It was all the Internet buzz last week. No, it wasn't a further dissection and/or dissertation on the then upcoming Christopher Nolan masterwork, The Dark Knight. No, that sensationalized ship sailed about the time the mainstream media was exploiting Heath Ledger's performance/death. The latest geek cause celeb was, in fact, a first glance, a chance to see a storied title finally brought to the big screen. With the success of his Dawn of the Dead remake and the sublimely stylized 300, Zach Snyder still remained an odd choice to bring Watchmen to the silver screen. Far more flamboyant filmmakers had struggled with the material, most notably Python ex-pat Terry Gilliam. A project long standing in his inconsistent artistic output, there was a time when his version had Kevin Costner and Robin Williams attached.
Thank god for the passage of time (and pop culture fancy). In fact, in 2008 the only true impediment to seeing the fabled graphic novel made, aside from certain technical issues, is the source itself. Writer Alan Moore has never been happy about seeing his work translated to the big screen. With From Hell, V for Vendetta, and especially The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen frequently failing (sometimes completely) his vision and approach, he has written off participation in any future film adaptation. As a matter of fact, Gilliam gave up on this project when he approached Moore about how he would translate the text to film. "I wouldn't" was all the brusk Brit had to offer. Call it curmudgeonly spite or a true desire to protect his work, but Moore makes no bones about his belief in this - or any other - visualizations of his ideas.
That doesn't mean Snyder has simply stepped in and deconstructed Watchmen. Indeed, from the very beginning of pre-production, he promised to stay as true to the comic as possible. Naturally, there are issues outside his control - running time, studio contracted concessions, the always awkward process of filtering pages of ideas into a single screenplay - but with a fanbase eager to tear him a new as…pect ratio, this is one director who wisely wants to follow the Peter Jackson/Guillermo Del Toro geek appeasement path. From blog posts and visits to the set, the amount of information about this upcoming release has been handled in a cautious, yet creative manner. Let's face it, whenever you can get moviegoers excited about something with just a couple of photos (which is exactly what happened a few months back), you know you're doing something right.
Still, the pressure is on to deliver, and this initial glimpse of what Watchmen has to offer will be that all important determinative "first impression". So what can or will both sides of the coin - the inside and the out of touch - make of this trailer? Does it satisfy the faithful while inspiring the uninformed? The retro styled narrative, using real world events (Watergate, Vietnam) in a fictionalized '80s where superheroes - or as they are referred to, "costumed adventurers"/"masked vigilantes" - are forced to hide their identity, is definitely a hard sell, and the cast (Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup) while exceptional in many ways, doesn't contain a real A-list tent pole name. From either side, things do look promising…at least, for now.
From a Watch-Maniac's Perspective
On a recent SModcast, indie icon Kevin Smith, a true comic book bad-ass, had a series of superlatives for the Watchmen preview. After admitting to obsessing on the clip for most of the weekend, he argued that it was a "flawless" representation of the world Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created. He stated that it was like watching a trailer for The Catcher in the Rye and that Snyder visualized elements from the novel so sublimely that the noted Clerks creator was developing a bit of a 'gay' mancrush on the filmmaker (his description of said passion was, in typical Smith fashion, far more X-rated). For him - and one assumes other Watchmen devotees - the images offered mimicked Moore's universe expertly. Smith even suggested that the disgruntled writer might embrace what he saw, given the trailer's truth and attention to detail.
Since Snyder's primary hurdle has always been to satisfy the true Watchmen demo, it would appear that he has passed the first of what will be many obsessive's tests. Smith may not speak for the invested masses, but one has to imagine that he does offer one of the more learned, schooled impressions. Smith admits to loving the comic ever since he first read it back in the late '80s, and his appreciation has only grown since then. Looking over the blogsphere and messageboard domain, it seems that many who also love the book share his enthusiasm. Naturally, there are those who want more, and others who envisioned Moore's message in a slightly less slick, big screen blockbuster manner, but for the most part, the fans are in.
From a Watch-Meaningless Perspective
This is the much harder pitch, especially in light of recent superhero films that have failed to live up to overhyped expectations. While some might argue over the delineation, Alan Moore is far from a household name (Simpsons appearance or not), and when people hear that he was responsible for From Hell (decent), League (disaster), and Vendetta (undecided), such heritage doesn't inspire much confidence. Snyder himself is also a creative wildcard. Both 300 and Dawn were not definitive mainstream hits, since each one inspired most of their love from the specific genre mavens. They don't cater to your average Joe Filmgoer. And Watchmen will only be his third theatrical effort. Again, it's a track record that inspires some confidence, if not outright acceptance.
Of course, some spectacular images can change all that, and the Watchmen trailer does look amazing. From the opening sequence where Crudup follows his character's nuclear fate to the closing moments where a clockwork object rises up from an alien landscape, the two minutes offered provide the kind of provocative, ambiguous visuals that get tongues wagging and chatrooms yakking. Anyone unfamiliar with the material will wonder what or who the glowing blue muscle man represents, the identity of the fetching leather outfitted babe, why angry mobs are protesting against vigilantes, and whose being buried with full military honors. Of course, as with any indistinct approach, what fails to fully enlighten may simply be unclear to begin with. While saving most of the plot for future teasers is understandable, getting the newbie on board should be Watchmen's principal aspiration.
The most aggravating part is that, aside from a couple more trailers and a full blown sneak preview/feature or two, we will have to wait until March of 2009 for the final answer. Until then, conjecture will run side by side with educated conclusion, each hoping to get a handle on this event movie before it finally hits theaters. And who knows, maybe Snyder will pull it off. Maybe he will create the post-modern comic book movie that everyone is anticipating. Then again, perhaps Alan Moore has a right to be bitter…and worried. We'll just have to 'watch', and wait.