Despite being an avid fan of Watchmen, purchasing multiple copies over the years and tracking down issues of magazines like Amazing Heroes and The Comics Journal from the period of the series’ release, I can’t help but look down on the upcoming cinematic version (you know, the one with the action figures, coffee, condoms, ad nauseum.) If you know me, you’ve heard me scream that Watchmen is at its core a comic book, much like Citizen Kane is a movie. It uses its medium’s strengths and weaknesses to the story’s advantage throughout, doing things that can’t work on screen, even if you take each and every panel from the book, carefully edit the voiceovers into it, and ensure that each line of dialogue is exactly as it appears on-page. I can go on and on about the technical aspects, but there’s a more important element that’s sitting at the core of my misgivings about this slick-looking piece of superhero cinema.
Watchmen is at its core a drama. Yes, there’s a mystery that brings its main cast of players together, but it’s really about broken people and the fucked-up lives they lead. Laurie and Walter’s respective relationships with their mothers; the way Dan’s nostalgic values and fierce devotion to an intellectual ideal leads him down a lonely path; Adrian and Jon’s parallel devotion to logic, with the first becoming more alien as the other is held aloft as the height of humanity – all of these make the book work, and that’s where the real power of Watchmen lies, not in the (elegant and rewarding to be sure) investigation into the murder of Edward Blake. Even as they peel apart the superhero meme, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons devote a considerable amount of the book’s pagecount to exploring the common man in all its diversity (the newsstand vendor and the kid who reads pirate comics, the lesbian couple’s relationship woes, the psychiatrist who becomes obsessed with Rorschach.)
It’s this elegant dissection of people that allows Laurie’s realizations about her father to have a greater impact that the multiple pages devoted to Veidt’s final solution and its implementation. Moore is telling a story about everyone while Snyder, with his video game cutscene aesthetic and the stilted, too-mannered performances that pervade the clips available of the film, seems to have missed that point entirely, focusing on the costumed identities and the mystery. Yes, these are a few short pieces of scenes from a movie with a 2+ hour running time, but they seem quite telling. The riot scene from the 70s becomes high camp thanks to music by KC And The Sunshine Band and a jump that takes place in slow motion because it looks cool. Laurie and Dan’s re-emergence as superheroes is positively generic in its execution, lacking charm and tension entirely. Perhaps in the context of the film, these scenes have more power, but as someone who has read the book at least a dozen times over the years and knows how each beautifully-constructed simulacrum of a scene from the book fits into that story, I can’t help but pre-judge.
The more I see of the film version of Watchmen, the less I like it, and perhaps more importantly, the more I dislike what it represents: the dumbing-down of something greater for the sake of a false “authenticity” that’s apparent only to those shallowest of readers of the source material. Zack Snyder may have a made a movie that’s called Watchmen, features a cast of characters directly from the book, and liberally makes use of the book’s contents, but I’ll be very surprised if it has any of the original’s heart.