In the realm of comics, Watchmen is tantamount to the Bible. It consisted of 12 issues released between 1986-1987 but it arguable changed the medium forever afterward. TIME magazine listed the book, by author Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, as one of the 100 greatest 20th century novels. Therefore, there has always been heavy trepidation within the geek community when Hollywood came courting the Watchmen property. Different directors have tried tackling the material, going back to the late 1980s when Terry Gilliam was hired to direct and producer Joel Silver was adamant about getting Arnold Schwarzenegger to portray Dr. Manhattan (back then, they totally just would have painted him blue — like they did when he was Mr. Freeze). The movie would seem like a tantalizing possibility and then the production would collapse, most recently in 2004 with director Paul Greengrass attached. Director Zack Snyder (300) understood all of the concerns from the notoriously vocal geek community and attempted to make the most faithful Watchmen film possible. He accomplished that goal. But was it the right goal?
In this alternative account of history, masked crime fighters exist and were even bankrolled by the U.S. government. President Nixon is re-elected to a third term, thanks in part to superheroes winning the Vietnam War, and then he outlaws all masked vigilantes. Flash forward to 1985, and Nixon is on his fifth term and staring down Soviet aggression into Afghanistan. It appears that the world on is on the brink of nuclear annihilation by the dueling super powers engaged in a staring contest. Edward Blake, a.k.a. the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is thrown from his apartment window and killed. Blake used to belong to a second-generation superhero team in the 1970s called the Watchmen. The other members consisted of Dan Dreiberg, a.k.a. Night Owl (Patrick Wilson), Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), a.k.a. Ozymandias, the glowing blue man Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who was transformed into a god-like figure of power after a laboratory accident, and then there’s Laurie Jupiter, a.k.a. The Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), who was following in her mother’s (Carla Gugino) footsteps, the first Silk Spectre. The death of the Comedian brings the old team back together and rekindles some interest in putting on the super suits and fighting crime one more time. It seems someone out there is trying to knock off the retired superheroes, and Rorschach is convinced that a bigger conspiracy is unwinding.
It’s difficult for me to formally express my feelings and reactions to the Watchmen film adaptation. Count me among the throng of fans that feels that Moore’s source material is a remarkably dense and witty deconstruction of the superhero mythos. Imagine a Superman that can’t be bothered to help out humanity because he feels life is overrated, or a group of super heroes that don’t necessarily do anything heroic; when they beat up the bad guys it’s because they get a sexual thrill from the rush of violence. My voice was among the cacophonous crowd screaming, “Don’t you dare butcher this great work! Keep it as close to the comic as possible!” And that’s pretty much what Snyder delivers. But now I’m left to wonder if a literal-minded interpretation is truly what I wanted all along. Watchmen is not like Sin City, a comic that was already a movie in panels. Frank Miller’s ode to film noir was ready and waiting to be a splashy action movie with style to spare. Watchmen is not a ready-made action vehicle, as it really only has about two extended pieces of action. Moore’s story examined what kind of people would become vigilante crime fighters if the government approved the practice. Surprise, it’s a bunch of sociopaths that are now getting checks from Uncle Sam! Watchmen is a nihilistic account of human behavior and far more cerebral than any superhero film that has ever graced the screen. Seriously, what other superhero movie opens with a fictitious episode of PBS’ political yak fest, The McLaughlin Group? So I suppose this paragraph is a sheepish way of admitting that perhaps Watchmen should have stayed place on the page unless, gulp, it was advantageously adapted for the medium of film.
It’s not that Snyder does a bad job or that the film itself is poor. While Snyder isn’t the best man to handle actors, he is certainly a skilled visual tactician and knows how to make some immensely pleasing imagery. He breathes great life into the images of the comic book and filled in the blanks nicely, and his one big artistic addition is one of the film’s best moments. In the opening credits we get a series of shots that perfectly establish this alternative universe, where JFK shakes Dr. Manhattan’s hand on the White House lawn only to be later gunned down by none other than the Comedian in Dallas. The segment is cleverly set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin'” and is a terrific intro into a re-imagined America. I wanted to spend more time exploring the differences, like watching a giant Dr. Manhattan win the Vietnam War in one week’s time. In many ways, Watchmen is Snyder’s epic pop commentary on the history of the United States. Dr. Manhattan takes the first pictures of the astronauts on the moon. It is a female crime fighter that swoops a woman off her feet for that iconic celebratory kiss marking the end of World War II. The flick even has a period appropriate, synth-aided score, which is fine, though the use of period pop songs can be distracting. Watching Laurie and Dan make love to the raspy tunes of Leonard Cohen’s already overused tune “Hallelujah” is a deeply uncomfortable moment. Also, the aging makeup is horrendously bad. Gugino looks like she has a turkey waddle and the older Nixon looks like a freaking Halloween mask.
At what cost did Watchmen make it to the screen? Wacthmen plays as an adaptation like the first two Harry Potter movies, like there was an assigned checklist rather than a fully developed script. I achieved a brief understanding with the characters and each central figure provides a glimpse of the trouble beneath the surface. Laurie is a girl with daddy issues who’s been pressured to follow her mother, a rape victim who still loves her rapist. Dan is a self-pitying putz who has never felt more alive than when he puts on a costume. Rorschach has the same pessimistic view of mankind that Travis Bickle did, viewing many people as vermin clogging the gutter. Yet Rorschach also is the most single-minded of all the characters and abides by an innate moral code and sense of duty, never mind the fact that he may have lost his mind. Dr. Manhattan has been turned into a supreme being and has lost his connection to humanity. The Comedian is a man of wanton desire who declares himself to be the epitome of the American dream: giving in completely to the id. Watchmen has been deemed as an unfilmable book, and perhaps they were right. It feels like Watchmen and looks like Watchmen, but the movie never seems to become anything grander than the sum of its parts. The Dr. Manhattan back-story, where we see him live life in the past, present, and future simultaneously may be one of the best moments in the movie, but it doesn’t add up to much more than an interesting aside. The trips to Mars and Antarctica provide nice visual landscapes but do little else. The other quandary is that everything Snyder cut from the comic (the side characters, the pirate comic, the alien squid) is something that ultimately was unimportant. All of the important and memorable moments from the comic are here, though abbreviated and truncated. Even a 2-hour and 40-minute movie feels like too much of a sprint through such rich material probably better suited to the more accommodating narrative confines of a glossy HBO miniseries. The movie ends up becoming a handsomely mounted and reverent homage to the source material, but I question if the movie serves any other purpose than as an advertisement to go read the book. Will people unfamiliar with the book enjoy a movie practically tailor-made to appeal to fans of the book? Who will watch the Watchmen?
Make no mistake, Watchmen is a hard R-rated movie and if any parent takes their child to this flick because it has men in capes, then that parent should have their child removed. Snyder has ramped up the book’s adult elements, which were originally a commentary on how comics flirt with sex and violence but never get their hands too dirty. Snyder has gotten his hands dirty all right. Instead of zapping others into poofs of smoke, Dr. Manhattan turns them into explosions of human goo that stick to the ceiling. Instead of the Comedian being thrown from the window, we see an extended fight sequence that seems to indicate that the Comedian’s apartment is full of nothing but breakable glass tables. When Dan and Laurie get into a street brawl where bones pop through skin. The sex scenes now involve an almost-agonizing level of thrusting. This is an adult tale in a very simple sense: there are boobs and blood. But the movie is also adult in the fact that it trades in complex political, psychological, and philosophic ideologies, asking hard questions that do not come with easy answers. Do the ends ever justify the means or is mankind destined to always destroy itself? Is humanity worth saving and at what cost? This is probably the most subversive studio-backed movie to come out of Hollywood since 1997’s pro-fascism melodrama, Starship Troopers.
The three best performances in the movie all come from the three weirdest and most messed up characters. Haley (Little Children) fully inhabits the grisly character of Rorschach and growls his way through the movie. You can tell just by the man’s face how much he has weathered. Crudup (Big Fish) and his gentle voice make Dr. Manhattan an intriguing yet beleaguered super being. Morgan (TV’s Grey’s Anatomy) makes the Comedian one consummate bastard but a bastard that you cannot stop watching, nonetheless. The rest of the cast does suitable jobs and I don’t feel that Goode (The Lookout) or Akerman (27 Dresses) deserve the drubbings they’re getting through the critical community. I actually liked Goode’s portrayal of Ozmanydias, though he fails to express the heavy crown the smartest man in the world must bear. Gugino (Sin City) is terrific when she’s the young, spunky Silk Specter and the opposite of terrific when she’s the troubled, alcoholic older version on screen.
Snyder has served up the Watchmen that fans have been demanding for years, but is this really what everyone truly wanted? Snyder made an adaptation for the fans but what do the fans know except for lavish loyalty? The book utilized the medium of comic books to accentuated its story while commenting on the history of comics and superheroes, and when translated to the big screen as is Watchmen can feel like an artistic stillborn. I’m now more curious than ever to read the previous drafts out there, the ones that directors like Darren Aronofsky and Greengrass were going to film until the financing got pulled. One of the drafts transplants the world of Watchmen to modern day and replaces the nuclear brinksmanship with the Russians to the ongoing War on Terror. It may not be faithful to the fabulous source material, and it quite possibly would have made a terrible movie, but it would have been more interesting as a film project because it would have been an adaptation. Snyder’s Watchmen is reverent to a fault but I cannot complain too much. This is likely the most faithful recreation of a complex book that fans could hope for. I feel satisfied and yet unsatisfied with the finished product. It was everything I was looking for in a Watchmen movie and maybe, in the end, that was the problem. I think instead of buying the DVD I may just read the book again.
Editor’s Note: I have warmed up to this film much, much more on Blu-Ray, especially the 3-hour director’s cut. It’s Snyder’s best work to date.
Nate’s Grade: B
Posted on March 8, 2009, in 2009 Movies and tagged action, billy crudup, carla gugino, comic book, dark, drama, gory, jackie earle haley, jeffrey dean morgan, malin akerman, matthew goode, politics, sci-fi, super hero, war, zack snyder. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.