REVIEW: Watchmen [2009]

“The end is nigh”

After twenty years the ultimate graphic novel, a tale many hold to be amongst the greatest stories ever written, illustrated or not, has finally been brought to cinematic life. Many tried and failed to find the way to do it. Should an epic tale set in such a specific period of time—the Cold War of the eighties—be updated? Should the bleak nature of humanity depicted be toned down? Will lunatics and delinquents dressed up in costumes pretending to be superheroes bring in a public more interested in reality television then something based on a picture book? Warner Bros. needs to be given a lot of credit for taking the chance, rolling the dice, and ultimately paying the price (Fox sucks) to allow it all to be told onscreen as it should. With Zack Snyder at the helm and co-creator Dave Gibbons along for the ride, Watchmen becomes a visceral assault on our sensibilities, our morals, and our existence in just the same way the novel did with its dark and cynically written prose. Yes, there are changes, in both the details and the big events, but in the end it all comes down to the same question. What is an acceptable price to be paid for the continuation of humanity? It’s a question that one hopes will never be alive to watch the results of, but in a time of aggression, paranoia, and fear—not knowing whether the enemy would strike first, but always ready to strike back—where oblivion was an inevitability, it begs for an answer, no matter how atrocious the truth may be.

Here is an alternate Earth that looks much like the one we remember. Americans began to see the violence and suffering occurring in Vietnam and the unavoidable mirroring of such at home. A select few decide to take matters into their own hands, to match the bad guys hiding behind masks with some of their own. Called ‘The Minutemen’, these “heroes” group together to fight crime and make the world a better place. Not all were morally sound, but then who would be dressing up to risk your life for another without ever garnering any true praise as yourself, but just the façade you created? None have powers; none are from another planet. These aren’t comic book stars, but ordinary people with certain skill sets and the mental capacity to go against the norm. Only when a freak accident in an astro-physics lab occurs does the world get its first “Superman”. Coined Dr. Manhattan, this former human and current assimilation of atoms with the ability to manipulate time and space, becomes the savior of mankind, or its ultimate destroyer. Thank God he’s American … right?

History now takes a turn. Nixon, in his infinite wisdom, ask Manhattan, aka Jon Osterman, to help end the battle overseas. A few molecular breakdowns of the enemy and mass surrendering, in person to this God-like creature, and the war was over, America had won. Tricky Dick now has the ultimate weapon on his side, becomes a permanent resident of the White House and believes that as long as Jon is here, the Russians would never dare attack. Danger has been averted, the public no longer needs masked heroes to fight their battles, so the Keene Act is drafted and the Watchmen, the second generation of the Minutemen crew, is disbanded, its members either outed or in hiding. Up until now, everything has pretty much stayed true to the novel, but the aftermath of the Act changes for the big screen. Fossil fuels become an agenda head for Adrian Veidt’s Ozymandias, who teams with Doc Manhattan to find a free power to replace our necessity for oil and gas. Without the jockeying for control over power, there would be no wars. An infinite amount of energy would bring peace; that is, if what we are told is truly what is occurring. With the murders of masked avengers and the discovery of cancer in those close to Manhattan, conspiracies begin to fly around, allegiances change, and the faithful lose their bearings. The world is on the brink of extinction and the people just get angrier and more violent as a result. Survival once again falls into the hands of the vigilantes—our saviors—with unchecked power; the ones we fear most become our last line of defense.

The beauty of the novel lies in the details. With immense scope and mythology, each character was given a complete history, an origin to the man or woman each became. Snyder and company don’t turn their backs on this fact, allowing the film to proceed with its disjointed narrative, going back and forth between the present and the past that came before. We catch glimpses of how each evolved into the people they’ve become, whether that be even more invested in his convictions, (Rorschach), living a lie that the best times of her life were forced upon her by a mother who’s limelight was fading, (Silk Spectre), lazy and out of shape from the fear that replaced the confidence when the costume was shut away in the basement, (Nite Owl II), or a self-made millionaire with a grip on business and government, (Ozymandias). Everything shown leads up to the climax in which each member of Watchmen rejoin with the fate of the world on the table and the impossible choice to either be made or stopped.

Unfortunately, the cinematic version is flawed because of the exact same issue. With so much detail and intricacy of plot and characterization, something has to be left on the cutting room floor. Personally, I believe the filmmakers made the perfect maneuvers to solve the problem of overkill. However, for someone to come in, without any knowledge of the story they are about to experience, it can be very daunting, very inaccessible, and ultimately unworthy of their time. What becomes a masterpiece of tone and literary adaptation for those familiar with the mythology ends up just a boring, bloated, action-less superhero saga that causes more laughter and headshaking then fervor or intrigue. As a result, Watchmen is more of a companion piece to the novel, something to view in conjunction with what is one of American literature’s finest works. It is just too much to assimilate for the layperson, with easter eggs and in-jokes hidden in plain sight for the cult follower only window-dressing and passed-over minutiae to the novice. Possibly not considered a flaw, (that duty goes to the great song list comprising its horrid soundtrack that is so out-of-place it causes laughter rather than enhancing emotion at any turn, although I did enjoy the score), it is still a detriment to gaining universal appeal. There will be just as many people declaring the film a failure and waste of time as those hailing it as the greatest comic book adaptation ever.

But enough of those small points of contention; there is just too much more to love. You cannot deny the sheer brilliance of the special effects work, from the glowing blue body of Manhattan to the flying Archie to the beauty of Mars. The fight choreography is superb, just the right mix of sharp cuts and extended sequences to show the actual hits and not just the contact. Action fans will not be disappointed with the quality here, just the quantity. And as for direction, Snyder uses the novel as a guideline/storyboard pre-destined for the Cineplex, breathing life into the two-dimensional page. So much is almost exact to Gibbons’ drawings and so much is crammed into every frame. Just watching the opening credit sequence shows the care for detail that was taken, showing so much to make the fan cry for joy and the newcomer scratch his head in confusion. I don’t even fault the decision to alter the ending, allowing the climax to be more relevant for the real world yet still maintaining the same ultimate end. To stick to the book here would have alienated even more people into dismissing the story as a misguided farce rather then the biting political/social commentary it is.

The one thing I believe everyone can appreciate, though, is the stellar cast. With Malin Akerman being the only weak link, (sorry my dear, you look the part, but just don’t quite have the acting chops yet to pull it off), there is little left to be desired. Billy Crudup’s passive monotone is exactly what you’d imagine from Manhattan, Matthew Goode’s affluent inflection and precise delivery of his words just the right amount of ego and genius Ozymandias contains, and Patrick Wilson’s bumbling loner-geek brings Dan Dreiberg to life, showing all the insecurities that vanish when inside the Nite Owl suit. Where the true brilliance lies, however, is with Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian and Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach. Morgan’s unceasing grin and amorality shows both the loathsome nature of his existence as well as the ultimate mirror showing the world its true face of greed, corruption, and selfishness. He truly is the embodiment of the American Dream. And Haley’s Rorschach becomes our entry-point and guide to the tale. His skewed sense of reality and justice makes him a villain, a murdering criminal, yet you can’t help but wish you could have his conviction and fearlessness to do whatever it takes. The ultimate badass, his Walter Kovacs might be the most flawed role of the bunch, but that just makes him even more likeable and relatable because, in the end, we are all flawed creatures pretending to be righteous and good.

If Watchmen shows us anything it is the ambivalence of a planet. It uncovers the truth of humanity—all our faults, our insecurities, and our willingness to destroy in order to overcompensate and fool ourselves into believing we are right. Whether you agree with the outcome, no mater which side you find yourself aligning with at the end, it is tough to say—and believe—that it could ever finish any other way. While you purists may balk at the conclusion, angered at the changes and mad that you’ve been cheated out of a cell by cell reenactment of a book, I just say watch it again. If you want the story, read the novel for the hundredth time. However, if you want a singular vision, a representation of an epic tale that begs to be told, made relevant for the 21st century while still staying true to its origins and time period, open your eyes and bask in the glory that is Watchmen. To all those of you confused and turned off, expecting violence and fighting and action, but only given dialogue, politics, science, and more dialogue—go out and read the source material. Hopefully, if this film does anything besides rack up millions and millions of dollars, it will open the eyes of a new generation to literature and the power of words to cause change and unite because, honestly, if we don’t educate ourselves and begin to feel something for our neighbors, Watchmen may become more than just commentary. And the reality of that is just too scary to fathom.

Watchmen 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] PATRICK WILSON as Nite Owl II, MALIN AKERMAN as Silk Spectre II and JACKIE EARLE HALEY as Rorschach in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Paramount Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Watchmen,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[2] Jon Osterman (BILLY CRUDUP) is transformed into Dr. Manhattan in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Paramount Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Watchmen,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
[3] JACKIE EARLE HALEY as Rorschach in Warner Bros. Pictures’, Paramount Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action adventure “Watchmen,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures


2 Responses to “REVIEW: Watchmen [2009]”
  1. Alexander Mankowski says:

    Nice review man. I always like reading your reviews. Keep up the great work!

  2. good to hear man, thanks. keep that Aussie contingent alive and well. if you did see Watchmen, let me know what you thought.

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