Who Watches The Watchmen? I Do
Now we’ve reached the third film in my series of Zack Snyder’s reviews (leading up to “Batman V Superman). That third film is the divisive “Watchmen” film adaptation. Based off the groundbreaking and perhaps most critically acclaimed graphic novel off time, created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, this was a film long in development; nearly 20 years. The graphic novel is complex and a very difficult book to adapt. Many filmmakers tried their hand at adapting the novel. But, none of them succeed. It was said this book was un-filmable. I say all this to really put in perspective how difficult and long of task it’s been to get this book onto the screen. After Snyder’s very successful adaptation of Frank Miller’s “300” he was given the task of adapting the novel.
When this film came out it was certainly met with a love it or hate it mentality. I think it’s also important to note that my first exposure to the story was the movie and not the comic book. I didn’t go in with the knowledge of the events of the book or any preconceived notions. I’ve always wanted to read the comic but I just hadn’t gotten around to it. When I first viewed the film I was quite honestly blown away. My subsequent (and viewings of the other two cuts of the movie) only deepened my appreciation for the film. This movie isn’t for everyone and demands your full attention and even possibly multiple viewings. But, I find this to be Zack Snyder’s near masterpiece work.
It’s difficult to sum up the plot of “Watchmen” but it takes place in an alternate 1985. Term limits have been repealed and Richard Nixon is still President of the United States; the US won the Vietnam war and two generations of superheroes have left their mark on the America’s history. The most recent group, The Watchmen ,have been outlawed by the Keane Act and have since gone into hiding. But when one of the members is murdered, the group become entangled in a great conspiracy that could be related to the growing threat of nuclear war between The US and Soviet Union.
There is far more underneath the surface going on in this movie. While the main narrative arc is always felt it never feels afraid to divert away to the many other subplots. This is a character piece and the movie is very focused on its characters. The movie’s plot is dense but not convoluted. You really do have to pay attention and if you’re not willing to give it your full attention then it’s best you wait to watch the movie when you can. There is much to unravel and the movie bravely and confidently jumps between different time periods with important character flashbacks. Much of the backs story of this new America is handled within the opening credits (which is easily one of the best uses of the opening credits in film history). The great thing about this movie is how it opens with a simple plot thread and as the running time progresses it keep unveiling more and more layers.
Now that I have read the comic book (and own a very nice hardcover edition that sits on my bookshelf next to “The Dark Knight Returns” and “The Killing Joke”) I can speak to the faithfulness to the original novel. It’s shocking how close Snyder and his team of filmmakers get the books. There are a few things changed or omitted but for the most part this is at times a direct translation of the comic to the screen. Like “300” Snyder recreates entire panels for the movie. This a big transition from previous Alan Moore adaptations, which were all previously pretty unfaithful. Even “V For Vendetta” (which is a film I really like) wasn’t this well followed. I don’t think you need to translate the movie note for note from the comic because that doesn’t always serve the best interests of the movie. Snyder understands this by changing the parts that he needs to change. The ending is of course the biggest difference. The outcome and spirit of the novel is still there but it has a different way of telling it.
Snyder’s direction is one of maturity. While I think he sometimes overuses the slow motion action (that wowed us in “300”) his action sequences are fantastically put together and his visual style is absolutely gorgeous. I think by now he established himself as brilliant visual director and “Watchmen” is in many ways better looking than “300”. Unlike “300” though Snyder has to be able to direct smaller character moments. And, I think he shows the capacity to do that here. When he needs to pull back and be more intimate he is able to do that. This is a huge film and it relishes on its visuals but isn’t reliant upon them. A movie like Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” (I know a little different type of movie, stay with me here) deals so much in excess of visual filmmaking. There are grand green screen special effects just like “Watchmen” present throughout the film. But, it isn’t always able to pull itself down and focus on characters. “Watchmen” could have easily fallen into that too.
He also pieces together a great soundtrack. It may seem like an odd thing to point but let me explain. So many film soundtracks are just the latest pop songs to sound catchy. Here Snyder uses the soundtrack in a way that is very reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick would use the music and soundtracks to set tone, establish setting and juxtapose. Here Snyder uses it in a very similar fashion. When I hear popular songs (whether it’d be old or new) it can very easily take me out of the movie but instead here it just locks me in even further.
With such a large movie there comes with it a large cast of actors and characters involved. The Watchmen is made up of 6 vigilantes. Most of them represent a comic book cliché. The movie attempts to deconstruct the superhero archetypes. We have Rorschach, the Comedian, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, Nite-Owl, and Dr. Manhattan. Jackie Earle Haley is easily the standout as the vigilante Rorschach (whose mask shifting effect is so brilliantly realized on screen). His deep growling voice will remind you a bit of Christian Bale’s Batman but also comes off a bit Clint Eastwood-ish. Standing right next to him is the performance of Jeffery Dean Morgan as the Comedian. The Comedian is a harder role to pull off because of how much range the character requires of you. He isn’t a “nice guy” despite his superhero name or even the fact that he is a superhero. Morgan expertly navigates these emotional waters into a surprisingly memorable performance.
Billy Crudup plays Dr. Manhattan. The only member of the Watchmen that has powers but it’d be more accurate to call him a god. Coup plays the emotionally distant being well. Patrick Wilson is really good as Nite-Owl (II) while Matthew Goode’s performance doesn’t reflect the book’s version of Ozymandias but he works for the film version. Of the cast of Watchmen Malin Akerman is the weakest as the second Silk Spectre. While she is far from bad (and I would say she is solid in the role) she has a tendency to stumble over lines and come across as a little whiny. It’s forgiven when she hits the big emotional moments (like a powerful scene that takes place on a different planet). But, of the cast she is the weakest.
Now (like my “Daredevil” review) we have to talk about the different versions of the movie. There is the 162 minute long Theatrical Cut of the film, the 182 minute long Director’s Cut and the 215 minute long Ultimate Cut. For a first time viewing the Theatrical Cut is an incredible movie in its own right however I think the Director’s Cut is the best version of the movie. There is more added “meat” to the story that really fleshes out characters more (including another pivotal emotional moment). I think for film fans or even regular film goers the director’s cut is the version to see (but you can’t go wrong with the Theatrical Cut either).
However if you love the movie and you love the novel, the Ultimate Cut is an awesome experience. This adds in a big subplot that was in the original comic and was then omitted from the previous two versions. That subplot would be the infamous “Black Freighter” storyline. This little side plot is where a teenager reads a comic book at a newsstand. In the original book, it cuts away from the current story and showcases “the comic within the comic”. The Ultimate Cut includes these segments with some surprising well done animation with Gerald Butler filling in the voice acting duty. I think the Ultimate Cut is good for a second or third viewing of the movie; it’s worth checking out.
“Watchmen”, to me, is not just a seminal work in literature but also in the comic book film genre. This movie shows just how mature, thoughtful and well made a film from that genre can be. After “The Dark Knight” this is my next favorite comic book film period, and shows Zack Snyder at the top of his game. The movie isn’t quite perfect but it’s pretty close to it. “Watchmen” was far from a box office success upon its release. But, hopefully it will continue to gain a following as the years continue. This deserves it.