"'s Watchmen being allowed to exist as itself on movie screens."

Re-Defining the Comic Book Movie

(031309) In April 1954, a Senate subcommittee held hearings on the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency, giving birth to the Comics Code Authority. For decades, the watchdog organization insured that daring superheroes remained semi-squeaky-clean, despite occasional story lines involving social taboos (drugs, campus unrest). Frank Miller’s skewed 1986 reimagining of Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, took a bold stab at examining moral relativism among costumed vigilantes, but his dystopic debunking was just the first step toward cracking the Code. The real Rosetta stone of superhero revisionism would hit shelves the next year.

This back-story is key to understanding why Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen is so groundbreaking. A dead-serious funny book that permanently turned superhero mythology on its masked head, this 12-issue series deconstructed comics’ good-versus-evil ideology with rigorous psychological realism: Meet the postmodern caped crusader, one who’s sociopathic, sexually dysfunctional, a fascistic government stooge or some combo of all three. Since its publication in 1986 and ’87, Watchmen has become exhibit A for whiz-pow comics as significant literature (it’s included in Time’s list of 100 greatest novels). Meanwhile, film audiences have grown accustomed to seeing pathologically screwed-up überprotagonists strut and fret across screens. If there was ever a time to make a “proper” Watchmen film, it’s now, though Zack Snyder’s claustrophobically faithful attempt proves that such a thing is a losing proposition at best. The philosophically dense, plastic-fantastic Pop Art downer he’s produced, however, is as close as we are apt to get.

Similar to its source material, Watchmen starts off with a bang—or rather, several kapow's and a thud. A beefy man (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) once known as the Comedian tussles with a badass stranger; the rumble ends with the series' iconically creepy image of a smiley face splattered with blood and the former hero being tossed out of his penthouse window. What follows is the movie’s single greatest accomplishment: a credits sequence audaciously set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” that interweaves the film’s alternate universe into a familiar 20th-century landscape. Alfred Eisenstaedt’s legendary Times Square–smooch photo, President Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam and Kent State get thrown into history’s mix tape with our masked avengers. Thanks to them, Richard Nixon has become a domestic dictator. These costumed freaks protect a curdled American way, even if that means ix-naying truth or justice in the process.

It’s a virtuoso introduction to Watchmen’s what-if 1985 world on the brink of nuclear Armageddon, and along with Snyder’s regrettable fetish for slo-mo action sequences (did
300 not get that out of his system?), one of the few times the self-proclaimed “visionary”(!) director gets creative with the material. Fearful of any reaction from a fan base more rabidly protective than a mama lion, Snyder treats the comic as both script and storyboard. The book’s more cinematic flourishes, such as the pullback from that bloody button to the top of a 20-story building, are re-created with such fidelity that the effect is like being stuck in an echo chamber

As the movie unwinds the various narrative strands—a psycho called Rorschach (Haley) tries to figure out who’s killing “masks,” the all-powerful blue-skinned being Dr. Manhattan (Crudup) gets stuck in an existential funk, retired heroes Nite Owl (Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Akerman) go once more unto the breach—Moore’s dialogue is frequently spoken verbatim, with mixed results: Haley’s gravelly mumbling is a good fit for the seriously damaged vigilante, but given Akerman’s readings, one can assume she was hired because of her uncanny resemblance to a Jack Kirby drawing.

Such asphyxiating scrupulousness should keep the Watch-geeks happy, even if they—along with the rest of us—will balk at the odd tonal switches. But what the film rightfully retains, and often nails, is the book’s commitment to seriously digging deep into the psychic debris of these archetypes; not even last year’s The Dark Knight ventured this far into the abyss, which helps make the film’s flaws far more forgivable. Moore and Gibbons brilliantly used the idiom and vocabulary of Silver Age super heroics to critique the medium itself, dragging those perpetually adolescent men-in-tights stories into an artistic adulthood. No matter how lofty its intelli-blockbuster ambitions, Snyder’s admirable take doesn’t quite do the same for superhero movies. It does, however, move the genre’s metaphorical clock hands several clicks closer to maturity.

If nothing else, Zack Snyder's Watchmen demands praise as an awe-inspiring achievement. Snyder has done what many considered impossible - he took Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's seminal comic book, Watchmen, and turned it into a movie. And not just a movie; Snyder hasn't created some processional of images or a living audio book. He's made a film that feels like a living, breathing thing all its own while also being - almost completely - the book. Snyder's Watchmen captures the themes and the meanings and the characters that Moore and Gibbons created but makes them his own, turning the movie from being simply an adaptation into something that feels closer to collaboration.

Had he only done that, Snyder would have earned a positive review from me. But he does more; Snyder had crafted a movie that flirts with honest to God greatness, that doesn't just capture the events of the comic but also the humanity and the emotion. It's an uncompromising film. It's the sort of movie that major studios are simply not supposed to be making now that the 1970s are over. Watchmen doesn't hold your hand and walk you through the story; in fact Snyder's movie dares the audience to keep up, demanding something much, much more than the passive viewing experience so many expect when watching even the best superhero movies. One of the very best compliments that I can make to the film is that I want to see it again. And maybe again. It's a damned good movie, and I suspect an even better one in Director's Cut form, but on theme and storytelling and audacity.

The film's pace is not that of a propulsive action movie, although the film is always moving forward, and even at two hours and forty you can feel where Snyder had to trim the "fat" to keep things going. And that pace, the way that the story and characters unfold in their own time, is part of the power of the film. This is a movie where ideas and emotions take center stage far ahead of action scenes, where the best moments don't feature people hitting and kicking each other but feature characters in conflict with themselves and the world around them.

The best sequence of the film is probably the extended ten minute Dr. Manhattan origin scene; the only legitimately super-powered character in the story. The nigh-omnipotent Dr. Manhattan abandons Earth halfway through the film, retreating to Mars to contemplate what his next move will be. Dr. Manhattan was once a man, but a comic book-y science accident turned him into something approaching God; he experiences the world and reality in ways that we cannot even begin to comprehend, and over the decades he has slowly begun to lose his ability to comprehend us. Coming to Mars, Manhattan remembers his origin and his life, and it's here that the film showcases everything that makes it great. Scored with Philip Glass music, the scene uses strong, vibrant visual storytelling to weave the strands of Manhattan's origin and the history of the Watchmen world's superheroes together while also creating gorgeous tapestries for the viewer. Snyder's every frame is packed with information, ranging from the tiniest details that only obsessive's will note to bigger things that supplement the story in a glance. And over it all is the narration of Billy Crudup, bringing a sense of disconnection as Dr. Manhattan, but not coldness. It's an arresting performance filled with grace and subtlety; on the surface Manhattan believes that he has left behind his human emotion but we can see that it's still there, hidden just under the icy blue exterior of the man who has forgotten how to be a man. And Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have the good sense to allow Alan Moore's original words to be mostly what Crudup speaks; from script to post-production, where the incredible illusion of this atomic man was created (Manhattan isn't simply a blue, glowing guy. There are... things happening inside of him, swirling reactions and hints of other cosmos just beneath his skin, which is still recognizably that of a human being), Snyder has brought together every element in nearly perfect harmony to create a scene that is stirring and moving and awesome, in the most old-fashioned sense of that word.

While Snyder opted for an overly stylized approach to
300 - based on overly stylized material - here he reigns things in, bringing style but not distraction*, making every scene gripping to look at but not putting directorial affectations in front of storytelling. Every moment in the film looks great, but not to the point where you spend the movie marveling over how great it looks.

Crudup isn't the only actor to give an incredible performance. Jackie Earle Haley seems born to play the role of Rorschach; most impressive is the way that he understands the dichotomy of the character, and how he plays him in and out of costume. In costume there's an ease to his physique, and Haley captures the way that Rorschach is both at home in and sickened by the city's diseased underbelly. He hates the pimps and whores and thieves, but he walks among them like he belongs, and it's because without them he would be literally nothing. Violence flows naturally from him, requiring all the effort of an exhalation. When the mask is removed Haley becomes a coiled weapon, a switchblade about to be triggered at all times. A caged, furious animal, he has smoldering hate in his eyes... but behind that a vulnerability. He's naked without that mask, exposed. And Haley finds levels beyond that, especially in Rorschach's 'origin' flashback, when he stops being just a costumed crimefighter and turns into something uglier, more violent. Wearing the mask that utterly obscures his features, Haley sells the change from a hero to a twisted vigilante all in his body language, aided by expressive FX in Rorschach's ever-changing mask. His final scene in the movie is his most powerful, a heart breaking, gut wrenching moment when the actor brings all these pieces together - wounded boy, hero, sociopath - in one truly explosive moment.

It's likely that Haley will get most of the attention - Rorschach tends to hog the spotlight - but the revelation for me was Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian. There are some flaws in Snyder's film and I would say that the biggest is one that comes from the book - The Comedian essentially drops out of the narrative after the first act. In the book it wasn't that big of a deal for me, but the lack of Morgan's presence is intrinsically felt in this movie. He's huge in personality, but never feels over the top. Morgan fills the screen, and The Comedian takes on new aspects for me; there's a roguish charisma that's undeniable, and the dynamic energy of The Comedian - he's the only character who seems to ever really be into what he's doing - is palpable. But since the movie opens with his murder, the structure demands that he eventually disappear. The first act's flashbacks - the dense, information heavy act where we get an info dump on the world of Watchmen - focus mostly on The Comedian, and just like in the book when his funeral is over he moves out of the story, showing up rarely. And it's a shame; if there's any argument for changing the structure of the book it's that losing The Comedian sucks some of the air out of the film for a brief while. For Morgan this is a huge role, one that shows that he has actual movie star quality, even when raping super heroines or shooting pregnant women to death.

There's been negative buzz around Malin Ackerman's performance as Silk Spectre II that I've found more than a little baffling. I don't think Laurie is the strongest character in the book - she's too defined by her relationships with men - but I think that Ackerman does good things with her. On the surface, Ackerman is sensual, almost personally embodying the kink that informs the subtext of all superheroes. But what I like about Ackerman's performance is the way that she plays the power dynamics of her relationships; she begins the film as Dr. Manhattan's girlfriend, a role that is inherently submissive because of his omnipotence. She then moves on to Dan and Ackerman exactly gets the way that Laurie moves into a dominant position, one that represents growing up and out of the shadow of her mother (an old school superhero played by Carla Gugino.) It's subtly played, but it's there. I do think that some elements of the relationship with Silk Spectre I are lost, and the movie's greatest misstep happens in Laurie's story (this is a major spoiler for those who haven't read the book, so swipe to read it: the reveal that The Comedian is her father loses a huge amount of impact due to the fact that a key scene leading up to the reveal - The Comedian trying to talk to Laurie after the aborted Crimebusters meeting - isn't shown until the flashback montage where Laurie figures it all out. This scene needed to be in the movie earlier, and it's played perfectly so that people who don't know the book wouldn't understand what The Comedian is talking about until the final reveal happens, when his dialogue takes on a whole new meaning. I feel like this scene was a victim of the attempt to shorten the running time, and while it will likely be back in the longer cut, its absence undercuts Laurie's whole arc.

Which brings us to the great X-factor: Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, aka: Adrian Veidt. He's been the least seen in promotional clips and commercials, and this character has been the most obviously changed from his comic book incarnation. Ozymandias, the smartest man in the world and a man whose super power would be best described as super-capitalism, is in many ways the linchpin character of the entire story. Goode has bewildered fans with a decision to give Ozymandias a slight German accent; I can report back that the accent isn't overpowering but it does come across as a weird choice that never quite gels. Thankfully it also comes across as an actorly affectation and isn't written into the character's story. That affectation is a mistake, but I think that otherwise Ozymandias is played well. In fact, there is an added scene where Ozy deals with Lee Iaococca and other captains of industry who complain that his attempts to create a free, renewable source of energy is socialism; in theory I thought this scene would be goofy, but in fact it adds an element of heroism to Ozymandias that not even the comic proper did - it's an element you had to gather from reading the text supplements at the end of the graphic novel's chapters to really grasp. And Goode plays it well - he's a man who is arrogant and manipulative but utterly righteous and assured of his own moral rectitude.

But the last character I want to really discuss is the world itself. With Watchmen Zack Snyder has pulled off a feat of world building that feels unparalleled; some people were chomping at the bit for Terry Gilliam's version of this story, and I have to say that this has a Gilliam-esque depth of reality to it. Blade Runner might be another comparison in terms of the completeness of the world. Snyder doesn't drag your eye to things that construct the alternate reality of Watchmen, he instinctively understands where to place them so that they add to the illusion. With one or two exceptions I never felt like things were being shoved into my face, and I know that there's a ton of background elements that I missed my first time through. There's a thoroughness to it all which makes the movie feel like it's happening in a living world, not on a set or on a back lot. You believe that there's an entire alternate 1985 just outside of the camera's viewing range.

The world that is created is minutely faithful to the world of the graphic novel, but as I said, Snyder hasn't simply replicated the book on screen. He's transitioned it for the medium, and this is where some of the controversy will come in. The movie doesn't add fight scenes, but it does amp up the ones that exist. Likewise, the sex scene from the book is in the movie, but it's been brought to a new level. There are some who will point at these changes and loudly proclaim that Snyder doesn't get it; these people are goofs. They prove that he completely gets it. When Watchmen was first published as a serialized story in 1986, Rorschach breaking a finger to get information was shocking. Heroes didn't act like that. Today Jack Bauer breaks a barista's finger to order a latte. We're used to the idea of heroes who go beyond the pale, and we don't even question it anymore. Snyder needed to find a way to make the violence of the film as impactful to us today as the violence of the book was to readers twenty years ago.

The same goes for the sex scene in the Owlship. While the book today seems demure about the act, at the time the idea of seeing superheroes doing it was stunning and boundary breaking. Now the sexuality of these types of characters - and the kinkiness at their heart - is old hat. Snyder makes the sex scene graphic and erotic in a way that few films dare to do anymore, and he brings the fetish to the fore. Ironically I think this one scene does more for old-fashioned kink than the entire Bettie Page movie from a couple of years ago.

There is one huge caveat at the center of all this gushing. I do believe that Watchmen is a singular film, a movie that will be name dropped in twenty years by new directors ('I saw Watchmen and knew that I had to go to film school/make a movie!'). I believe that it is an achievement, a alchemical balancing act that manages to serve the original material while feeling fresh and the product of a director's vision. But it also feels incomplete. There's no doubt that releasing a two hour, forty minute brazenly non-mainstream, resolutely non-commercially minded film like this is an act of bravery on the part of Warner Bros. But to the graphic novel reader there's just enough on the edges of the film to know where the cuts happened, where the forty minutes to be returned in the Director's Cut are. As incredible as the world Snyder created is, it's still missing the small nuances of the two Bernie's at the newsstand; they show up, and they'll be back in the long version, but their relationship being excised here hurts the finale a little bit. Even at this massive size and running time, there's a nagging feeling that you're watching the abridged version.

Still, it's a triumph of abridgment. As the movie itself is a triumph of adaptation. Those who claimed Watchmen was un-filmable may have been right, if you're accepting the usual rules of filmmaking. Zack Snyder hasn't done that, and it makes the film feel outside of the mainstream, fresh, and unique. This isn't Watchmen beaten into submission for movie screens, it's Watchmen being allowed to exist as itself on movie screens. There will be those who are alienated by this, and those who just don't have the ability to keep up for nearly three hours. It's not an easy film, and it's a movie that demands participation. It's a movie that requires digestion; opinions walking out of the theater will not be the same as opinions three days later. Be wary of reviews written in the heat of the moment; a thoughtful person probably wants to approach this movie after having some time to chew on it.

And how amazing is that? A huge budgeted superhero movie that delivers intellectually? That takes serious, ballsy chances with the form? That isn't giving audience what they expect, and is possibly not giving them what they want? Why, that sounds like “art”..

Directed by:    Zack Snyder
Written by:    Alex Tse & David Hayter. Adapted from the DC
 Comics graphic novel of the same name by Alan
 Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Starring:    Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode
Released:    03/06/09 (USA-wide)
Length:    163 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality,
 nudity and language.

WATCHMEN © 2009 Warner Bros. Pictures, Paramount Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2023 Alternate Reality, Inc.

(aka "Old Reviews")