Who is watching the Watchmen?

I’m betting, based on the twenty or so minutes of footage I was fortunate enough to be invited to see this past Wednesday night, many millions of people will be come March 6.

Okay, so there is that nasty court thing hanging over its head, with a miniscule chance the release could be delayed… although my ever-so-slightly-but-still-properly-instructed law educated brain thinks that won’t happen. But let’s assume for a moment that the film comes out as planned. “Watchmen” will, in my humble opinion, surpass “The Dark Knight” as the pinnacle of what a “comic book” movie can accomplish. Not in terms of box-office, as this film’s definite R rating and planned longer than “Dark Knight” running time will preclude that from happening, but in terms of visual artistry and depth of emotion. For while “The Dark Knight” is an amalgamation of and influenced by many different Batman stories, “Watchmen” has one direct source material, one that is considered to be The Greatest Graphic Novel Of All Time by those in the know.

I say that because, to be honest, I was not 100% impressed with the graphic novel. While I was impressed Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons took their story to certain dark places most stories of this nature would never dare to go, amused by the radical rewriting of our then-modern history and fascinated by Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach, I found the overall conceit of the storyline somewhat less than satisfactory.

So why even bother going to a private screening of footage from the film versionr

Part of it is vanity. I got to see part of something millions of people want to experience months before they will. That’s fun, although I know there is an even smaller community of people outside of the Watchmen production inner circle that have seen the full film as it currently stands (down to 2:43 from a three hour first cut, according to director Zack Snyder during a post-screening Q&A).

Part of it is networking. As much as I would like to have this site live up to the promise it once held a few years back, it’s nowhere near where it should be, and part of repairing that is making myself more available at important events. I had to reintroduce myself for the third time to someone at Warner Brothers, who hosted this event, who I have been dealing with for more than half a decade through email, because I don’t go to as many of these events as I should. It’s not their fault. Most of the time, I come home from work exhausted and I would rather veg out on the couch with Mrs. Havens and play Xbox or Wii, or watch one of the hundreds of DVDs in our home collection, instead of going out.

But most of it was from the sheer excitement of seeing that first trailer in front of “The Dark Knight” and getting that same sense of euphoria I had when I first saw the “300” trailer in the summer of 2006. The visuals in the “Watchmen” trailer we so awe-inspiring, not just as a filmic representation of the graphic novel but on its own terms, I was on board for this adaptation.

(As an aside, there are only three films coming out in the next year and a half that are on my personal “absolute must-see under any reasonable and legal circumstance” list. One is James Cameron’s “Avatar,” one is David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and the last is “Watchmen.”)

What has stuck with me about both “300” and the footage from “Watchmen” we saw Wednesday night was Snyder’s continual slowing of scenes down. This super slow motion, to me, felt like Snyder was trying to get the audiences as close as possible to a melding of film and comic. You can see this in the first scene shared to us by Snyder, which is the opening ten minutes of the film. The first part details the death of Edward Blake, aka The Comedian. In the book, this moment takes up all but eleven frames within the first four pages. On film, we get to experience the whole bloody struggle, and, as seen in the trailer, the action slows to a crawl when Blake is tossed out the window. What the readers of the novel had to fill in between the frames is now presented in full force action, yet slowing down at specific moments brings the two mediums as close together as possible. It’s not just some stylistic mumbo-jumbo to show off the size of the effects budget.

We then immediately jump into the fully completed opening title sequence, which to me is the most impressive and integral to the overall storyline since “Seven.” With Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” playing on the soundtrack, the audience is ingeniously brought up to speed as to the history of this world, to whom the Minutemen were, how they came to be and how they came to no longer be and some of the exploits of those who became known as the Watchmen before masked vigilantism was banned. Ingenious in that during the entire credit montage sequence, all this is conveyed without a single moment of dialogue. Just some images and a dash of Robert Zimmerman. Incredible.

The second sequence Snyder showed featured Dr. Manhattan during his Martian self-exile, as he reflects on how we came to be. It’s the whole of Chapter IV of the book, with a little bit of rewriting and restructuring, but the same basic narrative flow. Mere superlatives like “stunning” or “spectacular” seem inadequate to describe the richness and dedication to detail. For all of Alan Moore’s protestations about Hollywood and aggravations with DC Comics, it’s a shame he’s painted himself into too big a corner to be able to legitimately enjoy what looks to be one of the most pure page-to-screen adaptations of any work, fiction or non-fiction, novel or comic book. It’s clear from watching the film and listening to Snyder, costume designer Michael Wilkinson and production designer Alex McDowell speak between clips and during the Q&A afterward that they all hold the comic book in the absolute highest regard,.

The third clip, shortest of the three outside of a quick montage of random moments presented at the end, was the breaking Rorschach out of jail sequence. It’s structured quite different from the book, but I guess when you’re looking at a close to three hour running time, some things need to be trimmed to keep the main narrative flowing.

Because I am usually but understandably subjected to a near strip-search at events like this when I do go to them, I did not bring a camera or a tape recorder with me, so I cannot share with you more details of what Snyder, Wilkinson and McDowell did say during the Q&A and during the reception afterward. Naturally, the one time I do neglect to bring these things is the one time I could have brought them, and it did seem I am the only person without any kind of recording device. I wish I did have them, because I did want to share some of the things I observed. At the post-screening reception, all the costumes were on display along with the Owl Ship, and I cannot stress how much detail went into these items. Unless there is some kind of public tour of these materials, which wouldn’t be that bad an idea, most people will never get to experience how exacting the design of these items are. Minute details like a couple of 8-track tapes shoved in between the frame and a beam within the Owl Ship or the trellises on the breastplate of the Night Owl’s costume. Things you might only get a glimpse of on the screen, but it’s being there adds to create the proper moment during shooting, which helps the performances and helps the film.

I only got a moment to speak with Zack Snyder one-on-one, and I told him the honest truth. The next five months, or however long it is before I get to experience the final film, is going to be rough. The footage was that good, and left me wanting so much more.

March 6th cannot get here soon enough.

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