Hurm. I feel as though I’m stepping on SEK’s subject here. But I saw Watchmen last night, and.. it left me rather unaffected. This came as something of a surprise to me, as I am usually fairly easy to satisfy when it comes to action films. Flip a truck, jump Galactica into atmosphere, fight Agent Smith and say “there is no spoon”, double-bladed lightsaber, fly around in a cheesy red suit, and I’m usually on board with thinking it was an enjoyable popcorn flick. Watchmen didn’t grab me, and after the jump I will explain why with spoilers.
Watchmen doesn’t have a great plot. Neither does the book, and that’s both a fair and unfair criticism. Fair because it’s true, and unfair because it’s not the point of the book. What the book studied was the idea of a superhero, and how it would affect the world if they existed, and what sort of people they would have to be. (One meta-problem with the film is that almost every superhero film takes these questions as something that just have to be answered in the course of the movie, e.g., The Dark Knight. You mean that superheroes are messed up? Do tell!)
And so my problems with the film can be reduced to two major differences it has with the book: the characterization of Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, and the ending, because between the two of those, it meant that not only did the film have no plot, it didn’t understand the question it was meant to investigate.
Ozymandias. In the book, Adrian Veidt is an all-American golden boy. He is a retired hero, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, a polymath who has interests in both physical and mental excellence. He’s a pacifist and a vegetarian, and the sort of man who admires Alexander the Great for uniting the world and ruling it without barbarism and for creatively solving the problem of the Gordian knot.
The knot of his time is the threat of global thermonuclear war, and he figures that he is the only one who can solve it, by creating a threat greater than thermonuclear war to get the world to unite. This is the fall of the superman, the tragic arc of one who began to believe his own mythos such that he believed that he was justified in taking millions of lives. In the book, it’s a shock precisely because Veidt was the antithesis of Rorschach.
In the movie, Adrian is sinister from the very beginning. White-blond, not golden. Thin and sleek, not a lion. Ominous, not joyful. A very creepy ruthless business executive. The sort of guy who would have his company underbid on the rebuilding contracts after destroying the city. But the real problem with Adrian is revealed in…
the ending. Not the decision to change the means of the mass explosion, because that was smart on two grounds: a) the giant squid was exceedingly stupid and b) there is no way you want to give Zach Snyder a multi-ton monster whose purpose is to be exploded viscera.
What makes the ending of the book great is two things. The first is Adrian’s ambivalence. When he sees the destruction has gone successfully, he throws his arms in the air and shouts “I did it!” in relief and joy and sorrow, with tears streaming down his face. After everyone leaves, he worriedly asks Dr. Manhattan,
Jon, wait, before you leave… I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.
Alone, he wonders whether he was right after all; what a terrible burden. What a terrible crime.
The second thing that makes the ending great is how it flips the moral universe established so far on its head. Rorschach is a sociopath and violence barely controlled, and earlier he praised the Comedian, who he saw as uncompromising, a man who really understood “man’s capacity for horrors and never quit.” And yet it’s Adrian who murders millions to save the world, and Rorschach who is horrified and can’t go along with the cover-up. And, crucially, it’s Nite Owl, soft, impotent Nite Owl, who was repulsed by Rorschach’s brutal methods, who agrees the most quickly to preserve the lie. And the reader is left in sympathy with Rorschach, who, let’s be clear, is completely despicable.
In the film, Adrian is cold and calculating, Nite Owl capitulates only after watching Manhattan destroy Rorschach and venting his spleen on Adrian’s face and shouting ‘nooooo’ like Anakin Skywalker, and Rorschach alone is unchanged. This is a far greater violation to the spirit of the ending than replacing the giant squid with an energy weapon, because it means that the point of the story just isn’t there. And, like I said, there’s not exactly an plot here.
Beyond that: worst use of Hallelujah in a film. Ever.