REVIEW: Watchmen [2009]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 162 minutes | Release Date: March 6th, 2009 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Zack Snyder
Writer(s): David Hayter and Alex Tse / Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (graphic novel)

“The end is nigh”

The ultimate graphic novel—a tale many hold to be amongst the greatest stories ever written regardless of being illustrated—has finally been brought to cinematic life after twenty years and multiple failed attempts. Should an epic tale set in such a specific period of time (the Cold War of the 1980s) 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 comic? Warner Bros. needs to be given a lot of credit for taking the chance and ultimately paying the price (see Fox’s lawsuit) to allow it to be told on the big screen 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, morals, and existence in the same way as the novel with its dark and cynically written prose. Yes there are changes, in both the details and big events, but the end still comes down to the same question: What is an acceptable price to be paid for the continuation of humanity? It’s a question for which we hope to never bear witness to the results. In a time of aggression, paranoia, and fear (not knowing whether the enemy will strike first and always being ready to strike back) where oblivion is an inevitability, it begs for an answer no matter how atrocious its truth may prove.

Here’s an alternate Earth that looks much like our own did back then. Americans began to see the violence and suffering in Vietnam and the unavoidable mirroring of the same at home. A select few decided to take matters into their own hands and match the bad guys hiding behind masks with some of their own. Dubbed The Minutemen, these “heroes” band together to fight crime and make the world a better place. Not all were morally sound, but then who would be when dressing up to risk your life for another without ever garnering true praise beyond 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 maybe he’s its ultimate destroyer. Thank God he’s American … right?

History now takes a turn. Nixon, in his infinite wisdom, asks Manhattan (aka Jon Osterman) to help end the battle overseas. A few molecular breakdowns of the enemy with a mass in-person surrender to his God-like creature and the war was over. America won. Tricky Dick now had the ultimate weapon on his side to become a permanent resident in the White House. He 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, and the Keene Act is drafted so that the Watchmen (a new generation following the Minutemen) is forced to disband as its members are either outed or in hiding.

Up until this point everything pretty much stays true to the novel. It’s the aftermath of this Act that changes for the big screen. Fossil fuels become an agenda for Adrian Veidt’s Ozymandias as he teams with Dr. Manhattan to find a free power to replace our necessity for oil and gas. Without any jockeying for control over power, there would be no wars. An infinite amount of energy would bring peace … if what we are told is truly what’s occurring. With a recent spate of murders leaving masked avengers dead and the discovery of cancer in those close to Manhattan, conspiracies begin to fly around. Allegiances shift 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 for the man or woman each became. Snyder and company don’t turn their backs on this fact by allowing the film to proceed with its disjointed narrative to go back and forth between the present and past. We catch glimpses of how each evolved into the people they’ve become whether that be someone even more invested in their convictions (Rorschach), living a lie that the best times of their life were forced upon them 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 mothballed to the basement (Nite Owl II), or a self-made millionaire with a grip on business and government (Ozymandias). Everything shown leads up to a climax in which each member of the Watchmen rejoins with the fate of the world on the table courtesy of an impossible choice.

The cinematic version is unfortunately flawed because of this exact same issue. With so much detail and intricacy of plot and characterization, something must be left on the cutting room floor. I personally believe the filmmakers deftly maneuvered themselves to solve the problem of overkill. For audiences coming in without any knowledge of the original story, however, it can be very daunting, inaccessible, and ultimately unworthy of their time. What becomes a masterpiece of tone for those familiar with the mythology ends up a boring, bloated, action-less superhero saga that causes more laughter and head-shaking than 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’s just too much to assimilate for the layperson, with easter eggs and in-jokes hidden in plain sight for the cult follower dismissed as window-dressing and passed-over minutiae to the novice. Possibly not a flaw, (that duty goes to a great list of song utilized poorly enough to cause laughter rather than emotion enhancement, unlike the score), it’s 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 contentious points. There’s also as much more to love. You cannot deny the sheer brilliance of the special effects work from the glowing blue body of Manhattan to the Archie flightship to the beauty of Mars. The fight choreography is superb with the right mix of sharp cuts and extended sequences to show actual hits and not contact alone. 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 to breath life into the two-dimensional page. So much is exact to Gibbons’ drawings with a ton of information crammed into every frame. Just watching the opening credit sequence shows the care for detail that was taken with so much to make a fan cry for joy and a newcomer scratch his/her head in confusion. I don’t even fault the decision to alter the ending to allow the climax more relevance for the real world while still maintaining an identical philosophical 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, however, is the stellar cast. Despite Malin Akerman leaving a bit to be desired, there’s little else to argue. Billy Crudup‘s passive monotone is exactly what you’d imagine from Manhattan, Matthew Goode‘s affluent inflection and precise delivery of words is just the right amount of ego and genius Ozymandias contains, and Patrick Wilson‘s bumbling loner-geek brings Dan Dreiberg to life by showing all the insecurities that vanish when inside the Nite Owl suit. Where the true brilliance lies, though, is with Jeffrey Dean Morgan‘s Comedian and Jackie Earle Haley‘s Rorschach. The former’s unceasing grin and amorality shows both the loathsome nature of his existence as well as the ultimate mirror upon the world to expose its true face of greed, corruption, and selfishness. He truly is the embodiment of the American Dream. And the latter’s Rorschach becomes our entry-point and guide through the tale. His skewed sense of reality and justice makes him a murderous criminal and 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 relatable since we’re all flawed creatures pretending to be righteous and good.

If Watchmen shows us anything it’s the ambivalence of a planet. It uncovers the truth of humanity—our faults, insecurities, and willingness to destroy in order to overcompensate and fool ourselves into believing we’re right. Whether you agree with the outcome or not, it’s tough to say and believe that it could ever have finished another way. While purists may balk at the conclusion, angered by the changes and mad that they’ve been cheated out of a frame-by-frame reenactment of the book, I say watch it again. If you want the story, read the novel for the hundredth time. But if you want a singular representation of this epic tale begging to be told that’s 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 those who are confused and turned off after expecting violence and action only to be given dialogue, politics, science, and more dialogue—seek out and read the source material. Hopefully the film’s goes beyond racking up millions and millions of dollars to open the eyes of a new generation to literature and the power of words to cause change and unite. Because if we don’t educate ourselves and begin to feel something for our neighbors, Watchmen may become more than just commentary. And that reality is too scary to fathom.

[1] JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN as The Comedian, MALIN AKERMAN as Silk Spectre II, BILLY CRUDUP as Dr. Manhattan, MATTHEW GOODE as Ozymandias, PATRICK WILSON as Nite Owl 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
[4] 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 Thoughts to “REVIEW: Watchmen [2009]”

  1. Alexander Mankowski

    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.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.