Watching Watchmen, not so bad, after all

I’ve known Justin Stewart for a long time. I’m guessing close to ten years. To me, he’s the arbiter of ‘cool.’ He is the only person I know who can wear a pink t-shirt bearing an image of unicorns making…love…and be considered cool for it. So, it was to my detriment that I ignored Justin’s cries for me to read the Watchmen graphic novel over the past decade.

Fair warning–if you haven’t read Watchmen, then read no further. Spoilers abound!

On a personal scale of one to five, one equaling any entry in the Left Behind series and five equaling a genre classic such as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I give the Watchmen graphic novel a solid four.

Perhaps this causes you to cry out in accusatory blasphemy. How can I not give the seminal graphic comic work of all time a five? Watchmen has been called the best graphic novel of all time by Justin Stewart (and many other well-versed comic geeks). It won a Hugo. It’s on the Time list of 100 best novels of the twentieth century. When a book earns that much critical praise, it usually deserves it. Part of me agrees with all this. The intricate plotting, the deep characterizations, and the eye-catching artwork and panel design are all exceptional. Rorschach is one of literature’s great anti-heroes. The narrative tension is unmatched.

But…certain aspects of the novel didn’t gel for me. Most importantly, the comic-within-a-comic story, Tales of the Black Freighter, bored me senseless. I realize its allegorical implications, but here’s a situation of art over form really drowning the genius of the main plot arc. I’d argue here that maybe it’s just too much. There are times when a work gets bogged down in its own cleverness, and I’m afraid Tales of the Black Freighter being included in Watchmen felt like one of these times for me.

Secondly, the giant, genetically-created squid that Adrian Veidt uses to destroy New York is just plain hokie. Even as a science fiction fanboy who enjoys his mutated monsters, the creation and execution of Veidt’s masterplan lost a bit of impact due to this contrived and forced science fiction (or one could argue ‘comic book’) element.

Third, the newsstand bits, or as I like to call them–The Funny Papers: Life on the Streets–did little to enhance the novel’s experience. All the commentary made by these scenes were done so better in the other parallel plot threads.

I found the movie to be superior to the graphic novel. I’ve not been able to reconcile the critical dislike with what I saw on the screen. I easily give the movie version of Watchmen a strong four, teetering to a low five.

Director Zack Snyder excised the three main problems I had with the novel and produced an astounding and smart action movie. The movie isn’t without flaws (the handling of Bubastis, heavy-handed action scene editing, weak performance by Matthew Goode), but much of the critics pans were things that didn’t bother me. Manhattan’s big blue penis wasn’t a giant distraction. In fact, I hardly noticed it (I swear!). The Nite Owl/Silk Spectre II sex scene in Archie didn’t seem odd or forced to me. Rorschach’s narration was on the money and helped make some sense of the dense plot.

This is one of the few times I can remember where I enjoyed the movie version of the book better than the book. Anyone else have the same conclusion? Or am I a regular ol’ Walter Kovacs…a complete anti-social freak who just doesn’t fit in with society?

Don’t answer that.

4 comments

  1. I agree with a lot of your assessment. I loved the graphic novel and the movie. Bubastis did get short thrift, and Veidt just wasn’t quite right for me, but overall thought it was great. The sex scene was right out of the graphic novel and not thrown in, and as the metaphor for returning passion to their lives, I think it was perfect. What’s funny is, if you get the extended release, the Black Freighter is back and done with animation. It does bog the story down a bit, but I figure it’s part of the price of admission. I agree with you most on the big alien critter at the end. I think the movie’s way of incorporating it back around to have Manhattan being the presumed threat is more realistic, and definitely more what Veidt would have done. Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. You almost completely mirrored my review of both of them. I also added that in the comic all the women were mean, vapid (but not unintelligent) shrews, where as in the movie there seemed to be more explanation for their short comings, though a lot of that was because movies are a more visual medium than even comics and “readers” can interpret more via body language and nonverbal interactions between the characters.

    I also thought “framing” John was a much better plot for today’s “viewers” than an alien invasion.

  3. Right on the money, Jason. Having both read the graphic novel and seen the movie, I also like the movie better. I liked the Black Freighter bits in the book, but the only choice to make the movie work was to excise those bits. Also, replacing the squid with [redacted for those who haven’t seen the movie] was much more realistic and believable.

    As for the sex scene, I had no problem with the scene itself, but Snyder’s choice of backing music track seemed a bit odd to me.

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