Watchmen: *** 1/2 (out of 4)

About half of the reviews I have read of Watchmen have included something like this phrase: "after watching the movie twice, sleeping on it, watching it again, and taking a week to contemplate it, I can now finally write about it". At first, I thought that this was because of a review embargo, or something similar. I was willing to cut some of the bigger geek critics some slack on this, but I figured that I'd be able to at least write something meaningful down the evening after the show.

Frankly, I'm only writing this now because I need to. I did not sleep well last night because of all the thoughts bouncing around in my head.

I caught a 7pm preview screening last night, organized by the Cartoon Art Museum in downtown SF. Tickets were $25: too much, but I was willing to pay more. It wasn't just my predilection for seeing "fandom" opening night movies with that fandom; in this case, I was truly a part of that fandom.

The original book changed my life, back when I first read it those 12 years ago. My friend Jacob handed it to me one night when I was feeling down, and I read it twice before going to sleep. This was the first comic I had read in years, after reading and enjoying all sorts of DC and Marvel Universe stuff as a kid; and it blew me away with its complexity, depth, and horror. I didn't recognize at the time how much of this was based on my earlier comic reading experience, of course - I didn't truly recognize the deconstruction for what it was, though I was equipped to understand it. I did realize, though, that I wanted more; and within a couple weeks, I had read Sandman, started following Transmetropolitan, and started myself down the path of a $100-a-month comic habit.

I guess you could say that it spoke to me.

Cut to a couple of years ago, when superhero movies that were direct adaptations of the original source material started coming out. I loved Sin City; the work lent itself to direct adaptation, and both times I saw it in the theatre I came out in awe. I felt much the same way about 300 the first time through, but the second time left me feeling kindof cold; it wasn't so much the changes that bothered me, as the places where slavish adherence had left me cold. Visually, it was striking; thematically, it was loyal to the original work; but there was something odd missing in between. I still liked it, but I didn't love it. And that was a bit worrisome when it was announced that the creators of 300 would be working on Watchmen next. Like the rest of fandom, I was going to demand to love such a work. Or else.

But the trailers - man, the trailers! I didn't know what I had seen at first; it looked like a mishmash, with haunting music over it. But as I saw it a few times, I fell in love with that trailer. It showed some highlights of the book, and it didn't look embarrassed while doing so; the music was a perfect match, the actors looked good in their roles, and we were (for the most part) left to fill in the gaps. It felt like the comic brought to life, oozing atmosphere and invoking all of those memories that hadn't even come back the previous couple of times I'd read through the book. It was... perfect. As an added bonus, it sold millions of copies of the book (I enjoy watching the business side of things too). And personally, it put me back on the side of fanboy hope. This movie could be done right...

I spent the last few weeks rewinding during commercial breaks so I could watch the short trailers again and again. I mourned the fact that I couldn't see it at my favorite theatre, or with the friend that had introduced me to the book in the first place; but I moved on, and found the best option I could. And then, finally, the day came. I drove to work that day, and left early so I could ensure that I would get to the theatre before traffic hit too badly. I waited in line even though I had pre-purchased the tickets, I talked with the two friends I had been able to bring along, and I got a couple of the best seats in the house.

And then, it started.


Having just written 100 lines about my history with this movie, I still don't know what to say about the movie itself. I have tried to describe it to others, but haven't come up with much. There are dozens of places in the movie worth discussing, comparisons to the book and to culture, discussions of the moments of beauty, the terrible flaws, the decisions that were made in order to film this un-filmable book. It is flawed, hopelessly flawed; but some of its flaws are acceptable, charming, even an improvement on the original in the way that a beauty mark can make a face look more striking. Yet, between a desire to avoid spoilers and a lack of interest in nitpicking, I don't want to do it.

Perhaps a metaphor will help. I came out of this movie with a sense of photography. Watchmen the book is a magnificent sculpture; Watchmen the movie is a photograph of that sculpture. It lacks the depth, the angles, the detailed flaws when you look closely enough; but it is itself a work of art, with new depths and angles, and entirely different categories of flaws.

Don't get me wrong, this movie is beautiful. A few moments (most prominently the origin story for Dr Manhatten) were absolutely gloriously adapted, and the attention to detail throughout was glorious to behold. Even the changes were, for the most part, at least acceptable; I even liked the new ending! (Well, except for the villain. That part was badly handled.)

The longer cut will likely help; there was too much cut, too many thematic layers removed for time that may help the movie feel a bit more like the book. But I wonder if even that will be as good as the trailer.

I was expecting one of two reactions when I came out of the movie: absolute unabashed joy at the adaptation, or absolute unabashed anger. I got neither. Instead, I got something that I really do have to see a couple of more times, just to understand what I think. But that's not what these reviews are about. These reviews are about how I felt when I came out. And I did not come out cheated; nor did I come out elated.

This was an important movie, in its way. If you liked the book, you should see it. If you like comic movies... well, you owe it to yourself to read the book, to be honest, but that should lead to watching the movie too so it's okay.

*** 1/2, I suppose.