Who Reviews the Reviewers?: Early Critical Response to Watchmen

Who Reviews the Reviewers?: Early Critical Response to Watchmen

The early reviews of Watchmen are in. And it’s the best movie of all time! Oh, wait, it’s the worst! What’s a potential viewer supposed to do?

watchmen1The Internet is abuzz!  Watchmen is coming!  Watchmen is coming!  The early reviews are in: Variety hates it.  The Times (UK) loves it.  Kevin Smith thinks it’s a work of genius.  The Hollywood Reporter says it’s the first flop of 2009.

What are we, the people, supposed to make of these wildly divergent reviews?  How will we know if Watchmen is worth seeing or not?

The Overthinking It readers look up and shout  ‘Help us, Mlawski!’

And I look down and whisper, ‘Okay.’

This Internet is afraid of me.  I’ve seen its true face.

The Judges of All the Earth

An examination of The Hollywood Reporter’s review puts the main issues of reviewing such a film into stark relief.  You can read the full review here, but if you don’t have the time, here are the most telling quotations:

Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse never find a reason for those unfamiliar with the graphic novel to care about any of this nonsense. And it is nonsense. When one superhero has to take a Zen break, he does so on Mars. Of course he does.

It’s all very complicated but not impenetrable. We pick up the relationships quickly enough, but soon realize these back stories owe more to soap operas than to superhero comics.  The thing is, these aren’t so much superheroes as ordinary human beings with, let us say, comic-book martial arts prowess.

The point is that these superheroes, before Nixon banned them, were more vigilantes than real heroes, so the question the movie poses is, ah-hah, who is watching these Watchmen? They don’t seem too much different from the villains.  Which also means we don’t empathize with any of these creatures. And what’s with the silly Halloween getups? Did anyone ever buy those Hollywood Boulevard costumes?

The reviewer, Mr. Kirk Honeycutt, goes on to say that Watchmen will probably be the first massive flop of the year.

Let’s break down these quotations.  Those of you who have read Watchmen as a comic will probably notice that, though Mr. Honeycutt blames the director and screenwriters for what he sees as the film’s flaws, these “flaws” all come from the original text.  It wasn’t David Hayter and Alex Tse who decided that Dr. Manhattan would have a sanctum on Mars.  It was Alan Moore, the writer of the comic.  Alan Moore decided that Dr. Manhattan would be the only superhero with actual super powers, and it was Alan Moore, quoting the satirical poet Juvenal, who wondered who was watching them all.

But the really interesting thing to me is that Mr. Honeycutt seems to be arguing against Watchmen for the same reasons many comics aficionados tout it as one of the great masterpieces of the form.  Yes, Watchmen’s main characters are just ordinary human beings who have soap opera problems and who get off on wearing silly superhero costumes.  And.  That’s.  The.  Point.


Mr. Honeycutt goes on to say, “Watchmen enters into a realm that is both nihilistic and campy. The two make odd companions.”  Not really when you remember that Alan Moore was trying to deconstruct the golden and silver age superhero comics, which were, well, campy.  Thus the silly costumes.  Plus, isn’t that what a lot of post-modern/deconstructionist lit like?  Both silly and nihilistic?  Those two tones don’t work together well?  What about in Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Dr. Strangelove?  At some level, isn’t that what postmodern lit is?

It just seems like Mr. Honeycut is not rating the movie but the book.  And missing the point of the book.  I hate to mock*, but after reading this review, I wondered what Mr. Honeycutt’s future reviews would look like…

The Hollywood Reporter’s Review of 100 Years of Solitude (The Film)

This movie doesn’t seem to be much of a movie at all.  It has no real plot but rather seems to be an overly long chronicle.  The film jumps from character to character, giving viewers no real time to latch onto any one of them as the main protagonist.  What’s more, the film enters into a realm that is simultaneously realistic and fantastic.  The two make odd companions.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Review of Hamlet (The 50th film adaptation)

Like many people, I went into Hamlet with high hopes.  The trailers promised a rollicking tale of revenge with all the fun that entails.  Instead, what do we get but a four-hour-long bitchfest in which the main character hems and haws and goes crazy for no apparent reason?  And there’s a ghost?!  WTF.  Where did that come from?  Probably going to be the biggest flop of all time.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Review of Maus (The Animated Film)

I haven’t read the Pulitzer-winning graphic novel, but if this is what’s winning Pulitzers lately, leave me out.  The film is like, ah-ha!, Nazis are like cats and Jews are like mice.  Which means that something that could have been subtle turns out to be sledgehammer to the head.  Animating the film rather than using live actors could have been a great idea if, say, Pixar had been on board.  But in this film, the characters all look like hastily-scratched pen drawings my five-year-old daughter could have drawn.


Look Upon Which Works, Ye Mighty?

No, no.  I’m being unnecessarily cruel to Mr. Honeycutt.  The fact is, I read his review as someone who believes Watchmen the comic to be a work of genius.  A review of the film that highlights not the flaws of the film adaptation but the perceived flaws of the original text, therefore, is just not something I can take too seriously.

But that leads me to wonder: should film reviewers be expected to have read original texts of adapted works?

The answer, I think, has to be no.  First, film reviewers are just that: FILM reviewers.  While they might have the expertise to judge a movie on its merits, they might not have the knowledge of, say, comics history or theory, to properly judge a comic.  Second, time constraints obviously restrict the amount of reading a critic can do.  Let us assume that something like a third to a half of all films nowadays are based on other texts.  That’s a lot of reading to do.

Third, reviewers aren’t only reviewing for those of us who have read the original text.  They are reviewing for the benefit of everyone, including those people who have never even heard of the original.  My dad, who is somewhat interested in seeing the Watchmen film, doesn’t care if the movie is as good as the book.  He hasn’t read the book.  He wants to know if the film is worth seeing–period.

On the other hand, I can’t help but write off Mr. Honeycutt’s review as, well, silly.  There is a consensus among those who have read Watchmen that it is a legitimately fine work of art.  Not that I’m a big fan of Top 100 lists, but Time Magazine called it one of the top 100 novels of all time.  Entertainment Weekly put it as #13 in its list of top novels of the past 25 years.  It won the Hugo Award.  To denigrate the film adaptation for the same things that made the original so well-loved shows that either you A) have very different tastes than the general public or B) you’ve missed the point.

And it’s fine to have different tastes.  It’s important, even.  We don’t want everyone to agree that a work of art is genius just because everyone else says so.  Hey, in my time I’ve bashed The Catcher in the Rye, Moby Dick, the collected works of Ernest Hemingway, the collected works of Toni Morrison, and Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.  I think Citizen Kane, The Graduate, and Gone With the Wind are overrated.  I loathe Lost in Translation.

But that doesn’t mean that if I write a review of one of the aforementioned works that anyone has to listen to me.

That’s doubly true if I’ve missed the point of the original text.  If I start a review of a William Faulkner novel saying, “His sentences are far too long, and it’s almost as if he’s just writing down every little thing that pops into each character’s head at any given time,” that is your cue to ignore my review.  If I write, “Animal Farm is an adorable film for children who love talking animals,” you should probably ignore my review.

The Hollywood Reporter Gazes Also

Then again, I’m not sure if Mr. Honeycutt is missing the point of Watchmen or not.  At first glance, it seems he is.  At second glance, though, maybe he isn’t.  Or maybe we shouldn’t blame him for missing it.  It’s possible that Watchmen only made sense back in the 80s when superhero films and comics WERE still cheesy and campy.  Perhaps Watchmen was only considered genius because it was the first of its kind.  Now that we have The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and other dark superhero films around, Watchmen just doesn’t seem to be breaking any new ground.  You can’t deconstruct a genre if that genre no longer exists in the minds of the viewers.  In other words, if a tweeny-bopper kid goes to see Watchmen, having never seen or read a piece of old-school, campy superhero lit, does the deconstruction work?  Probably not.  Then it’s just another dark superhero action flick in a sea of dark superhero action flicks.  And if that’s the case, Watchmen the comic did too good a job of deconstructing the superhero genre.  Alan Moore may have deconstructed it so bad it doesn’t even exist in the same way anymore.  Which makes Watchmen unnecessary.

Hurm.  Whatever.   Nobody cares.  Nobody cares but me.

*No, I don’t.

22 Comments on “Who Reviews the Reviewers?: Early Critical Response to Watchmen”

  1. fucking leach #

    The characters in Watchmen may have been despicable and terribly flawed, but we still liked some of them. If the film makes all of the characters unlikeable, it is the fault of the film, not the source material.


  2. Rylee #

    Excellent points made here. I completely agree with you. I think that a lot of the problems some people are having is that they’re missing the point of it all. Whether that is the film’s fault or the reviewer’s I’m not really sure, I haven’t seen the film yet. But at this point, and especially from the review you were citing, it’s looking to be a bit more of a misunderstanding of the material on the reviewer’s end of things.

    Still, I’m not going to come down on the guy too hard until I’ve seen the film. Maybe, and I could see this (what with cramming all of the Watchmen stuff in to a single timeslot), the film really does not convey the same messages as well as the graphic novel. But maybe not, we’ll see come Friday.


  3. Michael Hughes #

    A very even-handed, insightful piece. As someone who has always intended to read “Watchmen” but never got around to it (I was too busy reading the collected works of Hemingway, ironically enough), I am primarily interested in whether or not the film stands on its own, as an enjoyable film.

    Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a good example of a film that does not stand on it’s own two feet. It’s still a rather good film, but without an understanding of the source material, it is rather facile and empty.

    In any case, I’ll wait ’til A.O. Scott or Manohla Dargis gives me their take on Watchmen, as they are generally the only film reviewers still working today who know what the hell they’re talking about anyway.


  4. Gab #

    Even if he’s reviewing it as a film and not as a graphic novel, it sounds more like he’s missing the point to me than the movie not making the point. Mostly because of this little gem, which you already quoted: “The point is that these superheroes, before Nixon banned them, were more vigilantes than real heroes, so the question the movie poses is, ah-hah, who is watching these Watchmen? They don’t seem too much different from the villains.” That IS the point of the characters, them not being all that different from the villains. Further, given the “new” take on comic heroes, even without reading _Watchmen_ and only seeing movies like the Nolan Batmans (Batmen?) and _Iron Man_, he should be aware that the genre has changed recently if he’s a serious film-reviewer. As such, it is absolutely necessary for Dr. Manhattan to be the only one with real superpowers, since these characters are more blatant deconstructions of old takes than the new Bruce and Tony are- especially if the film incorporates all of the lines from the book where the characters sort of poke fun at themselves, “What was I thinking?”-esque moments of reflection where they REALIZE they were kind of ridiculous. It may not be breaking new ground as of this date, but it has its own take on how to deconstruct superheroes because of those costumes- even if you don’t read comics, there are still older takes on them to draw from (old Superman and Batman movies and series, Wonder Woman, Hulk…), and Honeycutt should be aware of them and realize the difference here. I guess since he states the point, I feel like he sees it but doesn’t GET it or agree with it. And I don’t think the latter is a good enough to say it has no value. There are movies I don’t like but realize are big and important (all of what you listed off yourself, actually, Shana)- that doesn’t mean I think my dislike is equivalent to them being bad or worthless.

    I dunno, I’ll figure it out completely when I see it.


  5. Swirthe #

    @Michael Hughes: I was just about to make the same point using the same Harry Potter example!
    I do think that when a film is made based on a book/comic book/video game/whatever it shouldn’t require you to read/play/whatever that book/comic book/video game/whatever (too many options?). The film should exist as a separate means of telling the story, not just as an addition to the original. And this was what was missing from the fourth Harry Potter film and could well turn out to be the problem with Watchmen (time will tell).
    Personally I always try and read the original before seeing a film adaptation, and hate it when people say “reading’s crap, just wait for the film to come out”, but when the filmakers seem to expect you to have done so it always makes the movie feel flat and disappointing to me.
    And so for this reason I would agree that reviewers should not be required to read the original book/comic/whatever (I think I’ve taken this too far now) since not doing so will sometimes give them a more objective view of the film.


  6. Michael Ferrari #

    My God…I’m so glad you disliked “Lost in Translation.” I felt so alone thinking I was the only one. If you tell me next that you’ve never seen “Titanic” as well, you’ll be my hero for life and I’ll donate $1,000 Ferrari Bucks* to the site.

    *–Ferrari bucks valid only in Guam.


  7. John P #

    Taking as read that Honeycutt isn’t familiar with the source material, and the film didn’t make him any more familiar with the source material, I see that as prima facie evidence of the film failing, not the reviewer.

    As we all learned just a few short months ago, it’s possible for a movie to communicate deep and introspective themes about the superhero genre and still be entertaining. It’s really, really hard (directors have been trying and failing for something like 30 years), but it can be done.

    To sum up with an off-hand comment: The Dark Knight dealt with the question of “what does it cost to be a superhero? what does it cost to need a superhero?” than (I bet) Watchmen will.


  8. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Michael Ferrari: I actually have seen Titanic. But don’t worry. I assume Ferrari bucks can only be used to purchase Ferraris, and I already have a car.

    I haven’t seen Million Dollar Baby. Is that close enough?


  9. Carlos #

    This post could have used the “fallen heroes” tag.


  10. Melanie #

    Funny, I also loathed Lost in Translation (thought it was pretty to look at but dropped the ball on the character development) and did not see Titanic (in 1999, I visited Ireland and was the only person in the country who had not seen it. My host mother left her family copy out on the coffee table for me). Do I win something?

    Anyway, I haven’t gotten through the book yet (but I’ve started and I expect that it will go quickly). But the movie passed the Wil Wheaton test: http://wilwheaton.typepad.com/wwdnbackup/2009/02/spoiler-alert-watchmen-is-fucking-awesome.html

    Don’t worry, the “spoiler” is just the general awesomeness of it.


  11. Gab #

    John- You make a good point about the film failing its source material- so maybe Honeycutt isn’t as off the mark as I first thought he would be. Unfortunately, since I have read the graphic novel, it will be harder for me to make the distinction between page and screen when I see it, so determining that for myself will be rough. I’ll try, though.

    BUT, I don’t think the Nolan Batman movies are a good comparison, and here’s why: First, there are two, beginning with an origin story, so all new characters (be they new to the movies, i.e. Bruce himself, or to the Batman universe as a whole, i.e. Rachel) are introduced smoothly and given the necessary explanation, too. So not only is there more room to work in, but there is enough to enable full explanations of people and events. I’m not saying a solitary film can’t produce explanations, either- but when transferring a set plot from a book or graphic novel to the screen, things get shifted around and left out; and it seems background is often the first to go with screen adaptations. Which leads to the second point- the Nolan movies are not based directly on any one particular graphic novel. Sure, they draw elements from the Batman universe and yes there are a few episodes they draw from more than others, but Nolan and his people didn’t sit and say, “I want to make a film version of this *one* Batman book,” the way the _Watchmen_ people did. The storyline was created specifically for the movies- there were elements and events to follow, yes (like Bruce’s parents being murdered in front of him, he needed to have some sort of bad experience with bats as a child, etc.), but because they were pulling from multiple sources to create an entirely new one, they had more freedom and flexibility to include *what*ever they wanted and make it happen *how*ever they wanted.

    So while I agree about Nolan’s films questioning the superhero genre, I’d argue that the way they draw from source material(s) and ultimately become their own sets them apart from _Watchmen_ in the area *of* source material. If the movies had failed to deconstruct superheroes, it wouldn’t have anything to do with a poor portrayal of a source material, but a poor execution of an idea.


  12. Equinspire #

    I also loved the Hamlet review. Very nice.

    One of the problems I have with adaptations is that it’s very difficult for a film to do better than the human imagination. I’m curious as to how much of a difference people think there is between movies made from ‘ordinary’ novels and those made from graphic novels. Does having a clearly defined visual aspect to the source material help or hinder?

    Not really certain myself, but I’m leaning towards hinder from my own experience with Asterix…

    PS. I haven’t seen Titanic either. I boycotted it for some reason or other. Sure showed them, eh?


  13. Isaac #

    Don’t be bashing Moby-Dick, Shana. That book’s the awesome.

    So is Ulysses.

    Listen to your teacher.


  14. kibindi #

    this is a bit off topic, but I was wondering if you guys would do a “philosophy behind watchmen article” like the one you did for batman, seeing how watchmen does have a lot of philosophy scattered in it.


  15. Gab #

    kibindi: Agreed. These two books are right up the alley of this site



    And you’d want to go through Overthinkingit’s little Amazon link thingy to get them some $$$ if you actually bought them. Those links do, I dunno if that carries over from computer to computer/ browser to browser or not.

    (Sorry I didn’t embed the links. I’m bad with HTML)


  16. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Isaac: Ulysses is kind of awesome. But I’ve definitely bashed it before. I’m pretty sure I bashed it in your class, actually…

    @kibindi: I almost guarantee that we will have some kind of philosophy of Watchmen article up after we see the movie. It might be more difficult than what we did for TDK because Watchmen has been around for more than 20 years, and, as Gab said, there already is quite a bit of criticism about it.


  17. Isaac #

    There is no “kind of” about it. Ulysses is the awesome.

    Same with Moby-Dick.

    On these points I am inflexible.


  18. Ivan #

    I was a comic fan from 86 till the fall of comics in 94 (good comics, at least) at first I was draw at the drawings, did some myself, so my favorite comics where Macfarlane´s Spiderman and Lee´s X-Men. As I grew up, I began getting bored of comics that had no story, so even tough I still got Spawn, I didn’t read it, instead I was so anxious to get the last issue of Sandman. I remember reading Watchmen around 93, and just like with the Lord of The Rings, I took me a little effort to get into the story, but once I did, oh God, I couldn’t put the book down, some things I didn’t get the first time, like the pirate comic, it felt like a lost time, but the second time, it just made sense. Now the movie, it is the most faithful comic adaptation ever made, more so than 300. It got everything right, and except for the final (which helps to eliminate a lot of the subplot, now unnecessary, for time issues) and some issues I have with the casting decision, I can’t see how Snyder could have made a better comic adaptation.

    Now, the problem here is, The Watchmen is not material for a movie, it is too long to be compressed into movie-time, it is not character driven, nor action driven, it´s a Murder Mystery in which we too frequently forget the “plot to assassinate the masks” as Rorschach calls it, because the dwelling into the past of the characters is too distracting, it’s a look at the past formed by a mix of individual stories, of characters that do not change, because we are not enough time around them to get to know them, (except, for Dr. Manhattan, but he is so alien to us, that his change of heart is barely imperceptible), that is, in the movie of course, the comic give us the opportunity to get back and forward when we learn something new about the story, to read and re-read the extra material at the end of the comics, to get to know the characters. The comic would have worked better as a miniseries in the Sfi channel, a 12 half hour chapter one, and that could have worked much better.

    Like it´s said here, a lot of the story goes into deconstructing the comic genera of the 80´s, that doesn’t exist any more, but taking that out of the story would have leaved the Watchmen empty, because that was the reason of the story in the first place. So what could have done Zach differently?, I said Nothing!, He did the right thing, he gave us the best movie that could have been made given the limitations and the source material, to us fans of the comic, and hopefully the fans out there are gonna reward this risky move by Snyder and go to see the movie, many times over, (I already watched it 3 times) and buy the movie, the extended version, and make sure Snyder and the other directors get the chance to adapt comics in all their integrity and not be forced to “change it” in order to suit audiences that do not care for the original material. I said, if the have to change it for people to “get it” then don´t “do it” at all. Hire better writers, buy better original scripts, and make original movies, it´s harder, but it works (some times at least) but if you want to film and already existing material, be the most faithful you can to it, people is gonna reward it, if not, it was not filmable, but at least it would be appreciated.

    Is it better this way than when Tim Burton made his redemption of Batman-Scissors hands?, many people liked that movie, I was 15 years old when it came out, and I didn’t like it at all, now nostalgia as made me appreciate it, but I would never change that version for the Nolan Batman Begins one.



  19. Kopakka el Incrópito #

    Article is good, faux reviews doubleplusgood!!!!
    luv this site!!!!!!!


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