The most revered graphic novel, the greatest superhero story ever told and one of the most long-awaited adaptations in movie history ambles rather than strides onto the big screen as a blockbuster behemoth with hype and expectation which simply can’t be matched when lifted from the pages illustrated by Dave Gibbons and written by the celebrated Alan Moore. While this may well be the best representation of Moore’s work in cinematic form, it’s streamlined form belies much of the depth offered off-screen and comes across as far more trivial than an adaptation of Watchmen deserves to be.
It has been hard to ignore the juggernaught of Watchmen in the weeks leading up to it’s release, but, if you have been keeping your head in the sand and not read the source material, there is every reason to understand why it’s considered by so many comic book fans to be so special. Stepping back from the more entertainment-driven Marvel and DC characters, with Watchmen Moore painted a realistic portrait of masked vigilantes fighting crime and the mindset which goes with them. Set in 1980s America where Richard Nixon has been elected President for a third term, the USA is on the brink of nuclear war with the USSR and masked superhero antics have been outlawed. When one former crime-fighting vigilante, gun-toting cigar lover Edward Blake, AKA The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is murdered, it sparks the other retired adventurers into watching their backs while the lone one on active duty, a masked man known only as Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), goes on the hunt for the killer.
Stepping back from the more entertainment-driven Marvel and DC characters, with Watchmen Moore paints a more realistic portrait of masked vigilantes fighting crime.
If you’ve ever wondered what superhero might be like if they really existed, Watchmen is as close as that reality gets to delving into the twisted personal histories which might occur. The Comedian’s disregard for anyone but himself, seeing everything as an insignificant joke, means he has worked for the government and sold out his morals. Dan Dreiberg, AKA the Batman-esque Night Owl (Patrick Wilson), still meets up for drinks with the original Night Owl Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie) talking over the old times of beating up the bad guys. Genius Adrian Veidt, AKA Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), has used his former secret identity to launch a line of toys as he searches for a source of free energy to fuel the world while Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), the daughter of Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), followed in her mother’s footsteps to become a second Silk Spectre has personal troubles. The one true superhero of Watchmen, the glowing blue Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), is her boyfriend whose godlike powers acquired in an accident in a laboratory means he is becoming increasingly detached from her and the world itself. Nothing is easy for these former celebrated protector’s of society, especially now when they seek each other out for comfort, digging up old feelings and trying to make up for lost time.
A self-confessed fan of the graphic novel, director Zack Snyder’s attempt to repeat the success of 300 with a drastically more challenging story is admirable. Given an 18 certificate, Watchmen is rife with sex and gory violence. It’s a far grittier tale, especially when involving psychopath Rorschach who has a twisted mind to go with his stone-hearted detective work which sees him sneaking around and stealthily despatching his victims. Everything about Watchmen echoes familiar superheroes, most are easy to work out, and Snyder gives each enough screen time to develop fully in the first half of the movie. Elements which made the graphic novels so endearing included documents, journal entries and magazine clippings which built up additional background information about each masked superhero and their perception by the public at large. Admittedly these cannot be replicated even in a near three hour movie, but the snapshot offered here of purely the most relevant action from the past is probably the best course of action given the film’s still long runtime of nearly three hours.
There’s impressive special effects, its noir looks are perfectly in-keeping with the graphic novel artwork and the fighting comes in short, sharp bursts.
For all the good work done in the intricate first half, laying down backstories and building up our much-needed knowledge of Alan Moore’s alternative reality, Snyder struggles to keep the momentum going as he is forced to skimp on details in favour of an overall flavour of things in order to bring a conclusion within a watchable running time. There’s impressive special effects, its noir looks are perfectly in-keeping with the graphic novel artwork and the fighting comes in short, sharp bursts, but the final act in which an unexpected twist brings a truly original conclusion, feels haphazard. Cudrup is excellent as the ponderous Dr Manhattan, though has to give over much of his performance to CGI, Wilson is on-form as the depressed Dreiberg but Jeffery Dean Morgan steals the show as the arrogant Comedian despite being on-screen briefly compared to the main characters. Sadly Akerman makes a dull love interest for Dreiberg and Dr Manhattan to vie for while Earle Haley’s Rorschach is likely to divide fans as his costume and general demeanour have elements which might be considered ill-fitting. Of course, this is to be expected when so many in the audience will be judging the film on merit other than simply what’s on screen, so perhaps I should round off this review with a more general conclusion.
Snyder had a tough job to do with Watchmen: deliver a superhero movie which isn’t really like any superhero movie seen before and ensure it can be sold to a mass audience or risk being ridiculed for wasting 130 million dollars on a graphic novel said to be “unfilmable”. For fans he needed to be close to the source material, for non-fans he needed to make it accessible. As such, he has found a suitable middleground which mixes up superhero action, personal drama and a take on the Cold War. It’s an enjoyable ride, for sure, and the only time he really fouls up is with his choice of popular music to overlay some of the key scenes in the film: the majority are out of place and undermine the sentiments on-screen, making viewing uncomfortable. Nevertheless, Snyder has proved the doubters wrong: Watchmen is slick and proves superhero movies can be intelligent pieces of cinema beyond the glossy adaptations that would be better off discarded in the trash cans of Hollywood executives before even making it to casting.