by Steve Habrat
One of the most controversial comic-to-movie-screen adaptations is without question Zack Snyder’s 2009 superhero epic Watchmen. To many comic book aficionados, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s stunning DC Comics graphic novel was considered un-filmable by many who have poured over the blood drenched pages. I have to admit that I fell into the camp that didn’t want to see Watchmen in movie theaters but I was left speechless when I saw the rhythmic trailer in the summer of 2008. Many film geeks consider Snyder a visual director who can’t properly handle a narrative, something that the graphic novel thrives on. So, did the un-filmable turn out to be filmable? For the most part, yes, Snyder took great care in bringing this incredible tale to the big screen, pining over the smallest details on every single page right down to the smallest brushstroke of color. It was gripping, philosophical, jarring, and gorgeous all in the same breath but what it truly lacked was accessibility. I attended the midnight showing of Watchmen with a group of my friends, several who had never read the graphic novel. I was so excited to have them see this movie but when we emerged after two hours and forty minutes, they were less than impressed. They didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I guess you have to read the comic to really get inside this one.
Without giving too much away about Watchmen, I’ll stick to the bare basics. Watchmen takes us to an alternate 1985, where the world is used to superheroes leaping across the rooftops of buildings and intervening with criminals of all sorts. Superheroes have been a part of daily life since 1938, when a small group of masked avengers known as the ‘Minutemen’ formed an alliance and started fighting crime. As the ‘Minutemen’ began to age, a new generation of crime fighters emerged called the ‘Watchmen’, a new fraternity that ultimately was outlawed by Richard Nixon. Nixon, however, used superheroes to win the war in Vietnam, which has led to multiple re-elections into the 80s. He primarily used the deadly Dr. Manhattan (Played by Billy Crudup), a real-life “Superman” who has gained incredible powers through an unfortunate accident and is now considered a living, breathing, and glowing government weapon. Watchmen begins with the aging hero The Comedian/Edward Blake (Played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) getting confronted in his apartment by an unknown assailant and being brutally murdered. The police wave the murder off as just a disgruntled old villain that came back to take revenge on The Comedian but masked vigilante Rorschach (Played by Jackie Earle Haley), who continues to prowl the streets even though superheroes are banned, suspects that there may be a bigger plot to wipe out former masks. Rorschach seeks out his old partner Nite Owl II/Daniel Dreiberg (Played by Patrick Wilson) and fills him in on his theory. Dan disregards Rorschach but begins warning other former heroes as a precaution. To make matters worse, the United States and Russia are on the brink of nuclear war.
There was no way for Snyder to bring Watchmen to the big screen without pissing off at least one or two fans. Along with his screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse, the crew makes a massive oops by tinkering with the grand finale that did send this fanboy into a tizzy. I was so disappointed that the ending was reworked, taking me a few days after seeing it to really get over my resentment. But then I got to thinking, “Well, if they would have kept the original ending, the film would have been infinitely longer than it already was”. Another aspect that outraged me about Watchmen was the fact that Snyder clipped out the comic-within-the-comic interludes that were found in the comic books. He did okay by releasing a companion DVD that told the story of the Tales of the Black Freighter but I desperately wanted this in the film itself. Once again, I understood that this would have added another half-hour or so to the runtime but I guess I would have sat through a five hour long interpretation of Watchmen if it was available. Don’t let these complaints fool you, I still loved this movie and it did live up to my expectations, which were huge, mind you. I thought there were several moments that were jaw-dropping, the coolest being the opening fight sequence that leads in to one of the most incredible opening credit sequences ever put on film. It has to be seen to be believed. If you have seen the film, even the most disgusted fanboy has to admit it was a spectacular and stirring moment for all.
While Watchmen does have some of Snyder’s trademark slow-motion-into-sped-up fight sequences, the film is interested more in the shattered American Dream and what it takes to bring about peace. Each hero in Watchmen has their own code for how the deal with crime, some believing that “dogs should be put down” while others think they should be turned over to the proper authorities. In the old days, the line between good and evil was as clear as day for the ‘Minutemen’, something the remaining members of that retired group look back on fondly. In the “present day” of Watchmen, things are not so black and white. While Watchmen is a superhero movie, it lacks an arch villain, at least one that really plagues each mask through the lengthy runtime. It is society itself that the group grapples with. Are the “good” citizens worth saving or should we just give in to a war that will ultimately consume us all? Watchmen takes a scary detour when Snyder pulls back the curtain on the Nixon administration, further hinting that we may not be able to trust our leaders in the face of annihilation. They may hand us over to a fiery death just to make peace, or at least fight back against the threat, or simply to save their skins. Each time I watch Watchmen, I still get chills when one of Nixon’s advisors tells him that if nuclear war occurs, the whole east coast will be wiped out and the winds will carry the radiation to New Mexico. Middle America will be okay, which is good news, all things considering. Tell me that is not powerful stuff.
Watchmen has been criticized for some of the performances that make up this mound of ideas. The standout is by far Jackie Earle Hayley’s Rorschach, a fedora-wearing bad ass who growls through his oily mask as he dispatches criminals in the most gruesome of ways. We see a good majority of the story through his ink blotches as he asks us if pedophiles, rapists, and serial killers should really be put behind bars. His simple answer is no but wait until he spouts of the complicated one. He will turn you to ice. Then we have Crudup’s disconnected Dr. Manhattan, a glowing God who single handedly wins Vietnam in about a week. Much of his character is CGI but his distant voice is what truly resonates. Malin Akerman shows up as Laurie Juspeczky/Silk Specter II, a leggy avenger who longs for the affection of her boyfriend Dr. Manhattan. Wilson’s Nite Owl II is appropriately lost, a flabby has-been who hides behind cartoonish spectacles and searches for an excuse to put on his old armor. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a knock-out as the slimy Comedian, a man who has made some poor choices in his life, laughed at human suffering, and vomited at the American Dream, all while firing his shotgun randomly into a disgruntled crowd of protestors who howl over the very idea of superheroes doing the job of the police. Also on deck is Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, a wealthy former-mask who was known for his speed, strength, and smarts. He is considered the intelligent man on the planet and he is a fascinating character, but Snyder brushes over him, which is very disappointing when it comes to the last act twist.
There is almost too much to be said about Watchmen and it truly is a difficult film to review because there is so much going on within it. There are so many ideas swirling around inside it that we almost loose focus of what the film is actually trying to convey, which is a bit disappointing. The big question here is what it takes to gain peace, but that is just one slice of the pie. I will say that at almost three hours, the film never has a dull moment. There is plenty of action, gore, and sex to keep the younger males busy while Snyder slyly whispers bigger questions into the ear of those willing to look closer. Watchmen also forces conservatism and liberalism to jump into the ring to see who will ultimately triumph. I’ll leave it to you to figure out who trumps the other. While it is impossible for me to cover all the ground that Watchmen covers in this review, I will finish by saying that I think Watchmen is a beautifully ornate study of the superhero. It is well spoken and hypnotic but also a bit bloated, but it still holds your attention throughout the entire ride. I also advise that you read the graphic novel before approaching the film because some of the smaller touches will make more sense. Not perfect but certainly very good, in my opinion, Watchmen stands as one of the best superhero movies out there, with tons of layers to peel back and explore for years to come.
Watchmen is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Jonah Hex (2010)
by Steve Habrat
I have seen quite a few comic book movie bombs in my day but I can honestly say that director Jimmy Hayward’s 2010 monstrosity Jonah Hex has got to be one of the worst I have sat through. Based on the DC Comics gunslinger created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga, Jonah Hex is rank with studio interference, cropped down to a blink-and-you’ll-practically-miss-it runtime of just barely over eighty minutes. It really is a shame that this film has been butchered as bad as it has because the talented Josh Brolin pours everything he has into the growling bounty hunter who can speak to the dead. I bet Brolin even gagged when he added this to his resume. Severely incoherent, massively brainless, and loud to the point of making your ears bleed, Jonah Hex is such a mess that I have to say I can’t believe the studio even bothered tossing it into cinemas in the first place. I honestly have to say I hope someone lost their job over this because I would have locked this film away, crossing my fingers that no one would ever stumbled upon it and unleash it on the world. It is THAT bad.
Jonah Hex begins by flashing back to the Civil War, with our hero (Played by Brolin) serving on the Confederate side of the conflict. Hex is ordered by his commanding officer, Quentin Turnbull (Played by John Malkovich), to burn down a Union hospital. Hex refuses to carry the order out and retaliates by gunning down his friend and Turnbull’s son Jeb (Played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Turnbull tracks down Hex just after the war ends and proceeds to burn Hex’s family alive and make him watch. He then horribly disfigures Hex’s face and leaves him for dead. After several days, a group of American Indians stumble upon Hex and nurse him back to health. As Hex regains his strength, he realizes that he possesses the power to reanimate and speak to the dead by touching them. Hex is anxious to get back on his feet and find Turnbull but he learns that Turnbull died in a fire shortly after he massacred Hex’s family. To deal with his pain, Hex turns to bounty hunting but is soon approached by Lieutenant Grass (Played by Will Arnett) with news that Turnbull is alive and well. It appears that he has robbed a Union train of a weapon component for a doomsday device that can wipe entire towns off the map. Grass recruits Hex to set out and stop Turnbull before he can locate all the pieces of the weapon that he needs.
Judging by all the star power in Jonah Hex, I have the sneaking suspicion that the original script had much more to it than what we actually see on the screen. There is no way any A-list actor like Brolin would agree to be in something this god-awful. Brolin really takes his role seriously, growling through gritted teeth as he rides around rotting western towns, laying waste to anyone who dares piss him off. It is a shame that his back-story is brushed over with an animated flashback that fails to really add anything to his character. We are just supposed to accept that he is mad and he won’t be getting glad until he stands over Turnbull’s corpse. Hex finds an ally in Lilah (Played by Megan Fox), a beautiful prostitute who practically drools all over her cleavage when Hex knocks on her door. Fox is only in Jonah Hex to serve as some obvious eye candy for the male audience that this is aimed at. Her character adds nothing to the poor excuse of a story that is strung throughout the film. Brolin seems to just be humoring her when she is in his eyesight—even he seems perplexed why she is in front of the camera.
Then we have Mr. Malkovich’s Turnbull, a vile baddie who has a really evil plan that lacks a motive (Those are the worst, aren’t they?). Lt. Grass and President Grant (Played by Aidan Quinn) fret and stew over Turnbull’s horrific doomsday cannon and where he will strike with this weapon of mass destruction. Turnbull spits that he will wipe the United States off the map but he never explains why. Why is he so gung-ho on leveling all of these cities? Don’t expect an answer to that question. Just tremble in your boots as he sips absinthe and makes threats at wealthy aristocrat Adleman Lusk (Played by Wes Bentley), another character that adds absolutely nothing to what is going on. Turnbull leaves the gruesome enforcement to his giggling Irish right-hand man Burke (Played by Michael Fassbender), who I suspect is sometimes chuckling at what he has been asked to do by the director. Fassbender’s character is sort of interesting but he is always shoved behind Turnbull, who looks like he raided the wardrobe closet of Pirates of the Caribbean. While you are trying to get over the fact that Fassbender even attended this party, you’ll also be reeling from the fact that funnyman Will Arnett has shown up and is trying to be taken seriously as Lt. Grass. Both Arnett and Fassbender are probably hoping that you forget they were ever in this picture.
The action of Jonah Hex is earsplitting, muddled, and forgettable as it is set to pounding heavy metal music from the band Mastodon. The film features poor special effects and every action sequence is clipped too short to really be fulfilling. The finale is an absurd fistfight in the clanking steam punk engine room of Turnbull’s floating warship. He unleashes cannonball like delay-action bombs on Washington D.C. but there is never the threat that he will detonate them. You know Hex will throw a tomahawk into his plot at just the last second. Refusing to let us get to know any of the characters in the film, Jonah Hex is a hollow summer blockbuster with no feeling or direction. It is a free-for-all of noise and missed opportunities, with little care put into the development of Hex’s character. Even worse, the film seems like it was made in a mad rush just to get it on the big screen as quickly as possible and so DC had something to release against Marvel’s Iron Man 2. Overall, if Jonah Hex rides again, let’s hope it is given to filmmakers who actually respect his character and have an interest in his origin. Avoid this film at all cost.
Jonah Hex is available on Blu-ray and DVD.