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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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Saw Watchmen tonight. I had intended to review it here and then link to it from my 365 project, but I ended up pretty much saying everything I wanted over there. So I figured I’d just copy it here.

I’m going to try very hard not to leave spoilers here.

So today should be a happy day. I’ve been waiting for a Watchmen movie for the better part of my life. Today that dream came true.

Sometimes dreams should just be dreams.

It certainly wasn’t the worst movie ever. In fact, I had intentionally kept my expectations low. I’m quite capable of doing that.

Don’t get me wrong, even though I was keeping my expectations low, I really really wanted it to be a good movie. And it had it’s moments. I certainly didn’t expect it to be as ground breaking and medium changing as the comic was. But I wanted to enjoy it, and there were even things I did enjoy. But there was just too much.

The problem with most adaptations, comic books or otherwise, is that they deviate too far from the source material and they piss off the fans. A lot has been made of the ending to Watchmen being changed. I didn’t really care much for the new ending but that wasn’t that big a deal. Beyond that, they tried to be "faithful" to the book. To make sure they got every detail in that fans would be looking for.

They should have cut more.

The major text of Watchmen is 384 pages long. To accurately portray it on screen in a minute for minute translation, I’d estimate it’d run about 6 and a half hours or so. Undoable. So they cut it down. Removed all the minor characters. Removed a lot of the minor subplots, and tried to just hit all the major beats that made the story great.

Except, those major moments, while memorable were all very carefully crafted by Alan Moore (the original writer) to tie together all those minor subplots. By breezing through them we ended up with a lot of details that really go nowhere. There are details that occur that while they may look cool don’t have any setup because the subtle foreshadowing earlier in the story simply isn’t present. There are enough Chekov’s guns in the movie to arm a small army.

What this means is we have a movie nearly three hours long that is paced incredibly poorly. Sure it was fun, but it wasn’t good. A good adaptation makes me go "wow, that’s awesome, I have to read the original book and see what that was like." Watchmen didn’t do that. If I had never read the book, and I saw the film and knew everyone loved the book, I’d say "eh, I guess that was ok for a comic book movie, but really, what’s all the fuss?"

That’s the big issue. There’s little ones too. Stylistic problems I had with the cinematography, costuming and special effects. Stylistically, I want Watchmen to be somewhere along the vein of the Dark Knight. Instead, I felt like I got Batman Forever. This is not a good thing. I mean, I guess it’s fine, but I don’t want to laugh at Watchmen (and make no mistake I was laughing AT it, not WITH it). I want to be engrossed by it. I wasn’t. In fact, I really think that if I wasn’t already a fan, and wanted to give it a chance I would have been even more annoyed than I am.

Is it worth seeing, I guess. And it’s unreasonable to expect it to be as meaningful as the book, so I really worked on convincing myself that it wouldn’t be. But I hoped to be pleasantly surprised. And while I certainly didn’t expect it to be the best superhero movie ever, I really did think it’d probably be the best one of the year.

But honestly, at this point I can easily see the Wolverine movie or the GI Joe movie blowing it out of the water.

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18 comments for “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

  1. March 7, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    Lordy, that movie was long.

    As I feared, the super-slo-mo action scenes were terrible. Completely out of touch with the tone of the story. And there are shitloads of them.

    I really wonder: who is going to like this movie? I don’t think it really did enough to win over the hard-core Watchmen fans, and it’s way too long and too complicated (with, as you say, not a lot of payoff) for the normal moviegoer.

    It wasn’t terrible. I didn’t hate it. But it’s not particularly good.

    Ideas to make it better:

    * I like the idea of cutting more, though the devil is in the details.

    * Maybe do the trilogy thing? Worked out pretty well for the Lord of the Rings.

    * Hell, maybe just get Peter Jackson to direct it. At least he has taste. Zach Snyder seems like a hack (though I never got around to watching 300).

    * Fight scenes should all be re-shot by a fight director who has seen some movies other Charlie’s Angels and the Matrix. And made shorter. Leave more stuff unseen.

    * The sex scene in the clouds should be cut. It was cringe and giggle inducing.

    * More jokes. I know this is perverse sounding, but there are a lot of clever lines in the text. Let the actors cut the gloom with a world-weary pun. Rorschach gets a couple of good lines, but there could be more.

    1. March 7, 2009 at 10:42 pm

      The fight scenes really weren’t that bad. As I mentioned in my review, they were the best I’ve seen since my first kung fu movie experience and I watch a lot of action/ martial arts/ super hero movies.

      The primary purpose was to highlight the brutality of what these people do. At this point in cinema, its not that original but the hyper-real stylistic slo-mo shots and the inclusion of broken bones and flying blood sells the action. If the viewer wasn’t disgusted or didn’t cringe at least once per fight scene they would’ve failed to deliver. But they didn’t. they were cartoonish parodies of fighting that you weren’t supposed to like.

      As stylishly realistic as some like “The Dark Knight” is, it ignore the fact that Batman essentially cripples people on a nightly basis. This doesn’t. I agree with most everything, else though.

      1. March 8, 2009 at 3:36 am


        I guess we just disagree. To me, fight scenes like that just don’t look like fights. They look like carefully choreographed computer tricks with cheap gore and splatter thrown in. Real people don’t move that way, and the falseness of it all pulls me out of the flow of the story.

        Now granted, this is a problem with all stylization. People who aren’t opera buffs find the fact that real people don’t actually sing in the middle of a conversation off-putting, but it doesn’t mean opera is a stupid art form. So maybe if I were more of a fight scene connoisseur it wouldn’t distract me.

        It isn’t the brutality that bothers me — I think we agree that brutality is part of the point. It’s the manner in which the directors chose to depict it and how that meshes with the larger structure of the story. I guess I’m with Aristotle: it’s often better to keep the violence off-stage. Which was more effective [SPOILER] the scene where Big Figure’s henchman’s arms are cut off, or the scene where Rorschach does something unspeakable to Big Figure in the men’s room? To me, it’s the latter by a mile.

        Moreover, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan and [SPOILER] Ozymandias’ bullet catch, these guys aren’t superhuman, or even necessarily all that awesome as fighters. Rorschach main tactical advantage is creativity (the improvised flamethrower; the hot grease). Nite Owl is kind of flabby, and in the comic book is severely winded after the mugging scene. Eddie Blake is in great shape, but also 67 years old. However, once you slow everyone down and put them in bullet-time, you’re programming the viewer to *expect* them to be able to catch a bullet, which robs the actual incident of its impact.

        Overall, it’s a nit. The fight scenes didn’t ruin the movie. And I can see how if that’s your thing, you might think they were a highlight. But for me, narratively, they were a detriment, and I didn’t see any creativity in them particularly.

        I guess I am a little surprised that you liked them so much. For the non-connoisseur, what do you think makes them special?

        1. March 8, 2009 at 4:57 am


          they were filmed as panels on a comic page. when “bullet time” was invented, the idea was to bring the idea of decompression found in manga to cinema. the difference being that your imagination doesn’t have to fill in the movement from one image to the next. Which I’m sure you’re aware of but — aside from a few throw away scenes in the spiderman franchise…and posibly FF:RotSS — it really hasn’t been used in superhero movies.

          the choreography wasn’t impressive, but as you say, none of these people -excluding veidt and possibly the comedian- are supposed to be martial arts masters. At the same time, they used self-defense and combatives heavy fighting styles which tend to be more useful in street-fighting/brawling scenerios.

          Neither of those Rorschach moments actually worked for me, actually. The former scene was meant to show his improvisational skills and cunning, but came off as almost incidental to his participation in it(even the line change reflected that). The latter should have been incidental but was played for menacing effect..and failed.

          Its just a matter of visual reference, is suppose. In most films the slowed effect supposes something superhuman or extraordinary is happening, whereas here (IMO) its just there to let you take in everything at your own pace.

          I’ll admit that it does come off as slightly camp but that was partly the point.

          1. mav
            March 11, 2009 at 3:18 pm


            See, I don’t think the point should be camp. The reason everyone in watchmen is normal is that the world moore created was supposed to be hyperreal, as opposed to the comedic innocence of the the 50s (which we discover wasn’t so innocent or comedic after all). But the slowmo fight scenes didn’t let me take anything in at my own pace. They distracted me. They came off more as the modern equivalent of the 60s Batman fight sequence. That’s ok in some movies, not in this one.

          2. March 13, 2009 at 10:43 am


            there is a lot of dissonance between the visuals of the fight scenes and the overall atmosphere of the story. IMO, it was intentionally done as a way of saying “these people enjoy the brutality of what they do”. The shots at the end of the mugging scene did in seconds what the owl ship sex scene failed to do in what felt like 10 minutes.

            in any event, you’ll never here me say it was a good movie, but my expections going into it were based on knowing that its impossible to get a story that dense right in under 5 hours.

            I agree with you and mike about pretty much everything else (besides cutting more. It’s like trying to do “Roots” in 100 minutes…)

        2. mav
          March 11, 2009 at 3:12 pm


          I’m on the same page as you here. I didn’t like the fighting, but it didn’t kill it for me. At least not nearly as much as my problems with the editing, writing or the general direction of the film. Basically there are a lot of things about it that “aren’t awful” but aren’t particularly good either. And when combined they make it mediocre and a throwaway comic book movie. In a vacuum without ever having heard about the comic, I think it becomes rather forgettable. That makes me sad.

      2. mav
        March 11, 2009 at 3:05 pm

        I’m actually on Mike’s side. I don’t need to see that Batman cripples on a nightly basis. I can get that by the pool of humanity laying around him. The physicality of the fight is simply beyond Batman. He doesn’t care and neither should I. It happens too fast for me to even notice. That’s the mindset. Slowing things down simply takes me out of the moment. Even for the non-film buff, I don’t think they were cringing WITH the movie when Dan gives the thug a 3rd degree compound fracture, they’re cringing AT it. In the intro to Saving Private Ryan, guys are getting their heads blown off and I’m going “Oh my god! War is hell!” in Watchmen I’m going “ok, that’s just gross and stupid, why would they show me that?” Saving Private Ryan earned my suspension of disbelief. Watchmen didn’t. Obviously neither actor in either movie was actually injured, but in Watchmen I was painfully aware that it was fake and acting. I didn’t lose myself in the moment. That’s a failing.

        you’re right about one thing. I think they were trying very hard to emulate the appeal of the 70s kung-fu movies. The problem is in the 70s, when Bruce Lee did that, I kinda went OMGHEBROKETHATGUYSNECK!!!! or OMGHEPULLEDOUTTHATGUYSHEART!!! again, they earned my suspension of disbelief. Also, cinema was at a time then where special effects made that easier. in jaded 2009, I kinda went “oh they’re trying to be bruce lee, ummm, yay… or something.”

    2. mav
      March 11, 2009 at 2:32 pm

      * you and I had previously discussed the action scenes, so of course I agree completely. I think that the bullet time effects have much greater impact when used sparingly. Blake gets thrown out of a window, Jon gets his intrinsic field removed, then fine, slow me down. Punching a random thug or incidental fighting in a prison brawl, should happen at lightning speed. Screen time as well. Jon and Laurie’s fight with the muggers should have taken 60 seconds of screen time tops.

      * Another review I read made a really good point about the movie. It’s not really an adaptation. It’s an homage. It was an attempt to say to all the fanboys out there, “you’ve always wanted to see Watchmen on the big screen! Well now you can!” The problem is, you and I are atypical fanboys, I guess. We’d much rather see an actual good film. Despite all of confirmed below that not having read the book, she was really confused by the movie, and that’s a problem. She happens to be a big old geek and will likely read the book now anyway, but I’d rather people come out of an adaptation of an epic saying “wow, I really have to read that book now to see more of that world” not “oh, umm… that was neat, I guess.” I expect most of the non-geek population would fall into the latter category.

      * Had I been tasked with writing a big screen adaptation, I’d have shortened it another 40 min. or so. I would have removed present-day Hollis from the film entirely, as without his death, the hanging out with Dan scene is meaningless. I would have removed Rorschach’s origin flashback, as they only told the second half, and while I agree that it’s one of the coolest scenes in the movie, it doesn’t serve any story purpose unless we see the first half of the origin. It just tells us “rorschach is nuts! here’s why!” It doesn’t give us transition or growth. We already knew he was nuts, we don’t really need to know why (in the movie context). I probably would have beefed up Laurie’s character a little bit. Blake being her father more or less comes completely out of left field and has very little impact. In the book, it’s clear she HATES Blake. In the movie, she almost seems ambivalent to him up until then, other than when she’s directly confronted with it while speaking to her mother.

      * A trilogy might have worked, but I think it’d have been hard to cut in the LOTR style since the breaks aren’t as natural (despite it coming out as a limited series). I’d rather have seen a 5 part miniseries on SCIFI or something. I actually think that was the right medium. I could do without Hollywood style special effects in a story like this, as I’d rather give the characters breathing room. The effects budget of a Galactica episode would have been more than sufficient for each installment.

      * Fights. Again, agreed.

      * Sex in the clouds. I think this is important, but it was just done badly. First, I didn’t think they made it clear enough that Dan was impotent the first time Laurie tried to jump his bones. It just felt awkward (“I need a moment”) not embarrassing. Second, I think Snyder was trying to be HOT, but failed miserably. It was WAY less successful than your average late night Cinemax romp, and that’s troubling. In particular, the slow pan up Laurie’s legs to show that OMGSHESSTILLWEARINGTHEFUCKMEBOOTSANDTHEYREACTUALYFUCKINGHAWTHAWTHAWT!!! was just laughable. If I were a 13 year old boy, then maybe I might have jacked off to that. But I’m not and it just seemed silly and overtly wankerish.

      * Jokes, I dunno. In general I did feel that the dialog comes across as awkward. People in comic books just don’t talk like people in films. And neither talk like people in real life. They tried very hard to use script lines directly from the book and it just seemed forced. I don’t know that jokes would have helped, but a good rewrite would have done wonders.

      1. March 11, 2009 at 2:57 pm

        I like the idea of a mini-series. That would have been a much better idea. Lower budget, more room for the actors, and it gives the viewers bathroom breaks!

        Yeah, I don’t know about the jokes either. The other thing about the lines from the book are that they are very consciously lined up against specific artwork, often in an ironic fashion. Occasionally they tried to do that in the movie, but it wasn’t really working so well.

        Interesting data point from someone who hasn’t read the book: Jill liked the “biography” parts much better than the “plot” parts.

        1. mav
          March 11, 2009 at 3:21 pm

          Interesting data point from someone who hasn’t read the book: Jill liked the “biography” parts much better than the “plot” parts.

          Not surprising., They’re good. Though I’ll agree that they would have been harder to fit into the context of the film. They are being included as a DVD extra though. At least Hollis’s book is, having been translated into a documentary about the Minutemen.

          Ok, now all we have to do is get SCIFI to give us a budget.

      2. mav
        March 11, 2009 at 3:15 pm

        Part of this was garbled from a markup error. Bullet #2 should be:

        * Another review I read made a really good point about the movie. It’s not really an adaptation. It’s an homage. It was an attempt to say to all the fanboys out there, “you’ve always wanted to see Watchmen on the big screen! Well now you can!” The problem is, you and I are atypical fanboys, I guess. We’d much rather see an actual good film. Despite all of ‘s protestations about how “awesome it is” I doubt he can truly point out any artistic merit to the movie in its own right. Maybe he’ll comment and provide examples. But as much as I am a comic geek, I’m also a film geek, and this movie is lacking in its own right. confirmed below that not having read the book, she was really confused by the movie, and that’s a problem. She happens to be a big old geek and will likely read the book now anyway, but I’d rather people come out of an adaptation of an epic saying “wow, I really have to read that book now to see more of that world” not “oh, umm… that was neat, I guess.” I expect most of the non-geek population would fall into the latter category.

        1. March 11, 2009 at 3:29 pm

          The Philistine replies!

          You’re absolutely right that I’m not a film geek; I’m also not a film connoisseur. Why do I think it was an awesome movie? Because I do, that’s why, and that’s all that matters to me.

          I don’t pay much attention to what the critics say about movies, either.

          1. mav
            March 11, 2009 at 3:43 pm

            Re: The Philistine replies!

            That’s completely fair and a side issue. I can’t tell you what you should and shouldn’t like and wouldn’t dream of trying. There are lots of movies that I absolutely love that aren’t very good in even the slightest. Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death being one of my all time favorites.

            Where Watchmen fails isn’t in lacking fans, clearly they’re going to make money on it. So that people are enjoying it is indisputable and therefore not interesting to have a discussion on. What we can discuss is what made it and didn’t make it work. What made it or didn’t make it good from a technical sense.

            (Same is true of music, books, comics, video games, painting or any other art for that matter)

  2. March 10, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    Watchmen the graphic novel was, despite its novel-ness, episodic. Like TV shows. Like a serial comic book.

    Episodic things don’t tend to translate well into feature-length films. Producers have two options: new content based on that universe (a la the various Star Trek films), or a heavily cut summary of some major points (a la Batman Begins), but even the new Batman films didn’t try to cram everything into one film, they left room for other niftiness in sequels.

    1. mav
      March 11, 2009 at 3:32 pm

      it’s actually not really episodic. At least not in the traditional sense. It’s meant to be read as a single self-contained story. It was just released as a limited series, but that has more to do with the Graphic Novel not really being a viable form in 1986. Had it been written today, it would certainly have been released as a combined volume from the jump. Moore’s episodic fiction (Promethea, Supreme and Marvelman/Miracleman for instance) reads way differently than his epic stories (like Watchmen, Lost Girls or From Hell).

      That said, Watchmen was intentionally written to make use of the medium of comicbooks. Basically it was Moore’s attempt to say “hey look, here’s some shit you can only do in comics that wouldn’t work in a book or a movie!” so there’s clearly going to be some problems translating it. If they’d allowed it to happen organically and rewritten where need be that might have worked better. In trying to be “true to the comic” and appease the fanboys, they ultimately ended up with a lot of crap that doesn’t work from a mainstream point of view and doesn’t really add anything to mythos from a comic point of view. It was just…. “Amusing”…


  3. March 10, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    I had not read the book, and therefore, did not understand so much of the movie. There were giant holes in the plot, a lot happened that made no sense to me. But it made me want to read the book, since I’m convinced it’s so much better than the movie. My favourite parts were the parts with Rorschach, but kinda just cuz he was so badass. All in all, not that exciting, or interesting, or good. Watchable, sure, but, not even close to being as good as The Dark Knight. Not even close.

    1. mav
      March 11, 2009 at 3:35 pm

      Thank you! I was looking for someone with exactly your background to see what they thought and now you’ve answered it.

      That’s why I think it failed as a film. I’m actually surprised you were inspired to read the book at all.

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