Till Death Do Us Part

By Gordon, Devin | Newsweek, March 9, 2009 | Go to article overview

Till Death Do Us Part


Gordon, Devin, Newsweek


Byline: Devin Gordon

The long-awaited 'Watchmen' movie takes loyalty to new limits. And that's exactly what's wrong with it.

Till Death Do Us Part

Somebody had better appreciate the guts it takes to admit this: the first time I saw "The Phantom Menace," I thought it was great. I remember heading straight to a bar after the movie with two pals, sifting through what we'd seen and grumbling that so many people were so oblivious to its towering awesomeness. Give them time, we said. Maybe it's hard to believe now, but this wasn't such a rare and ridiculous view in the days just after "The Phantom Menace" came out. Just as with the war in Iraq, a lot more people now applaud themselves for recognizing the disaster right away than actually did at the time. For those of us who grew up on "Star Wars," there was a similar ache to believe, almost trancelike in its power. You just blocked out the bits that challenged your reality. That's how I watched Jar Jar Binks, or that brat who played Anakin Skywalker, and said to myself, I am totally fine with this. For weeks after, a friend at NEWSWEEK TAUNTED me with morsels of George Lucas's brutal dialogue ("Patience, my blue friend") and kept calling the kid Mannequin Skywalker. It was months before I could say aloud what most people instantly knew: the movie was a stinker. Oh, the things we do for love.

Fans of "Watchmen," Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's seminal graphic novel, have waited longer for a movie version than I had to wait for a new "Star Wars," and this week their moment has finally come. Zack Snyder, the director of "300" and now the "Watchmen" movie, told Entertainment Weekly last year that he was in college when he first read the graphic novel, which was initially published in 12 comic-book installments between 1986 and 1987. The experience, he said, was like discovering "the music you feel is written just for you."

Comic-book fans are used to condescension from the literati, but no one who's actually read "Watchmen" would debate its artistic merits. The story is an alternate history of Cold War America, set in 1985, as Richard Nixon enters his third term as president, buoyed by victory in Vietnam and mass anxiety over imminent nuclear holocaust. It's a parable about power, a deconstruction of superhero mythology and a multigenerational murder mystery with more than a dozen principal characters. It alludes effortlessly to Bertolt Brecht, William S. Burroughs, "Dr. Strangelove," Greek mythology, ancient Egyptian history, Reaganism and Thatcherism. It's funny, gory, sexy, sleazy and heartbreaking. And for years it was considered unfilmable. Which is exactly how Moore, the novel's reclusive wordsmith, intended it.

No one who watches Snyder's 160-minute blockbuster could doubt that he is deeply, sincerely in love with the source material. From its opening moments, his movie is meticulous, even slavish, in its re-creation of Gibbons's imagery, from colors to costumes to composition. Entire sequences are preserved, frame by frame. "Watchmen" loyalists are already rejoicing. But is that a good thing? Speaking as an admirer, but not an apostle, of the graphic novel, I thought the "Watchmen" movie was confusing, maddeningly inconsistent and fighting a long, losing battle to establish an identity of its own. Writing for Slate.com about "Revolutionary Road"--another faulty page-to-screen adaptation--author Willing Davidson argues that Sam Mendes's film is so faithful to the book that it "feels less directed than curated." Ditto for "Watchmen." Onscreen, the original tale's Soviet-era dread feels dated, and it shouldn't--not with religious terrorism offering such an able proxy for anticommunist paranoia. Snyder has appropriated Moore's doomsday themes without any sense of how to animate them. That's the trouble with loyalty. Too little, and you alienate your core fans. Too much, and you lose everyone--and everything--else.

Only a few filmmakers have struck a balance. …

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