Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood Review

If you were as disappointed in Watchmen as I am, you might have felt inclined to avoid any of its permutations trickling out to DVD. Say, this Tales of the Black Freighter release. Especially since Zack Snyder is planning on releasing a big ultimate cut on DVD down the line that would have the Watchmen movie intercut with the animated Tales of the Black Freighter, bookended by scenes of the two Bernies (fans of the book would know who they are) that are missing from both the theatrical version and this DVD. If you do so, however, you’ll miss out on the real treat of this DVD release.

The disc contains two features: the 25-minute Black Freighter and the 40-minute mockumentary Under the Hood. I’m not sure why Black Freighter gets the first billing on the cover, because Under the Hood is easily the better feature and the more likely one to intrigue those who are unfamiliar with the original source material, since it actually talks about the movie’s universe. The casual consumer may look at this DVD and go, “A pirate cartoon? What the hell does that have to do with Watchmen?”

Tales of the Black Freighter

In the graphic novel’s alternate history, because superheroes exist, the popular subject matter in comic books is the adventures of pirates rather than caped do-gooders. Watchmen is often interrupted by a kid reading a pirate comic called "Tales of the Black Freighter," about a marooned mariner’s horror-tinged quest to return home and save his family before his hometown is destroyed by the demonic Black Freighter pirate ship. Experienced side by side with Watchmen, the pirate story serves as an allegory to (SPOILER WARNING) Ozymandias, also driven to bad deeds in the name of the greater good.

This animated short film follows the Black Freighter portions of the Watchmen book closely—even closer than the Watchmen movie. The animation is less than desirable; it’s crude, resembling the 90’s Aeon Flux, but without the gonzo Heavy Metal-esque visuals. It pales in comparison to the writing by Alex Tse and Zack Snyder, cribbing nearly all of it from Alan Moore’s original text. Gerard Butler plays the poor sailor, aptly voicing the heavy narration with a drowning sense of dread.

The problem should be obvious. While it’s still a decent Twilight Zone flavored pirate yarn, Tales of the Black Freighter serves no real purpose when stripped off its Watchmen context. So this separate pirate story mirrors the film. Big deal. What’s intriguing about the inclusion in the graphic novel is the fusion of the two stories and how one bleeds over to the other. It’s also a meta-commentary on how comic books tend to reflect the real world, no matter how absurd, which is what Watchmen did back in the Cold War. Here, it’s just a pirate cartoon that really has zero connection to Watchmen, and I’m not sure how much more relevant it’ll be even when it’s intercut into the film, for the allegorical reasons I just mentioned.

Under the Hood

The mockumentary, however, is a different story. Under the Hood explains Watchmen’s alternate history of a superhero-dominated world from the 30’s to the present (1985). I’m tempted to say it’s essential for people unfamiliar with the graphic novel to watch this first before seeing the Watchmen movie, as it would answer some questions and properly set up the film’s unique universe.

Posing as a TV program called “The Culpeper Minute,” it interviews mainly the first Nite Owl, Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie), who wrote a tell-all autobiography called "Under the Hood." This feature covers those extra tidbits at the end of each chapter in the graphic novel. Hollis answers questions in his interview by reciting lines from his book, so his dialogue is mostly Alan Moore, but read in a very natural manner by McHattie, who deserves plenty of credit for his well-rounded portrayal of Hollis Mason even if it’s only in the form of a sit-down interview.

The acting in this is just all around better. Ted Friend is believable as the 80’s newsman Larry Culpeper, while Carla Gugino, who appears as the first Silk Spectre Sally Jupiter, offers a very fun (largely improvised) interview about her glamorous yet sordid history, like a star in denial talking about her glory days. Worth noting is that the interview takes place in 1975, so Gugino is spared of the horrible make-up she had to endure in the film when portraying the older Sally. We also get to see more of the side characters from the film, such as Rorschach’s (future) psychiatrist, Dr. Manhattan’s friend Wally Weaver, and The Comedian's former arch-foe Moloch the Mystic.

Under the Hood is so absorbing to watch that I began to wonder if this wouldn’t have been a better format to do a Watchmen movie on. Imagine a modern-day Errol Morris documentary on the Cold War and how it ended in 1985, thanks to a recently uncovered conspiracy involving the superheroes, as told by Rorschach’s journal. That would really have been an intellectual superhero movie different from the rest—but c’est la vie.

DVD Bonus Features

There’s really only one special feature—a featurette where people from the film production and DC Comics all talk about how Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood figure into the Watchmen film. It also spells it out for you that Black Freighter is supposed to be an allegory to Ozymandias. Otherwise, it’s a rather pointless featurette, like a preview that would have been on another disc to promote this one.

The other two features are the first chapter of Watchmen: The Motion Comics and a sneak peek at the animated Green Lantern movie, which is standard fare for the DC Comics Warner Premiere releases. The only real reason to get this is Under the Hood, a better tribute to the graphic novel than what's currently in theaters.

"Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood" is on sale March 24, 2009 and is rated R. Adventure, Animation, Comic Book, Documentary, Sci-Fi. Directed by Daniel DelPurgatorio, Eric Matthies, MIke Smith. Written by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (graphic novel), Zack Snyder & Alex Tse (Black Freighter), Hans Rodionoff (Under the Hood). Starring Carla Gugino, Gerard Butler, Jared Harris, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matt Frewer, Stephen McHattie.

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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