I never thought I’d see the day when the feature film version of Watchmen would finally hit the screen, let alone see anything Watchmen related outside the comic book shop. Now, you can walk into Target and buy the trade paperback. There are huge displays of Watchmen books, CDs, and posters at Borders. There are Watchmen action figures, Watchmen on the cover of mainstream magazines, and segments about Watchmen on Entertainment Tonight. It’s been a strange, strange journey to get to this point. It’s been in development hell for nearly 20 years, passed through the hands of several big name directors (Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass), seen lawsuits and its co-creator wash his hands of the entire thing. Fans thought it would never happen, but Watchmen has arrived.
Originally published by DC Comics as a 12-issue mini-series in 1986, Watchmen has gone on to become one of the most revered comic books ever published. Time magazine listed it as one of the 100 greatest novels published since 1923. Written by Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen was originally intended to star a stable of lesser-known characters DC purchased from the defunct-Charlton Comics line. When DC realized Moore’s story would render these characters unusable, they directed him to create a cast of original costumed heroes. Moore had already begun challenging the accepted notions of what superhero comic book should be with his work on Miracleman and Swamp Thing by dealing with adult themes of authority, theology, and existentialism. Moore looked to further shatter those preconceptions with Watchmen, which acted as both a psychological deconstruction of the superhero mythology as well as a comment on the Cold War politics of the time (a continuation of the themes from V for Vendetta). At a time when Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were two of the most powerful people in the world, Moore hoped to point out the dangers of entrusting one’s life and safety in the hands of other individuals simply because they had the power. Who watches the watchmen?
With Watchmen, Moore imagined what the world would be like if costumed adventurers really existed. What would the heroes be like if they had all the same hang-ups as real human beings? It was practically revolutionary when Stan Lee created Spider-Man as an awkward teen who couldn’t get girls or pay the bills. Here, the superheroes are sadists, masochists or psychopaths. How would the superheroes affect the socio-political structure of the world? And how exactly do you solve society’s problems by dressing up in a costume and punching people in the face? The costumes themselves were meant to look intentionally silly for some and for others, heightened into sexualized, costume fetish wear. Moore played up and tore down various superhero tropes that had been in place for decades when creating the inhabitants of the Watchmen world.
The Watchmen film opens in 1985 in an alternate reality where Nixon is still president and the world is on the brink of nuclear holocaust. Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who once operated as The Comedian sits in his high-rise apartment watching the news of Russian forces amassing on the Afghanistan border. Just then, an unknown assailant bursts through the door and the pair engages in a rousing fistfight until Blake is hurled out the window, plummeting to the ground below. From there, the film really shows off its ingenuity with a brilliant opening credit sequence (set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’”) highlighting the history of the masked vigilantes and how they influenced society. We are introduced to the Minutemen, a group of garishly clad heroes whose look and sensibilities matched the simpler times of their era and the Golden Age of comics. We also watch the brutal and tragic fates that befell some of the Minutemen. Dollar Bill (Dan Payne), for example, was shot to death after getting his cape stuck in a revolving door.
As we learn in the opener and the rest of the film, Blake was the second gunman on the grassy knoll during JFK’s assassination and likely murdered Woodward and Bernstein before they could expose the Watergate break-in. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Comedian is a glorified thug and a representation of the dark side of American history. As amoral as he is, Blake is the only character of the bunch that sees the futility of caped crusaders slugging it out with purse snatchers while the world is on the brink of destruction.
His murder is investigated by Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley), a gravel voiced vigilante who hides his face behind a mask of moving inkblots. He has the trenchcoat, fedora, and short stature of Bogart with the seething vitriol of Travis Bickle. Rorschach is driven by a fanatical moral code, which finds its origins in Ayn Rand’s objectivism. To paraphrase Rorschach, not even in the face of Armageddon will he compromise. Believing in a vast conspiracy to eliminate costumed heroes, Rorschach goes to warn his former partner, Dan Drieberg (Patrick Wilson) who operated as Nite-Owl and was armed with an array of gadgets and an airship nicknamed Archie. Now, he’s retired, out-of-shape and directionless, mostly moping in his basement while his costumes collect dust in the closet. Rorschach and Dreiberg get in contact with more of their former colleagues. There’s “the world’s smartest man,” Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), aka Ozymandias who turned his costumed career into a multinational conglomerate built on toys and health books. There’s Laurie Juspeczyk (Malin Ackerman), the Silk Spectre, who only became a superhero because she was pushed into it by her mother, Sally (Carla Gugino), the original Silk Spectre who was more Bettie Page pin-up than crime fighter.
The last of their group of Watchmen is the only one who has actual superpowers, the glowing, blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). Manhattan was formerly physicist Jon Osterman until a lab accident inside an intrinsic field separator vaporized him. Osterman somehow managed to reform himself into something akin to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man with abs of steel. The Vietnam War was over in a week because of Manhattan, a living weapon of mass destruction. He has the power to do just about anything including teleportation, telekinesis, and matter manipulation. He has evolved to a quantum state of awareness, no longer experiencing time as we do. Manhattan views the past, present, and future simultaneously, not unlike how we view the panels on the page of a comic book. He has drifted further and further away from humanity, seeing things only in subatomic particles. To him, there is no discernable difference between a live or dead body on a microscopic level. Needless to say, this puts a serious damper on his relationship with girlfriend, Laurie.
I won’t reveal anymore of the plot, but the rest of the film extends from a simple murder mystery to a vast conspiracy of epic proportions. Zack Snyder, the visionary director of 300 (which I still can’t say with a straight face), directs from a script written by David Hayter and Alex Tse. The filmmakers have stayed remarkably close to the original source material. Many shot compositions are lifted right out of the comic book while many scenes are stuffed with Easter eggs that only die-hard fans will recognize. However, like the majority of adaptations, changes were made with mostly minimal impact on the overall story. Only the ending goes through any significant change. I won’t spoil either the film or the graphic novel, but will say the new conclusion comes with positives and negatives.
Snyder mixes in his own sensibilities, ratcheting up the action sequences and violence. Bones are snapped in half, meat cleaver meets human skull, and bullets rip through the flesh of a human leg. Human bodies explode with bloody viscera splattered across the faces of gawking bystanders. The slow motion effects that were ludicrously overused in 300 rear their head here, but not enough to detract from the scenes. Neither does the music. The score by Tyler Bates is a mixture of harsh heavy metal with a jazzy, 80’s synth sound that evokes Vangelis. The soundtrack selection is a bit obvious though some were also referenced in the comic. They are effective in placing the audience into the time period. One-hit wonder, “99 Luftballoons,” doubles as a sly allusion to the ticking clock as the song is about nuclear war. However, Snyder’s use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during an overly long sex scene elicited far too many chuckles from the audience I was with. I don’t blame them.
Watchmen has long been thought of as ‘unfilmable.’ When Terry Gilliam attempted to bring Watchmen to life, he asked Alan Moore how he’d adapt it. Moore simply replied, ”I wouldn’t.” The original mini-series was a dozen issues long with each issue featuring supplementary material such as mock-ups of interviews, magazine articles, and documents that further flesh out the history of the world. Even with a runtime of approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes, Watchmen still feels rushed. The film desperately tries to juggle a large ensemble of characters as well as attempting to educate the audience about this alternate reality that not every plot thread or character is given enough screen time. The story is relies heavily on flashbacks to do this. Each issue of the comic focused on a different character. Lost producer and Watchmen fan, Damon Lindelof, has admitted to lifting this method for his show. While the flashback structure works in an episodic environment, it might test the patience of those expecting more forward momentum in the picture.
The acting is good across the board with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jackie Earl Haley as the standouts. Morgan really relishes the role and dives right in giving a weariness and roguish charm to the morally repugnant Comedian. And who would have thought the biker kid from Bad News Bears would turn out to be so ruthless and darkly comical? Haley’s Little Children co-star, Patrick Wilson comes off well as Dreiberg whose nerdy Clark Kent mannerisms are almost as good as Christopher Reeve’s. The cast members that weren’t as strong were Malin Ackerman who looked great in tight latex, but gave a couple stilted line readings, and Matthew Goode who played his hand far too strongly. Both of them suffered more from being marginalized when their characters should have been given more screen time.
Those of you unfamiliar with the comics may be satisfied with Watchmen as a big-budget action spectacle. It works on that level. Just don’t expect this to be X-Men where clean-cut heroes battle the forces of evil. As an adaptation, it’s like reading the Cliff Notes version. Everything has been condensed and distilled. Most of the tiny details you had to read between the lines to figure out are completely spelled out for you in the film version. Part of the problem is that Watchmen is such a unique product of its medium. Even the structure and layout of the panels on the page played a significant role in its reading. It has been called the Citizen Kane of comic books. Like Citizen Kane, it only truly works in its original form. You could read a novelization of Kane or view it as a stage play, but you lose a lot of the essence.
Film Value: 7