Status: In theaters (opened 3/6/09)
Directed By: Zack Snyder
Written By: David Hayter and Alex Tse
Cinematographer: Larry Fong
Starring: Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley
Quite frankly, Zach Snyder’s film adaptation of Watchmen—widely hailed by comic book nerds and movie marketing posters alike as the “most celebrated graphic novel of all time”—is the movie The Dark Knight wanted to be. The similarities between the two are numerous, and hard to ignore: both are sprawling tales set in fictitious yet richly-realized cities where crime runs rampant, featuring heroes of questionable moral fortitude who find themselves wrapped up encountering complicated psychopaths in not only your run-of-the-mill crime-fighting dilemmas but facing far-reaching issues of societal importance as well. That latter point is where Watchmen really outshines Christopher Nolan’s box office juggernaut from last year, and it’s due to the strength of the source material: the only graphic novel to appear on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century is a rich source of social commentary, replete with vividly imagined and realistically flawed characters, moral conundrums of a grand scope, and scathing indictments of the military-industrial complex, hero-worship, and the nature of humanity itself.
Director Zack Snyder has produced a meticulous recreation of the fictionalized parallel universe of his source material. When I first read the book, I remember being most struck by how it was drawn almost in the style of movie storyboards, and indeed, there are several instances in the film that are precise, live-action recreations of specific panels from the graphic novel. This is not an entirely direct translation, however, and David Hayter and Alex Tse’s screenplay does diverge from its inspiration in several ways, the most notable being the climactic ending, which has been turned from one of the biggest what the fuck? moments in the history of writing into something that is now a more striking, more believable, more chilling way of getting the same point across, in more dramatic fashion. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story here is essentially a straightforward murder-mystery, with a man who calls himself Rorschach—the one remaining quasi-hero who has refused to give up his vigilantism in the face of a government ban—serving as narrator and lead detective. He believes that the murder of The Comedian, another former vigilante who had been working for the US government, is not an isolated incident, and endeavors to warn the rest of his fellow ex-costumed heroes of the existence of a “mask killer.” Through this we are introduced to the former members of the Watchmen, with frequent flashbacks providing the backstory of each character as we go.
These digressions are numerous and often fairly lengthy, but they serve to quite capably establish the richly deep universe in which the story takes place. It’s a bit much to be thrown at an audience, especially those who are coming in “cold” without being familiar with the graphic novel, but the exposition of this film is handled with an impressive sense for which details to explicitly include, which to leave for the audience to infer on their own, and which to omit in the interest of keeping the story moving along at a pace a film-going audience is going to be able to accept. Particularly noteworthy is the opening credits sequence, which rapidly establishes the bizarro-world 1985 setting, the highlights being that the United States has a glowing blue superman on their side, which led to us winning the war in Vietnam, which led to the abolition of term limits and Nixon being elected 5 consecutive times. What isn’t different in this world is that the US and USSR still find themselves in a Cold War stand-off, but the implication here is that the glowing blue guy, called Dr. Manhattan, is the one factor keeping things from escalating into all-out nuclear war.
The opening sequence also establishes the first instance of what will add up to an end-to-end poignant use of popular music throughout the film. Starting with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” incorporating Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable” and Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “All Along the Watchtower,” and making clever use of K.C.’s “I’m Your Boogie man” and Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” on its way to climaxing with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during an overly-dramatized, old-school-style sex scene, Snyder’s musical sensibilities are nearly on a par with those of Martin Scorsese, though they are even less understated. The heavy-handed, in-your-face pop music tracks fit the tone and style of the film really well overall, adding dramatically to the filmgoing experience.
Speaking of which, the amount of pure style that is pumped into this production is awesome, in the literal sense of the word. Snyder’s penchant for slowing time during action sequences is tastefully used here, and fits the spectacle of the movie perfectly (as opposed to his earlier 300, where his over-use of the same technique was one of many aspects that amounted to nothing but absurdity). Some of the fight sequences, still, do take the blood-spattering, bone-crunching violence beyond the point of what should be considered reasonable, but there’re few enough such scenes that the film is able to recover, leaving this somewhat stereotypical aspect of its origins behind. A lot of the style on display, in fact, is due to the comic panel-inspired framing that is often used, frequently from dramatic Dutch angles or staggering vantage points, or both. There is a sense that the world in which the film takes place is very real, very alive, and fully imagined—a testament to the incredibly detailed set design, yes, but also to the nature of the tale itself. Frequent appearances of black-and-white photos, newspaper clippings and the like adorning the bedside tables, walls, and refrigerator doors of the characters themselves, for instance, go a long way to establishing that this is not only a story of the particular setting we’re seeing it told within, but one of an era and with a full history as well.
All of this would be for nothing if the characters themselves weren’t fully realized, and here again we are treated to some first-rate examples of movie-making, in the form of a quartet of brilliant performances. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian take turns competing for the Heath Ledger Memorial Most Disturbing Supporting Role award; both give performances that are simultaneously larger-than-life and subtly nuanced in deeply affecting ways. Similarly, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan is eerily mesmerizing, particularly during an extended flashback sequence detailing the story of how he came to be the only character in the film with actual super-powers. He also lends his star quality to a chill-inducing piece of exposition, where we see his glowing blue character holding a black-and-white Polaroid photo of himself in normal human form with a pretty young girl; even if the CG effects have rendered him largely unrecognizable in appearance (though they have certainly not diminished the beauty of his soft-spoken voice), we as an audience still know who Billy Crudup (the actor) is, and are instantly aware that the man in the picture is the same person as the super-being holding it. It’s a small point, but a great example of how the film is able to take things from the book and make use of them in uniquely filmic ways.
Crudup is matched and counter-pointed by Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg, a past-his-prime character who used to parade around as the Night Owl II (following in the footsteps and costume stylings of an earlier crusader, played by Stephen McHattie, who handed over the use of his name upon his retirement). He’s as much of a traditional hero as this story has, and Wilson is up to the task, bringing the character’s foppish insecurities and naive sense of justice to life. He exhibits that oldest of comic book cliches to perfection: glasses on, Dreiberg is a clumsy, pudgy, insecure (and impotent) man who borders on pathetic, but exchanging his normal prescription for the infrared-seeing glasses of the Night Owl (and the latex costume that goes along with them), he becomes a paragon of strength and truth and good and everything else a superhero is supposed to be. Wilson embodies both sides of the character ably, my personal favorite moment being when he exclaims, in response to a shocking display of brutality on the part of The Comedian, “Whatever happened to the American dream?” and it’s clear that the character, decked out in full Night Owl regalia and making a futile attempt to protect the citizens of his city, really means it as an honest question, even while the rest of us—The Comedian included—laugh at his naivete and gullibility.
Unfortunately the entire cast is not as gifted as these four, and the film suffers a bit because of it. Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II, who serves as the Night Owl’s love interest, and also Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, the “world’s smartest man” who is also its richest and most well-appointed hero, are both a bit awkward at times, their line delivery feeling flat and sometimes lifeless, especially when compared to their costars. (It’s not lost on me that these also happen to be the two actors in the film who are not American-born, and as such I must concede that perhaps their awkward delivery is a sign of them struggling with their accents; nonetheless, it detracts from the movie, though not to an extent that makes their scenes completely unenjoyable, for the most part.)
Outside of this core of main characters, Snyder relishes in the absurd, going overboard with many of the characterizations of the smaller roles, many of which are historical figures that are sprinkled throughout the story to further ground it in the mid-80s. Some of these are a joy to encounter: Andy Warhol during the opening sequence doing a paneled painting of the Night Owl, for instance, or a humorous exchange involving a lecture from Ozymandias to Lee Iacocca on his company’s production of gas-guzzlers. Even a Strangelovian depiction of Henry Kissinger in the war room seems to fit to a point, striking a suitable balance between ridiculously over-done comedy and plot advancement. President Nixon, however, is parodied by Robert Wisden to an absurd extent, with an exaggerated prosthetic nose that I found distracting enough to all but completely take me out of every scene in which he appeared.
This is the exception, though, not the norm: the little touches are everywhere, most handled artfully and tastefully, and I think they’ll give this movie the kind of repeat viewing experience on video that will prove writer Alan Moore’s lamentations about the differences in the mediums of comics and film to be unfounded. I loved catching the 80s references, both subtle and overt, from a fake McLaughlin Group episode to the vaguely early-Macintosh-style desktop interface used on a personal computer. Small nods to fans of the graphic novel abound as well, my favorite here (at least of those I’ve noticed thus far, after two viewings) being a computer called S.Q.U.I.D., whose function I’ll leave up to you to find out. It all adds up to a dense, stylized, and fully engaging experience that can be enjoyed on many levels. I thought that Iron Man was perhaps as close to a perfect comic book movie as we’d see, and in that vein I think Watchmen is as close to a perfect graphic novel movie as there has been (though Sin City belongs in that conversation as well). I think that it is, above all, one of the best examples of adaptation from one medium to another that has ever been undertaken, and for that alone it’s a remarkable achievement. That it hits on so many of the points it’s going for, both those drawn from the source material and those developed uniquely for the movie, makes it even more impressive.
I find that I’ve rambled here, the fact that I have a lot to say about this movie being reflective of the fact that it has a lot going on and a lot to say in its own right, but in the course of this I’ve committed the same sin I’ve accused The Dark Knight of, in merely stating that Watchmen provides a compelling social commentary but not clarifying the “why” or the “how” of its methods of doing so. This is mostly due to my personal rule of not including anything that I’d consider to be a “spoiler” in my movie reviews, but I realize that’s somewhat of a cop-out. This movie’s defining characteristic, though, has been the voluminous amount of discussion it has already inspired, and I’ll hope to make more contributions of my own to that, including expanding on my claims of its deep and heady relevance, in the near future.