Comic Book Virgin: Watching the Watchmen
Warner Bros.’ “Watchmen” World Tour rolled into Manhattan Monday afternoon, unveiling about 30 minutes of footage at the Time Warner screening room.Screening a good chunk of a movie with the lofty expectations surrounding Watchmen can be a risky, almost dangerous move. Negative reaction could kill momentum. But just as it did two years ago with a similar reveal of 300, the WB folks has nothing to worry about. Because it looks like Zack Snyder’s done it again. After a brief introduction by DC Comics president Paul Levitz, who mentioned how even back in 1985, when he was getting his first look at Dave Gibbons’ pages for the original comic series, he thought Watchmen could be a great movie. With that, he welcomed Zack Snyder. The director took the mic and briefly described how his mom actually got him into comics by way of a subscription to Heavy Metal magazine (cool mom!). He treaded over the now-familiar terrain of how he ended up on the film, how his success with 300 helped him convince Warners to keep the film in 1985 and in the Cold War, not the modern-day War on Terror that Snyder would later say was this close to being green-lighted (that’s the David Hayter-scripted, Paul Greengrass-directed version, if you’re keeping score). A few quick facts: Snyder turned in a 165-page script, the film is currently R-rated, and the cut is currently at 2 hours and 42 minutes. After a word of caution that the visual effects were incomplete, Snyder unveiled the first 12 minutes of the film. The studio credits are revealed against a yellow background (could you imagine any other color?), Warner Bros., Paramount (not Fox, in case you’re wondering) Legendary Pictures, DC, even a copyright for the smiley face logo! Then we see the famous smiley-face button, and the camera pulls out to reveal Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, aged, weary and drink in hand. He sits down to watch TV in his large, lonely apartment which is filled with a gazillion things that are impossible to take in during one viewing. “The McLaughlin Group” is on, with Pat Buchanan as one of the commentators discussing the possibility of nuclear war with the Russians. Right away, Snyder puts us back in the Cold War, when the threat of a nuke showdown was on everyone’s mind, when we all thought the Doomsday clock was 5 minutes from midnight. Then we are jarred by the pundits’ talking about our ace-in-the-hole: Dr. Manhattan. The Comedian starts channel-surfing, pausing on a perfume commercial that seems like a perfect fit for the Dynasty time period. “Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole starts playing in the background, when all of a sudden, someone kicks in Blake’s front door. Blake faces him and then spills his coffee (in a brilliant slo-mo shot) before chucking the coffee cup. So begins a vicious, brutal fist-fight between Blake and his attacker, choreographed to one of the most beautiful songs of all time. Heads are smashed into tables, fists go through walls, teeth are knocked out. Snyder makes us recoil with the fury in this scene, letting us know right from the start that this is not comic book movie violence. This is how it is in the real world. Slo-motion is intercut with lightning-fast editing to give the fight a furious pace. Finally, it winds down. The Comedian is beaten, truly and painfully. Blake says “it’s all a joke.” Blood drips down from his battered face onto the smiley face button on his robe. Then the plate window is smashed and he and the button go falling into the night. Seeing Blake on the street, in a pool of blood, the hair on your arms stand up. The next thing we are shown are the opening credits. Watching this sequence I realized how truly committed Snyder was to doing the source material justice and how much respect he had for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work. With Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin” in the background, we are bombarded with images that are often lifted straight from the original comics. Whereas other filmmakers may have just played it safe with the credits, Snyder uses the time to fill in the back-story that sets the table for the disillusioned world of the Watchmen. Dylan’s song is the perfect choice here. The lyrics of Robert Zimmerman combine with the images to show how a world went from hope to hopelessness in poetic fashion. At first the shots are idyllic, like the 40s era shots of the first Nite Owl and Silk Spectre (our first Carla Gugino sighting) and the lesbian reimagining of the famous Times Square ‘War is Over’ kiss. Then, the end of innocence begins to take shape. The snapshots of the dead heroes were particularly unsettling, as was the reenactment of the JFK assassination, and the identity of the real shooter that day in Dealey Plaza. Soldiers open fire on protesters and in a bit of timely coincidence that New Yorkers will appreciate, we also see a news bulletin with the words ‘term limits repealed – Nixon re-elected’ stamped over a picture of Tricky Dick smiling (term limits are a hot topic here in the city). After the presentation, I told Snyder that I thought the opening credits are a perfect way to introduce fans who haven’t read the graphic novel into the world Moore and Gibbons created. He said he hadn’t given it much thought to it, and that the credits were just something he thought were cool. The next footage showed the origin of Dr. Manhattan. Snyder had told me back at Comic-Con that Manhattan is his favorite character of the series (at least at the time) and the Mars scenes were particularly special. It's not hard to see why. In the graphic novel, the good blue Dr. visits the red planet to reflect on his life and how it ended up with him being a Superman…and a lonely man. It allows for really deep, contemplative visual storytelling. Again, Snyder showed great skill at juggling what I thought would be one of the toughest sequences to bring to life onscreen. Dr. Manhattan’s story is told in non-linear fashion, set to a Philip Glass score that is hauntingly retro. We see him as John Osterman (Billy Crudup) meeting Janey Slater. We see the accident that kills him, and brings him back as America’s newest super-weapon. Even though that scene in the lab has already been seen in the trailer, something about it still seems…incomplete somehow. One thing that was obvious from the footage we were shown is that Snyder is not shying away from the graphic nature of the book. From The Comedian’s final battle to the bar scene where Dr. Manhattan disintegrates some criminals into bloody carcasses, Watchmen is not going to be a movie for the squeamish. The sequence ends with Dr. Manhattan, floating naked in the air above Mars, debating his place. Is it with humanity, or among the stars? The construction of his clock palace is a jaw-dropper, with the final punctuation being Crudup’s chilling words: “A clock without a craftsman.” The last sequence we are shown features Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). It begins right after what Snyder described as “superhero foreplay” between Dan and Laurie, when Dan discovers wearing the costume…completes him as a man. About the scene where the Owl ship rises from the water, Dave Gibbons, who was at the presentation, said he was floored when he saw that shot for the first time, because Snyder perfectly recreated what he had drawn 23 years before. The prison break scene where Dan and Laurie free Rorschach gives Snyder a chance to flex his action muscles. It's tightly choreographed, reminiscent somewhat of the scene in 300 where Gerard Butler walks through a phalanx of Persian soldiers and tears them up one at a time. On a side note, Malin Akerman looks AMAZING in her Silk Spectre outfit. Just making an observation. Dreiberg has always been my favorite Watchmen character. To me, he is the most truly heroic person in the book. I was happy to see Wilson capture Dan’s subtle humor with his facial expressions, and to show that he was still a bad-ass when he had to be. We see and hear very little of Rorschach here, but we see enough to know that the scene where he says goodbye to Big Figure is exactly how it is in the book: funny and chilling at the same time. We were then treated to a montage of images from the trailer, before Snyder and Gibbons took center stage to answer questions. The first question dealt with the obvious: The omission of Alan Moore’s name from the credits. It only says ‘Based on the graphic novel co-created by and Illustrated by Dave Gibbons.’ Snyder says they were just respecting Alan’s wishes not to be associated with the film. Snyder answered a question from a Popular Mechanics writer about the technical challenges of the film by saying that capturing Billy Crudup’s performance as Dr. Manhattan was particularly tough. He’s not the typical animated comic book character, because unlike the Hulk, he’s not moving around much. He said Crudup had dots all over his body and two HD cameras on him all the time so the animators could capture his facial expressions. Gibbons earned laughs from the crowd by commenting that Crudup “looked like Tron with a bad skin condition.” As for the subtle but still impressive moving ink blots on Rorschach’s mask, Snyder said he referred to the graphic novel to decide when they should move. “To see those random blots, which I had inserted randomly [into the book],” said Gibbons, “to see them randomly over Jackie’s [Earle Haley] face, was incredible.” Snyder also confirmed that the ‘Black Freighter’ subplot from the graphic novel will be released as a separate DVD. He also added that hopes to release an ‘Ultimate Edition’ DVD where it is intercut into the theatrical release as it was in the graphic novel. He said he’s already shot the scenes at the newsstand to connect both. Snyder also talked about other 80's songs that he’s including in the movie, including Nena’s “99 Luftballoons.” He talked about how a friend criticized his use of the song, saying a song about balloons was silly. Snyder says he told the friend to go online to find out what the song is really about and when he did, he finally got it. About the running time, Snyder said the 162 minute cut he currently has is ‘pretty close’ to where he wants it, but Warner Bros. might have a different idea. He said he understood the commerce factor of the equation, and how a two hour, 42 minute movie with a naked blue guy could make them nervous. However, he added later that one of the reasons he wanted to do the film was so that it was done the right way. He talked about how he fought to keep the movie based in 1985, in the Cold War, with Richard Nixon as the President. He admits the good timing of his 300 success helped him in that regard. Snyder also said he gave no serious thought to using CGI for historical figures like Nixon and JFK because it wouldn’t have felt organic. As for the video game he’s working on based on Watchmen, Snyder said it’s going to be downloadable and will be an exploration of Watchmen lore. “It’s as close to a sequel as you’re gonna get,” Snyder said. Speaking of which, Snyder dismissed sequel talk as crazy. Gibbons concurred, saying “I don’t think a sequel is really possible.” About being faithful to the graphic novel, Snyder said that if all he’s done is “created a really long commercial for the graphic novel, that’s great.” But he reiterated his intent is not to replace the book, which he thinks everyone should read. Gibbons happily agreed with him. So at this point in the game, is Snyder sick and tired of watching the Watchmen? “No, I don’t think so. But it is exhausting,” the director admitted. If the footage I saw was any indication, Snyder will have to pace himself. Because in six months, he’ll be doing a lot more talking about the movie that could is threatening to take comic book films into an entirely new direction. (Michael Avila is the producer for the nationally syndicated movie show “REEL TALK.” Check local listings at www.REELTALKtv.com)
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