Movie Review – Watchmen (2009)
by RISHI AGRAWAL
Zack Snyder’s follow-up to the tremendously popular 300 is an adaptation of the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel Watchmen. I think, in this particular instance, it would be helpful to give you some context for this review, because I think that opinions on this film will vary widely based on several factors. First of all, I am definitely on record in this very blog for hating 300. You can go through the archives if you want to know the specifics of my hate, as I don’t want to dwell on the subject. Also, I have read the graphic novel Watchmen and liked it. I would not call myself a fan, but I am an admirer of the original work. Finally, I strive to judge films and books on their own merits, rather than making comparisons. But, for Watchmen, especially since so much of the film is so faithful to the original, it will be difficult to avoid. I will try to talk about the film itself first, and then launch into a discussion of the merits of the film versus the comic.
Watchmen is a deconstruction of the superhero genre. What we are presented with are heroes who have the same flaws and failings as regular human beings, but do this strange thing where they go out in costumes to fight crime. The film takes place in an alternate reality 1985, where Richard Nixon was just elected to his fifth term as president, and costumed heroes have been outlawed. Still, some heroes have not given up the fight and enact vigilante justice on the populace.
The plot starts with the mysterious murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a superhero who has been active for decades. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a hero whose mask looks like constantly shifting inkblots, is convinced that someone is out to get costumed heroes and he wants to know why. Much of the movie has to do with Rorschach’s investigation and interactions with other heroes, as well as the back stories of many of the characters. It should be noted that most of the heroes are powerless except for the glowing blue naked form of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who can literally do just about anything, such as making multiple copies of himself, growing to the size of a giant and teleporting himself and other people anywhere, including Mars.
The film works at showing the heroes with their own vulnerabilities and problems. One of the failings of the superhero genre is that they often present a black-and-white morality where the good guys are good and the bad guys are downright awful. Watchmen does not really present us with heroes and villains, but presents characters with their own agendas. The film really does a good job at making us sympathize with and loathe the characters at different points in the film. The film does present an uncompromising view of this world, and is probably the first R-rated superhero movie.
And the back stories of the characters are well-handled. The narrative can be complicated, with the constant flashbacks, but the film really makes it clear what is happening at any given point. The story unfolds at a brisk pace, and despite the nearly three-hour running time, I was engaged throughout the film. Plus, some of the special effects were extremely well-done, especially Rorschach’s mask and Dr. Manhattan’s glowing skin.
However, though the characterizations and plot are to be admired, the film has some serious flaws. Snyder is in love with his brand of highly-stylized violence with his slow-motion shots and gratuitous close-ups. Although the heroes are not supposed to have powers, Snyder makes them seem superhuman. It is almost as if the action sequences are there to please the people who just wanted to watch a superhero movie and did not care about the overall message of the film.
The film never really evokes the feeling of the Cold War and the 1980s. The film does show vintage newscasts and music videos from the era and features cameos from people who look a lot like famous 1980s figures, including one by an actor who looks remarkably like Lee Iacocca. But there is nothing in the set design or art direction that makes us feel that we are in a living breathing world. Towards the end of the film, a character logs on to a computer, and I was actually surprised to see such an old machine as I had forgotten about the setting, which never came to life for me.
Unfortunately, one thing that does remind me of the 1980s is the awkward scenes between Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), which seem like a bad 1980s romantic comedy. I am not sure if the scenes were supposed to be uncomfortable and cheesy, but it still felt incongruous with the rest of the film. And some of the acting was extremely flat. The standout of the film is, of course, Haley, who really showed the craziness of Rorschach without overdoing it. However, if actors like Akerman and Matthew Goode, who plays Ozymandias, were told to do anything other than stand there and look pretty, then they failed.
The soundtrack is especially horrendous in this film. Although the film does play some great songs – classic songs from the history of rock and roll, the film frequently picks the absolutely most obvious song and uses it in the most obvious way possible. For example, for a history montage at the beginning of the film, we hear Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” and we hear Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” during a funeral.
I said that I would make a note of some of the differences between the comic and the movie towards the end of this review. The film is extremely faithful to the original and we can see that many of scenes were directly lifted from the panels of the graphic novel. It was great to see some of the comic’s scenes rendered so faithfully, but occasionally, this worked to the film’s detriment, as it felt as though Snyder, other than the aforementioned stylized violence, didn’t put much of a stamp on the film – as if nothing existed between the comic book panels, giving the entire film a fairly static feel. In much of the film, I felt like I was playing “spot the differences” rather than actually being engaged by the film.
One of the most significant changes is the ending, and I don’t intend to spoil either the movie or the comic in case you want to visit either one. But, I actually think the film ending works well. The ending to the comic is somewhat hokey, and it would have seemed utterly ridiculous on film. I think the film ending preserves the moral complexity of the original ending without being over the top.
In the end, most importantly, I admire the fact that Snyder did not compromise on Moore and Gibbons’ original vision of Watchmen. (Which is why it is especially ironic that Moore derided the film without ever watching it.) The graphic novel is dark and difficult and questions a lot of the assumptions we have about comic books and superheroes as well as reaching out towards larger themes such as violence in our society and the uneasy relationship of politics and peace. And although the message is filtered, it still comes through. I am not sure if another director, who aimed at a more commercial product, would have gotten the same message through. Terry Gilliam proposed to make the film a dark comedy and other directors wanted to update the film to the present day and comment on the war in Iraq. I think the ideas in this film would have been completely lost with those interpretations. So Snyder’s product may not be perfect, but I can’t imagine that it would not be better than any of the alternatives. What Snyder has provided is not the best film that could be made, but perhaps the best Watchmen film that could be made.