“I did it thirty-five minutes ago” — Josh Reviews Watchmen!
It’s a bit hard to fathom that I live in a world in which there actually exists a film version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s magnificent epic Watchmen.
Long considered completely unadaptable, Watchmen (originally published as a 12-issue limited-series by DC Comics back in 1985-86, and re-printed countless times in the subsequent two decades in collected “graphic novel” form) is a staggeringly intricate, layered work that is at once a ripping super-hero yarn and, at the same time, a complete deconstruction of the entire idea of the super-hero adventure comic.
What is fascinating is that the film version of Watchmen arrives at a unique time. Over the past almost-decade (since the release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000), we have seen a flood of super-hero movies (a great many of them dreck, and a great many of them of pretty high quality). This past summer alone saw the release of The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Hellboy II, among others — three very different films, yet all examples of super-hero movies that were quite extraordinarily well executed. We’re at a point now when the general public has become very familiar with a lot of the tropes of the super-hero movie genre — and so are perfectly primed to see those familiar characters and themes and story structures completely up-ended by the movie of Watchmen, the same way that the comic book audience had all of their familiar super-hero comic ideas up-ended by the original Watchmen comic. This movie, I think, is being released at just the right time.
And it is magnificent.
It’s hard for me to imagine what someone who has never read Watchmen would think of this film, because I have read the comic so many times that it is impossible to imagine not knowing (and revering) the story beat-by-beat. But it seems to me that director Zack Snyder has done an extraordinary job of maintaining a great deal of the depth and complexity of the comic, while also making it very accessible to a first-timer. That is no easy feat.
Those of you who, like me, worship the source material, can rest easy. Snyder’s film is a breathtakingly faithful adaptation of the comic. The structure and story-line of the comic is replicated in great detail; almost all of the dialogue and narration has been lifted right out of the comic; and most importantly, the tone and atmosphere of the world that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created has been brought to life in a powerfully real, visceral way.
To begin with, the film is a marvel of casting. Thinking about Watchmen in the months leading up to the release, there were a lot of elements of the comic that I felt would be an enormous challenge to capture on-screen. But watching the film unfold, I realized that the biggest challenge was the character of Rorschach. And holy cow did they nail him. The way he talks. The way he looks in his dirty trench-coat, mask and fedora. (Quick aside: has there EVER been a film, until this one, in which a character whose face was fully hidden behind a mask hasn’t looked awkward any-time he had to speak dialogue? I’m looking at you, Spider-Man films! I don’t know how they created Rorschach’s ink-blot “face” in this film, but the work is stunning.) The way the he walks. The way he eats beans. The way he says “hurm.” So many of my favorite scenes in the Watchmen comic involved Rorschach, and every single one of those moments are perfectly captured in the film. Rorschach’s angry retort to Dan, “you quit.” His snarled challenge to the imprisoned cons: “None of you understand. I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re locked up in here with me.” His powerful final scene. Jackie Earle Haley has done the impossible with his portrayal — in lesser hands Rorschach could have easily been laughable or ridiculous. Instead, Haley has created an indelible, layered performance, menacing and also a little bit sad. His delivery of the line “a pretty butterfly” is just perfect. Everything I could have hoped for with this character is right there in that one moment.
The closest thing to an “everyman” character to be found in Watchmen is Dan Dreiberg, the second Night Owl. In the comic he was a lovable schulb, a man who had gone soft ever since the super-heroes were outlawed by the Keane Act. In the stills released prior to the film’s opening, I was worried that the film-makers had turned Dan into more of a traditionally square-jawed heroic figure. But those worries were instantly put to rest by Patrick Wilson’s performance, right from his very first scenes. As with Rorschach, the costuming is critical — Dan’s little paunch, his big glasses, his bad hair, his sweaters — all of these little elements, combined with Wilson’s honest, open performance, create the character who is in many ways the heart of the film.
If I write a paragraph about every character in the movie we’ll be here until doomsday, so let me try to be more concise as I proceed. Billy Crudup is wonderfully ethereal as the only truly super-powered being in the story, Dr. Manhattan. Malin Akerman has been getting some criticism for what some see as awkwardness in her role of Laurie, the sexy Silk Spectre, but I enjoyed her performance. She certainly captures the kinkiness of a super-heroine in tight leather, and while some of her line-readings might be a bit flat, I think she brings a lot of soul into a character who could easily be whiny and unlikable. Carla Gugino plays Laurie’s mother, the original Silk Spectre. She is absolutely dynamite in the flashback sequences (particularly the awful moment with the Comedian, a tough scene that the film HAD to get right in order to work), although I thought the bad old-age make-up in her present-day scenes was a bit of a distraction. Speaking of the Comedian, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is incredible in the role. This is a theme to my review, but I’ll say it again here: I couldn’t believe the way he so perfectly brought to life the character from the comic, capturing his rakish charisma and his horrifying brutality and callousness. Matthew Goode’s portrayal of Ozymandias has been the most controversial among comic fans, as this is the character who has been tweaked the most from the comic, but Goode’s version of Ozymandias as David Bowie really worked for me. He is the super-hero as super-star, and some of his weird mannerisms and affectations seemed so true to the bizarre nature of our real world’s celebrities. I also found myself to be pleasantly surprised by how much excellence was brought to the ensemble by some of the really minor supporting players, particularly Matt Frewer’s aging super-villain Moloch, Laura Mennell as Dr. Manhattan’s former girlfriend Janey Slater, and Danny Woodburn (Mickey from Seinfeld) as Big Figure.
The only off-note among the group? Robert Wisden as fifth-term president Richard Nixon. As with Carla Gugino in her present-day scenes, I think Wisden is let down by some pretty bad make-up. Nixon should come off as cold-hearted, but instead he seems a bit clownish.
Beyond that minor complaint, I have nothing but praise for all of the artists and craftsmen who so attentively brought the world of Watchmen to vivid life. There is a seemingly endless number of iconic locations in which the story is set — Night Owl’s lair, Dr. Manhattan’s lab, that iconic street-corner, the prison, Ozymandias’ arctic retreat, Mars, etc. — and each one of them has been lovingly replicated on-screen. The wealth of detail is astounding — like the comic, this is a film that cries out to be re-visited so that you can soak in the insane level of detail in the background. Even on my first viewing, so many little elements caught my eye — the ads for Veidt’s Nostalgia cologne, the “obsolete models a specialty” sign outside of Hollis Mason’s apartment, Moloch’s refrigerator, Rorschach’s grappling gun, the 1940’s Minutemen photo… etc… To fans of the comic all of these little tiny details are beloved, and it is an absolute delight to see them all on-screen. But more importantly, it is the accumulation of these details that brings the entire world in which the story takes place to life. It is the viewer’s belief in this world, and our engagement in it, that is critical to the film working as a whole. (I would draw a comparison to films such as Blade Runner and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which it is the creation of a fully-realized original, unique universe that makes those films so effective. So too here.)
In addition to the faithful rendering of the characters, and the costumes, and the sets, I was stunned by how many of the particular idiosyncrasies of the comic have been translated to the screen — many of the digressions that flesh-out characters and back-story; the intricate narrative structure of flash-backs and interwoven reminiscences; and, oh yes, the sex and the violence. I am sort of gleeful at the thought of someone who has never read Watchmen and is expecting just another super-hero movie having his/her head spun around by some of the craziness to be found in this film. Heh heh heh.
I think the standard-bearer now for all super-hero films, the one to which they all must now be compared, has to be The Dark Knight. So how does Watchmen measure up? It is difficult to say. Part of what made The Dark Knight so effective, I think, is the way it jettisoned so many of the more outlandish elements of the standard super-hero movie, choosing instead to tell a gritty, street-level crime film. Watchmen, in many ways, is the exact opposite. This film features characters in colorful spandex, a big blue super-human, locations all over the planet and in outer space, and a “super-villain” with a “master plan.” What the two films have in common, though, is the complete and utter seriousness with which they approach their characters and their story — and both share a gloriously dark, cynical heart. Both push the idea of a super-hero movie far beyond anything we’ve ever seen on-screen before.
In the final calculation, is the film as perfect as the original graphic novel? Not even close. But it is still an astounding achievement, and I can say without hesitation that I loved every single minute of it. It is a film that I can’t wait to see for a second time. This movie is not for everyone. But if you’re looking for something that is a little more complex, a little more intense, and a little more thought provoking than your average big-budget blockbuster — while at the same time also being, just like the comic from which it originates, a ripping super-hero yarn — then you owe it to yourself to go buy a ticket to see Watchmen. Ideally on IMAX.
So what are you waiting for?