Review: Watchmen Director’s Cut (2009 – dir. Zack Snyder)

watchmen movieReleased in 2009, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the revisionary superhero comic book Watchmen was released to a wave of expectation, cynicism, and shrugs. Fans of the source material demanded faithfulness and originality from the project, which, in turn, laid an unfair amount of pressure on an already mammoth undertaking. The uninitiated didn’t even bother.

The initial cut of the film is a remarkable failure, a distant, cold, and unsatisfying mess. The film that was to make everyone take comic book movies seriously, fell flat, bombed at the box office, and has spent the better part of three years attracting a cultish following.

However, somewhere within that film lies something great, and Snyder knew it.

Part of the difficulty of adapting Watchmen stems from the source material. A deconstruction of comic book language in addition to its take down of superherodom, the book uses its panels to create very specific juxtapositions, allowing, say, Dr. Manhattan to exist both on Mars in 1985 and Earth in 1959. It’s no mistake that a story called Watchmen would be obsessed with time, and certainly no mistake that a main character would be the son of a watchmaker and given powers because he forgot his watch. The point is well made, and these narrative leaps into the past are ones that the reader can easily pick up on. 

This interest in time exists at the core of the Watchmen film, but it’s also what leads to its undoing. Watchmen works under a simple premise: A dishonorably discharged group of masked vigilantes go in search of a mysterious “mask killer.” As they meet up, the Watchmen, as they were once called, must confront what they call “moral lapses” of their respective pasts. But Watchmen‘s plot moves in a specific way, one that defies typical superhero movies as whole. Rather than Batman following on a linear track from point a to point b, characters in Watchmen meet in the present, confront a relic from the past, and generally slip into a flashback.  Instead of learning something knew by the events of the present, the characters interact with TVs, computers, pictures, and books to fill in gaps from ages ago.

Snyder rightfully wishes to honor the structure of Alan Moore’s book, but in doing so, he  slows down his own narrative. Adapting one part of  Moore’s experiment, Snyder loosens his timeline and loses grip of his own interests in dismantling comic book movies. From a narrative aspect, Snyder successfully stifles his heroes in narrative binds. Rorschach, the film’s only true protagonist, stalls everytime he’s case is going anywhere, either by another hero or the NYPD. He’s frequently held up or removed from situations against his will, subverting the kind of superheroics one expects in a superhero movie. Likewise, each climatic battle scene is over before it starts, withholding whatever catharsis the film would offer. Rather than a hero diving off a building to resuce a civilian, scenes seem to just burn out.

Watchmen, at times, is brilliant in its execution, but is still missing something outside of its subversion and that’s it’s own narrative core. Snyder fails to realize is that intrigue of Watchmen‘s plot lies in the story’s mystery. This is an investigation to find out who is killing these people, but it never feels that urgent, possibly because the expectation of sudden danger never feels present. There’s an air of dread over Watchmen, but nothing resembling a threat, and it’s the missing cog in Watchmen‘s machinery.

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