Watchmen is the latest in a line of big budget comic book-to-movie adaptations. Zack Snyder took the task of filming a book, which has been called unfilmable by everyone from casual fans down to the author, Alan Moore, and against all odds, made a very good movie.
Speaking of Alan Moore, with most of his defining works poorly translated to the screen, it’s understandable that Moore pulled his name from this movie, and everything to do with it. His classics “From Hell,” “V for Vendetta” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” have made their way to the big screen, and have ranged from poorly adapted to downright horrible.
Nowadays Mr. Moore comes off as a cynical old curmudgeon but he’s certainly earned it. Unfortunately, he should see “Watchmen,” a movie that finally does justice to its source material. Perhaps he would have left his name on it, but that won’t ever be known.
What we do know is the influence by “Watchmen’s” other creator, the artist David Gibbons, greatly impacted the final film product. Gibbons did a lot of conceptual work for the movie and it shows. As a fan of the graphic novel, I felt like I was watching the panels moving in front of me. The bright colors popping off the dark backgrounds were taken directly from the book, and surprisingly still work. The oranges and purples, used to accent shadows and skylines is another great touch from the book that made its way to the silver screen. But even without the book to stand on, the movie brings a lot to the table. For lack of better words, the movie is visually stunning. From the sheer spectacle that is Manhattan’s clockwork castle, to the grimy alleyways that Rorschach combs over, to the Egyptian style on Ozymandias’ Antarctic watchtower, everything looks wonderful and well designed. But in today’s movies, it helps to look breathtaking, but you also need to give a story to match.
Without giving too much away, Watchmen, at its heart, is still a superhero story, despite its adult themes. We follow a handful of current and former masked vigilantes, as they put the costumes on to try and save the world from something much bigger than the thugs they dealt with in their heyday.
Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is an objectivist detective, with ideas verging on paranoia, who keeps record of the whole event in his journal.
Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) is the alter ego of the nerdish Daniel Dreiberg, who has lived his life in the shadows, whether they are of the original Nite Owl, or of his own life in costume. He is the closest thing to a hero, in the traditional sense of the word.
Laurie Juspeczyk (Malin Akerman) was the Silk Spectre, a second generation hero who has trouble dealing with her family and her past, and has never gotten to make her own choices in life.
Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) publicly revealed his identity, sharing that he is Ozymandias, an Egyptian-themed hero with a love for the kings of old and a wish to use his title of “Smartest man in the World” to save the world from itself.
The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) was the moniker applied to Edward Blake, a man who epitomizes the word “soldier.” Between government work, his life as a vigilante, and his time spent at war, he developed a cruel twisted view of the world, and acted as a mirror, reflecting it’s horrors for all to see.
Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is the exception to the rule. Among the crime fighters, he is a marvel of science. Caught in the middle of an experiment gone astray, he is destroyed and then rebuilt, as a blue being of pure energy — a real life superhuman (who is American) — who can change matter with just a thought. But even he is not immune from the flawed nature of mankind, as he is slowly losing his grip on humanity and forgetting what it was once like to be a man named Jon Osterman.
The important point of each character is that none of them are perfect. They are not superheroes who live there nights as costumed vigilantes and their days as mild mannered civilians. They are both at the same time. They have to carry the things they have done or seen, whether they have a mask on or not. They are flawed, they are broken, and as a whole, they seem fairly unstable. Veidt appears to have a god complex; Rorschach is paranoid and sees the world as a vile pit nearing the point of no return; Dan is uncomfortable outside of his suit, and can barley function without it on his mind; Laurie is juggling failed relationships with her family and Doctor Manhattan; The Comedian seems to only feel anything through violence, and has taken a nihilistic view of the world; and the good Doctor Manhattan is losing any attachment to Earth. These are not the people I want saving the world, yet these are the people trying.
The portrayal of these characters is certainly the hardest part of putting together this movie, and that was its biggest strength. Haley took the role of Rorschach and made it his own. From his bursts of anger, to his monotone gravelly voice, the character was nailed. The surprise star of the film was Patrick Wilson, who was able to play both the roll of the geeky Dan, and the heroic Nite Owl, who while the same flesh, are fundamentally two different people. Without the mask, he is meek and quiet and unable to work up any courage. With the Mask on, he was your classic vision of a hero, righting wrongs and injustices. The dichotomy was brought to the forefront and Wilson handled it perfectly. In truth, all the characters were handled very well. Each actor brings their nuances to the roles and it helps in bringing these people off the page.
The biggest shock was the use of music in the movie. While most music sits in the back of a movie, setting a tone, Watchmen used it in front of the characters. The title montage, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin” was one of the best uses of music in a movie I have ever seen. Gripping an audience, and pulling them right into the story without ever saying a word is a nearly impossible feat, and like everyone else in the theater, the movie sucks you in from the start.
During one scene, set in the Vietnam War, Doctor Manhattan arises over the horizon, to the classic “Ride of the Valkyries” evoking the similar scene in the classic “Apocalypse Now” and showing how the world changed because these people were around. Because of Manhattans’ interference, the war ended in less than a week, and the use of music dredges up the feelings of what was just avoided. The only folly was a horrible cover of “Desolation Row” played over the beginning of the end credits, but I can forgive it because it was clearly shoehorned by the bigwigs, and not by those making the movie.
While I certainly enjoyed the movie, it isn’t without its flaws. The main one being pacing. It is known that a lot more was shot, and was left on the cutting room floor to make it fit in the three hour range. It felt like it. A lot of little details and plot lines were left out, and will hopefully make their way back in the Director’s Cut, which is already rumored to be nearing the five hour mark. But it wasn’t just the missing information that was the problem with the cuts, but rather the flow of the story. The first three fourths of the movie were spot on. It felt right, even though it had some missing details, but the last quarter really felt rushed. Hopefully that when this hits DVD a lot of the pacing will be fixed with the extra footage. The movie and the story both echo the theme of “never compromise” and I feel that perhaps a little to much compromise has made its way to the theatrical cut.
“Watchmen” was both fun and stimulating and an astonishing success conceding the complexity of the literary source. The actions scenes were done right, and showed why these people survived so long. Each character felt different while fighting, which is something rare in action flicks. Rorschach moved in quick sudden bursts, striking wildly and brutally, while Nite Owl threw punches that could have taken down any boxer. Fanboys might get up in arms over some changes, but there was also a lot of stuff left in there just for them. The overall story felt a bit disjointed, but was enjoyable and understandable. Despite having to fit such a large story into three hours, the point does come across:
Simply, there are no heroes. There are only humans, and thus are as flawed as you and me. Between them, there are murderers, adulterers, racists, and sexists. They aren’t people who you should look up to, much less emulate. Yet, they are characters, who while all approaching it differently, all want a better world. So go to the theatre looking for people, not for heroes. Go looking for stories, not for heroics. Go looking with an open mind, and see that it’s more than a popcorn superhero flick, and it deserves more than being known as such.