Friday, March 6, 2009

Watch That Man: Zack Snyder, Pater Noster of Geek Cinema

or, An Early Watchmen Review

Zack Snyder is very good at playing in someone else's sandbox, and he's even better when he's not behaving himself. His Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake had a wry sense of humor absent from the heavy-handed satire and genre slavishness of George Romero's own latter-day zombie efforts. On the other hand, his adaptation of 300 (2006), while a stylistic and technological triumph, hewed too closely to the truncated, juvenile Frank Miller source material to be interesting beyond all the spurting blood and slo-mo sex. It would be an immediate inductee into the Bland People's Favorite Movies Hall of Fame, if such a place existed (right alongside Wedding Crashers and Fight Club).

Approaching "Watchmen" (2009) might seem like "300" times ten, especially considering Synder's constant assertions that the film would look as much like the graphic novel as possible. Furthermore, Synder's demeanor at Comic-Con 2008 last July matched that of a man under an enormous amount of pressure, giving rambling non-answers to simple questions and being intimidated by a room of 6000 geeks who were nonetheless easily placated by a couple minutes of "exclusive" footage. But his deer-in-the-headlights performance also suggested a man completely consumed by making an enjoyable film out of a massively frustrating project with a two-decade turnaround.

My knee-jerk opinion is that Watchmen is quite good--very good, in fact, and better if you have read the graphic novel. But Synder's real coup is that he has made a film that will both intrigue and confuse Watchmen newbies, sending them to their nearest bookstore where Alan Moore's magnum opus is already flying off the shelves (Moore generally acts like a bridge troll whenever his material is adapted for film but I'm sure he enjoys the boost in his bank account). It is an odd movie in that the plot is nonexistent for nearly an hour. When that plot finally does creak into motion, it kind of pales in comparison to sixty straight minutes of character development. Like I said, this is an odd film--that is, odd for a purported action blockbuster--and I certainly didn't mind that the exposition upstaged the climax. The Watchmen are the only compelling reason to see this movie, which would otherwise resemble an expensive, R-rated Fantastic Four threequel.

I had the good fortune to be part of a screening that featured post-movie Q&A with the director, which I'm not sure the audience fully appreciated perhaps due to the length of the film and the general lack of geek cred. Though he doesn't reference it much anymore, Synder comes from the world of commercials. The best bits of Watchmen are, predictably, the ones that are most like mini-music videos (the opening credits are ingenious). We heard all about his storyboards and development process and other such pablum that one hears during these sessions. One fact Snyder mentioned, though, that probably doesn't make the junket circuit is that he is the father of six(!) ranging from 15 to 8 years old. He might be touted as a "visionary filmmaker" (front-runner for most misleading statement of 2009) but he is also a bona-fide, advanced-level Dad.

For some reason I find this crucial to understanding the movie. In Watchmen, way underneath all the sex and violence and depravity and darkness, beats the heart of a middle-aged parent with the keys to his comic book Corvette. Synder doesn't so much adapt the book as appreciate it from a distance. His touch may be too deft and fail to fully capture Moore's sense of paranoia and misanthropy, but in the best of all comic book movie worlds, the appeal of Watchmen's impossibly dark narrative to an amiable uber-father is a welcome development for moviegoers still struggling to get over the experience of being Schumacher'd.


  1. First, the eye of the hurricane: I really appreciate this style of weBLOGGING/writing, if only for a touch of contrast/class. I like that it's more of a New Yorker-style profile piece, touching upon the subject's most recent work, than a typical review capsule. I have yet to see the film itself, but I feel like you offer some valuable insights. More interesting, I think, is your approach to the review itself, focusing attention on Synder-as-auteur rather than Moore-as-curmudgeon or 'Watchman-as-(un)disputed masterpiece. And the most clever aspect of all this is looking at how Synder's private life affects his public work. Like a....super....hero....Oh god.

    Of course, pop-psychology is a slippery slope and in my opinion Synder's body of work gives plenty of ammunition to both proponents and opponents of his particular style of long-form music video, I mean, neo-narratives. As I said, I haven't yet seen "Watchmen" but I am a vigorous opponent of Synder's "Dawn of the Dead" retread and I hold him personally responsible for the premature death of the zombie genre ("Shaun of the Dead" notwithstanding). And I've wasted enough of my time and energy writing against "300." I don't think it will be remembered, beyond some YouTube hologram clips in the next decade.

    I'm planning an entry about "Geek-Bait Cinema" and all the horrors (and occasional niceties) that entails, though that may be subsumed by my own "Watchmen" review. How different are the howling crowds of Comic Con to the much-despised audience test screenings that have re-shaped and re-cut thousands of recent films?

    Also, I'm pretty sure that Moore gives his cut of the adaptation money to his collaborators. And you forgot "Shawshank Redemption" and "Gladiator"/"Black Hawk Down" in the BPFMHF. What an acronym!

    And as I was saying to Cam early today, I don't understand Synder's semi-obsession with Schumacher's "Batman and Robin." The state of the superhero movie and its ever-growing audience is vastly different in the wake of the Spider-Man trilogy, the Nolan Batman films and "Iron Man." Are the late-90s travesties any more than throwaway jokes at the point?

  2. RE: That Vogue for Men picture of Snyder

    Where's that Seth Meyers impression? What are they waiting for?