. Manhattan’s origin story is hands-down the second-best part of this movie. (The first best is opening credits.)
My only exception to this rule is Matthew Goode, who is horribly miscast as Ozymandias. Dude is sinister, has a vaguely German accent (???), and generally seems like he might be playing a Nazi in another comic book film. You know who would have been a perfect Ozy? Chris Evans. Think about how he killed that “I ate a baby” monologue in Snowpiercer and then think about him holding the weight of the world on his shoulders while telling us why sacrifices must be made.
Meanwhile, the only thing I really dug into was the violence. Every single scene has added violence. The opening where Comedian just gets his sad old ass handed to him? It’s now a guns- and knives-filled brawl. The rape scene? Definitely more gut punches. Anything involving Rorschach? Oh baby, you won’t believe how much blood a human body can hold!
There is of course one scene that minimizes the violence, and that is the scene where a Vietnamese woman, heavily pregnant with the Comedian’s child and scorned by him, slashes his face with a bottle. Dude barely gets a scratch, but we still see him shoot her in the belly point blank.
This film glorifies violence in a way that the comic book specifically warns us not to do. Only mentally unstable bean-smelling closet cases like Rorschach think street-level violence is gonna amount to substantial social change. Or rapey dickbags like the Comedian who eventually lose the stamina for it, because beating people up is a young man’s sport for people who still have their original teeth.
But the worst part is all the needless changes and cuts. There is NO reason for Laurel to exist here other than to awkwardly bang Nite Owl. There is nearly no time spent on her hatred of the Comedian, which means her breaking Manhattan’s glass Mars palace is an unearned moment of humanity. Too bad it’s supposed to be the thing that makes him decide Earth is worth saving, because at this point we’re just waiting for this whole mess to be over and know that there won’t even be the consolation of a giant squid.
I didn’t really care about that ten years ago but I sure as frick do now.
Because the whole point is to mine the subconscious of a ton of artists to create a threat that will bring humanity together against a larger other than each other. Instead, it’s Doctor Manhattan, who is America’s dude, so why would the world not just blame America for him going crazy, fucking off to Mars, and then coming back to fuck shit up? Just because he’s blue and naked doesn’t mean he’s an unknown variant. Quite the opposite!
And there’s no excuse for not spending time making that plotline happen because the director’s cut has the goddamn Black Freighter happening and that’s just supplemental material Alan Moore uses to beat us over the head with one of his themes.
Look, this movie was fine ten years ago because I was younger and had time to waste. But I do not have the time to waste on boring movies anymore. I will be 30 at the end of the year. We are on our own fast-track to oblivion with something worse than a cowboy in the oval office, and that’s a tantrum-throwing reality star. We could all die tomorrow, and it won’t even be something as cool as giant squid that causes world peace. It would just be another bleak moment in a series of bleak moments. Comic books and by extension their movies should give us hope for a better world, but all this gave me was 3 hours with a good friend yelling at the TV.
Which I guess is better than having watched it alone.
Oh, and those awkward-as-fuck sex scenes?
They are worse than you remember.
What this movie lacks in a point, it also lacks in giant squid monsters, good age makeup, and Chris Evans. I too would like to fuck off to another galaxy and become a god rather than stay in this world.
— Maggie McMuffin
Choice Viewing Notes Quotes from Maggie and Jake
“Get ready to see more radioactive penises than you have ever seen before.”
“J: This movie is full of great actors doing really great work and just completely misunderstanding the point of the book.
M: I think it’s a bunch of great actors being incredibly misdirected and not getting a chance to be good. Except Jackie Earle Haley who is perfect and understands Rorschach is bad.”
“Every element of it except the fundamental understanding of what it’s supposed to be about it impeccable.”
“Now that I am older, I can spot all the needless pop cultural political references.”
“Which again, are not in the comic because they are so needless.”
“I don’t think Snyder cares about a specifically female story.”
“What do you mean? He made Sucker Punch.”
“Oh you’re right. He is the greatest feminist filmmaker in the world.”
“Do you wanna put on a costume and go to the bone zone or what?”
“It is all she knows.”
“It’s a riot. There’s gotta be a guy on fire.”
“They kept the lynx though.”
“Bubastis is a good girl.”
“Wow, they’re just shoehorning this in.”
“Remember the Comedian? We sort of dropped that plotline for the last forty minutes.”
On Mars, anything is possible, Laurie