My Problem With Watchmen (and I’m a fan)

Like many this weekend, I headed to my local theater for the 2.5 hr comic book movie extravaganza that was Warner Bros' 'Watchmen.'

I’ve talked about this book before, where I basically said that Watchmen is our Rosetta stone for outsiders to understand the comic book medium and why it attracts so many of us with its four color madness. Watchmen is our story – one that touches comic book fans with its realistic, literary, adult approach to the concept of superheroes. It changed everything we knew or assumed about what a comic is, and showed us the form’s storytelling potential.

Watchmen was originally a 12 issue “Maxi-series” (a DC Comic marketing term meaning you had to hunt for more than six issues to get the complete story). Since that debut 20+ yrs. ago, Watchmen has been primarily distributed in a “graphic novel” format – those 12 issues having been collected in one complete volume.

Saturday I bought my ticket, paid for my popcorn, was ushered to my seat and sat back for 2.5 hrs to an adaptation of one of my favorite graphic novels (Ministry of Space and The Rocketeer being two others). I won’t go into details about the movie. If the $82M worldwide box office is any indication, you’ve seen it already and are reading this just to figure out what were my problems with it.

So below is my list of problems, born out of my appreciation of the original work, and what I see as a fundamental misstep by Warners. It is entirely subjective.

My most fundamental problem with Watchmen is that the story is a long series of chapters and to try and cram that amount of story into 2.5 hrs. just doesn’t work – at least not as well as the story and the audience deserves. If embarking on a project to adapt a 12 part book to another media then the most appropriate analogy is television.

Unfortunately, Watchmen doesn’t function as a movie. It’s a size 12 story shoe horned into a size 2.5 wide movie. Zack Snyder and company did their level best. There were some storytelling tricks (as well as some editing, music and visual brilliance) that gave you a ton of detail in every scene, but each scene felt rushed in order to keep the plot moving.

Imagine you had to see a whole season of Lost or Heroes (analogous storytelling models with many characters, flashbacks, etc…) in the space of 2.5 hrs. Would it be as good as it could be? Would it lose something? The same principle applies here.

So yes, Watchmen needed “breathing room.” There’s a subtlety to the characters and relationships that takes time to develop. The audience has to take time to absorb the emotions surrounding Dan Dreiberg’s (Nite Owl 2) unrequited love for Laurel Jupeczyk (Silk Spectre 2) when they were “adventuring”. There’s more subtlety and tragedy to the story of Janey Slater and Jon Osterman’s ( Dr. Manhattan) death and resurrection than what is presented. There’s more to the relationship Rorschach has with his therapist than the scene in the interrogation room with the cards.

Watchmen the comic is a series of story threads woven through the main plot. Conversely, in Watchmen the movie you see those stories start and stop, but they are short threads warping the tapestry. In losing those scenes, editing those character moments you lose much of the resonance that has made Watchmen one of The NY Times’ Top 100 Novels Since 1923.

Finally, Watchmen was trying to be faithful to the work by utilizing the actual words of the characters from the comic. It doesn‘t work. There is a fundamental difference between dialogue that is meant to be read and dialogue that is meant to be performed. In many ways this faithful approach saddled the actors with words that sounded hollow instead of full and rich and…real. Part of the problem was the “scene rush” mentioned earlier, but part of it was dialogue. In particular, I am thinking of the reconciliation scene between mom and daughter at the end. A tender moment was rendered onscreen as odd.

Television does character and interwoven plotlines really well, and in a moment of Monday morning quarterbacking, I wish “television” had the opportunity to tackle these characters. Imagine a huge event designed to get people back to television for a certain run of nights during the week – like Roots, From the Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers, John Adams. Imagine the subsequent DVD set filled with all sorts of must-have material.

Instead we have a movie that, try as it might, is very hard to digest. A multi-million dollar cinematic Cliff’s Notes.