The Watchmen [movies]

By: E · March 7, 2009

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[I’m going to keep this review spoiler free for the most part, so feel free to read on if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book]

It’s pretty much impossible to not fall into geeky hyperbole or fanboy bashing, maybe even simultaneously, when talking about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of The Watchmen. Long toted as the “unfilmable book,” Snyder has been all around the talk circuit speaking of his attention to remaining faithful to the seminal graphic novel, while also tweaking and in a few respects, greatly changing elements that made the book so revolutionary, both in structure and in message. So it’s with that kind of dichotomy that you have to approach The Watchmen, with a realization that it’s a complex work that has a backstory, as much in the content of the book itself as in the lore that’s been formed around its place as the epitome of comic book importance. And it’s with that split that I have to say the following completely noncommittal statement: The Watchmen is both a very good movie, and a moderately flawed movie in many, many respects. And the fact that it manages to reach neither the heights of a great movie, or the depths of a horrifically flawed disaster makes me both relieved and disappointed, which is a weird feeling to have walking out of a movie that’s become as big an event as this one. It’s oddly unsatisfying, even if the movie kind of was.

For those not familiar, the story follows a group of superheroes called The Watchmen, years after their disbandment when the government outlawed superheroes in the wake of their involvement in helping the U.S. win the Vietnam War. After the death of The Comedian, one of the heroes, Rorsach, believes that someone is trying to off former superheroes (or “masks,” as he refers to them), and goes to warn his former teammates, Ozymandias, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre and Dr. Manhattan. That’s the set up, and through the narrative of the story, we see the history of not only the characters themselves, but the nature of masks in U.S. history, as well as a finely developed sense of a country stuck in the depths of The Cold War in the 1980’s, with an entrenched President Nixon (after presidential term limits were abolished) at war with the U.S.S.R., and utilizing Dr. Manhattan’s godlike ability (gained from a nuclear accident) as the ultimate trump card in this game of nuclear warhead chicken. And if you think the setup is kinda confusing, then well shit….I really don’t know what to tell you about the story that forms from there.

In many ways, the story crafted by original author Alan Moore had no specific genre. It’s a hard boiled detective story and a character drama (as many comics were back in the day), but it is a deeply philosophical book that requires effort to fully understand. The book has no personal relatability to it, instead keeping your attention by flipping familiar comic book tropes and twisting the image of what a superhero was back when it was released, and still is today. But for those of you who read the comic now for the first time, especially if you don’t have a background in reading comics, there is a disconnect in the story. Snyder’s film stays with this idea, and some might say it was the wrong way to go about it. While reading a book is an active process, a film is very much a passive experience; we lean back in our chairs, we eat our popcorn, and we expect the film to pull US into IT, not the other way around (at least, a film of such a large studio backing like this one). The result is a movie that runs close to three hours that, save for a few sequences, require an effort to the extent that many may not be ready to give, or at least may not be expecting to give. And with no familiarity with the characters or the universe they exist in, you kinda have to figure it out as you engage with the narrative that’s being tossed around.

If you can get past this (and trust me, it’s not an easy hurdle), the movie does reward you with a flat out stunning aesthetic. I had questioned Snyder as the choice to take on this project, largely scoffing at his shiny, overproduced, and overly stylish turn at the enjoyable, but empty 300. Here, Snyder’s style actually makes sense. Where the book used the traditional style that illustrator Dave Gibbons employed, the movie is sleek and sophisticated in a way that translates the book’s central message of fear into an ominous and foreboding sense of standing dread, a sense of realism that, when mixed with Snyder’s style (the slow motion shots, the camera whips, the pronounced sense of depth in the darkness of his shots) makes the movie seem dynamic, without seeming LIKE a comic book. Being that the comic played with the structure of the boxes and text to play off the familiarity of comic books as a medium, Snyder is using the shell of a superhero movie and twisting it into something that’s both more real, and more ridiculous, which in step with the tone of this movie, MAKES SENSE. Kudos to Snyder, who also shows that he can direct one hell of an action sequence as well. The added action, mostly from Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, but also some stellar smaller scenes with Rorsach and an action sequence at the end, make the movie seem alive. There is simply no denying that this movie pops off the screen.

The performances are an expected mixed bag, with surprisingly fantastic performances by Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorsach, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan playing The Comedian about as on the nose as you could ever imagine. Less effective are Matthew Goode, who was much better suited to play Veidt’s business side character than he was the mask Ozymandias, and Billy Crudup, who plays Dr. Manhattan (or, is CGI’d as Dr. Manhattan) a bit too low-key for my tastes. At the bottom of the barrel is Malin Akerman, who, um…can kick really well? It’s an ensemble cast that isn’t cluttered by a star that would overshadow the purpose of the movie (at one point, it was rumored that Tom Cruise was being talked about for Ozymandias, which I liked the idea at the time, would’ve been utterly disastrous). The performances are there to stay out of the way of the story, and the cast does a great job at hitting their marks, but also acting as their characters would. The “hurm” by Rorsach is exactly how I imagined it, Wilson’s plays Dreiberg’s modest desperation well, and Goode’s posture and tone were dead on as Veidt talked to 80’s corporate giants, turning venomous when questioned with just the right amount of softness to his voice.

But The Watchmen isn’t about any of the above, it’s about the act of engaging in a moral philosophy debate. And while playing off of the Cold War of the 1980’s, it translates to the modern war on terror surprisingly well. There’s a certain sense of surehandedness in the way the screenplay seems to know when to go dark, when to take itself a bit too seriously on purpose, and when to push the envelope to make the audience sit up and realize they aren’t watching a “nice” movie. And save for a few scenes (*cough*Akerman!), I actually believed this movie was pretty damn great through the first two acts. The third act manages to not fall apart, but gets its pacing completely thrown into the wood chipper (something I’m hoping will be fixed when Snyder releases his three and a half hour director’s cut on DVD) and the nuance gets replaced by the swinging sledgehammer of monologues and explanations that would’ve been unnecessary if the message was handled with a little more tact. It doesn’t ruin the movie by any means, but it definitely gives you a sense as you walk out the theater that the movie missed the mark in being great, and missed it by a fair amount.

In the end, The Watchmen is a movie that succeeds and fails like all movies do. Amidst all the handwringing and teeth gnashing by the geek community, it managed to be a surprisingly unoffensive movie to the diehard fans, with maybe just a shade too little for the people unfamiliar with the original material. It’s unfortunate, because somewhere in the middle is a place for people who can watch this movie and see it for what it is, not the mildly and at times, frustratingly disappointing film that could’ve taken comics to another level, and not the bafflingly confusing and bizarrely messed up narrative that newcomers will shake their head at. It’s in there, but I’m just not sure if that audience even exists.

Is it worth your time? Undeniably yes. But if you’re new to the Watchmen game, you’re going to have to sit down and think about what you just saw, and even then you may not believe its greatness until you simply go and read the book. Which should make you ask me, “Why don’t I just go read the book instead?” To which my only answer is, you’d miss a cool ass movie. I’m kinda sad that I can’t give a better reason than that, but at least glad that I can say that much.

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