”I wish I didn’t already know how it’s going to end.” That was the thought that kept going through my head while watching Zack Snyder’s live-action adaptation of “Watchmen”, the limited series comic book that, along with Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” made comic books respectable again. With their landmark graphic novel, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons deconstructed the superhero and made them human – or in some cases, less than human – by offering in lieu of the usual good guys and bad guys in tights, instead psychopaths in masks, sexually dysfunctional has-beens, and a God that could no longer bring himself to care about the going-ons of man, a species he once belonged to. And with his 2009 movie “Watchmen”, Zack Snyder has accomplished the impossible: successfully adapted the comic book that everyone said could not be adapted. Take that, Alan Moore!
“Watchmen” the movie, like “Watchmen” the comic book, is set in an alternate 1980s America, a world where Tricky Dick is still President and the U.S. and Soviets hang on the precipice of mutual nuclear annihilation, with only the superhuman being Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) keeping the wolves at bay. Scientists keep a doomsday clock to mark what everyone believes is the coming nuclear holocaust, and superheroes that do not do the bidding of the U.S. Government have been outlawed. This doesn’t stop the vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), who prowls the streets dealing out justice one broken bone at a time. When Rorschach’s latest case brings him to the murder of one Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the vigilante discovers that the dead man was in fact the alter ego of the government superhero The Comedian. The murder, Rorschach gradually discovers, is part of a larger, grand conspiracy that may just destroy the world.
Running over two and a half hours, “Watchmen” is everything an Origins Movie should be. There is perhaps only 40 minutes of actual plot in the entire film, with the rest made up of origin stories for the individual superhero characters, each one seemingly more screwed up than the last. Some are more fantastical than others (Dr. Manhattan’s accidental birth, as narrated by the world’s only superhuman himself), while others are just ugly in their everyday realness (Rorschach’s). The only character who doesn’t really get much of an origin is Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl, a Batman-type if Batman was obsessed with owls instead of bats. The lack of an origins story for Nite Owl is somehow strangely appropriate, given that the character’s alter ego Dan Dreiberg is perhaps the most normal of the bunch, if you can get past the whole fixation with owls and various other inadequacies. Of course, once Dreiberg dons his owl mask and form-fitting costume, he seems to develop superhuman abilities like everyone else.
At the other end of the superhero spectrum is Rorschach. You won’t find a more twisted superhero from the world of comicdom, but that won’t stop you from rooting for the guy anyway, if only because he seems to be the smallest character in the entire film in terms of abilities, resources, and physical stature, but in many ways he is the strongest of them all. An uncompromising, brutal vigilante bent on cleaning up the cesspool of a city in which he grudgingly resides, Rorschach has no qualms about punching out cops or kicking in doors if it serves his purposes. You’re not supposed to like this guy, but you can’t help but love him. Which is why, as the movie progressed toward its inevitable conclusion, I hated the fact that I already know what awaits our trenchcoat vigilante. Oh, Rorschach, you deserved so much more, alas, alas…
Fans of the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel will get a kick out of “Watchmen’s” opening credit sequence, which features moving “still” shots of the superheroes of the past, including many of the Watchmen when they were younger. The sequence progresses through the decades, revealing the fates of many of the heroes (some retired, but more often than not they met grisly, sad ends) up to the time of the film. Along the way, we glimpse the careers of the first Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), who passes on the tradition to her daughter Laurie (Malin Akerman). It is Laurie’s presence that keeps the last remnants of Dr. Manhattan’s humanity committed to saving mankind from itself, and it is without her that he resigns the world to its fate. There is a noticeable contingent of reviewers who seem to hate the Spectre girls (and the actresses portraying them). I don’t get the hate. Both Akerman and Gugino are just fine in their roles, and Akerman oozes sexuality. Really, what’s not to like?
There are strong performances by all the cast members, including a star making turn by the formerly unknown Jackie Earle Haley, who will no doubt become a household name within a week. Haley’s Rorschach is as strong a character as they come, as frightening in his single-minded pursuit of justice as he is desperately pitiful. Billy Crudup, as the superhuman Dr. Manhattan, is mostly CGI, and though it took a while to get used to Crudup’s voice (I always expected Dr. Manhattan to sound older), as a character who has been detached from his humanity for too long, the lack of emotion in Crudup’s voice work makes sense. The other notable acting work is by Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, quite possibly the vilest so-called “superhero” to ever grace the big screen. Or is he? Maybe he was doing the wrong things for all the right reasons. Or maybe he’s just a sociopath as everyone believed. You never really knew for sure. Morgan does a wonderful job of bringing The Comedian to 3D life, warts and all.
The one character in the movie that I haven’t touched on is Matthew Goode’s Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, the smartest man on Earth. Goode is decent in the role, but lacks gravitas. I’m not sure if the role could have been improved with another actor, or maybe it’s more the fault of the writers than Goode’s. Although Veidt is present throughout the movie, whether it’s through his mega empire (he is apparently the richest man in the world as well), commercials promoting his products, or his work with Dr. Manhattan, he never really made much of an impression on me. He’s just … there. Even a brief assassination attempt on Veidt comes across as disjointed and uninteresting. Then again, maybe that’s the whole idea behind the character – always there, but never really there.
Zack Snyder movies are always visually stimulating affairs, and “Watchmen” is no exception. Snyder, who has been on a slow-motion kick lately starting with “300”, has continued the love affair with “Watchmen”, and as with the previous film, had he shot half of the movie in regular speed he could have shaved 30 minutes off the running time without missing a single scene. Snyder takes full advantage of the film’s “R” rating, throwing in a number of gruesome violence that rivals even those found in “300”. When the superheroes jump into action, the fistfights are bloody and you can feel every bone breaking. Silk Spectre may look like a supermodel, but she’s inclined to take your knife and jam it through your neck. The mild-mannered looking Nite Owl breaks legs and arms with the best of them. Rorschach may be the psycho of the crew, but he’s not the only badass when the chips are down. Needless to say, kids need not apply. “Watchmen” is a gloriously gory, violent, and R-rated beatdown.
Anyone who has scoured the Internet for “Watchmen” news at one point or another has no doubt read about the controversy regarding the ending, which has indeed been altered for the movie. And you know what? This ending works better. Yes, Alan Moore is a genius, and much of the “Watchmen” graphic novel is indeed brilliant, but really, a giant psychic squid? Really, Alan? The absence of a giant squid aside, the intent of the graphic novel’s ending has remained intact, as well as the death of a major character. Overall, fans of the graphic novel not named Alan Moore should love what Snyder has done here. He has crammed 12 issues worth of intricate comic book storytelling into a two and a half hour movie. Is it perfect? Nope. I wouldn’t go that far. But I will say that it’s pretty damn close.
As an introduction to the Watchmen universe, Zack Snyder’s film is a flourishing success. If the film does the kind of business that has been predicted, we may be looking at the birth of a viable franchise. Since “Watchmen” is set in the ‘80s, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to set the sequel in the modern day. The possibilities for more continued adventures of the Watchmen, or perhaps their offspring are unlimited. And hey, I’m sure Alan Moore wouldn’t mind. But even if he did, it’s not as if Hollywood has paid attention before, so why start now? If this thing makes the mint that the experts believe it will, get ready for sequel whispers in the next week or two. You heard it here first, folks: “Watchmen 2: No More Mister Nice Blue Guy.”
Zack Snyder (director) / David Hayter, Alex Tse (screenplay)
CAST: Malin Akerman … Laurie Jupiter / Silk Spectre II
Billy Crudup … Dr. Manhattan / Jon Osterman
Matthew Goode … Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias
Jackie Earle Haley … Walter Kovacs / Rorschach
Jeffrey Dean Morgan … Edward Blake / The Comedian
Patrick Wilson … Dan Dreiberg / Nite Owl II
Carla Gugino … Sally Jupiter / Silk Spectre
Matt Frewer … Edgar Jacobi / Moloch the Mystic