Release Date: March 6, 2009
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David Hayter and Alex Tse
Stars: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer, Stephen McHattie
MPAA Rating: R
”Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”
– “Who Watches the Watchmen?”
Apparently, quite a few people have been watching the Watchmen – at least if the $83 million box office gross from this past weekend is any indication. There isn’t a clear breakdown on demographics, so there’s no telling if that’s $83 mil worth of fanboys or casual theater-goers. And since this movie has the opportunity to reach at least $83 million more worth of ticket buyers from both sides of the tracks, I have no choice but to divide and conquer with this review. Yes, dear readers, I plan to speak fairly to those who not only know who Rorscach is, they have a copy of his mask hanging in their closets, as well as to those who think a rorschach is just another name for an ink blot.
Let’s begin with the “casual” movie-goer – in this instance, those who possess little to no prior knowledge of the Watchmen story. Some of you may have had friends that have recommended the book to you over the years and you just haven’t gotten around to it, and some of you may just be jonesing for a good superhero flick. Up front, you all should know that this movie, so billed in the previews and various online teaser incarnations as a superhero movie, is anything but. First and foremost, Watchmen is an epic tale of man’s folly and the human condition, a scathing look at the myth of the “hero” and the depths within which any of us could fall in the pursuit of understanding, perfection and peace – whether within or without. At its pure essence, Watchmen is a study of personal perception and a sometimes-harsh fable that holds a mirror up to our own social mores and deep inner beliefs. Sound deep? You bet your spandex, it is. This is a story on par with some of the classics of modern cinema and literature; think less Spider-Man and more 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Don’t let that deter any of you from experiencing all that Watchmen has to offer – the film is filled with fun and fantastic moments that will not only blow your mind, but they might also alter your perception forever of what a “comic book movie” should be. I won’t dwell too long on trying to convince the casual ticket-buyer to line up at their local cineplex – many famous reviewers far more experienced and talented than myself have given their seal of approval or their mark of the beast. Roger Ebert called it a “compelling, visceral film,” saying that he would likely see it again just for the experience, and ultimately gave it four stars. EW‘s Owen Gleibermann, however, wasn’t so kind, stating that even though Watchmen wasn’t boring, it “remains as detached from the viewer as it is from the zeitgeist.” Of course, Gleiberman usually doesn’t like any film that isn’t in French with subtitles, or starring Kate Winslet. If you’re like me, though, and think that Gleiberman is typically as far detached from the zeitgeist as his outdated and over-inflated vocabulary, then his comments may spur you to line up at your local cineplex tout de suite.
But I digress. Primarily, I want to urge all the casual viewers out there to familiarize themselves with the source material before going to the theater. Normally, I wouldn’t recommend such a course of action with the typical “superhero” movie, but as I’ve mentioned, Watchmen is far from typical. Yes, the graphic novel is very, very long and it’s very, very deep – many of you won’t get all the subtle nuances or themes running through the narrative until the second or third reading (don’t worry, I didn’t either) – but I can promise you that it is one of the most rewarding reading experiences in which you’ll ever have the pleasure of engaging. It’s hard to imagine that any film adaptation of Watchmen could be as lovingly detailed or as precisely recreated as Zack Snyder’s ode to joy, but there are still tons of rich and immersive detail that just can’t be packed into three hours of film.
My girlfriend, Lindsay, decided she wanted to read the graphic novel before we saw the film; she picked the book up last Thursday and finished at 10:30 on Friday night – 30 minutes before the 11 p.m. showing we had planned to make. She ultimately loved both the book and the film, and said that she was very glad she had read the book beforehand; otherwise, she stated as we were leaving the theater in smiles, she might have felt lost and definitely wouldn’t have had an appreciation for the characters, their histories or their individual perceptions. Whether you read the book beforehand or not, all of you should see the movie, if only to experience one of the epic tales of the late 20th century. And if you don’t read Watchmen before heading to the theater, swing by your local comic shop (support local comic shops, not Barnes & Noble!) and pick up a copy on your way home after the show. In the end, this is more than just a movie or a book – it’s a rare synergy that can only be experienced through both forms of media.
Now, for the fanboys – let’s chat. Before I say what I need to say, I must ask you not hurl giant tomes of Marvel Masterpieces at my home, or threaten to send my first born to the Dark Dimension to be a servant of Dormammu (or, for you DC purists out there – don’t give my dear baby to Darkseid). Hold onto your mylar sleeves, now. Are you ready?
Watchmen could be better.
I know, I can hear the collective gasp, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. Do not fear that which you do not yet understand. Allow me to explain before you ban me from Comic Con for life.
Point, the first: The movie lacks the full emotional resonance of the everyman. In the graphic novel, we get to experience the escalation of tensions that results in the ban on masks, as well as the growing nuclear threat between the US and USSR, through the eyes of the normal citizens of New York. The two Bernies in the book – the newsstand owner and the kid reading The Black Freighter comic – are just two such citizens that are representative of who and what the Watchmen are trying to protect. They are the faces of the innocents that are ultimately affected by the escalating war and the harsh choice that Ozymandias makes at the end of the story. Without their place in the story, anyone watching the film would be hard-pressed to be as connected emotionally to the final outcome of Adrian’s plan. Granted, Dan and Laurie serve as proxies for the everyday person, but the fact that they are part of the endtale moral tends to dilute their objective voices. The city also feels a bit cold and distant in the film – there are lots of establishing shots showing the magnificence of the alternate New York – but rarely are we treated to the sea of humanity which walk its streets. In the graphic novel, we have a lot of opportunity to feel that humanity and feel the panic and chaos that ensues when war appears imminent between the two superpowers. We see the burst of violence between Joey and her girlfriend, at the end, and feel the stinging result of that panic when the rioting mobs spell the end of Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl.
Ultimately, all of these people and these happenings are what provides such a conflict of conscience at the end of the tale when Ozymandias carries out his plan. Were his actions right, despite the sacrifice? Of whose morals and viewpoint would we ultimately take if faced with the same decision? This is the crux, and the meat of the Watchmen. By giving us three or four short moments with one or two of these very human characters, I believe audiences could have felt the same punch in the gut as the book, when Adrian’s plan comes to fruition. It would have only added five more minutes of film time, tops. Without that, and without immersion in the Watchmen world beforehand, I fear the casual viewer fails to grasp a bit of the story’s true soul.
Point, the second: The Crimebuster’s meeting – the roundhouse at which the future paths of the Watchmen are determined – is woefully short. There have been many debates over the years at which point the world starting going to hell in our little story, but in my mind it’s an easy answer – when The Comedian burns the map during the meeting of the next generation of masked heroes. This is the one time, other than at The Comedian’s very funeral, when everyone was gathered together for a singular purpose. Everyone had their “origin” that eventually lead them to that very meeting, and each person gathered there – save for The Comedian – had young and naive nobilities. It was during this meeting that The Comedian challenged everyone’s perceptions and turned everyone’s future path around 180 degrees – paths that were not destined to cross again until the thoughts and acts from that meeting were culminated. It was during this meeting that John and Laurie met for the first time, and when John first started to shed his moral and human encumbrances. Rorschach and Dan would join forces to fight what they believed was the good fight, but even then a seed of discontent was planted within Rorschach that would separate him from all others in a non-compromising battle.
Most importantly, however, the first seeds of purpose were planted in a young Adrian Veidt during this meeting, and those fateful words that echoed so strongly in the book – “Somebody has to save the world …” – simply don’t echo as loudly in the film. Even on the first reading of the book, you get a subliminal sense of foreboding in that single panel with Adrian and those words being spoken above him. It all goes by so quickly in the film that the audience has a chance to miss it. If the pacing of that one scene had been slowed by half, and the full resonance of the actions of the Comedian and the message that impacted Adrian had been allowed to hang in the air a fraction longer, I believe that the impact of the film’s finale would have been improved exponentially.
Point, the final: Nipples on the Ozy suit? I’ll come right out and say it – Ozymandias’s costume was horrific. I understand that Zack and his team were trying for a simultaneous homage and poke at the ridiculous superhero suits of the late ’90s, but I frankly didn’t get it. By going for that over-the-top, sculpted muscle look, Adrian took on the appearance of a cheap, comic book villain. Perhaps that’s what they were going for in the long run. I, however, think it would have been far more appropriate to dress Adrian in royal armor, perhaps like that worn by Alexander the Great, or in ceremonial robes, like that worn by Rameses II. Some sort of exuberant, royal garb would have been far more true to the character and may have reinforced one of the sides of the arguments of his endgame; by appearing as a conquering leader, we would have no choice but to factor that into deciding where we stand in our own moral dilemma brought on by his actions. The final shot of him standing in the middle of Karnak, much of his empire smashed, swirling snow gathering by his feet, would have been even more epic and crushing had he been clothed in the grandness of royalty.
In the end, Watchmen is a story about personal perception, and my opinions on improvement are merely an extension of that. Overall, I think that the film is an outstanding achievement, filled with as much of the wonderment, mystery, suspense and philosophy from the source material as could possibly fit into a three-hour opus. Is it as good as the book? Is anything, ever? I will say this: the true strength of this rendition is in the casting – rarely have I seen a group of actors who have embodied the essence of their artistic counterparts, or that have given so much of themselves in bringing this story, its characters and its moral, to life. For that, and for finally, successfully putting to film what was often thought to be impossible, this particular fanboy will always be grateful.
Written by Chris Kirkman. Watchmen is in theaters and IMAX now.