Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Do Not Watch the Watchmen

The title is a bit cliché, but I wanted something that would grab people’s attention. As you’ve probably guessed, this post is all about why you shouldn’t see the Watchmen movie that opens this week. There are a whole host of reasons why this movie never should have been made, and I’ll try to go through all of them.

First of all, just in case you have no idea what I’m talking about, Watchmen is a twelve-issue 1986-87 comic book series written by Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons. It’s about a group of former superheroes who are being killed off in a world where costumed vigilantism has been made illegal. It’s widely considered to be one of the best and most influential comic stories of all time, and it’s been collected into a graphic novel which has been in print for over two decades.

A movie adaptation of Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300), comes out on Friday, and for reasons that I really can’t understand, some people are just foaming at the mouth for it. I love the book, but the movie looks like a complete disaster in every way imaginable. It’s more than just that, though – the movie, in a lot of ways, represents everything I dislike about the film industry and certain segments of the movie-going public.

The fundamental difference between Watchmen and comic books like Spider-Man or Batman is that you can always tell new stories about those characters – even ones that might be a better fit for the big screen than for a comic book. But with Watchmen, there is only one story, and it’s already been told. Any retelling of that story can only dilute it, especially if it’s in a medium other than comics.

Brian K. Vaughan (the writer of such popular comic books as Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, as well as one of the writers on TV’s Lost) puts it extremely well: “I’ll go see it [Watchmen] if it doesn’t feel like a betrayal of what Alan Moore wants. But it’s like making a stage play of Citizen Kane. I guess it could be OK, but why? The medium is the message.”

It’s an excellent point. Personally, I’m fed up with the mentality that film is the ultimate art form, and that any story told well in another medium should automatically be made into a movie. I love movies (enough to have started a whole blog about them!), but to assume that every story worth telling has to be told in audiovisual form is arrogant, presumptuous, and entirely disrespectful to the original creators of that story. Speaking of which, perhaps now would be a good time to mention that Alan Moore refuses to have anything to do with the film (and, in fact, says he has no intention of even seeing it).

Another big part of my problem with Watchmen boils down to some basic issues I have with the increasingly mainstream nature of comics. Comic books are more in vogue now than they have been probably since the 1960s, and it has a lot to do with the excellent quality of so many recent superhero movies. But while it’s nice that one of my favorite hobbies doesn’t get me as many awkward glances as it used to (I’ve been reading comics on a regular basis since I was in the seventh grade), I find myself incredibly annoyed that so many people are reading comics these days just because it’s the “cool” thing to do.

The people I’m talking about aren’t the ones who are legitimately interested in learning about the medium – people like that are always welcome – but rather the ones who say, “I’m going to read Watchmen and V for Vendetta so people will be impressed by me” and who refer to comics only as “graphic novels” because they think it makes them sound more refined. Newsflash, guy (or girl): the comic books you’re reading aren’t “niche,” they’re as mainstream as it gets. Hell, Time Magazine listed Watchmen as one of its top 100 American novels a couple of years back. It’s good that you’re reading some truly great stories, but doing so doesn’t make you “cultured” or “well-rounded.” It’s a lot like bragging about having seen Star Wars or The Godfather.

Unfortunately, these are the sort of people for whom the Watchmen movie was tailor-made. They’re the people who think film is the only legitimate art form, that Chuck Palahniuk is “deep,” and that Watchmen is the next Dark Knight. Most importantly, they’re the people who didn’t get Watchmen when they read it. Because as anyone who appreciates the comic and has done even the slightest research on the movie knows, the changes director Zack Snyder has made for the movie – specifically, in the ending – completely undermine the entire thrust of the story.

I know a lot of people reading this probably haven’t read Watchmen, so I’m not going to spoil exactly what Snyder changed. The point, though, is that a significant part of Alan Moore’s ending in the book is wild, bizarre and comes out of left field in a way that it has to in order for the plot to work. But more than that, the way Snyder has changed the ending not only creates a plot hole big enough for you to drive a truck through, it eliminates something essential to the overall tone of the story.

Many people, including Moore himself, have made the argument that the true ending of Watchmen is “unfilmable,” and that the average movie-going audience wouldn’t be very receptive to it. They’re probably right. But the solution is easier than you might think: just don’t make a movie based on Watchmen. I really can’t say it enough – just because a story is good doesn’t mean it has to be made into a movie. In the case of Watchmen, the greatness of the original story arises from things inherent to its being a comic book. Everything from Rorschach’s mask to the nature of Dr. Manhattan’s powers just works in a way that can’t be replicated, much less improved upon, in another medium.

Even if all you’re looking for is a mindless action flick, the Watchmen movie is still a failure. Every trailer and video clip that’s been released has reveled in its own slow-mo, music-video-style editing, but it’s all old hat at this point. It’s the exact same style Snyder used in 300, minus the decapitations – so if you’re really a fan of that kind of stylized action, you would do better to just rent that movie. At least in 300, the technique sort of works; it’s a movie that puts style over substance and succeeds because, honestly, its substance isn’t anything special. But in the case of Watchmen, a story that actually does have some meat to it, that kind of action can only detract from the rest of the experience. If Moore and Gibbons didn’t need slow motion action scenes to tell their story, why should we need them to enjoy the story now?

I hope by this point that I’ve gotten my point across without sounding like a raving lunatic. The fact is that even in the best-case scenario, the Watchmen movie can’t ever be more than an inferior version of the graphic novel. And why settle for inferiority when you don’t have to – especially when the more likely scenario is that the movie will just be flat-out bad? Please, for your own sake, do not see Watchmen. You’ll be wasting your time and money, and if you haven’t read the book you’ll be denying yourself a truly wonderful experience.

And just in case all of that isn’t enough to convince you, let me sweeten the pot a little. If, say, twenty people go to the comments section of this post and honestly pledge not to see the movie, I’ll choose one of them randomly and buy him or her a copy of the Watchmen book. (If you get chosen and you already have the book, I’ll get you something you don’t have.) So that’s it…comment away!


Like A said...

I, Alexander Filippo Kaftan, do solomnly swear, to never see "Watchmen" at a cineplex. Or so help me God.

DSJ said...

Daniel Scott Johnston here, the movie is BLASPHEMY and I refuse to ever watch it. Why would I ever watch this pos? YOU CAN'T TURN THE COMIC BIBLE INTO A MOVIE OR ALAN MOORE WILL CURSE YOU INTO THE 6TH DIMENSION AAAAHHH
It makes me so mad to see moving characters and a glowing Dr Manhattan and I cant even speak right now

Natasha said...

i wouldn't watch it cuz the previews look stupid.

i'd rather watch 300, even if they make fun of persians.

plus, i'm too cheap to pay 11.50 for a movie. lame.

Anonymous said...

I Jonathan Stepp pledge to not see this movie.

Andy said...

Knowing my own lack of initiative in procuring movies to watch, and seeing the opposition of several of my key movie suppliers, I suspect I will not be watching "Watchmen" too soon. I also just read the book "Japanamerica," which analyzes the success of manga anime in America and ongoing transformation of the anime industry. Author Roland Kelts illuminates many of the issues facing turning comics/graphic novels into movies.