by Steve Habrat
One of the most controversial comic-to-movie-screen adaptations is without question Zack Snyder’s 2009 superhero epic Watchmen. To many comic book aficionados, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s stunning DC Comics graphic novel was considered un-filmable by many who have poured over the blood drenched pages. I have to admit that I fell into the camp that didn’t want to see Watchmen in movie theaters but I was left speechless when I saw the rhythmic trailer in the summer of 2008. Many film geeks consider Snyder a visual director who can’t properly handle a narrative, something that the graphic novel thrives on. So, did the un-filmable turn out to be filmable? For the most part, yes, Snyder took great care in bringing this incredible tale to the big screen, pining over the smallest details on every single page right down to the smallest brushstroke of color. It was gripping, philosophical, jarring, and gorgeous all in the same breath but what it truly lacked was accessibility. I attended the midnight showing of Watchmen with a group of my friends, several who had never read the graphic novel. I was so excited to have them see this movie but when we emerged after two hours and forty minutes, they were less than impressed. They didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I guess you have to read the comic to really get inside this one.
Without giving too much away about Watchmen, I’ll stick to the bare basics. Watchmen takes us to an alternate 1985, where the world is used to superheroes leaping across the rooftops of buildings and intervening with criminals of all sorts. Superheroes have been a part of daily life since 1938, when a small group of masked avengers known as the ‘Minutemen’ formed an alliance and started fighting crime. As the ‘Minutemen’ began to age, a new generation of crime fighters emerged called the ‘Watchmen’, a new fraternity that ultimately was outlawed by Richard Nixon. Nixon, however, used superheroes to win the war in Vietnam, which has led to multiple re-elections into the 80s. He primarily used the deadly Dr. Manhattan (Played by Billy Crudup), a real-life “Superman” who has gained incredible powers through an unfortunate accident and is now considered a living, breathing, and glowing government weapon. Watchmen begins with the aging hero The Comedian/Edward Blake (Played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) getting confronted in his apartment by an unknown assailant and being brutally murdered. The police wave the murder off as just a disgruntled old villain that came back to take revenge on The Comedian but masked vigilante Rorschach (Played by Jackie Earle Haley), who continues to prowl the streets even though superheroes are banned, suspects that there may be a bigger plot to wipe out former masks. Rorschach seeks out his old partner Nite Owl II/Daniel Dreiberg (Played by Patrick Wilson) and fills him in on his theory. Dan disregards Rorschach but begins warning other former heroes as a precaution. To make matters worse, the United States and Russia are on the brink of nuclear war.
There was no way for Snyder to bring Watchmen to the big screen without pissing off at least one or two fans. Along with his screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse, the crew makes a massive oops by tinkering with the grand finale that did send this fanboy into a tizzy. I was so disappointed that the ending was reworked, taking me a few days after seeing it to really get over my resentment. But then I got to thinking, “Well, if they would have kept the original ending, the film would have been infinitely longer than it already was”. Another aspect that outraged me about Watchmen was the fact that Snyder clipped out the comic-within-the-comic interludes that were found in the comic books. He did okay by releasing a companion DVD that told the story of the Tales of the Black Freighter but I desperately wanted this in the film itself. Once again, I understood that this would have added another half-hour or so to the runtime but I guess I would have sat through a five hour long interpretation of Watchmen if it was available. Don’t let these complaints fool you, I still loved this movie and it did live up to my expectations, which were huge, mind you. I thought there were several moments that were jaw-dropping, the coolest being the opening fight sequence that leads in to one of the most incredible opening credit sequences ever put on film. It has to be seen to be believed. If you have seen the film, even the most disgusted fanboy has to admit it was a spectacular and stirring moment for all.
While Watchmen does have some of Snyder’s trademark slow-motion-into-sped-up fight sequences, the film is interested more in the shattered American Dream and what it takes to bring about peace. Each hero in Watchmen has their own code for how the deal with crime, some believing that “dogs should be put down” while others think they should be turned over to the proper authorities. In the old days, the line between good and evil was as clear as day for the ‘Minutemen’, something the remaining members of that retired group look back on fondly. In the “present day” of Watchmen, things are not so black and white. While Watchmen is a superhero movie, it lacks an arch villain, at least one that really plagues each mask through the lengthy runtime. It is society itself that the group grapples with. Are the “good” citizens worth saving or should we just give in to a war that will ultimately consume us all? Watchmen takes a scary detour when Snyder pulls back the curtain on the Nixon administration, further hinting that we may not be able to trust our leaders in the face of annihilation. They may hand us over to a fiery death just to make peace, or at least fight back against the threat, or simply to save their skins. Each time I watch Watchmen, I still get chills when one of Nixon’s advisors tells him that if nuclear war occurs, the whole east coast will be wiped out and the winds will carry the radiation to New Mexico. Middle America will be okay, which is good news, all things considering. Tell me that is not powerful stuff.
Watchmen has been criticized for some of the performances that make up this mound of ideas. The standout is by far Jackie Earle Hayley’s Rorschach, a fedora-wearing bad ass who growls through his oily mask as he dispatches criminals in the most gruesome of ways. We see a good majority of the story through his ink blotches as he asks us if pedophiles, rapists, and serial killers should really be put behind bars. His simple answer is no but wait until he spouts of the complicated one. He will turn you to ice. Then we have Crudup’s disconnected Dr. Manhattan, a glowing God who single handedly wins Vietnam in about a week. Much of his character is CGI but his distant voice is what truly resonates. Malin Akerman shows up as Laurie Juspeczky/Silk Specter II, a leggy avenger who longs for the affection of her boyfriend Dr. Manhattan. Wilson’s Nite Owl II is appropriately lost, a flabby has-been who hides behind cartoonish spectacles and searches for an excuse to put on his old armor. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a knock-out as the slimy Comedian, a man who has made some poor choices in his life, laughed at human suffering, and vomited at the American Dream, all while firing his shotgun randomly into a disgruntled crowd of protestors who howl over the very idea of superheroes doing the job of the police. Also on deck is Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, a wealthy former-mask who was known for his speed, strength, and smarts. He is considered the intelligent man on the planet and he is a fascinating character, but Snyder brushes over him, which is very disappointing when it comes to the last act twist.
There is almost too much to be said about Watchmen and it truly is a difficult film to review because there is so much going on within it. There are so many ideas swirling around inside it that we almost loose focus of what the film is actually trying to convey, which is a bit disappointing. The big question here is what it takes to gain peace, but that is just one slice of the pie. I will say that at almost three hours, the film never has a dull moment. There is plenty of action, gore, and sex to keep the younger males busy while Snyder slyly whispers bigger questions into the ear of those willing to look closer. Watchmen also forces conservatism and liberalism to jump into the ring to see who will ultimately triumph. I’ll leave it to you to figure out who trumps the other. While it is impossible for me to cover all the ground that Watchmen covers in this review, I will finish by saying that I think Watchmen is a beautifully ornate study of the superhero. It is well spoken and hypnotic but also a bit bloated, but it still holds your attention throughout the entire ride. I also advise that you read the graphic novel before approaching the film because some of the smaller touches will make more sense. Not perfect but certainly very good, in my opinion, Watchmen stands as one of the best superhero movies out there, with tons of layers to peel back and explore for years to come.
Watchmen is available on Blu-ray and DVD.