When one has built up totally unrealistic expectations for a movie event, one is generally left disappointed. Especially after years of thinking it would never happen, months of nail-biting anticipation, weeks of saying “Dear God, let this be good,” and days of online hype overload. Especially when that film is the cult-fave WATCHMEN.
As a longtime fan of the original comic book (yes it was a comic long before the term graphic novel was ever coined), my expectations for the film version were astronomically high — impossible to meet. Well, I just saw it on IMAX yesterday and it’s taken that long to catch my breath and process this experience. Although my feelings about the film were cemented when I left the theater … in utter awe! I cannot remember the last time I had such ridiculously high expectations not only met, but BLOWN COMPLETELY AWAY!
Based on the 12-issue DC comic written by Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen was released over 12 months between 1986 and 1987. It has since garnered a fan base as rabid and enthusiastic as any you’ll ever find. It was also recently put on Time Magazine’s list of the Best 100 American Novels since 1923 — not graphic novels, NOVELS. The story IS that good.
Watchmen’s plot in a nutshell:
It’s an alternate universe America where superheroes have been around since the 1940s and have greatly changed our history. A group called The Minutemen helped see us through World War II — they also begat a second generation of masked heroes a few decades later. By 1985 in this alternate universe America, the Cold War is colder than ever, nuclear war seems inevitable, the Doomsday clock has been set for five minutes till midnight, and that second string of heroes has fallen on hard times. President Nixon has been elected for a third term in office … greatly due to the fact that he utilized Dr. Manhattan (more about him soon) to win the Vietnam War early on. Nixon has also outlawed these “masks,” and many of them are now going to seed. These superheroes (some would simply say masked vigilantes) are brave but flawed, often living by an ethically-questionable code. Yes, the Watchmen watch over us, but (say it with me) who watches the Watchmen?
When one of the original Minutemen, The Comedian, is brutally killed in his apartment and thrown out of a high-rise window, masked detective Rorschach immediately suspects that someone is offing masked heroes. He decides to look up his old retired comrades and warn them that they are in danger — while doing so, he uncovers a plot that is bigger, more sinister, and more globally relevant than he ever imagined.
For over 20 years, cinematic versions of this story were greenlit and turned around so many times, it was eventually considered unfilmable. That is, until director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300) came into the picture. Snyder has done the nigh impossible — turned Watchmen into one of the most gripping, entertaining, visually stunning and over-the-top cinematic entertainments I have ever seen. A slavishly faithful adaptation that even at 163 minutes feels like it could easily be longer. (Actually, a 191-minute director’s cut will be coming to DVD later this year, along with a three and a half hour Ultimate Cut that edits in the animated Tales From the Black Freighter comic within the comic.) The film opens with a brilliant montage set to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a Changin’ — telling the back story of The Minutemen (chronicled in the graphic novel as a book called Under The Hood). That opening popped up online this morning, and you can view it by clicking here.
Let’s talk about the cast.
Jackie Earle Haley, the scrawny, befreckled kid from Breaking Away and The Bad News Bears plays Rorschach. He is easily one of the best characters in the film — rivaling even Heath Ledger’s Joker is sheer charisma and menace (and he’s one of the good guys!). When Rorschach is framed for murder and sent to prison alongside dozens of criminals that he helped put away, he gets in an altercation in a cafeteria line where he ends up throwing a vat of hot grease in another convicts face. When the populace goes nuts and Rorschach is carted away by the guards, he cries “You don’t understand — I’m not trapped in here with you. You’re trapped in here with ME!” Chills.
Patrick Wilson plays Dan Drieberg, aka Nite Owl II. Dan has let himself go a bit since retiring, and the impotence he feels since hanging up his costume reaches every part of his life … at least until he puts it back on. Wilson is very good here, imbuing Dan with much pathos.
Malin Akerman is Laurie, aka Silk Spectre II. Convinced to follow in her high-booted footsteps by her mother, the pin-up worthy Silk Spectre I (Carla Gugino), Laurie is torn between her love for Dan and her previous relationship with John Osterman, aka Dr. Manhattan. Despite some overly harsh critics, I thought Akerman was pitch perfect as Laurie — especially when she is in her crime-fighting costume. She lights up the screen whenever she is on it.
Billy Crudup is Jon Osterman, a quantum scientist who, due to a lab experiment, became the godlike Dr. Manhattan. A glowing blue superman whose powers over physics have caused him to lose touch with humanity. He often retreats to Mars to brood. Just like in the comic, Dr. Manhattan rarely wears clothes — and his equipment is often on display for all to see. Crudup wisely underplays the role — his soft-spoken demeanor is a nice contrast to his all-powerfullness.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays The Comedian. Though he isn’t on screen a lot, he commands it when he is — Morgan owns this role as much as Haley owns Rorschach. Yes, The Comedian is despicable (to put it mildly), but the actor still somehow makes us see the character’s inherent sadness and humanity. It also must be noted that Morgan eerily resembles a cross between Javier Bardem and Robert Downey Jr.
Matthew Goode is Adrien Veidt, aka Ozymandias, aka the smartest man in the world. Though he probably receives the least amount of screen time, Goode is … good. Giving his Greek mythology obsessed character a slightly effete grace.
But the real star is director Zack Snyder. Along with Dave Gibbons (whose images from the comic are painstakingly recreated here), and Alan Moore who … well, Moore has disavowed Hollywood and ALL of the previous adaptations of his work. His name doesn’t even appear in the credits, although so much of his dialogue is lifted directly from the book, he might as well have received a sole screenwriting credit. This movie IS the book — the most faithful adaptation from book to screen I’ve ever seen. Yes, the two mediums are apples and oranges, but this is at least a tasty fruit salad of both. Zack Snyder is a visionary genius.
This film has severely divided audiences and critics, evoking either strong love or hate — Rotten Tomatoes currently has it at dismal 65% approval rating. Frankly, I don’t get it’s detractors. At all. Fans of the graphic novel couldn’t ask for a more loving adaptation. As for those who are experiencing the story for the first time — I can’t say for sure, over the years I read that damn thing three times — but it sure seems like Snyder has made this as accessible to the general populace. And yet …
… this IS a dark story. No one will ever say Watchmen is the feel good movie of the year. (Although, I must say it DID make me feel good — like a kid again.) I believe this is a very moral story, that asks very important questions. Yet with it’s violence, gore, frank sexuality, nihilistic themes, plot points involving rape, murder, and child abuse, and a not-so-subtle message that humanity is often not very humane (although we always have the choice to be), this movie, like the comic, may be too hip for the crowd, too smart for the masses. I hope this isn’t true. I hope this turns out to be the blockbuster of the year.
Visually stunning, emotionally satisfying, thought provoking, action packed, and a fanboys wet dream of an adaptation, WATCHMEN is an epic masterpiece. Not only one of the best superhero movies ever made, but … quite possibly one of the best films period. (Yes, I realize how ridiculously high that praise is, but that’s literally how I felt walking out of the theater.) This film is so good, it might even win over Alan Moore — if we could strap him down long enough to watch it.
I can’t wait to see it again — one of the most satisfying moviegoing experiences I’ve had in years.
Bring on that Ultimate Cut!
WATCHMEN theatrical trailer