Watchmen (2009) | Directed by Zack Snyder | Drama/Action/Adventure/Sci-fi | Rated R | With Billy Crudup, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Stephen Mchattie, Rob LaBelle, Laura Mennell | Warner Bros., Paramount Studios | Runtime: 163 minutes | Box Office: $185 million | Rotten Tomatoes score: 65%
Raise your hand if you were tricked into watching this film thinking it was a superhero movie. Same here.
2009’s Watchmen transgressed comic book movie boundaries before they were even defined (in subsequent films such as ‘12’s The Avengers and the Captain America series). So, going in, you probably shouldn’t be expecting massive explosions or dubious villains, since the viewing experience is distinctly more brain than brawn. But once you get over the initial disappointment of the discovery and settle down in resignation, Watchmen is 3 hours(or more, depending on the cut you see) of enthralling mental stimulation, prompting a psychological journey through multiple layers of cynicism, nihilism, and moral defeatism.
It’s always hard to apportion credit for plot quality when it comes to comic book movies, but Watchmen probably takes the cake for the greatest difficulty in that regard. Nearly everything in the movie is based on British author Alan Moore’s 12-installment comic book series written from 1986 to 1987. Moore received immense critical acclaim for his work, winning a Hugo Award in 1988, and had his comic listed as one of Time Magazine’s top 100 novels of the 20th century.
The film version capitalizes on the original’s excellence, big time. In fact, reading the comic is like watching the movie all over again. It’s probably one of the wordiest comic book films to date, and I estimate that half of its lines, and quite certainly every single line of narrative and reflective significance, are taken verbatim from the original dialogue. It can become jarring, and sometimes it seriously seems like whoever wrote the screenplay didn’t know where to curtail and adapt. Seriously, who on earth thought it was a good idea to include Rorschach’s Great clown Pagliacci joke in the narration, and then follow it up with, “Good joke. Everybody laugh. Roll on snare drum. Curtains”?
But besides a few exceptionally cringeworthy moments, once you get used to it, the film has a good selection of dialogue, and is a prime example of comic book speech making it to the silver screen. What is practically poetry is delivered as daily conversation, and the ensemble cast makes the lines intensely human. I can’t imagine a version of Watchmen with comparatively dissimilar dialogue that would still be thematically recognizable. Discourse and monologues are what give the film its immense rewatch value, along with its impeccable grit.
I was more surprised to find out how alike the comic and the movie were in terms of shot design and editing(or panel progression, if you’re talking about the comic). The first few scenes were pretty much carbon copies of the original, featuring the same chronology, juxtaposition, and even zooming in and out. Not a bad choice though, as the comic is surprisingly cinematic in and of itself, and auteur director Zack Snyder’s style, filled to the brim with slow motion and CGI(think 300, or Man of Steel, both of which he directed), infuses the freeze frames with life.
Watchmen can easily be argued as the most ambitious comic book film ever, largely due to the fact that it attempts to carry over nearly every single detail of the original series. As a result, it’s part neo-noir, part love story, part comeback film, part origin story, part political commentary, part historical parody, etc…. I’m sure there’s more.
The film’s massive semi copy and pasting operation is also probably what makes it one of the most controversial movies ever in terms of critical reaction. The film has a mediocre 65% on Rotten Tomatoes, but a range of ratings with reviews at both extremes. Praise has been centered on the reverential adaptation, while criticism exists for the same reasons, along with rushed scene development, and too much content crammed into one film.
Personally, I’d add inappropriate choice of soundtrack to fray, something that often overpowers the action and exudes hubris. I think that the song selection is reflective of the film’s array of somewhat disjointed stylistic elements. Tyler Bates’ hypnotic score is a totally different story though. Big kudos there.
Overall however, the virtual all-inclusion of original content is much more of a highlight than a blemish. I think it only adds nutrition, and I’d much prefer it over a two or three part cash-grab with unnecessary added elements. Watchmen’s narrative complexity is absolutely stunning, with multiple well-executed cases of parallel action, drawn-out flashbacks, gravelly voiceover, and more. Visual design is also just fabulous, with instantly iconic scenes rivalling the CGI effects of today. Let’s just say that the entire experience is like that of a decked out buffet, though the dish selection is at times questionable.
Of course, plenty of conversation should be reserved for the plot itself, which immediately distinguishes itself with its dysfunctional crime-fighting group, its lack of a true antagonist, and a game changing climax(as opposed a buildup to an obligatory final battle). But there’s more. Films depicting the battering and bruising of the American spirit are often the best, or at least personal favorites. Just think of The Godfather series, or Citizen Kane. Films taking place in the Cold or Vietnam Wars are even better, since the settings alone defy conventionality and entail moral ambiguity. The film features the now ubiquitous motif of vigilantism, but what really sets it apart is its exploration of psychological responses to societal decay and war.
It seems that each main character is the personification of a response to imminent destruction. Rorschach is the dogmatic pursuant of justice, refusing to abandon his beliefs in despair. Nite Owl(sic) and Silk Spectre are the oft-ridiculed optimists who choose to carry on in life despite deteriorating conditions. The Comedian is the face of nihilism, seeing through the inherent savagery of mankind, and thus choosing to live in complete liberation. Ozymandias is the utilitarianist who overcoming obstacles imposed by morality, seeking the ultimate solution to the world’s problems.
I believe that Dr. Manhattan is more of a symbol than a character. His godly presence, which inspires a sense of obsoletion, represents the ever-looming threat of nuclear destruction during the Cold War. His inception makes every other inhabitant on earth question their beliefs and the worthwhileness of their actions and self-restraint. Normal life becomes mere show, while in anticipation of the end.
All of which was such a relevant topic for 2009 American audiences, am i right?
That, along with the fact that a Watchmen movie was quite ahead of its time, didn’t exactly help the movie’s performance at the box office. The film had a sizeable opening, but saw one of the largest declines in attendance over a period of time in comic book film history. At a time when Ironman had just been released and was considered groundbreaking, the general public was just warming up to the notion of epic superhero movies, and had little appetite for the likes of Watchmen. Man had just discovered fire, and hadn’t yet warmed up to the idea of fine dining.
But now, and even then, the film’s ideas have their application. Any reflection of the state of our modern existence(elections, terrorist groups, WWIII–should I go on?) will reveal numerous problems, along with the healthy now and then renunciation of all faith in America and the world. For sure, anybody who goes through the thought process will probably experience a roller coaster of emotions that, when blown up ten times, matches the ethos of the Watchmen. To quote the film, “if you begin to feel an intense and crushing feeling of terror at the concept, don’t be alarmed. That indicates only that you are still sane.”
Sadly the film is probably a one time gem in the cinemascape. It’s a miracle that the movie even happened, having gone through two decades of developmental hell and turnover, while possessing an obscure cast, abstruse themes, and an original creator who opposed an adaptation and declined to write a screenplay. An already developed recipe for box office success nowadays makes such projects too much of a gamble for DC and Marvel.
Other films of the genre attempting to shine in similar ways, such as 2010’s Kickass, have come and gone, with varying degrees of success, without rivalling Watchmen. This year’s Suicide Squad seems promising enough, but don’t expect it to digress too far from formula. Snyder’s new film, Batman Vs. Superman, coming out in March, will attempt another take on vigilantism, but the trailer seems to suggest the same old cliches of truth, hope, and justice. Ugh….