I liked Watchmen. It was good, but perhaps a hairpin shy of what I would consider great. It was certainly wonderful mimicry of the source material, but I don't think it ever rose to the challenge and attempted to transcend its originating source. It hit upon most of the major themes of the comic, and yet was simultaneously entirely too subtle about it and not subtle enough. Most of the major commentary about the necessity of violence was constrained to knowing glances. I'm not sure how many popcorn stadium visitors might come away with the realization that in a dark world filled with shades of insanity the most sane people in the film are the people that we (rightfully) in our own world see as relatively insane: Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger [1].

I had to remind my brother, who read the comic, that when the Comedian refers to his atrocities during the Vietnam war as "That was war...", as if that excused things, that it was the Vietnam war, in our own timeline, where much of America regained its conscientiousness about war and realized that war does not and should not excuse atrocities. I don't see much hope for much of mainstream audiences putting that together, at least, not while watching Watchmen. Hopefully at least a few people might see fit to discuss it afterwards...

In the row behind my brother and I, a mother had taken her two young children to see the film. I'm not sure what the woman expected to see at an R-Rated superhero film. She pulled her children out with her about half-way through. The Dark Knight was PG-13 and some of its brutality may not have been fit for her young children (from the ages that they appeared; about 7-9, but I'm terrible at guestimating age). I'm guessing she missed Punisher: War Zone. It's almost funny if it wasn't so terribly symptomatic. How many times do you think that story will play out over Watchmen's run? How many times do you think that those theater-goers will fail to get their money back as they storm out? How much do you think Warner Brother's profits from the fact that much of their advertising glossed over the inherent brutality of a film somewhat a commentary upon brutality? As someone that actually gets the message of Moore's Watchmen, I can't help but feel that the media hype has been somewhat widdershins of the intended message. I'm not sure if that is "ironic" in a fun way or just sad.

Zach Snyder's eye for brutality I think works somewhat well in Watchmen, however. It certainly made me more interested in seeing Snyder tackle Miller's The Dark Knight Returns if Warner Brothers does decide to try to parallel Batman/Superman films with other, different approaches to the same characters.

The Soundtrack Doesn't Work

I've seen people already comparing Zach Snyder to some of the more notable auteurs and something that stands out as a key trait amongst several of the auteurs is an ear for music and how it plays with a scene. I think Tarantino in particular stands out with his ability to find music that plays to the emotional core of a film or a given scene. I think that Watchmen's soundtrack is emblematic that Zach Snyder isn't quite "there" yet in terms of skill and dedication. I was warned going in that the soundtrack was particularly under-par, but my brother was not and it was indeed the first insight out of his mouth. Particularly for a director with a history in music videos I found the almost thematic incoherence of the soundtrack rather surprising.

As much dedication as was put into the visual alternate world-building, there certainly seemed a lot more work that could have been done to bring the whole thing together musically as well. Part of the blame belongs to Snyder being unable to drop the connection from usage of Bob Dylan lyrics in the comic to "requiring" Bob Dylan in the soundtrack. (I don't hate Bob Dylan, but I certainly don't love him and I'm doubtful many people would be truly pained to see Dylan cut from a soundtrack that only used a handful of lyrics for a visual cue, rather than any actual vocal qualities.) Consciously or unconsciously the "mandatory" Dylan track lends a weight upon the film towards a musical center closer to the 50s and 60s than the alternate 1980s that the film is set in. Certainly there seems a conscious trend towards folk rock over the alternatives. Some of the fact that the soundtrack seems weirdly past-focused can be accounted by the many flashbacks in the material, but it seems somewhat odd for the flashback music to out-weigh the entirety of the rest of the soundtrack.

It's quite possible that Zach Snyder is one of the seemingly many that don't "get" '80s music. In terms of choices in 300 and commercials/trailers Snyder seems grounded in the '90s and contemporary stuff. Some people just don't like synth pop, and many people can't seem to remember that the '80s included more than just synth pop. (I like synth pop.) Among other things is the random example that many of Tom Petty's greatest hits were singles in the '80s. I think Tom Petty and his sort of '80s "trippyness" may have worked better than Bob Dylan. (It's fun to watch many of the '80s Tom Petty videos.)

Here's a quick run down that I noticed that were actually from the '80s used in the film:

  • "99 Luftballoons" is perhaps the best choice in the entire soundtrack, if perhaps oddly used (and not included on the official soundtrack album). There are certainly kudo points for using the original german version.
  • Leonard Cohen's "First We Take Manhattan" is cool, but there are some points lost for relegating it to the middle of the end credits. More points, in my opinion, are lost for the major inclusion of some version of Cohen's "Halelujah". The song has been way too over-used in films of the last few years (not to mention completely torn asunder by Shrek) and is just generally lame. Sure it was written in the '80s, but it may as well have been sappily written in the '60s in terms of thematic fit. Still debating if there are some points to be given back for using the song in a sex scene, highlighting often overlooked sexual connotations.
  • "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" has an "Musak" appearance as one of two major gag songs. [2] It's a good song choice for the film, but spoiled by using only the weakened instrumental form. I'm still undecided wether its use primarily as a gag adds or detracts further points.
  • The old MTV theme has a cameo. I believe there is one more '80s song that makes a cameo that I missed above. Not a song, but there are some '80s points to be had simply that Max Headroom himself, Matt Frewer has a decent sized role in the film.

It may be saying something that the strongest impression I'm left with is the oddities in the soundtrack. I do think that it is emblematic of the entire feeling of "ok, but not great" mimicry from the film. A few tweaks here and there to the music and the entire picture may have been better, wiser for it. The same can be said for presenting the works' deeper themes, particularly in the trailers. [3] Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie as an excuse to spend a few hours at my local popcorn stadium, but I don't see it having anything like the lasting impact of, for example, The Dark Knight and I'm somewhat frustrated that the width of the gap between "good" and "great" here is perhaps only a hair's breadth.

[1]I'm hoping that I'm not the only person that watched the film and hoped for a cameo appearance of Dr. Kissinger's "magic murder bag".
[2]The other being Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" as a more than obvious Apocalypse Now reference.
[3]OOH! I have just had one brilliant headache with pictures: someone should splice together a truly grind house-worthy Watchmen trailer, replete with over-the-top narrator. "Hero Madness", anyone?