Watchmen Review

Watchmen, the movie, is a landmark.

Here’s a movie that finally, without ditching the capes and tights like Wanted did to camouflage it as an action movie, presents comic book characters cussing, engaging in gory violence and graphic sex, and exist in a story where the spine isn’t so much a good versus evil battle. In the time to come, Watchmen may very well be recognized as the point when we reconsidered how we do superhero movies. The arrival of the film couldn’t have been better timed.

February of 1986, the comic book medium saw the birth of a new era when Frank Miller released The Dark Knight Returns, a book that takes the goody-goody camp out of the superhero to reintroduce Batman as an obsessive and tortured vigilante. Later that year, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons followed suit with the next step: Watchmen, today considered the finest graphic novel ever made—Hell, it’s one of the finest pieces of literature of the 20th century, period. It at once satirizes and ironically deconstructs the superhero archetype, adds a complex sociopolitical importance to it, and introduces adult (both thought-provoking and explicit) content in a mainstream big company comic book.

Last year, by taking it more seriously than anyone ever expected, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight elevated the “comic book movie” in a manner where we can see Batman’s world as a heavily conflicted one. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is again the logical next step. It riffs on the comic book movies that came before it, both good and bad, then attempts to place them in a larger context. What if, as silly as these movies get, there are real people functioning behind the masks, and there is a real world reacting to their actions? If the comic succeeded in shaking superhero comics to its core, the movie succeeds in doing the same to the current superhero movie trend.

Too bad it isn’t a very well made movie. Scratch that—it’s kind of awful.

Superficially, it follows Alan Moore’s narrative mostly to a tee. Taking place in an alternate 1985 where Nixon is still President running for his fifth term and Vietnam was won quickly and easily thanks to the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Watchmen starts off as a whodunnit. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered and violent psycho-snooper Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) follows the trail. First, he warns other retired masks—the figuratively and literally impotent Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), the identity-confused Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and the Trump-like mogul Ozymandias (Mathew Goode)—to be on their guard. All this, while America’s cold war with Russia inches closer to a nuclear boiling point.

Watchmen is a campy film demanding academic attention—imagine Schumacher’s Batman performing The Dark Knight’s script. That’s part of the goal, of course, since the characters themselves acknowledge how ridiculous they are. But its actors never seem quite comfortable with their roles. Akerman struggles with Silk Spectre’s dramatic backstory. Crudup’s approach to the detached Dr. Manhattan is to look so distracted he may as well have been a wholly CG creation. Perhaps because the film rushes through their character developments, none of their performances are particularly emotional, sympathetic, or even memorable—which begs the question, why bother watching the Watchmen?

The one exception is predictably Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, who does so much more with the character than simply crib Christian Bale’s Batman voice. His Rorschach is mesmerizing to watch; calm and ferocious at the same time.

Comparing the film to the comic is a waste of energy, since it’s obvious to anyone who’s read it that the storytelling devices used—which is half of what makes Watchmen an addictive read—are exclusive to the medium and untranslatable on screen. Though that’s the least of the problems here.

It’s sloppy filmmaking, that’s all. The tone is all over the place because of the multiple main characters, its use of songs is very weird and not very well thought out, the pacing is disastrous, the focus of the film never clear until the very end, in which the plot is explained in a rushed exposition. It’s a hollow film; an impressive visual copy of the comic that fails to convey even the “feel” of intellect and complexity, let alone the substance. The film is unwilling to commit to being a story about the consequences of the superhero trend, choosing instead to invent and emphasize brutal action scenes filmed in an annoying style that favors them as cool. It's actually kind of disturbing how giddy it is at the idea of playing with R-rated superheroes.

Some say the film’s problem is that it’s faithful to a fault, but it’s really not faithful at all. Not in the way that counts. It’s not the superhero melodrama that makes Watchmen revered; it’s how superheroes figure in the rich alternate world-building and the complexity of American fascism, represented in a superhero world by vigilante justice. Both of which are reduced to catchphrases in a film more interested in the “big” moments. Here’s one movie that could’ve used being a little more pretentious—at least that would leave an impression. Instead, it sort of floats from one painstakingly recreated scene to the next, without ever stopping to fully consider the importance of that scene.

For those who have not read Watchmen, there is perhaps a sense of discovery contained in the film, albeit one that is disjointed and frankly absurd. That’s because the premise, and the characters, are ingenious, no matter how bungled. It’s just too bad that the film strips them of their full significance.

Zack Snyder’s movie, then, serves as nothing more than a near-three-hour long commercial for the graphic novel. Maybe that’s an accomplishment in itself.

"Watchmen" opens March 6, 2009 and is rated R. Action, Comic Book, Drama, Sci-Fi. Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by David Hayter & Alex Tse (screenplay), Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (graphic novel). Starring Billy Crudup, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode, Patrick Wilson.

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.


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