Movie Review - 'Watchmen' Worth the Wait
by Simon Blaire
Date: 26 February 2009 Time: 11:34 AM ET
It’s here. Finally.The comic book movie to end all comic book movies has arrived. Watchmen brings with it a heavy load filled with years of aborted attempts, sky-high expectations, questions, controversies, and lawsuits. And you know what? The film is good. Really, really good. In fact, Watchmen skirts the edges of greatness, occasionally taking a peek over at unexplored cinematic terrain. Director Zack Snyder has accomplished what most studio executives, industry observers, and fanboys didn’t think was possible: adapt the unadaptable comic book.
[Enough of this revisionist ‘graphic novel’ stuff. Watchmen debuted as a comic mini-series; a comic book it shall remain in this review.] Will it generate controversy? Absolutely. There are major changes and omissions that will irk longtime fans. And for newbies, the fact that the movie is more a character study and dissection of superheroes instead of an FX-heavy action epic may be too much to handle. **SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS IMPORTANT PLOT DETAILS. STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED** The time is 1985, in a Bizarro World America where the Cold War still rages, Nixon is President, and the U.S. is on the brink of nuclear Armageddon with Russia. Masked heroes have been outlawed, thanks to the Keene Act of ’77. Now, one of those old, near-forgotten heroes is dead. Rorschach, the only one still plying his craft, believes someone’s out to kill all the heroes. As in the comic, the death of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is the lynchpin to the story. Edward Blake is a tortured soul, corrupted by his own acceptance of society’s biggest weakness and by the immense secret that leads to his death. He’s also a twisted human being who shoots pregnant women, assaults defenseless protesters, and tries to rape his female partners. The fact that the guy who plays Deathbed Denny on Grey’s Anatomy is playing such a repulsive character – and playing it so well -- only enhances the joke The Comedian kept to himself. Soon, the sociopathic Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) pays a visit to his old teammates to warn them a Cape Killer is out there. He finds Dan Dreiberg, AKA Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), a sad remnant of his old self. One of Snyder’s many direct nods to the original comic book includes a recreation of the half-splash in issue #1 where Dan sits with regret, in front of his Owl suit, now just a relic in his own private museum. “Do you ever miss it,” the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason, asks Dan during one of their beer nights. “Heck no,” Dreiberg responds, without an ounce of conviction behind those words. Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), is isolated by the immense responsibility he carries as the world’s smartest – not to mention richest - man. Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) is depressed because she’s devoted her life to a man who is the living embodiment of atomic energy. Jon Osterman, better known as Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), can jump to Mars in the blink of an eye and is the ultimate peacekeeper in the who-blinks-first? Cold War, but he is losing interest in the human race by the second. How can you blame him? The world of Watchmen is Gotham dark, without a Dark Knight offering salvation. From the grime of the street to the graffiti on the walls (I enjoyed playing spot the G for Dave Gibbons), this is a New York that is at once familiar and yet unnerving. The cast members, with one notable exception, give strong efforts here. Morgan toes the line between cartoonish villainy and psychotic behavior skillfully as The Comedian. It’s a character that is next to impossible to feel sympathy for, but Morgan manages to make you feel sorry for him. Carla Gugino plays the first Silk Spectre like the old homecoming queen, who has never come to grips with the fact that her best days ended with graduation. She makes the most of her limited screen time, especially in her scenes with her daughter. Speaking of which, as the younger Spectre, Malin Akerman is too young to capture the weariness and bitterness Laurie had in the comic. Instead she’s frustrated and sad. Akerman, who’s mainly been cast in romantic comedies until now, didn’t seem comfortable in her scenes with Dr. Manhattan. But she comes alive in the role when Laurie reconnects with Dan Dreiberg. These are two lonely people, drawn together by their past and their inability to let go of their respective costumes. As the retired Nite Owl II, Patrick Wilson uses his experience in playing characters with scarred pasts (think Little Children and Hard Candy) to really capture Dan’s despair. Wilson’s matinee idol looks disappear behind the slumped shoulders, dorky glasses and the gut of a retired athlete he carries around. Just as he is in the book, Dan Dreiberg is the closest thing to a true hero in the movie. You cheer for him, you want him to put that Owl suit on because you know, he knows, he needs it to be whole again. Dan and Laurie may be the heart of the story, but Rorschach is its soul. And it’s truly incredible what Jackie Earle Haley does in this role. He practically gives two performances, one with the mask on, using primarily his voice. Then, after he’s arrested and he loses his mask, his face becomes his instrument of expression. I always thought this would be the most difficult role to cast because Rorschach’s a lunatic, a vigilante whose disgust for society and its trappings is worn on his sleeve. Not even his old teammates feel comfortable around him. But when he details to the prison shrink the case that made him realize he was ‘too soft’ on criminals, it all becomes crystal clear. [this scene, where Rorschach delivers his own brand of justice to a child killer, is hands down the most disturbing scene in the film.] Haley manages to humanize Rorschach, which is even more impressive considering he’s doing it beneath a mask. More than any other character in the film, Rorschach embodies the fine line between heroism and insanity explored in the comic. How much of society’s dark side can a man see, before he gives up trying to save it? While comic book movies are known as an actor’s automatic ticket to box office glory these days, Billy Crudup’s agent probably wishes he would have picked the character that wasn’t completely CGI for all but about four minutes of screen time. It takes awhile to get used to Dr. Manhattan’s disconcerting look and the off-putting voice. The digital effects were painfully obvious in some of his earlier scenes. Once he goes to Mars, it all comes together. How does a man handle becoming a God? That’s the central question behind the character of Jon Osterman, and Crudup does great work vocalizing Jon’s conflict. Then again, he is the Mastercard guy, so he has lots of practice at the voiceover stuff. The weak link in the cast is Matthew Goode, who seemed overmatched as Ozymandias. You don’t buy it when he strong-arms some of America’s top corporate leaders into falling in line with his plans. It feels like a line read. In the comic, Adrian Veidt is supremely confident. Goode never makes you believe he is who he’s supposed to be. Judging from the abbreviated screen time he has here, perhaps Snyder realized that in the edit room. The violence in the comic book isn’t glossed over here. From the last fight of The Comedian’s life to the moment in the alley where Dan and Laurie find their spark, trashing a gang of thugs, Snyder makes you wince with each shattered arm, each kick to the face. His trademark slow motion editing is on full display here. Snyder's is a well-earned R rating. Not just with the violence but with the sex. Osterman’s attempt to satisfy Laurie and get some work done at the same time is kinky and funny. And the scene in the Owl ship when Dan and Laurie finally get it on is pure passion. The song playing during their coupling, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, is a brilliant choice. Not all the songs work as well. Snyder said he wanted a soundtrack that would create a false sense of nostalgia, to help thrust people into this familiar-but-not-quite reality. It works best during the opening credits with Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin” and also during the mid-70s riot scene. KC & The Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man” takes on an entirely new meaning as we see The Comedian unleash hell on protesters. Others were too obvious, such as “The Sounds of Silence” and Nena’s “99 Luftballoons.” And as great a cover as My Chemical Romance’s version of “Desolation Row” is, it deserved a better slot than over the end credits. Snyder’s biggest misstep involves the basic thrust of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's original comic book. At its core, it was a murder mystery entangled within a much larger conspiracy. But that angle is back-burnered barely midway through the 2 hours, 36 minute movie. For those who know the story, the pedestrian nature in which the plot unfolds will frustrate them. For those who haven’t read the comic, they’ll be asking, ‘Wait, what just happened?’ That’s always been the problem with bringing Watchmen to the multiplex. There is simply no way to do it without cutting something out. So what else didn’t make it besides the ‘Black Freighter’ story thread (coming soon to DVD)? Hollis Mason. The retired hero and author of “Under the Hood” makes a quick appearance early during beer night with Dan and is never seen/heard from again. We do see his book on his desk in the background, though. Aside from a few quick shots, the grumpy newsstand owner and the comic obsessed kid are out too. Now, about the squid. Just about anyone interested in this movie knows the ending has been changed. I’m usually a purist when it comes to adaptations. I believe the fact that you want to make a movie about a specific work means that it was pretty darned good to begin with, or else no one would want to adapt it. But while Snyder may have stumbled in regards to de-emphasizing the mystery element of the story, he was on-target here. Essentially, Dr. Manhattan has replaced the squid as Veidt’s pawn. Veidt cons Dr. Manhattan into helping him create free energy for the entire world. But what he really did was replicate Jon’s powers, giving him the means to wipe out 15 million people. When the bombs, carrying Jon’s unique energy signatures, go off and cause massive devastation, The U.S. and the Russians determine that America’s Superman has gone off the reservation. The two superpowers decide that humanity needs to stop fighting itself and unite against this common threat. Is it perfect? No, but how quickly would an artificially-created squid that unleashes a devastating psychic attack on mankind jar non-comic fans out of the moment? In a movie where only one of the heroes is actually ‘super,’ doesn’t it make more sense that those super powers would be used to send the ultimate wake-up call to humanity?? Ultimately, the impact of the ending is the same, only the method is changed. The moral dilemma raised by the original ending – do the ends justify the means, and should they? – are still there. Not even Snyder though, could figure out a solution to the exposition-heavy climax where Adrian’s plan comes to light and he is revealed as the puppet master behind the conspiracy. Even adding action elements to the showdown between Nite Owl, Rorschach, and their old teammate doesn’t completely solve this and the result is that the ending feels a bit…flat. Even a movie with a 156 minute running time doesn't have room to address all the questions raised in Moore and Gibbons’ opus. The core of the story remains, however, and the angry, decaying world they created is on full display here. I can’t imagine how this film would have turned out if the studio heads who wanted the movie set in the present-day instead of 1985 had won the argument. The mood of the time is arguably more powerful now thanks to the current nature of real-world events, and the perspective nearly 25 years provides. Now, how all this will play to the non-fans lured in by the TV ads depicting a giant man vaporizing the Viet Cong, remains to be seen. Snyder works hard to make the film accessible to non-fans, and he ably brings across the original story’s conceit about the inherent ridiculousness of a grown man running around in spandex and a mask. But ultimately, how do you get people to buy into a deconstruction of the superhero myth, if they weren’t into superheroes in the first place? Nothing about Watchmen is easy. Not even reviewing the film. Judging a movie on its own merits, after all, is quite daunting when you’re so familiar with the story it’s based on. There is also the matter of the overwhelming detail in the movie that almost demands a second viewing, just to take it all in. Could it have been better? Of course. But given the daunting task he faced, what Zack Snyder has brought together and delivered to the screen is a marvel of visual and emotional resonance. Where does it rank among other comic book adaptations? Let the arguing begin.