Monday, August 29, 2016

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut

   As with many movies these days, when they hit home video, there always seems to be an unrated cut, or an alternate cut, an extended cut, but rarely are these versions so important as they are when it comes to comic book movies. Most recently, the highly divisive Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice got an 'ultimate cut' on home video, but lets go back a ways to one of director Zack Snyder's earlier efforts. An almost equally divisive comic book movie from 2009 called Watchmen. It was praised by most critics upon it's release, and it's reception from fans was fairly split, but the general public seemed to be very lost- and understandably so.

   Before I get any deeper into this, I'll say right now this is a review of the movie itself and of the ultimate cut of the movie. Moreover, I'm not sure how unbiased this review is going to be, the very existence of this movie put me in touch with a group of friends that I'm still a part of today. In no small way, Watchmen affected the course of my life. Nevertheless, I'll give it a shot.

   Of course the general public didn't know what to make of Watchmen. It's a socio-political deconstruction of the very concept of superheroes. And, after all, Iron Man and The Dark Knight had just come out the year before. If anything was taken for granted with comic book movies at this point, specifically comic book movies about superheroes... is that the good guys fight the bad guys and save the day. Watchmen was anything but that simple. Say what you will about how good of an adaptation it is/was, but the concept of a villain who's master plan is to... actually save mankind from the brink of nuclear war by killing millions of people... was just not something you'd ever see in a movie.

   Hell, you don't see that kind of thing even in comic books. Watchmen laughs in the face of comic book convention. By the time our intrepid heroes arrive to stop the 'bad guy' from executing his master plan, they find out they're already 35 minutes too late. What's worse is that like it or not, his mass-murderous plan actually saved the world. If the heroes exposed his plan after that, they risk resetting everything and putting the world back in path of nuclear destruction. So clearly... Watchmen is not a movie of 'schoolboy heroics' or, as my friend put it, 'binary morality'. What Watchmen is, is a tale about what the world would be like if superheroes existed.

   And, obviously that doesn't just mean dudes in masks punching bank robbers. It means guys like Superman and Captain America. Or, in this case, Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian. How could a being like Superman ever stay grounded? In the comics, things are reset conveniently every so many years. Clark rarely has to face the prospect of his loved ones aging while he simply doesn't, because comics are always kept modern. Lois, Jimmy and Perry White will always be around. Lex Luthor will always be his archenemy. Clark doesn't age, but neither does the comic he's in either. It merely gets reset, and updated. But... what if that wasn't the case? What if Superman outlived Lois? Jimmy? Perry White, or what if he simply became aware that time didn't pertain to him as it does to humans?

   That's part of the driving concept behind the character of Dr. Manhattan. It's unnerving and a bit haunting. Convenient and familiar character archetypes are put into a world of plausibility. What kind of man would Captain America be? What kind of man would he be had he fought in the Vietnam war? Moreover, if we had beings like Superman, and 'heroes' like Captain America fighting for our country, would we have even lost the war at all? And, how would that have affected things down the line? Like a large stone heaved into a pond, the ripples begin to upset the surface dramatically. Such is the case with the alternate history of Watchmen. It poses the question "What if the 'Superman', and 'superheroes' were real?" and it entertains all the scary ramifications of that possibility.

   On that merit alone, I love Watchmen, both the comic and the movie. It's full of themes, concepts, and symbolism that probably zip right past me, but it's a story that challenges what we take for granted about the concept of superheroes. And it managed to draft an entertaining mystery out of the whole thing to boot. This is not an 'easy' movie. It takes on things that we're comfortable with, and it twists them, revealing an all-too-plausible underbelly to them. Where a normal comic is content to infer and imply that Batman's obsession with costumes and crime fighting might be a bit sexual, Watchmen refuses to let all that leather and latex alone as just something superheroes do. Watchmen insists that there's an erotic element to it. Maybe Batman can't get it up if he's out of costume? Who knows?  Maybe there's more than just a moral satisfaction driving these heroes to do what they do.

   That being said, Zack Snyder takes few liberties with the story and the plot themselves, translating them to the silver screen in almost excessive faithfulness. This is a double edged sword. At times, it perfectly captures the flavor of a specific moment, or an exact line of dialog. Other times it feels restrictive, boxing Zack's creativity in, and leaving the movie hostage to it's source material. There are scenes that Zack doesn't quite 'get' either, and for realism's sake, he trades in what he perceives to be an outlandish element (the squid) for something more grounded. I'm sure he had a laundry list of reasons why he did this stuff, but in the end it doesn't matter. Mass appeal doesn't matter. All the slavish faithfulness is moot if you don't get the material.

   Then what ends up happening in a handful of scenes, or more, is that the letter of the scene in adapted, but not the meaning. This why some parts feel like they drag, or they might feel just a bit pointless. Or even at times it feels like you might've missed something. Watchmen, like I've said, isn't an 'easy' movie, and that's compounded by Zack's approach to the material. The comic told the story the best way it could be told, but instead of modifying the way he's telling it to accommodate a different medium, Zack merely tells it the same way and despite all the stunning visuals and profound dialog, something is lost in the translation.

   There's also the design of the movie and it's characters to consider. There's an element of the movie that's catering to the crowd that wants a traditional good vs. bad comic book movie. The fight scenes are endlessly stylized, and while that's impressive and cool and all, it distracts from the point. This isn't an action movie, or an adventure movie. These actors didn't need to learn fifty different martial arts so that the camera could fetishize the violence and the audience would have it played back to them in slow motion. What's matter-of-fact on the page is glorified on the screen. There didn't seem to be anyone who said "Hey, lets try doing all the action stuff a bit... understated." and if there was, I can imagine Zack Snyder laughing in their face. In slow motion.

   That same mentality is extended to the costumes. Specifically, Nite Owl II. He looks like he stepped off the set of The Dark Knight as a Batman double. In a way, that makes sense for 2009, but it doesn't make sense for 1985, which is when this movie is set. His costume should've been way lower-tech. Less stylized body armor, and more...

   Some might vehemently disagree with me, and that's fine. But this is more than just a genre deconstruction, it's a period piece. These outfits look like a product of 2009, as does the style of filmmaking and it's distracting. Why not commit and go the whole nine yards? Spandex and fabrics instead of hi-tech body armors? The Comedian's look I can understand more or less because he was more of a mercenary in tone than he was a superhero, but this comic and this movie are about superheroes. Other than that, most characters look great. The Minutemen all look fantastic, Dr. Manhattan was brought to life amazingly, and better still- all the acting was pretty phenomenal too. Casting lesser-knowns in a big, tentpole, multi-million dollar comic book movie was risky, but it paid off. Instead of looking at Edward Blake and seeing... I dunno... Mel Gibson, I look at Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and I see Edward Blake. See the difference?

   Aside from all that, how does the Ultimate Cut make a difference in the movie? Not amazingly well to be frank. It's a nice curio for fans of the source material, but the animated Tales of the Black Freighter only distracts from the movie as a whole. It might've worked if the animation style was different? Maybe a Ralph Bakshi-esque type of animation, but this whole cut was kind of an afterthought. It's neat, but not really effective or practical. The cartoon was created entirely separately from the movie, and spliced together afterwards for a home video release. The real home video gem here is the director's cut which is the foundation for the Ultimate Cut.

   The director's cut adds a good 20 minutes of excellent scenes to the movie, maybe one or two that are more 'miss' than 'hit', but at the end of the day, the director's cut isn't just Snyder's favorite version, it's also the best version. The theatrical cut, which I haven't seen since I actually saw the movie in the theater, seems lacking in some key emotional areas by comparison. I shan't detail the specific scenes here, save for one. My favorite scene in the entire movie is only in the director's cut (and subsequently the ultimate cut). It's Hollis Mason's death scene, and for such a ruthless and brutal moment, it's a beautiful scene that almost makes my face leak when I see it. Crying? Nonsense. It's just a leak. A manly leak. I don't cry. Buzz off.

   The movie itself is really good, a smidge misguided at times, but still- there's no other movie like it. Period. It's an awesome piece of cinema. The director's cut is even better. 20 minutes better to be precise, providing a more rounded and fleshed out experience. The ultimate cut is fascinating at times, but by no means essential viewing. It's nearly four hours, and that's a daunting runtime for such a complex and oppressive narrative. It's a primarily bleak tale, but one that's worth watching. Though... maybe do yourself a favor and just stick to the director's cut unless you're hosting a full-on screening of the movie and want to indulge in "the complete story". The movie is fine regardless, but there's really no denying how amazing it is either.

   Watchmen might just be the last important superhero comic book, and by extension it might also be the last important superhero movie too.

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