Time magazine listed Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present, and called it “a work of ruthless psychological realism. It’s a landmark in the graphic novel medium. It would be a masterpiece in any.” And this publication isn’t alone. Numerous critics have hailed it as “peerless” and “brilliant.” It probably isn’t too surprising then that “Watchmen,” which was released by DC Comics between 1986 and 1987 in 12 installments, soon attracted Hollywood’s attention.
Terry Gilliam was probably the first to publicly declare his interest in bringing it to a movie theater near you, and the director maintained that interest until just a few years ago. Other names have been attached to the project, including Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass, and even Michael Bay. Actors, too, became attached and when nothing came to fruition they pursued other interests. Some of the many rumored actors “in talks” for “Watchmen” include Simon Pegg, Robin Williams, and Thomas Jane. In the end, “Watchmen” was deemed “unfilmable.” That is until Zach Snyder stepped in, and what seemed impossible suddenly became a reality.
“Watchmen” begins with the murder of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a cigar-chomping and trigger happy crime fighter known as The Comedian. Who killed him? Walter Kovacs a.k.a. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is the only one, at least initially, of the city’s masked avengers who is tenacious enough to found out. The other members of the Comedian’s “gang,” called the Minutemen, are either dead; old and retired, such as Sally Jupiter a.k.a. Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) and Hollis Mason a.k.a. Nite Owl (Stephen McHattie), or, because costumed heroes have been outlawed, are pursuing other lines of work. These include Jon Osterman a.k.a. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a physicist; Laurie Jupiter a.k.a. Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), his assistant and girlfriend; Adrian Veidt a.k.a. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a wealthy entrepreneur; and Dan Dreiberg a.k.a. Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), an inventor.
But “Watchmen” is more than just a whodunit. Set in 1985, against the background of the Cold War and the escalating threat of a nuclear attack, the film is also a work of socio-political exploration with some grander philosophical discussions of human nature and the nature of God thrown in for good measure. With a running time of nearly three hours, “Watchmen” covers a lot of territory, and it does so in a stylishly brutal, very brutal, way. (This is a hard R rating, and it isn’t recommended that children younger than 18 see it.)
Rorschach provides the narration, and he’s about as antisocial and misanthropic as you can get. His first lines, lifted straight from the graphic novel, are “dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘save us!’ And I’ll look down and whisper ‘no.’” Rorschach, as we learn from flashbacks, was a neglected and bullied boy who grew up to be a hate-filled, vicious psychopath. But he’s no more offensive or objectionable than The Comedian, who has no qualms about beating up and raping women. And yet, I found myself embracing these often off-putting social deviants, and for 163 minutes was kept spellbound by their lives and actions.
Part of the credit goes to Moore, who, in his usual fashion, has washed his hand of the project, and to screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse; the other part goes to Snyder and his fantastic cast. Snyder certainly has his haters, but I’m not one of them. I really liked “Dawn of the Dead” and loved “300” so much that after I saw it, I wanted to see it again. I felt the same way once “Watchmen” ended. This weekend, I’m taking the stylishly dark and psychotic Mary-go-round for another spin.
It’s difficult to pinpoint why I had such a visceral reaction to “Watchmen.” I’m not a comic book “nerd,” for lack of a better term, and have never read the comic. In fact, before seeing the film, I knew very little about the storyline other than it was about “anti-superheroes.” Furthermore, it was only 30 minutes before the film started that I learned how long we were going to be sitting in our seats. I immediately got a sick feeling, because long movies are not my thing. But this was different. So what was it that made me an instant and rabid fan? First off, it might be its setting. I am old enough to have lived through the 1980s, and the film brilliantly captures the ever present fear of a nuclear holocaust. Even if you didn’t watch the news, TV shows, such as “The Day After” (1983), films like “The Quiet Earth” (1985) and “Night of the Comet” (1984), and even popular music by such artists as Nik Kershaw (“I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”) and Sting (“Russians”) reminded you that you were going to die and soon. Apparently when Darren Aronofsky was in talks about helming the film, he felt it was too dated, and wanted to set it 20 years later. The studio rejected his idea, and he moved on. I love Aronofsky, but he would have made a very different, and not necessarily better, film.
Second, I liked the fact that this was a different kind of “superhero” film. The masked avengers don’t fight any villains, and it’s seldom that they do anything heroic. Other than one scene, we really don’t see them saving anyone. This isn’t the squeaky clean antics of a “Spider-Man” or “Superman.” It’s an exploration of why these “heroes” donned their masks. For some, it gave them purpose; for others, it was a way to exact revenge in the form of “justice;” and for others still, it was a power trip. In some ways, “Watchmen” is more like a Batman film as reimagined by Christopher Nolan, but the former is much darker and more disturbing. Rorschach makes the Joker look like a pussy cat. And, even though I’m preparing for the backlash, I would say that Haley’s performance topples Heath Ledger’s. If anyone deserves an Oscar, it’s Haley for this rat-like creature.
And while I’m inciting a riot, I’ll say that despite the fact that everyone went hoarse praising “The Dark Knight,” I found it lacking. “Watchmen” is what I wanted “The Dark Knight” to be. In addition to Rorschach, the other character I fell in love with was Dr. Manhattan. The product of an experiment gone horribly wrong, he can teleport himself and other objects, grow to enormous size, duplicate himself, and see beyond concepts of space and time. A bald Crudup spends much of the film naked, painted blue and glowing. With his character, we get to consider the fact that if a superhero is really super, why would he even bother caring about the rest of us? How could he even relate to us and our petty concerns?
Third, with this film Snyder demonstrates his amazing talent as a director. The title sequence is nothing short of brilliant. In a five or so minute period, he takes us from the 1940s to the 1980s without a single word being uttered. He does this by finding the quintessential images and iconic persons from those eras, and he places his costumed characters within those frames. If you know your history, you will marvel at the ingenuity of the sequence. The fights, too, are artistically shot in very much the same way they were in “300.” But whereas “300” was relatively bloodless – at least it seemed that way to me – “Watchmen” shows us every snapped arm, cleavered skull, and bullet-filled body. It’s gorgeous in a way it shouldn’t be. Again, credit should go to the source material and to the illustrations by Dave Gibbons, because Snyder lifts many images straight from the pages of the comic. Finally, cinematographer Larry Fong and everyone on the creative team consisting of the production designer, costume designer, art directors and more deserve a large round of applause. They have created something amazing.
Fourth and final, I’m a person who likes films that deal with the larger issues. And “Watchmen” does that. It makes us think about human nature, the politics of power and the use of fear as a means of control, and ultimately the nature of God. All I can say is that in the end, I had the lyrics from XTC’s “Dear God” in my head: “Did you make disease, and the diamond blue? Did you make mankind after we made you?” “Watchmen” is a magnificent, disgusting, gritty, ultra-violent, depressing, ugly masterpiece, and I loved every single frame and second of it. I can’t wait to see it again.
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