Watchmen (2009) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated: R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language
Running time: 162 min.
Cast: Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer, Stephen McHattie
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: David Hayter, Alex Tse (based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons)
Review published March 30, 2009
The film version of what many consider to be the apex of creative superhero comic book writing finally gets made, after nearly a decade of starts and stops, most notably by the likes of visionaries like Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky. Alan Moore's "Watchmen," which currently exists in a best-selling graphic novel format, is considered to be a dense (for a comic) work that is virtually unfilmable (or, at least, Moore thought so.) It's a difficult sell to adhere to the original and still capture the subtle essence of the inspired work, while also drawing in a sizable enough audience to recoup the expense it takes to bring a superhero epic to life. It has finally come to life, at least in terms of seeing the silver screen, with director Zack Snyder at the helm.
The original comic is contemporary in that it is set in the times in which it was released, the mid-1980s. However, it isn't the 1980s as we all know it, but rather, an alternate universe that supposes what Earth might have been like if superheroes had actually existed starting from about the time they began to exist in comic books onward. The Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union is at its peak, and Richard Nixon (the make-up, especially on the aged Nixon is one of the film's weakest aspects) is the US President for a fifth term (after a repeal of the 22nd Amendment), able to secure the position through his utilization of costumed superheroes to do the government's dirty work in world affairs. The traditional costumed crime fighter vigilante has been outlawed.
In these times, in New York City, one of the retired superheroes, The Comedian (Morgan, The Accidental Husband), has been savagely killed. A former crony, a masked vigilante known only as Rorschach (Haley, Semi-Pro), has stumbled onto a nefarious plan to eliminate those of his kind. Rorschach's continuing investigation has him reuniting some of his old colleagues, the nearly omnipotent Dr. Manhattan (Crudup, The Good Shepherd), gadget-guy Night Owl II (Wilson, Running with Scissors) and the ultra-agile Silk Spectre II (Akerman, 27 Dresses), collectively known as the super-team, The Watchmen, to protect themselves before they are exterminated. Another former teammate, Ozymandias (Goode, The Lookout), the world's smartest man, has been seeing his vision of world unity and peace crumble despite the masked superhero presence, and has vowed to try to put and end to it once and for all.
Director Zack Snyder garnered a cultish fan base by essentially copycatting Frank Miller's vision for his mega-hit 300, and has repeated the technique by trying to emulate "Watchmen" artist Dave Gibbons' frames in Moore's opus. This goes a long way tin capturing the look and feel of the comic it derives from, and while it is an adequate Cliff Notes version of its print counterpart, what doesn't translate so well is the heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears put into every page by Moore and Gibbons. Essentially, Watchmen is just Snyder packaging a comic into cinematic form from a visual standpoint, while screenwriters Hayter (X-Men, X2) and Tse do the best they can to dumb down Moore's concepts to keep mass audiences from becoming lost, while still retaining enough intelligence to keep it all together from a plot standpoint.
As a longtime fan of Alan Moore, a writer I consider to be the finest in his chosen narrative profession working in mainstream comics today, and of "Watchmen" in particular, I'm of two minds regarding the film adaptation. On the positive side, it is a relatively faithful adaptation, capturing the breadth and scope of the work, and, at the very least, it probably will entertain and engage audiences who've never read, and perhaps who've never heard of, the comic it is based on. Snyder is a flashy director who knows how to make action exciting visually, and certainly paints a pretty picture of the look derived from Gibbons' static images in a fluid form.
"Watchmen" is a seminal comic book because it came out at a time when superhero comic books were very pat in terms of complexity, and most of them had little commentary on the politics and philosophical thinking of the times in which they were created. At the time of its release, it Moore's vision was a singular one, and though it wasn't a roaring success, its influence has only grown over time, to the point where the greatest minds in comics point to that book as opening their eyes to the possibilities that the medium of comics can provide. While other superhero comics dealt with human character flaws that were lessened by the choice to become a superhero (Peter Parker's wimpy nature was negated by Spider-Man's presence, etc.), the "Watchmen" gave us a vision that those with superpowers would have their character flaws heightened exponentially along with their powers. A social misfit like The Comedian would therefore exhibit brutal sociopathic tendencies, mostly because his sense of morality is subverted by the amoral deeds he performs in the line of duty for his country.
The real impediment to greatness with Watchmen, as a movie, is that no matter how faithful the creative minds behind the film adhere to the vision as laid out by the comic, Snyder's movie will never be to the world of cinema what Moore's graphic novel is to the world of comics. There is little, if anything, about the movie that breaks any new ground in its medium. It's a good looking film, and entertaining, with quality special effects, well-shot action, and some nifty twists along the way, but at the end of it, film buffs aren't likely to think, "Wow! That really is the greatest story ever told in the history of film!" In fact, even if it holds up well when compared to other superhero films, it is still overshadowed by The Dark Knight in complexity and political relevance to today's audiences, and Iron Man for sheer entertainment and exciting action. There's not going to be a movement in cinema lasting decades that has filmmakers pointing to this film as the one that started it all.
The only way to really make a work of art out of a work of art is to have a true visionary calling the shots who can take the gist of the themes of the original work and then translate what was daring in the world of comics to that which is daring in the world of film. Perhaps Aronofsky could have done this, and perhaps Terry Gilliam, if given the budget and freedom. Zack Snyder, though the movie posters proclaim him a visionary for his work on 300, is only adept at taking how a comic looks and translating it into film, and then upping the depictions of violence to pornographic levels. He gets the small things right, so right in every intricate detail, that he misses out on the larger picture -- the subtler themes, the relevance, the political implications, and the poignancy.
Curiously, Watchmen is so very much a translation of the graphic novel to film adaptation that it to say it is a work of art would be akin to calling an abridged audio book reading of a great literary work the same. While you can appreciate the technical presentation, from the reading to any sound effects and music to enhance the experience, you always know that the real genius behind the piece are delivered through the words and ideas of the original author.
I'm recommending Watchmen as a quality superhero movie that delivers good action, intrigue, special effects, and gusto. It is also a faithful adaptation in terms of capturing the look and feel of the source material, and about as close as a film might get to translating comic to screen. However, for those fans of Moore's masterwork looking to point to this film as the greatest superhero story ever told, it won't suffice -- it's not this generation's Blade Runner. The real, enduring meaning and philosophical resonance of "Watchmen," as originally conceived by Moore and Gibbons, is forever doomed to be lost in translation.
©2009 Vince Leo