Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino.
In the 1980s, two graphic novels (ah, I remember when I first heard that term in junior high) changed forever the perception of serial art as a form of literature: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, and Watchmen by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons.
Appropriately enough, less than a year after a film called The Dark Knight (not based on the graphic novel, but showing its influence) helped shift viewer’s perceptions of what sort of movie a comic book hero can appear in, a long-awaited adaptation of Watchmen also hit the screen. We have entered a new era in the comics-to-film genre, and this double-punch will raise the bar for all future movie versions of graphic novels and superhero tales.
A significant difference between The Dark Knight and Watchmen, however, is their relation to the source material. The Dark Knight draws off a character with an enormous history and multiple interpretations, and it uses this variety to create an original story. With Watchmen, the movie has a singular source which fans hold with the same reverence as other people—depending on their orientation—hold the Torah, the New Testament, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Qur’an, Hamlet, The Lord of the Rings, or Atlas Shrugged. (If your name is Rorschach and you wear a constantly shifting inkblot mask, I guarantee it’s Atlas Shrugged.) A Batman film can do many different interpretations, while Watchmen has to adhere to one… with variations for the new medium.
What exactly is Watchmen? The story, both in the book and the film? (Any serious discussion of the movie must invoke a discussion of the book.) I’ve heard this question many times from people unfamiliar with the comics world during the time leading up to the movie’s premiere. My short answer is that Watchmen is an inspection of the costumed hero mythos and the history of comic book publishing featuring an original set of heroes designed specifically for it. Alan Moore used heroes from the defunct Charlton Comics to inspire his characters. The story occurs in an alternate version of the mid-1980s where superheroism no longer seems relevant.
Because Watchmen is a one-shot story never meant to have a follow-up, Moore was at liberty to do anything he wanted to the characters; this instantly makes Watchmen unlike most superhero stories that must accept the serial continuing nature of the characters. We know that Batman and Spider-Man won’t get killed, but who knows what to expect about the fate Nite Owl and Ozymandias?
Moving into story specifics: In the mid-‘80s, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. stand poised at the edge of nuclear conflict because of the American invasion of Afghanistan. The U.S. has an important trump card in the game of nuclear brinkmanship, an apparently invincible super-powered man called “Dr. Manhattan.” Dr. Manhattan helped the country win the Vietnam War, and he serves as a deterrent against a Soviet missile launch. The U.S. has a history of costumed adventurers, none of them with superpowers, who were active in the ‘40s and then in the ‘60s, but in the 1970s public reaction against “masks” caused the government to declare them illegal. One vigilante, an uncompromising and ruthless figure named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), still operates outside of the law. Two others work for the government: Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), and the jingoistic aging solider, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
The story opens when an unknown figure breaks into the Comedian’s apartment and hurls him to his death. Rorschach suspects a “mask killer” behind the murder. He soon has further evidence that someone is out not only to get the old heroes, but also push the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. into warfare. This starts a chain-reaction that threatens to move the Doomsday Clock to midnight and ignite a nuclear war, and its brings some of the old heroes out of retirement, such as Rorschach’s old partner, Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), and Silk Specter (Malin Akerman), the daughter of one of the original Golden Age heroines (Carla Gugino). Any more explicit plot details risk ruining a story that thrives on unpredictability.
If viewers expect the standard “save-the-planet-from-the-evil-badguy” heroics, they will receive a big shock. Describing the plot doesn’t remotely describe either the book’s or the movie’s intricate, philosophical, and often intense storytelling. The interlacing of events, fluid use of time—much the same way that the increasingly inhuman Dr. Manhattan perceives time—and examination of the role of costumed crime-fighters in a morally muddy world where they seem anachronisms, creates an extraordinarily literary work. So literary that for two decades people in the film and comics world declared Watchmen unfilmmable. Most vocally its author, Alan Moore.
But here the movie is, from director Zack Snyder. And I think it’s a great film. Not a masterpiece, not achieving the level that Christopher Nolan reached in The Dark Knight, but as I’ve mentioned before Watchmen must stand in the shadow of its source. But the film delivers as good a movie as could be made from the Moore/Gibbons classic, and Snyder, an excellent visualist with the good sense to get out of a great story’s way and try not to force himself onto it, ends up the right choice for director. I don’t know if Snyder is the “visionary” that the ad campaign proclaims him, but he knows how to make the movie look great, move fast, and capture most of what makes the original story so powerful.
In fact, Snyder reigns in the hyper-stylization of his previous hit movie and graphic novel adaptation, 300. He still unleashes scenes of slow-motion and CGI-constructed action, such as the Comedian’s killing in the opening, Ozymandias outwitting an assassin, and a few moments during the climax. There’s also the requisite number of reconstruction of famous panels from the graphic novel. Overall, however, this is a more mature Zack Snyder. He puts an enormous trust in his acting ensemble, which sports no celebrity names but does have shrewd casting choices. With a story that relies so much on characterization, the actors will make or break it. With one exception, they make it.
One performance in particular will get huge attention, but before getting to it, I want to shine the spotlight on the least flashy, but I think the most effective acting in the film: Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II. If any character in Watchmen deserves the title of Classic Comic Hero, it’s Nite Owl. He’s a do-gooder, a rational thinker, and genuine hero. And in his secret identity of plain Dan Dreiburg, he’s one of us, a man going through the crises of a normal life, dealing with love and loneliness and past successes. Wilson nails it. Every note of his delivery makes Dreiburg/Nite Owl speak to the audience in the role of the identifier. He’s the only hero in the story that I would feel glad to have come to my world and protect it. And I’d like to have a beer with him—either Nite Owl or Patrick Wilson.
But it’s Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach who everyone will remember as they leave the theater. Rorschach is the most intriguing character of Watchmen, a psychopathic vigilante based on Steve Ditko’s character the Question, as well as Ditko’s own Ayn Rand Objectivism. Rorschach accepts no moral ambiguity in his quest to punish evil, and might be best described as what happens when Batman switches over to the Punisher’s tactics. Haley does an incredible job playing Rorschach’s determination and force, even when under the obscuring mask of dancing inkblots. But he’s even more impressive with the mask off, a battered, craggy face twisted into an implacable mask of its own. In his final scene, Haley turns explosive and mesmerizing—probably the highlight of the entire film. He forms one side of the philosophical battle for the soul of the hero in the story. (I can’t tell you about his opponent in this philosophical battle, however.)
The “victim” of the conflict, the man who flies out the window in the first scene but hovers over the rest of the action, is Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian. The Comedian, to put it simply, is despicable. He kills women and children. He’s a rapist. He’s a black-hearted cynic. But ultimately, he willingly stares into the abyss… and it’s impossible for us to completely loathe him. Morgan may have the toughest role to play, and his scene of pouring out his heart in an incomprehensible flood to his old nemesis (Matt Frewer, a good showing in a small role) shows he was the right choice for the part. The joke is on the Comedian, but thanks to Morgan’s portrayal, we’re not laughing at him.
Malin Akerman as Laurie/Silk Specter II won’t get much of the praise in the acting notices. She doesn’t damage the film with her ordinary performance, but she never elevates it, and it makes the character of Silk Specter the least interesting of the heroes. As a contrast, Carla Gugino, who spends much of the film in old age make-up, is superb playing Laurie’s mother and the audience’s main attachment to the past glories of the hero world. She looks teriffic as a ‘40s pin-up in the flashbacks as well—she has the ideal look for the style.
Watchmen The Movie contains more physical action than the novel, an area where Snyder’s style feels more obvious. The opening fight that results in the Comedian taking the long dive explodes into a tremendous and exciting smack-down. The prison riot now forms a major fight set-piece. But these scenes aren’t the strongest or most memorable. You’ll thrill much more to watching Jackie Earle Haley as the unmasked Rorschach confront his psychologist in prison than you will seeing Nite Owl and Silk Specter beat up thugs in an alley.
The movie makes many sacrifices to put a multi-layered story with an immense cast and a lengthy invented history into two hours and forty minutes. Even at that length, the picture feels like it’s about to burst out of its seams. A director’s cut for the DVD will doubtless include numerous plot strands and supporting characters from the graphic novel that don’t appear here. One of them, the comic-within-the-comic Tales of the Black Freighter, will make its debut as a straight-to-video animated feature next month.
What the screenplay must principally hurl onto the funeral pyre of cinematic necessity is the supporting cast of non-heroes. The newspaper seller and his regular buyers, the youth reading Tales of the Black Freighter, the staff of the right-wing broadsheet The New Frontiersman… they all end up either as single-scene bits or background material. Rorschach’s institutional psychologist, who dominates an entire chapter of the graphic novel, now has a standard small part. There’s only a few places where I think audiences unfamiliar with the story might wonder why the camera has chosen to linger on these people about whom they know nothing else. Oddly, one character given much more time in the movie than in the book is Richard Nixon. Nixon’s scenes are a minor miscalculation and feel more like a period put-on that doesn’t belong in the movie. One of the scenes purposely copies shots from the War Room sequences in Dr. Strangelove, a poorly placed bit of referencing. And in the wake of Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, actor Robert Wisden seems too much like a parody of Nixon.
The lesser heroes also vanish into a parade of source footage, such as the densely packed credits. These flashes of other heroes might trick new viewers, who will think they’ll emerge later on in the story, but they don’t. In a change designed to prevent promoting a minor character, Captain Metropolis no longer suggests the creation of the ‘60s superhero team the Crimebusters. Now it falls to Ozymandias, but it’s a good choice that neatly ties the threads together.
David Hayter’s and Alex Tse’s script also makes a huge change to the ending. I won’t discuss it, of course, and it has already angered more than a few Watchmen fans. All I will say is that it works for me. I love the insanity that Moore dreamed up, but what appears on screen makes more sense for the medium and a broader audience.
In terms of design, Watchmen makes a departure from some of Gibbons’s visuals, crafting a look that may appeal more to the 2009 viewer. The 1980s of the film looks more like a re-imagining through the eyes of the 1990s looking at the 1940s—it’s beautiful but also believeable at the same time, and avoids the clichés of a “retro-‘80s” flick. The look of the Golden Age heroes is perfect: the costumes they wear look as if they snatched them from the wardrobe department at Republic Pictures’ serial division, accurate right down to the texture of the fabric. Many designs stay true to their comic inspiration, such as Nite Owl’s sleek “Owlship” Archimedes and the dazzling watchwork construction of Dr. Manhattan’s Martian retreat.
However, it’s during the Martian section of the film, Dr. Manhattan’s extended meeting with Laurie regarding the fate of the Earth and his continual removal from humanity, that found my interest starting to lag. It was the same place I felt a loss of interest in the novel as well—the pacing and the philosophy come too heavy, and the mix of emotionally removed Billy Crudup and the inadequate Malin Akerman makes for a sluggish section. I eagerly awaited the return to Rorschach and Nite Owl back on Earth. This, however, is the only place in the movie where I felt the running time wearing on me.
On the subject of flaws, I found the major weakness in the film is the choice of source music. The soundtrack trots out Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Simon & Garfunkle, Philip Glass, Nena, and Richard Wagner, among others, and the pieces have an obvious and intrusive quality. Many of the songs come from suggestions in the graphic novel, such “The Times They Are A’ Changing” and “The Ride of the Valkyries,” but here is a case where something that works in the graphic novel format—mention of a song—fails to work when realized on film. It feels in most cases as if the soundtrack wants to jackhammer ideas into the viewer. The use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during a love scene turns laughable; Snyder’s intention might have been to make the sex scene a touch ridiculous, but it doesn’t work for me. And I never wanted to hear “99 Dead Baboons” “99 Red Balloons” again, in any context, even if it has a nuclear confrontation analogy… another case of overplaying your thematic hand. In general, the movie should have aimed for fewer, less obvious songs, and more original music from composer Tyler Bates, who does an great job with his ‘80s crime-movie scoring. As for the use of Philip Glass’s music from the movie Koyaanisqatsi in the Dr. Manhattan origin flashback, I know those pieces too well from their original context, and they ripped me out of the story when I heard them—unfortunately during one of the best sequences in the film. I’m a soundtrack collector, so this reaction won’t apply to most viewers, but I dislike it when a movie uses another movie’s original soundtrack. (I had the same problem when The Truman Show made extensive use of Philip Glass’s score to Powaqqatsi. Glass seems to attract this.)
Ultimately, the important question to ask about Watchmen is: Will viewers who have never read the graphic novel and only know superheroes through movies find the strange story accessible? I say “yes” with some hesitation, since I have already seen evidence to contradict that answer. (The friend who saw it with me, who has never read the novel, rated the movie a “3” out of “10.”) But I believe that a good story remains a good story, and if told well, open-minded viewers will appreciate it even if they don’t find the story to their taste. Even if you don’t like the movie, you will take something away from it. People who love superheroes will thrill to watching the way the film digs around in their psychologies and confronts them with a realistic world. People who aren’t into superheroes will enjoy seeing them handled in an unusual manner, and get a rush from the tangle of politics and sex that normally wouldn’t get anywhere near the genre. The only viewers who might find the film downright confounding are those who walk into the theater imagining they’ll see a story-lite, action-heavy, escapist spectacle. I think, however, most of those people will end up pleased accidentally.
The greatest compliment I can pay to the film version of Watchmen is that it assumes its viewer has a brain. The screenplay and direction credit the audience for being able to absorb heavy ideas, conflicting philosophies, and a layered story without hand-holding or dilution. The cuts made serve a cinematic purpose, not a need to simplify for comprehension.
Although Watchmen has drawn mixed reviews, with mainstream critics showing more hostility toward it than the blogosphere, it’s a film that will generate serious discussion. Even people who dislike like it will have plenty to say about it. We don’t get that often from blockbuster, big-ticket pictures, or this kind of ambitious grappling with a popular culture text, and those are reasons enough for celebration. And purchasing the expanded version DVD when it comes out. Watchmen will get overlooked in Academy Awards next year (March isn’t prime season for reaping awards anyway), but it will go down as one of the most important films of 2009.