Posted on March 11, 2009 by Jason Thorson
In 1986-87 Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created a twelve part comic book series called Watchmen that was released by DC Comics. The series garnered immediate critical praise and sales success. These twelve issues were quickly reprinted together and released as the first graphic novel. Much like the super heroes by which it was inspired, Watchmen slammed through the boundaries of what comic books were thought to be, redefining the form and permanently changing the ambitions of the comic book industry.
After years of starts and stops Watchmen has finally found its way to the big screen. Directed by Zack Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead remake) and starring Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, and Patrick Wilson, the film version adheres to the book much more closely than I thought possible. And as crazy as this may sound, I’m not convinced that’s an entirely good thing.
The world of Watchmen is as follows: In the 1940’s costumed heroes had emerged and over the next few decades subsequent generations of heroes followed. Among other things, their presence eventually helped the U.S. win the Vietnam War allowing President Nixon to remain in power. However, in 1977 the Nixon Administration passed a law banning costumed heroes prompting most of them to retire. The exceptions were few. Dr. Manhattan, the only hero with superpowers, and The Comedian were both contracted by the government, while Rorschach, a sociopath vigilante, remained active as an outlaw.
The story takes place in 1985 as the dooms day scenario is nearly upon us. Richard Nixon is still president while the U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the brink of mutually assured destruction via nuclear war. The presence of Dr. Manhattan gives the U.S. a strategic advantage resulting in a huge proliferation of Soviet made nuclear arms in response.
The action begins as The Comedian is murdered. Rorschach suspects that someone is assassinating former heroes and begins trying to put the pieces together. Soon, Dr. Manhattan flees Earth for Mars leaving the planet perilously close to a nuclear demise. What follows is a bleak and thought provoking exploration of politics, human nature, and ethics as we sit on the precipice of man-made Armageddon.
I was given a hardcover copy of Watchmen back in 1987 and it had a profound impact on me as both a creator and a consumer of stories in all forms. It’s this little facet of my modest writing biography that makes reviewing this film incredibly difficult. The consensus opinion of the book is that it’s extraordinary. Zack Snyder’s film is admirably faithful to the book. Yet, strangely the result is an uneven film that is riveting at its best and clumsily melodramatic at its worst.
Visually, Watchmen is stunning as it showcases Snyder’s strengths as a director. Snyder has a unique ability to compose shots that have not been done before. He’s unafraid to utilize all the technological tools available in the digital age. Rather than use these tools to lazily accomplish what other purists could achieve with exponentially more time and resources, Snyder arranges shots that are only possible with CG and other digital tricks and the results are breath taking at times.
The universe of Watchmen has been fully realized down to the last detail. The set designs, costumes, cast, and Director of Photography, Larry Fong have brought the book to life without taking the annoying artistic liberties that usually occur in film adaptations, such as Joel Schumacher’s Bat-suit nipples for example. This alone will appeal to fans of the book.
The cast is mostly comprised of solid up-and-comers.. The most impressive of the bunch is Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy) who plays Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl. Dan is caught in an evolving love triangle with Laurie/Silk Spectre and Dr. Manhattan. Dan starts out as a friendly shoulder for Laurie to cry on, but as Dr. Manhattan gradually disassociates himself from humanity, Dan’s formerly unrequited affection begins to bear fruit. It’s a dynamic and dramatic scenario and Wilson manages to play it with necessary nuance and subtlety.
Coincidentally, nuance and subtlety are two areas where Snyder has glaring deficiencies. There are occasional moments in the movie where melodrama shakes hands with cheesiness which is unfortunate given the tonal maturity of the source material. Although he’s a visual maestro, Snyder is not an actor’s director. Moments that should easily elicit emotional responses from us are unnecessarily accompanied by songs from the soundtrack designed to bash us over the head until we feel what Snyder wants us to feel. It’s a little much.
Watchmen is without a doubt the darkest and most violent comic book adaptation ever made. There were several people in the theater averting there eyes and some of whom even left. I must admit, it’s the first time I’ve witnessed such a reaction to onscreen violence. Some of the scenes in question are just plain over the top. However, some of them, such as The Comedian’s attempted rape of the first Silk Spectre, are disturbing, raw, and very affective. Snyder’s representation of violence is as visceral and brutal as it is beautifully captivating.
Adapting Watchmen into a movie seemed overly ambitious from the outset. I expected it to be compromised and perverted beyond any semblance of the book. It wasn’t. I expected to hate it. I didn’t. However, no matter how exciting it is to watch it play out on screen, as a movie it doesn’t work as well as it does on the page. This is partially due to the experimental form of the book, some of which had to be necessarily excised from the film, and it’s also to due to the strengths and more importantly the weaknesses of the filmmakers. Overall, it’s a must see for Watchmen fans and an interesting film in general, but a flawed one nonetheless.
3 out of 5 flames
Review by Jason Thorson