Film and drama

Screen Themes: Watchmen vs Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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Entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out a couple of alternative comic book movies and asks is being true to the source material always a good thing?

Watchmen (2009)

Directed by Zack Snyder, based on source material by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen tells the story of a group of deeply flawed superheros called the Minutemen.

From their genesis as an idealistic band of do-gooders to the reality of obsession, mental illness and corruption, the original series was far closer to a ‘real life superhero’ than Kick-Ass or Nolan’s Dark Knight ever were.

Often considered to be unfilmable due to the dual narrative contained in the original series, director Zack Snyder took the wise (and fairly uncontroversial as far as these things go) step of dropping the pirate story altogether. Somewhat more inflammatory to the geek community was the director’s decision to change the bleak, almost surreal, ending of the comic to something more cinematic … but more on that later.

Writer Alan Moore has a long established grudge (among many others) against anyone who tries to make movies out of his comics and, to be fair, most adaptations of his books have tended towards the unwatchable — League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, anyone?

And why couldn’t people just read the original comics or be happy with the weird DC animated comic?

One of the reasons that Watchmen works better than many comic book films is that Snyder chose talented second-tier actors to play the jaded heroes; this would have been a very different movie if Doctor Manhattan had been played by Tom Cruise

As it stands, Billy Crudup (Almost Famous) does a fine job portraying the humble scientist turned naked demi-god and Malin Ackerman brings depth to his love interest — second-generation hero Silk Spectre.

While Matthew Goode struggles somewhat as genius/master of exposition Ozymandias, standout performances come from Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the sadistic Comedian and former child star Jackie Earle Haley as the deeply troubled Rorschach. The scene with an unmasked Rorschach in prison is so good it almost warrants its own film… and is not safe for work, to say the least.

While it does have some flaws with pacing (largely inherited from the comic book) Watchmen is a compelling study of the obsession and delusion it would take for real people to put on costumes and fight crime, as well as the sacrifices that powerful people are willing to make for what they perceive to be the greater good.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, from source comics by Frank Miller, A Dame to Kill For takes a dive back into the monochromatic cesspool first introduced in 2005’s Sin City.

Inhabited by murderers, hired killers, grotesque psychopaths and lots of heavily armed prostitutes, Basin City is nothing like the real world — and that is almost certainly a good thing.

The original film was a breath of fresh air in the comic book movie realm, filmed in stark black and white in an effort to replicate the look of the original comics. The loyalty to the source material was almost overwhelming, with scenes leaping to life from the page onto the big screen.

Central to the success of the original was the character of Marv — a force of nature brought to life by a never-better Mickey Rourke in heavy prosthetics. An all-star support cast including Clive Owen, Bruce Willis and Michael Clarke Duncan all did a good job inhabiting the pulp characters central to Miller’s grimy world, but Marv stood head and shoulders above everyone else.

Despite his death at the end of the first film (spoiler), Marv returns for more shenanigans in A Dame to Kill For. This is because the film isn’t really a sequel to Sin City, it’s yet more tales from the same universe.

The same conceit allows Josh Brolin to take over the role of Dwight (previously played by Clive Owen), which he more than makes it his own. Driven, obsessed and more than a little unbalanced, Dwight makes the cynical choice to use Marv as a wrecking ball to solve his problems — all of which centre around the titular Dame to Kill For.

Played by a perpetually naked Eva Green, the character of Ava is essentially a Maltese Falcon with boobs — a MacGuffin for the big tough men to fight over.

While it is great fun to watch Marv and Dwight cut a path of destruction through hordes of generic goons, it is here that the biggest problem with Sin City lies — the absolute lack of depth of any of the characters.

While this is certainly a beautiful film, most of the characters barely go beyond archetypes, as evidenced by the addition of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cocky gambler Johnny.

The only new addition to the movie (other stories are taken beat-for-beat from the comics) tells the tale of a young man who takes on one of Sin City’s richest men, the corrupt Senator Roark, played by a malevolent Powers Boothe.

If you have read any of Frank Miller’s work, or indeed any pulp fiction by authors like Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, you will know exactly how the story is going to play out from the beginning.

The Verdict

Both of these movies are good in their own way, but neither is likely to appeal to a massive audience. Watchmen is a complex tale that benefits from multiple viewings (it also helps to read the graphic novel) while Sin City is more of a ‘brain in neutral, visual feast’ kind of experience.

If you’re looking for buckets of style and can put up with undercurrents of sexism, racism and excessive gun worship, A Dame to Kill For is probably a good bet.

If you’re looking for a movie that you will probably think about next time there is a major world crisis, check out Watchmen.

Short Shrift

The Missing Scarf (2014)

Directed by Eoin Duffy and starring the inimitable George Takei (Sulu from Star Trek, awesome on social media), The Missing Scarf is a black comedy masquerading as a family-friendly morality tale.

There, wasn’t that nice?

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