Will the Doomsday Clock strike twelve when "Watchmen" finally hits theatres on March 6th?
The amount of hype surrounding "Watchmen" seems almost unprecedented, particularly for an R-rated movie based on source material by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons which, despite years of critical lauds, can still best be described as cultish. As early as last July, the first full-length trailer appeared (attached to "The Dark Knight"), followed shortly thereafter by a front cover on Entertainment Weekly, which used the film as the centerpiece for a Comic Con story. Warner Brothers has maintained the momentum month after month ever since. But then, of course, there was the lawsuit brought on by Fox, which was followed by a period of uncertainty. Fans held their breath. Would we even get to see "Watchmen" on the long-promised release date? The suit was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, as well as a share of theatrical profits, and everyone could breathe easy again. With March right around the corner, the WB publicity machine again kicked into overdrive, and in the last few weeks, it's been almost impossible to be a movie fan of any kind and not be aware that this film is coming soon to a theatre near you.
Of course, the problem with hype is that it's often difficult to live up to, and "Watchmen" already has some very vocal detractors, even if they haven't seen the entire finished product. Many who swear by the novel insist that director Zack Snyder's got it all wrong, based on the numerous clips that have been released in the past week.
- "The tone is incorrect. It's not what Moore and Gibbons were aiming for."
- "The slow motion photography in the fight scenes is old hat."
- "(INSERT ACTOR'S NAME HERE) is all wrong for that part."
And let's not forget the granddaddy of them all:
- "There's no squid!"
What is it they say about pleasing some of the people some of the time?
Ironically, the ultimate "Watchmen" detractor is no less than the co-creator of the graphic novel, Alan Moore himself, who gave up on Hollywood years ago and has been quite vocal about his disgust with this adaptation of his work, regardless of the results. At the time of writing, the film just had its London premiere, and there were no reports of Moore picketing the screening. Reviews have been trickling in all across the 'net, and the reaction seems to be mostly positive.
There was a time, however, when all of this was still shrouded in secrecy, and the project was still in its infancy. It seems so long ago, Nancy, but in January of 2008, I got to visit the "Watchmen" set on the outskirts of Vancouver. By that time in the shoot, the production was nearing the end. It was a well-oiled machine grooving along with no noticeable problems to speak of. The cast and crew were gelling, and the best way to describe the tone of the set that day was, quite simply, relaxed. You almost expect there to be difficulties on a big-budget set of this kind, but either that wasn't the case or everyone was on extremely good behavior that day. The very first person I saw as the van pulled into the parking lot was Patrick Wilson, standing outside having his morning coffee, dressed in full Dan Dreiberg garb. Later on in the day, Wilson spoke highly of the production.
"Everybody's real," said Wilson. "No matter how long the days are, how long the shoot is, it's the most positive set I think I've ever been on. I think because everyone loves this."
As for the hype surrounding the movie, Wilson added, "Do I care? Yeah, I care. I can't help but want people to love what we're doing. We're giving it everything we got. You want to make a film that obviously appeals to the fans, but you want a much broader audience. You want to bring it to people that have never seen it."
But Wilson's comments were made in the pre-"Dark Knight" era, and that movie came along and seemingly broke down some of the barriers which "Watchmen" had originally set out to demolish. Many a superhero movie wants to come along and change the way people perceive the art form; both "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man" succeeded in doing just that last year.
Director Zack Snyder, however, seems to see "Watchmen" as the ultimate act of superhero revision.
"It's about characters," Snyder meditated. "To me, a lot of times in this sort of story, the story takes second seat to who they are, the why of them, you know? But that's the thing that makes it interesting from the standpoint of superhero mythology. (There's) what we are used to now as superhero mythology in cinema, and then what 'Watchmen' is takes all that apart, turns it over and says, 'Oh, no, Batman can't get it up. Superman doesn't care about humanity. The bad guy wants world peace.' That stuff is more fun to me. That's the fun of 'Watchmen': that it takes that perspective and never flinches from it the entire way through."
An unquestionable highlight of the set visit was getting to stand smack in the middle of Karnak, the enormous Egyptian-themed palace that serves as the setting for the film's climax. Painstakingly constructed to appear nearly identical to how it's shown in the comic, the set was roughly the size of a gymnasium, with marble floors, an elaborate staircase, a lengthy dining room table and giant, awe-inspiring pillars and statues. (They were actually made of Styrofoam, but you'd never know it by looking at them.) Standing in the middle of it all, it was so easy to picture the core characters of the novel squabbling amongst themselves as they do in one of the scenes set in that massive room. On the flip side of Karnak, was the slightly smaller yet equally impressive Owl Chamber, Nite Owl's underground lair. If Karnak was sleek and expansive, this set was the opposite: intimate and cluttered. Much to my delight, I was allowed to wander around and just poke around the laboratory as if it were my own. It was here that I first saw the now-infamous picture of the movie's original superheroes, the Minutemen, behind glass in a case amongst the rest of the little details. Being in the Owl Chamber actually felt like leaving the set altogether and finding myself transported to an actual superhero lair. The attention that had been paid to "getting it right" was mind-boggling, and it was as if I'd stepped directly into the book itself. Now if only the Owl Ship could actually fly…
It was in the Owl Chamber, prior to my poking around, that I witnessed the only proof I truly needed that day: the proof that Snyder was "getting it right." I watched a scene being filmed between Wilson and Malin Akerman. It was a quiet little scene, the sort of material you'd almost expect the filmmakers to skip right over when choosing what needs to stay and what needs to go from an adaptation of a novel this thick. The two fiddle with a pair of Nite Owl's goggles... and that's it. Now, I realize that you may be wondering why I was so blown away by this, as it sounds almost throwaway, and yet that's exactly why I was so taken. If Snyder and company were willing to take time out to get these little character moments right, then I knew they were on the right track.
There were other little things I saw that day, such as some very early CGI work of Rorschach using his grappling hook to climb the side of the building at the top of the movie, as well as his and Nite Owl's trek through the Antarctic to get to Karnak. And I will never, as long as I live, forget the trip through the costume department, where we were allowed to actually inspect the goods and touch anything we cared to. Jackie Earle Haley (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is actually a close friend of mine), talked about being a costumed vigilante, alongside his former "Little Children" co-star Wilson.
"The first night, we were in Ozymandias' lair or whatever, and it was the first time it was Rorschach and Nite Owl standing there in full costume," said Jackie. "We were looking at each other and saying, 'Two years ago, if we had ever said we'd be standing here in these outfits, we just wouldn't have believed it.' It's a treat. It's really a treat."
Wilson agreed, acknowledging the absurdity, "The first day, [we] just sort of looked at each other like, 'What the hell are we doing? We're dressed like Ronnie McGorvey and Brad Adamson, our "Little Children" characters.' Like, 'Is this the sequel?' You find the pedophile has donned a mask and become Rorschach and Brad's found his new freedom as Nite Owl. It was funny."
It's been a long, long wait for "Watchmen" to hit the big screen, and for many a fan it goes back much further than just a year or two. Some have dreamed of this day since Alan Moore first unleashed the book back in '86. One vibe I got from this set was that the people making it were just as eager to see the finished movie as the people they were making it for.
When I asked Snyder if he'd like to be the guy the who finally makes an Alan Moore movie that blows away Alan Moore, he was refreshingly candid – and yet cautiously optimistic - with his response:
"I'd be a liar if I say that I didn't want him to like it," admitted Snyder. "And if I say, 'Oh, I don't care,' that's a lie…even though, again, like I say, I'd make no assumptions about how he feels."
"(But) I would hope," he added, "that he'd think it didn't suck super-bad."
And if he does…?
Well, to paraphrase the Comedian, it don't matter squat, anyway, because inside 30 years the nukes are gonna be flyin' like maybugs, and then Alan Moore is gonna be the loudest detractor on the cinder.
Now pardon me, but I got an appointment to see "Watchmen." See you in the funny papers.