The most acclaimed graphic novel of all time translates into an epic and fascinating film that is engaging, precise, and does great justice to its origins – but might be a bit too inaccessible to Watchmen virgins.
‘The Comedian is dead’ and his death puts this film into motion. Rorschach, a shape shifting masked vigilante, use to troll the same circles as The Comedian, though when investigating the Comedian’s apartment where his final fight was fought, Rorschach discovers the Comedian was known to the world as Edward Blake and that him and the other masked avengers he used to work with might be getting picked off one by one. Rorschach decides to visit his former “colleagues” starting with The Nite Owl II, Dan Dreiberg, an ex-crime fighter who reflects on the glory days and wishes he could get back to busting criminals skulls instead of adhering to the Keane Act which outlaws Masked Vigilantism in the U.S. Rorschach then moves on too Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre II (know to the public as Laurie Jupiter). Manhattan is the only super powered being in this alternative universe where Nixon is still President in 1985 and the Cold War apocalypse is stayed by the fact that Manhattan is an all power god like being working on the behalf of the United States. His companion Laurie Jupiter is a second generation masked vigilante following in her mother Sally’s footsteps who worked with The Comedian when the first group of masked avengers banded together in the 1940’s. The last colleague of Rorschach to inform is Adrian Veidt who Dan Dreiberg takes pleasure in updating as Veidt is one of only two masked vigilantes to reveal there identity to the public, as he was once know as Ozymandias when he was fighting crime; but is now known as the smartest man in the world as well as its wealthiest entrepreneur. Lead by Rorschach’s investigation, a series of events begin to unfold as they try to uncover the mystery of the potential mask killer that leads to far greater circumstances for the fate of the world.
Now, is Watchmen for everyone? I think the answer is easily a resounding no, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t a triumph for those that can get into it. The subject matter itself is a tough cookie to crack for some people as the characters are unknown to the general public, are complete 180’s on the genre’s stereotypes and clichés, and are not the easiest characters to warm up to. Take Rorschach, arguably the truest upholder of justice in this film, is a borderline psychotic that has no problem killing and causing physical harm at any opportunity that presents itself. Or Dr. Manhattan, a super being that doesn’t care about humanity and seems to have forgotten to what it is to be human. And the public’s All-American hero in the film, The Comedian, is the most vile and awful member of Costumed Heroes fraternity. It’s not the easiest subject matter to jump into head first. But with that said, if you are intrigued by the anti-thesis approach of this comic book tale then there is a wonderful world to get lost in. Now, this doesn’t obviously turn a film like Dark Knight on its head, as this is more of a reaction to the golden age of comics’ arc-types as well as some of the kitschier elements of some of the comic book film adaptations in the last ten years.
As an adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, the film also shines as being as faithful as an adaptation to hit the silver screen since Sin City. Like the aforementioned title, the film is like watching the comic book put into motion, straying rarely from the original subject matter and realizing the book to film in as about as accurate detail as one can think is possible. Dr. Manhattan is a wonder, Archie is cooler in motion, and the film even maintains the overlapping story telling to great effect. A couple of missed opportunities to explain a couple bits that will fly over the head of the heads of the non-fans will most definitely come off overly weird to some (Bubastis), but maybe we will get those bits in the extended cut. Fans of the novel shouldn’t be disappointed and if you are going to nitpick to death over the minuet to the squid, just remember that the story works in the end and it sends the same message as well; so come off it.
The filmmaking of this film itself though is an achievement all on its own. Zach Snyder has solidified himself as one of the top directors out there today with this film and I can’t wait to see his mind warped around some original material. The film’s pacing will bother some, but while it eases its way through its deliberate and dense story the film rarely dulls and is constantly interesting. This is not an action film by any means, but when fights and conflict pop up it is done extremely well and can be absolutely brutal from some of the combatants involved. And speaking of brutality, the violent acts in this film that are dotted throughout the picture are punishing and will the flick will make you cringe on a number of occasions. The effects work is also top notch throughout most of the picture, with a couple shots of Manhattan seeming a bit off; but these are made up for by the marvelous work which is more the norm in the picture.
The actors in the film are also solid across the board with a couple of real stand outs. Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan provides his voice, former human self, and performance basis in a blue suit for the CGI character we see. He plays Manhattan with such reserve and calmness, it is not what I imagined when reading, and that ultimately ends up working really well for the character; especially as he spouts off philosophical jargon about science and existence. Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II is good most of the time with a couple of wooden line readings that she more than makes up for with her physical presence in more ways then one. Matthew Goode as Veidt hits the cockiness and tone of the character right on the head and finally gets his moments to shine as the film winds down in the end. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian is a mean son of a bitch and makes you wish he had more screen time in this story then he does. Patrick Wilson is also a lot of fun as the Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II as he complete encompasses exactly what Dan is all about. You can see the longing in his eyes to fight crime again and the fun he is having beat the crap out of bad guys is infectious. Wilson also injects much of the humor in the picture with no attempts really falling short. Lastly is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach who completely becomes the character. To be filled up there with Heath Ledger (The Joker) and Mickey Rourke (Marv) as a just classic comic character turn, his work and material will be the most warmly received by the general audience. The insanity, brutality, and twistedness of the character are perfectly reproduced on the screen and you can’t imagine anyone else possibly playing the character.
In the end, Watchmen is an epic and remarkable achievement for comic book and general cinema. Hovering just below of being in contention for the discussion of best comic book film of all time, Dark Knight and Sin City get my argument, the Watchmen is a film that entrances you on a first viewing and should only grow on further sittings. The film is definitely not for everyone though and it will be interesting to see how the general public is going to perceive this picture as it rolls out into theaters. I think I would recommend reading the novel first as I think it makes the film more enjoyable the first time through, but I also think it will hinder your viewing experience the first time around as you size up the film against the source material; double edged sword. With that said, I can’t wait to see it again, and I can’t wait for the final extended version to arrive in theaters and on Blu-Ray later this year; and eventually with The Black Freighter edited in. A comic book film that demands your attention and is not the popcorn fare you are used to in the genre, it is heady, deep, and a complete 180 on almost any comic film to date. But if you are willing to take the plunge and wrap yourself in the world of Watchmen, then you will find that it is a fine place to be.