Starring Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Carla Gugino, Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode, Stephen McHattie, Robert Wisden and Max Headroom.
Directed by Zack Snyder.
It is 1985. Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as President of the United States. America and the Soviet Union stand on the brink of nuclear war. Only the awesome power of Dr. Manhattan, a being who some postulate is more god than man, keeps the nations from annihilating one another. The masked heroes who once patrolled the streets have retired; only the enigmatic outlaw vigilante known as Rorschach remains. When an unknown assailant throws sixty-seven-year-old Edward Blake through the window of his thirtieth-floor apartment, Rorschach turns up at the crime scene to investigate. Before he retired, Blake’s secret identity was the government-sanctioned hero known as The Comedian, and Rorschach suspects that Blake’s death may be a sign that someone is gunning for former heroes.
Watchmen is based on a twelve-issue mini-series written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Originally released in 1986 and 1987, Watchmen is considered by many to be one of the most important comics ever created, and a work that couldn’t possibly be translated to film.
Watchmen is an interesting beast: a movie I thoroughly enjoyed, but which I can envision various people not liking at all, for various reasons.
- It’s too long. Since the resurgence in popularity of superhero films around the turn of the century, the average entry into the genre has been just over two hours in length. ((A sampling of thirteen of the most popular (or at least prominent) films in the genre reveals an average running length of 125 minutes.)) The Dark Knight, which I found to be about 40 minutes too long, clocked in at just over two and a half hours. Watchmen adds another eleven minutes, with a running time just seventeen minutes shy of three hours. That’s a long time to be sitting in a movie theater without an intermission.
- It’s too short. The DVD release of Watchmen will include a whopping forty minutes of additional footage, and that’s before the animated Tales of the Black Freighter is added to the mix. That’s all material cut out of the original comic book, material that fans of the source—at least those fans who wanted to see the allegedly “unfilmable” story brought to screen—are eager to see.
- There’s not enough action. Watchmen opens with a rather lengthy fight between Edward Blake and an unknown assailant, but after that it’s mostly a bunch of people talking for the next hour; this isn’t a movie for an audience used to seeing a big battle every seven to ten minutes. The problem is exacerbated by trailers that show lots of the very butt-kicking that we’ve come to expect from our superhero movies, setting expectations for an action-packed thrill ride with costumed heroes laying the smackdown on an endless parade of thugs, punks and ne’er-do-wells.
- There’s too much violence. For a movie with only a handful of real action sequences, Watchmen is chock full of violence. Bone-crunching, blood-spraying violence that’s graphic enough to earn an “R” rating several times over. Zack Snyder implies very little, preferring instead to show the sometimes-nauseating results of the brutality right up there on screen; “subtle” isn’t a word that enters into Snyder’s vocabulary here. The violence isn’t all perpetrated in the name of justice, either. There are some very disturbing moments in which the heroes do terrible things to one another and to the very people they are ostensibly protecting.
- It’s not a proper superhero movie. Even the darkest of our superheroes—Batman, for those who are keeping score—has a line he refuses to cross. No matter what the villain of the week did, no matter how many innocent people died at his or her hands, The Dark Knight isn’t going to intentionally kill the bad guy. Oh, sure, he might elect not to save someone from an untimely demise of their own making (see: Batman Begins), but he’s not going to take that life with his own two hands. The heroes in Watchmen, on the other hand, routinely torch the bad guys with flamethrowers, break their necks, or simply make them explode into a spray of blood and gore with a gesture. To make matters worse, the good guys sometimes kill innocent people, too. Next to the likes of Rorschach, The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, Batman is about as dark and gritty as The Greatest American Hero.
In spite of all this, I liked Watchmen. A lot. I’ll happily purchase the extended six-disc ((This is probably an exaggeration. Probably.)) Director’s Cut on DVD because I do want to see what Snyder left out of the theatrical cut, but I’m glad he did save it for the DVD release because I really, really had to pee by the time the end credits rolled, and another forty, twenty or even ten minutes in the theater would have resulted in disaster.
Everything else—the lack of non-stop action, the ultra-violence and the despicable acts perpetrated by the so-called heroes—I was fully prepared for when I walked into the theater. I’ve read the mini-series at least a half dozen times over the past twenty years, so I was well aware of the sort of things these flawed—sometimes very deeply flawed—people do when given the means to do pretty much whatever they want. I was a little surprised to see just how much of the gruesome aftermath of violence Snyder was willing to splash up on the screen, but considering the source I don’t feel it was excessive.
In most respects, the film holds true to the comic book. The resemblance of the cast to their illustrated counterparts is nothing short of astonishing, and some scenes are lifted (lovingly) directly from the page to the screen; it really is like seeing one of Gibbons’ panels come to life. Some story elements have been changed, perhaps for purposes of simplification, but the core ideas and themes appear—to me, at least—to be intact.
I was a little worried about how the characters of Rorschach, The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan would come across, but for the most part I was satisfied. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach is absolutely brilliant, delivering the vigilante’s stilted dialogue in a manner that stops just shy of becoming corny; no mean feat. Jeffrey Dean Morgan manages to make Edward “The Comedian” Blake both a vile, despicable bastard as well as a frightened, damaged and ultimately tragic man, while the transformation of Billy Crudup into the blue-skinned, white-eyed Dr. Manhattan is nothing short of stunning.
It’s almost unfortunate that those three characters are so brilliantly realized in the film, as it casts something of a shadow over Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman). Nite Owl is my favorite Watchmen character, probably because I enjoy heroes who use brains and gadgets to fight crime, and because I admire the way in which Dan Dreiberg has embraced the owl theme in his costume, weapons and Archie (short for Archimedes) the owlship. I’ve always thought Bruce Davison would be my ideal Dreiberg/Nite Owl, but he’s a bit past the age where he could realistically play the role. Wilson does a fine job, and Akerman fills out the Silk Sceptre’s rather scanty costume well, too. Neither have quite the presence of Rorschach, but that’s to be expected; of the characters, it is Nite Owl and Silk Spectre who most closely fit the classic image of the superhero, and their alter egos are the least damaged of the bunch. Approaching something that could almost be called “normal”, they are thus the most out of place in the world of Watchmen.