Eric D. Snider

Watchmen

Movie Review

Watchmen

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: B-

Released: March 6, 2009

 

Directed by:

Cast:

"Watchmen" was a 12-issue comic book published in 1986 and 1987 and subsequently compiled into a single graphic novel that has since become a widely respected and rabidly scrutinized work of fiction. Time magazine called it one of the 100 best English-language novels of the century. Its influence can be seen in a variety of works, including Pixar's "The Incredibles" and TV's "Lost."

I provide this background for the benefit of readers who have never heard of "Watchmen" and who, after seeing the new film version, might wonder what the big deal is, and why it's sparked such heavy anticipation within the nerd community. The movie, directed by Zack Snyder ("300"), is mostly faithful to the characters and story of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' book, but the original is so complex and multi-layered that perhaps no adaptation -- even a very, very long one -- could do it justice.

It's set in an alternate version of 1985, one where "costumed heroes" (i.e., Batman-style vigilantes) once protected America's cities before being outlawed some years earlier. Now the retired crusaders, most of them having kept their secret identities secret, live out their lives quietly, but they are reunited when one of their own -- a brash mercenary named Eddie Blake, aka the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) -- is murdered. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a masked, paranoid misanthrope whose face even his fellow crime-fighters have never seen, is convinced there is a conspiracy to kill all of them, and that the Comedian was only the first.

So Rorschach makes the rounds, warning everyone. There's Dan (Patrick Wilson), formerly known as Nite Owl, a nerdy schlub who desperately misses the action and still has his Owlmobile in working order down in his Owlcave. There's Laurie (Malin Akerman), aka Silk Spectre, who took her persona from the original Silk Spectre, her mother (Carla Gugino), who got too old to fight a couple decades ago. Laurie is the girlfriend of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a physicist who suffered a lab accident and came out of it with immense control over time and space -- the only one in the group, it would seem, with actual superpowers.

Finally, there's Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), whose costumed hero was named Ozymandias, and who is frequently referred to as "the smartest man in the world" as if this was some kind of formal title bestowed upon him, though little is done to demonstrate its validity. (Unless "smartest" means "thinnest.") I don't know what his crime-fighting gimmick was, but he has a thing for Egypt. He's one of the few superheroes to reveal his true identity, and he's made a fortune capitalizing on it. This also makes him a prime target for assassination, though.

All of this is set against a backdrop of imminent nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, theoretically raising the stakes so that it's not just the Superfriends we're concerned about, but all of humankind. Dr. Manhattan helped America win the Vietnam war in this alternate reality, creating a surge in popularity for Richard Nixon that has kept him in the White House for another three terms, but the Cold War continues. Dr. Manhattan sees possible nuclear destruction in the near future, and Rorschach wonders if this might be someone's motive for killing superheroes, to keep them from preventing it.

The screenplay, by David Hayter ("X-Men," "The Scorpion King") and Alex Tse (his first film credit), doesn't deviate significantly from the graphic novel until the end, when there are some major changes that, frankly, I like better. For the most part, the dialogue and story remain intact. The problem is that the book is packed with backstory: We learn the history not just of the most recent batch of superheroes, but of their predecessors, the original Watchmen, called the Minutemen. Supplementary material at the end of each chapter fleshes out their motives and personalities. Most of that must be eliminated from a movie version unless you want it to run seven hours -- and even then, some things are simply better expressed in words and still images than in cinema.

I suspect that if I hadn't read the book beforehand, I'd have been baffled by a lot of the movie. The process by which "costumed heroes" became outlawed is barely referred to, and the scheme behind the Comedian's murder, when finally explained, is absurdly elaborate and improbable. And what's that crazy thing Dr. Manhattan is building on Mars? Why does Rorschach occasionally speak in Tarzan English, as if dictating a telegram? Does anyone other than Dr. Manhattan have super powers? (The answer would seem to be no, except that there's one guy who moves awfully fast and has incredible strength.) Why does everyone jump to the conclusion that the Comedian's death means someone is targeting all former superheroes?

More important than these questions is this one: How can I have spent 2 1/2 hours with these characters without ever caring about anyone other than Rorschach? (He alone, played by the terrific Jackie Earle Haley with a seething ferocity, elicits sympathy and compassion -- which is a little unsettling, considering he's a psychopath.) For all the enormity and magnitude of what happens in these people's lives, and for as much ground is covered in the plot, there's almost no emotional engagement. Laurie has drama involving her parents, and it feels like it was tacked on at the last minute. The psychology of most of the characters -- what sort of person puts on a costume and fights crime? -- is given scant attention. Everyone talks and talks (and talks and TALKS), but to what end?

Indeed, the film is often ponderous and self-serious, almost tipping over into silliness. Snyder's camera moves slowly and deliberately, so that even the action scenes -- infrequent to begin with -- feel weighed-down, the brutal violence coming off as sickening rather than exciting. The frenetic, rapid-cut style used in many other films would have been tiresome, too, but surely there's a happy medium.

Speaking of medium, that's about how I feel about the film as a whole. It's too weird to ever be boring, and Snyder's knack for stylish visuals has been amply demonstrated. (Even people who hated "300" have to admit it looked pretty cool.) The plot is compelling enough, the acting serviceable (and in certain cases excellent), the special effects suitably astonishing -- it just doesn't add up to much, that's all. It's a movie to see once, more or less enjoy, and then shrug off.

Grade: B-

Rated R, some harsh profanity, a lot of graphic violence, a fair amount of nudity and some strong sexual situations

2 hrs., 43 min.

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This item has 30 comments

  1. Susquatch says:

    It's disappointing, but I figured this would happen -- based on the marketing, I always had the feeling that Snyder was too concerned with capturing the look of the comic without quite nailing the feel of it. The graphic novel really IS as good as they say, so i just hope people won't judge it based on this movie.

  2. rsg says:

    When I read the novel for the first time I though there would never be a way that a movie could capture everything. The emotions, along with the alternate stories (The Black Freighter, etc.) could never be conveyed in a movie. I'm still excited to see the movie and I think, visually, it looks fantastic. I know Darren Aronofsky was considered for the director of this and it will be interesting to see if maybe he was the right choice. Snyder is a visually stylish director, but Aronofsky captures emotion on camera like nobody else.

  3. Lohengrin says:

    This is the one comic book that I own and I really enjoy it. By the way, my favorite character in the book is Rorchasch, he is an incredibly intense character. Come to think of it, isn't he the only really believable type of personality who would "suit up" and go and pound on criminals?

    That's unfortunate that they didn't do the book justice, though the prequils sure looked cool.

  4. spiceybiscuit says:

    Can't wait to see it, geeks of the world, unite!

  5. Susquatch says:

    They did actually make an animated short movie based on Tales of the Black Freighter that I believe will be released on the Watchmen DVD (and separately, I guess). Snyder's buddy Gerard Butler stars.

  6. Marc says:

    Eric

    As someone who has read the novel, do you feel that the footage which will eventually make its way into the Directors cut (which I hear is going to be 3 1/2 hours) solve some of the problems of the film? From what I understand, a lot of the black freighter stuff will be included into the extended version as well as more backstory into all the characters.

  7. Earl Rogers says:

    As I recall, the original comic has establishes that Rorschach is a conspiracy nut. Initially only he deduces that all costumed heroes are being hunted down. Others only believe him when an attempt is made on Ozymandias' life.

  8. mommy says:

    As the mother of a 9yo boy...Does the book have the sexuality of the movie?

  9. John C. says:

    mommy,

    Seriously, this movie is inappropriate for children. Don't get it (or the graphic novel) for anyone under 18. Really.

  10. Bnance says:

    I think Mr. Snider here summed up this movie the best out of all the reviews that I have read. I was seduced by the movie's trailer which preempted to read the graphic novel for the 1st time which, after reading it, is a dauntingly ambitious task for any director/screenwriter to take on. However, it could have been done better. Read the novel for the greatest effect.

  11. Ruben from AZ... says:

    Aw come on! It's A good movie! What in the hell do you Stupid ****** expect, You cry when it's too long, You cry when it's too short. All you ***** who know how to make perfect Movies don't even have a hint about the work it takes to make a half decent Movie, so give the Directors A break when the Movie isn't what You expected...

  12. Cody says:

    I saw the midnight showing last night with everyone else who has been greatly anticipating this movie for days, weeks, months and even years. . .I saw it with my father, which I thought would be interesting because I was eight when the comic came out and bought every issue as they came out at the time, but he'd never heard of it save for some previews (neither has my girl, but I knew convincing her to see it was a lost cause). And as much as I had wanted to see how the movie would be done (after all, the layout of the comic was very cinematic in its telling of the story, almost like a storyboard), I was eagre also to hear his reactions coming into it clean.

    For myself, I was no more disappointed than I had expected to be. I enjoyed it for what it was, and only appreciated the comic more for what it additionally had to offer. As for the film, I felt that it largely captured the themes of the source material but not the spirit. As I understood the story (spoilers), every character represented a perspective upon one absolute and the story in a sense was how they reacted to it. The Comedian saw the absolute concerning the human condition for what it was and accepted it, that humanity was savage, selfish and short sighted. In accepting that absolute he decided to act as a counter balance, if humanity was staring collectively into an Abyss, he became the Abyss that stared back into them. Through example he would make those who similarly embraced that same absolute face the end result of what they themselves aspired to be, and if they could not, then the joke was upon them in the end. Ozymandias, upon the Comedian's prompting, looked upon that same absolute and rather than accept it set out instead to conquer it and redirect those tendencies into less destructive pursuits until familiarity and trust could destroy them utterly. The Rorschach, intimately familiar with that same absolute since childhood, was conversely aware that the only way it could be truly counter balanced was by the embrace of a diametrically opposing ideology which he espoused (and 'created' in the form of his father during childhood) -virtue (one of the movies oversights was editing out Kovac's commentary concerning Truman and his father, which left the audience with precious little to go on in understanding what made the Rorschach what he was). Knowing that such human frailty could only be overcome by choice, he set out to eradicate the source of the decay eating away at Western Civilization (much the same way as Cato the Censor of Rome had in his time) until the society could heal itself and return to the nobility it had once (he imagined) embraced (creation over consumerism, industriousness over opulence, duty over decadence etc). Osterman -Dr Manhattan- saw the absolute but made no attempt to judge it or redress it, perhaps -one is left to conclude- understanding that those motivations which hindered humanity had also conceived its ascendancy. Such insight left him, despite his great ability, unable to act. After all, should he destroy that absolute within humanity, would the complacency which would be left leave mankind to a fate of stagnation in mediocrity?

    The original work was left wonderfully incomplete, one never knew whether or not Veidt was truly successful, and for good reason. It was the questions the story posed which were of value, not the answers. Which of them, the Comedian, the Rorschach or Veidt was correct. Were any on them? Even Dr Manhattan's acceptance in the end gave very little credence one way or another. After all, had he not just come to the realisation that despite decades of self assurance and lack of surprise, that he also was capable of error? On Mars with Jane, had he not come to understand that love (not her, despite the movie's insistence to the contrary) was the miracle that made the misery of life not merely bearable but enviable, because otherwise life was simply reduced to a matter of calories, hydration and defecation giving rise to the absolute in the first place. And through the effort of discovering that revelation, did he not also learn that the appreciation of the insight lay in the effort that went into finding it? That that which is freely given has no quantifiable value? That Veidt, possibly, would never be able to accomplish through deceit what man would only profit from once they'd embraced that course for themselves out of conviction rather than duplicity?

    My father, for his part, felt most the character came off two dimensionally and had the same trouble you did putting any emotional investment into anything they underwent. He thought the plot was good in and of itself, but had not been prompted into the same reflections one is upon reading the comic. He felt, that despite the constant exposition, very little was explained that kept the story from seeing somewhat confused and little contrived.

    Wow. . .That was extremely long winded. I didn't intend for it to be, but in short, what I was trying to say is that your review is typically in accordance with mine and managed to sum up both the impressions my father and I had of the movie. Brilliant review again Eric :D

  13. Huguenot says:

    Great review. I was able to see the first screening last night and I really likes it. Itcaptures the mood of the story very well. I enjoyed the direct panel receeatipna filled with movement; it is very stylish film. My only complaint is one scene at the end: without spoiling there is a shot that seems included as an add on from an executives notes. It paints a positive image that seems to counter a major theme in the novel: despair and the lack of clarity in what is "good".

    Also, where did Lee Iacoca come from.

  14. dallegre says:

    @ #9, I just wanna say that I'm 16 and I can (and did) fully handle the violence, ideas, and content in the film and graphic novel. Don't generalize that everyone under 18 is ignorant/stupid/can't handle violence.

  15. Matthew says:

    This is exactly what I was thinking. Fantastic review. Good movie. The novel is 100 times better.

  16. Clumpy says:

    It's disappointing for them to add extra violence just to make things unpleasant (they certainly did), and a film can't be as slow as a graphic novel. Plus the tone shifts wildly - sometimes incredibly serious, sometimes as hammy as Spider-Man. And most of the movie seems devoted to Dr. Manhattan, who is a fairly boring character in both iterations of "Watchmen".

    Still, Rorschach and The Comedian are easily compelling enough to carry the flick (the hour or so where you barely see Rorschach are actually a little dull), and the action is well-choreographed.

    Did anybody else think that Patrick Wilson was channeling Chris Reeve?

  17. Russ says:

    Rorschach was my favorite character by far in the graphic novel, I think even THAT was slow in the parts he wasn't in.

    The ending upset me, but "sad/realistic" endings usually do. I appreciate it from an artistic point of view though, sad/realistic works are almost universally the best. I still hate it when they don't give in and make it a happy ending though (even though that's usually a sell out). :(

  18. mommy says:

    I knew the movie was inappropriate, I just didn't know about the novel..thanks.

  19. JackCrackerMan says:

    I waited for this movie for quite a long time. I personally feel the movie did it quite a bit of justice. Of course there are differences, but for the most part the movie went line for line to the novel. I wondered how they would do the Mars scene with Doc Manhatten, which wasn't as I thought but how can you make it something where time both past/present/future are passing at the same time? I think they did a great job capturing his lack of emotion, and sometimes even his attempts at trying to feel emotion though his over analyzing mind.

    At the end I was sad to see Rorschach end the way he did, though I knew it had to happen. Not even the worlds smartest man could stop Rorschoch.

  20. Clumpy says:

    The movie's best line, and one of the parts that elicited actually cheering and applause from the audience:

    "None of you seem to get it. I'm not locked in here with YOU. YOU'RE locked in here with ME!"

  21. The Ides of Mark says:

    I think Jonathan Crocker writing for Little White Lies said it best when he noted "There’s a saying that a masterpiece has already found its perfect medium." Many plot (and sub-plot) points are hidden in the end-of-chapter supplementary material, which are all but impossible to translate to film. (Imagine the camera lingering over every stray memo on Veidt's desk, or on each page of Under the Hood, etc.).

    Haven't seen it yet, but early reactions have me hopeful that I won't be too disappointed.

    Oh, and to Dallerge - there's a big difference between a 9 year old and a 16 year old. And even if at 16 you can "handle" the violence and sexuality, that doesn't necessarily mean it's still the best thing for your development.

    And at the risk of sounding like an old fart, at 16 you're also not ready to grapple with issues like the practical applications of a nihilistic worldview, whether or not freewill is a illusion, etc.

    Just....trust me.

  22. Thoughtful Observer says:

    I must say that I found this movie interesting, with some excellent aspects, and some not so wonderful (I'd call it rather uneven). The worst part is that after seeing it, all I can think about is the fact that movies that were less violent and less sexually explicit get rated NC-17, and this was rated R. I am definately old enough to handle it, but it seemed incongruous and definately not for most young people. It has the allure of just another super-hero movie from the ads, but it is much more disturbing and intense than pretty much any other R movie I've ever seen. Anyone else have any thoughts on the rating?

  23. Dave says:

    WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILER

    There is one memory I now have that I wil always think back on fondly whenever someone mentiones the movie to me. My girlfriend and I went to a matinee and we were going to decide what to do for dinner afterward. Near the end, when Rorshach was blown apart and parts of him were splattered all over the white snow and it looked like a big bloody mess, she leans over to me and whispers "Let's not have pizza tonight." I had to bite the inside of my cheeks to keep from laughing out loud and having a theatre full of people glare angrily at me.

  24. eneyone says:

    I haven't and won't see it, but I liked Jeff Vice's description of the content:
    "In fact, in some respects, it makes the PG-13 "Dark Knight" look like a light-hearted cartoon by comparison."

    So maybe the rating is correct and is just another example of how the ratings are constantly loosening (see: Dark Knight at PG-13, Prince Caspian at PG). Give it another decade and everything but G movies will be rated PG.

  25. Clumpy says:

    Eh - look at "PG" movies from the 80s and before. You've often got constant sexual language and suggestive themes (Ghostbusters), pretty gruesome violence (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins, Jaws), and even frontal nudity (Logan's Run and Sixteen Candles among others).

    It's practically impossible for a movie to get a "G" rating anymore, or even for a movie with a modicum of action or thematic material to get a "PG" since the PG-13 rating is considered a safe, mainstream rating by pretty much everybody. I don't watch the really sadistic stuff (Saw, Hostel, etc.) but I doubt it's possible for a movie to get much more violent or disturbing. Still it gets an "R" with a couple of token cuts from the initial print.

    It's really up to individuals to research movies before going to them (or especially taking others). Ratings will get you in the ballpark but they're so subjective they can't be the end-all.

  26. karinka says:

    I'm just disappointed that there were no references to Smurf slash fic in the review.

    I liked the movie a lot.

  27. coffee says:

    i haven't read the Watchmen comic series, but i can't imagine them packing any more into one movie even if they wanted to, which is good for me, makes me feel like i got my money's worth

  28. Hollis says:

    I was looking forward to this film without having read the graphic novel, which a bunch of my nerdy friends love. I will read it someday. But this was in my top 10 of worst movies I've ever seen. Even worse than that one with Steve Carrell and the pancakes where he's named Dan. "Bored to tears" is the phrase I want to use. And I like GOOD, slow movies! Thin Red Line? Yes! Apocalypse Now? Yes! This? Not so much.

    It felt like all the money was pumped into overblown special effects, which on its own can't save this movie. Most of the acting was lacking (excluding Rorschach), it was hyperviolent (I flipped through the book to the scenes that stood out to me as overly violent, and they were indeed. The book was much more subtle in terms of violence and sex, often simply getting the point across in just a few frames), and the end didn't make much sense. I hope I enjoy the novel despite this movie kind of dampening my excitement about it. I have to mention though that my friends who'd read the novel beforehand did enjoy it, so perhaps the content is just not my cup of tea.

  29. Old Vic says:

    Am I the only person in the world who thinks the original graphic novel is actually quite, well, bad?

  30. Susquatch says:

    Yes.

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