Sitting there with Zack Snyder's $150 million adaptation of Watchmen unfolding, I couldn't shake an anecdote told by Paul Thomas Anderson on his Boogie Nights DVD commentary. Anderson recounts the initial public screening, and the unfortunate crowd reaction to William H Macy's character finally snapping, and murdering, his philandering porn star wife:
"The first time we showed this movie to an audience was in Westwood, sort of a college town, UCLA is there, and it was the first preview of the movie. We're showing the movie, everybody's going along, they're having a good time. It's the first half of the movie, it's fun, it's great. Everybody's dancing. 'Oh! Disco music! We love it! Look at the funny clothes and the hair!' You know? And this scene comes up and Macy goes to get the gun, and when he got the gun, you have to keep in mind recruited audiences are just sort of maniacs in general, they're all pumped up with a false description of the movie.
Anyway, they're there, Macy gets the gun and this crowd of college kids cheers when he gets the gun. Now, I sank in my seat you know? I sank in my seat and I thought, well, what have I done? I have really, really fucked up. I've done something wrong in storytelling, I've guided this towards being a funny moment somehow, but it's not what I intended. How did I do this? I really started to panic. And actually my friend Aimee Mann who is just brilliant, one of my idols, was sitting next to me. She, actually we've had major conversations about violence in movies and this sort of things and she was sitting there and she just sort of grabbed my hand and said: 'Not your fault'. But it didn't matter. I sank in my seat.
Now, then he shoots them, and they cheered even louder, and I sank even further in my seat and I thought well I have fucked up big time. I have ruined this. How did this happen? And I can't possibly fix it, this is one big long shot. Well then Macy walks out and he shot himself in the face, and they shut the fuck up real quick. They weren't laughing, and they weren't cheering, and it was dead silence, and I thought good. Okay. I've done my job okay. It's them that's fucked up. You know? It's really the moment where you blame the audience: 'no, you're wrong.' All he did was got a gun, I didn't tip my hat towards this, and I'm glad you got punished by him shooting himself because you liked Macy, and all this violent shit just happened, and don't cheer. Don't clap. It's not funny."
That's the biggest problem with Snyder's Watchmen. He wants you to cheer. He wants you to applaud Rorschach and The Comedian. He does not want to punish you for liking them. These two are cast as face value bad ass superstars. A glut of their rough, unseemly, edges are filed away, leaving vaguely relatable macho action heroes. Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach is no longer a giggling, racist crank. In his narrated jounal entries we get the blunt force declarations that end Moore's sentences, but none of the ambling black poetry that precedes them. His brief scenes with the psychiatrist are delivered as a series of punchlines. His origin is raced through, screened as justification, rather than the absolute destruction of a personality. Rorschach's origin shouldn't be a Saw scene with child abuse dressing, it should be the yawning emptiness a vengeful, play-acting detective finds in fighting real, hidden, criminality. It mutates him. In Snyder's film there's very little sense that a Kovacs personality ever existed.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan's magnetic Comedian gets off lightly too. He gets to soothsay, without any of the underlining character irony. He's telling the 'truth', rather than painting over his own blackness. Comedian's most despicable moment is quickly manoeuvred onto an attendant character. There's less sense in the film that he wanted to execute his Vietnamese lover and child, more that he was specifically testing Manhattan. To me, as written, it was an on-spot justification to hide behind. Another mask for Eddy. Implicating someone else less amorally advanced as he. Another jab at the geeky Superman. Comedian's other despicable act, assaulting Sally Jupiter, gains a few notes of violent pornography, the one-sided brutalising presented as a kind of foreplay that gets out of control. I'm not quite sure if that complicates the sequence, or just makes it even more revolting. Probably both.
A useful mirror to Boogie Nights' Macy scene would be how Comedian deals with a rioting American crowd. His slow-motion plunge hangs in the air for a moment, the surrounding mob stunned rigid. Comedian breaks the brief detente by lashing out at the nearest woman, and it can't help but feel like a chuckle prompt for brutes. Irrelevant to proceedings, the woman tumbles out of frame never to be seen again. Comedian quickly tires of thumping civilians and begins firing his shotgun wildly into the crowd. There are no reaction shots. You're allowed to enjoy his tirade as a moment of taboo breaking action. When the camera pulls out to survey the destruction there's not a single body lying on the floor. There are no consequences to these events what-so-ever. Victims have evaporated like useless, defeated video game baddies.
Moore and Gibbons' piece worked hard to punish the reader for revelling in costumed mayhem. Each hero archetype was pushed and pulled to terrifyingly logical conclusions. In broad (non-Charlton) terms, Superman is a flake, with no connection to humanity. Batman is split between a homicidal street person with deeply worrying personal convictions, and an impotent schlub terrified by his kink. If you want to like them, then fine, but you should at least understand where they're coming from.
Still, how much needling grey area can actually be expected in a blockbuster? Little boys need hero projections to dribble to, not disturbing, soulless monsters. Would Warners ever bankroll a Summer superhero flick specifically designed to make an audience feel like shit? Arguably, they already have with The Dark Knight, but wasn't it Heath Ledger's death that allowed Christopher Nolan carte blanche to push that film as far as he did? No moneyman is going to demand any of Ledger's scenes be dropped. Tabloids drum it into us that he effectively ended his life to play that role, and people want to see as much of it as possible. It helps that Batman has international brand recognition too, something the until now read-only Watchmen lacks.
It's no revelation to state that Snyder utterly lacks the command of Moore, but enough of the events are up there on screen that if newcomers genuinely want to look and puzzle, they'll arrive at most of the more dispiriting conclusions. As cack-handed as Snyder's take often is, he has at least dragged the tale's dark frothing frame onto the screen. He must have fought countless up-hill struggles with the studio to do so. Reel off the feature's defining characteristics, and it quickly begins to sound like box-office krypotonite: It has an adult rating. It's still set in 1985. Cold War politics are stressed. The 'villain' isn't punished. Heroes do dreadful things.
It's not Snyder's fidelity that's wanting, it's how he understood, and was allowed to communicate that understanding that cripples the picture. It's not quite getting that people shouldn't be thinking of other, better, movies during big moments scored with second-hand music. It's not understanding that the new ending only makes Hollywood foreshadowing sense. It's not comprehending that the sequel flirting teased out in the film's dying seconds makes flabbergasting dunderheads of your formally sympathetic leads.
There are a handful of sequences that sing and shine though. Chief among these is the Dylan scored collage that runs over the opening credits. The 1940s Minutemen exploits are captured in a string of Republic serial vignettes that mutate into this universe's vandalised super-history. We learn that costumed heroics have infected every inch of this world's twentieth century. Nat King Cole drifts wistfully over scenes of pitiless termination. Manhattan's time-out on Mars is allowed to exist as a piece of character embellishment, and nothing more. Billy Crudup recounts his fractured timeline with a bored, softly spoken detachment. Pity the callous, scorned God. There's even a moment in the roundly despised Nite Owl / Silk Spectre tryst that touches on something vaguely lyrical - the couple do eventually stop having slow-motion Showgirls sex, their forms becoming agitated and beastly. The camera lingers on Spectre's fetish boots - Dan's kink going unpunished. For a brief moment it almost feels like an adult made this film.