Watchmen – Starring Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Directed by Zack Snyder. Rated MA for strong violence and sex scene. 160 mins.
They called it the ‘unfilmable’ graphic novel. It was written with the specific intention of showing the limitations of cinema, and the boundless artistry of the comic book form. It was a sprawling 12-issue limited series that parodied the superhero genre, held a confronting mirror up to society, mutated the events of the past and set the bar for comics of the future. Twenty-three years since it was released, Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen remains THE definitive comic book. In 2009, Zack Snyder’s film adaptation is now THE definitive comic book movie.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I am a complete Watchmen fanboy. Like so many others, I fell in love with Moore and Gibbons’ comic from the first panel on the very first page. This wasn’t just ‘the next big superhero movie’ to me. This film has all the added weight of years of anticipation; that insatiable excitement of wanting to see your favourite book on the big screen and the crushing anxiety of not wanting to see it butchered. Suddenly I realised how all those tween Twilight fans were feeling, and now share a depressing kinship with them. I’m sure there will be many obsessed with making sure the film covers each individual frame of the comic, ignoring the beautiful whole in front of them. That’s their loss. Watchmen is a bold, bizarre and completely breathtaking masterpiece, for fans and newcomers alike.
Watchmen takes place in an alternate 1986; one in which masked vigilantes once protected the people, and eventually required protection themselves. An alternate past in which America has won the Vietnam War, thanks to an all-powerful God-like being known as Dr. Manhattan. An alternate past in which Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as President, the Cold War is escalating and the Doomsday Clock sits at five minutes to midnight. The film begins in the apartment of Edward Blake, the retired and amoral masked vigilante known as The Comedian (Morgan). Wasting away in a daze of alcohol and regret, he is attacked by a mysterious assailant and thrown out of his window into the street, many stories below. It is a masterfully executed intro, followed by one of the all-time great opening credit sequences. Set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing”, the entire history of masked vigilantism is displayed, from its quaint beginnings in the forties, to its eventual outlawing in the seventies. I’m desperately trying to think of a film with better opening credits, and I swear I’m drawing a blank.
Blake’s murder strikes a chord amongst the other retired heroes. The uncompromisingly violent Rorschach believes someone is hunting down masks, and he won’t rest until he finds out why. Dressed in a hat, overcoat and ever-changing balaclava, he is the ultimate film-noir anti-hero; an unhinged detective with his own brand of demented justice. Jackie Earle Haley plays the gravelly voiced narrator with pitch perfect precision. He is the Rorschach we always dreamed of. Over the course of the film we are introduced to former Watchmen (known as Minutemen in the comic) such as Ozymandias (Goode), Nite Owl (Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Akerman). Some are living prosperous post-hero lives, while others desperately miss the old days, wallowing in self-pity and stifling mediocrity. As Rorschach’s investigation intensifies, each of them don their old costumes and become privy to a conspiracy of cataclysmic proportions, of which they are all at the center.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Watchmen universe, don’t be fooled by that beautiful trailer. Although there are a couple of great action sequences, this is far from an action film. It is a three-hour examination of the human (and not-so-human) psyche. The film asks ‘what kind of person is crazy enough to put on a costume and fight crime?’ Our heroes are murderers, sadists, rapists, sexual deviants and emotionally detatched maniacs. Peter-Parker puberty blues this aint. Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl (encapsulated wholly by Wilson) is a shell of man when not wearing his mask; impotent figuratively and literally. Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre (Akerman) reluctantly took over the heroics from her mother, and is now living in her judgemental shadow, resigned to be Dr. Manhattan’s sexual plaything. As for Manhattan himself (Crudup shining through jaw-dropping CGI), he is slowly losing his connection with humanity, and is forced to deal with the consequences of his own omnipotent existence. And you thought The Dark Knight had it tough.
Speaking of The Dark Knight, Watchmen is sure to attract many who contributed to that film’s billion dollar gross. However, the two films are as disparate as they come. Christopher Nolan’s film is gritty and realistic; Snyder’s is full of garish, colourful costumes and exaggerated sound effects. Every punch sounds as if it breaks a bone; every drop of blood looks richer than tomato sauce. The words “Bam!” and “Pow!” might as well flash up on the screen. The collision of the cartoonish and the startlingly gloomy destroys any lingering memory of how we always believed our heroes should be. Just as the comic redefined the superhero genre, the film makes The Dark Knight seem sooo 2008.
Snyder truly knocks this one out of the park. There are sequences in this film that are even more evocative and devastating than in the book. Dr. Manhattan’s origin plays like a short-film within the picture; it stands alone as a heart-wrenchingly tragic sequence whilst also fitting into the makeup of the movie. Snyder grapples with the multiple storylines and flashbacks like a master watchmaker creating a tightly wound timepiece.
Of course, the comic fans will always have their complaints: a couple of small subplots have been excised (but are promised by Snyder to be in the Director’s Cut DVD), and there is a slight change in the ending. However, the message remains true, and its effectiveness is undeniable. It took twenty-three years to make it to the big screen, but it seems almost fitting to debut in 2009, especially considering that the Doomsday Clock currently sits at 11:55. Whether non-fans embrace the picture is unknown; I can only speak in my capacity as a nutty Watchmen geek. The film is a ballsy, brainy, and thoroughly bloody examination of human nature, pop culture and ‘the good old days’ that never were. And it rocks really, really hard.