April Issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 12 years ago

Die-hard fans (are there any other kind?) of Alan Moore’s seminal comic-book masterpiece Watchmen had a litany of complaints before its movie adaptation even hit the screens. A book with the depth and profundity of Watchmen, relying more on smart dialogue and a non-linear structure than action set-pieces, was widely considered un-filmable. Devotees were right to be worried. Zack Snyder’s version ofWatchmen so upset author Alan Moore that he refused to have his name appear anywhere in the credits.

The main problems with the movie are obvious in the opening scene: a five-minute montage showing how the masked superheroes lost their lustre and went from feted heroes to fascist outcasts. It is unfortunate that Snyder, whose earlier adaptation of 300, another comic-book classic, showed that understatement is not his strong suit and chooses Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’” as the soundtrack to this montage. It is an unnecessary flourish, ramming home with a distinct lack of subtlety the point that the times indeed have changed.

But those who were apprehensive that Snyder would never be able to recreate the look of the Watchmencharacters need not worry. Visually, the movie is stunning, almost like a comic book come to life. Vigilante outlaw Rosharch, with his ink-blot mask, is as menacing a figure as he was in the comic book, credit for which should go to the make-up team and actor Jackie Earle Haley. Haley portrays the complex Rosharch — a man who brutally murders anyone who crosses his path but is also the only masked avenger still trying to save the world — with appropriate ambiguity.

The other superheroes are equally multi-faceted. The Comedian is an unrepentant rapist who also happens to be one of the Watchmen’s strongest members. The shiny-blue Doc Manhattan, the result of a science experiment gone awry, seems to be emotionless but yet feels great love for Silk Spectre. The only superhero who seems to fit the prototype made popular by the likes of Batman and Superman is the fresh-faced Oxymandias. Yet, he too, is hiding a dark secret that is at the core of the movie.

Watchmen’s greatest weakness lies in its structure. In the comic book, the past lives of the disbanded superheroes are revealed gradually, through flashbacks, extracts from diaries and even allegory. The movie presents the sequence of events in a linear fashion, making it easier for audiences to follow the plot, but robbing the movie of much-needed depth. Even worse, the stunning twists in the movie, revealing conspiracies to destroy the world, are dealt with in a matter-of-fact way.

To be fair to Snyder though, the task was an impossible one. Even in a movie that approaches the three-hour mark, it is impossible to include every small detail that so enriched the comic book. And when you have fans as rapid as those of Watchmen, just the fact that Snyder has attempted to adapt the most unadaptable of texts is an achievement on its own.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.

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