A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank:  #7


2009, R, 163 mins.

Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman: Billy Crudup / Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias: Matthew Goode / Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre: Carla Gugino / Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II: Malin Akerman / Rorschach: Jackie Earle Haley / Edward Blake/Comedian: Jeffrey Dean Morgan / Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl: Patrick Wilson / Moloch the Mystic: Matt Frewer / John McLaughlin: Gary Houston

Directed by Zack Snyder / Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

To say that the original WATCHMEN graphic novel is the CITIZEN KANE of the comic book medium is the grossest of understatements.  It is nothing short of a literary masterpiece and, when released as a 12-issue mini-series (later collected in graphic novel form) during late 1986 and early 1987, WATCHMEN quickly – and rightfully – commanded respect from readers and critics alike as the single most subversive, ingeniously constructed, and fiercely ambitious comic book tale of all-time.  

For the uninitiated, what it did – and did better than just about any other super hero tale, before or since – is satirize and subvert the predominant and rosy image of the costume clad adventurer:  The “heroes” that populated this work were anything but squeaky clean pursuers of truth, justice and the American way.  WATCHMEN bravely and daringly offered up a decidedly bleak, nihilistic, and frequently shocking and unsettling portrait of its souls, all set against the backdrop of an alternate reality which spoke vehemently about the politics and socioeconomic practices of its era.  The series also asks one bold question: Would the world be better with or without heroes, if they actually existed within the confines of our recent history?   Without question, the comic book medium came of age with WATCHMEN’s publication: It made lay people stand up and see comics as a mature and literate art form.  As one critic wisely pointed out in a recent article, this comic series was its industry’s CATCHER IN THE RYE. 

I have read WATCHMEN, cover to cover, perhaps a dozen times since the late 80’s, and what perhaps has stayed the most with me over the last twenty years is the sheer breadth and scope that writer Alan Moore's and artist Dave Gibbon’s story has maintained.  It was a complete genre-bending, deconstuctivist super hero watershed work that audaciously grounded its extraordinary figures within the context of a tangibly realistic world (granted, an alternate real world).  At a time when comics were largely considered low-rent kiddie fare, WATCHMEN unequivocally and radically changed the face of the industry forever.  It has become the gritty, post-modern series of indescribable mythic-like status to geeks the world over because of the level of maturity it gave to its characters and narrative, and it did so while developing its heroes with absolute precision.  It also simultaneously commented on and ironically was self-aware of the super hero milieu in comics by giving us a fatalistic portrait of its heroes as flawed and deeply wounded souls.  By placing its tortured characters in a story with real world significance, WATCHMEN became something truly empowering: a super hero story that almost devalued what heroes had stood for in comics for decades.   

This, of course, brings me to the long awaited film adaptation of the series, long considered by many (including myself) to be the most unfilmable comic ever conceived: translating it almost became sacrilegious.  Considering the limitless denseness and complexity of the overall story - not to mention the number of characters and thought-provoking themes throughout - it certainly felt like a trite two-hour film adaptation would never suffice and pay adequate homage to Moore’s words and Gibson’s pencil strokes.  A film version was planned as early as the late 80’s when the rights were attained, with a relative smorgasbord of directors and writers being attached to it at one point (everyone from Terry Gilliam to Darren Aronofsky to Paul Greengrass, the latter being the most recent director to part ways with the project, fearing its massive and epic scope), but no one appeared to be willing to tackle the prospect of filming the unfilmable.  Considering the insanely loyal fanbase the series has garnered, not to mention the incredible critical accolades it has seen (WATCHMEN is the only comic book to be featured on TIME Magazine’s listing of the 100 greatest English-speaking novels of the last 100 years), it’s simple to comprehend how making this ethereal work into a feature film has got many people very anxious...if not a bit worried.     

You would have to be either extraordinarily crazy or stupendously courageous and talented to pull this whole enterprise off successfully. 

I think that the end result, Zack Snyder, is an effective hybrid of both extremes.  At one point a few years ago, his name would hardly be brandied about to helm the single most risky and important comic book films of all time (he started his career rather unassuming making stylish TV commercials), but he soon made a splash into feature films, first with his surprisingly un-crappy remake of one of the most legendary horror films of all time in DAWN OF THE DEAD.  His follow-up to that made an even larger splash with the hellishly entertaining and masterfully faithful adaptation of another graphic novel, Frank Miller’s blood 'n guts drenched 300.  In my review of that film (which  – hell's yeah! – I placed on my list of the Ten Best Films of 2007), I rather lovingly said that it was like GLADIATOR on a cocktail of speed and hallucinogenic drugs.”  Not only that, but in 300 Snyder more than stood out for his virtuoso handling off the bombastic source material, crafting a violent, intense, and robust entertainment that stood out well on its own merits while appeasing those faithful to Miller’s artistic poetry.  It was one of the few comic adaptations that felt absolutely immersing and transformative:  it had a hyper-reality and intangibility to it that a traditional film approach would have failed to muster. 

As a result, it’s no small wonder why Warner Brothers’ felt that Snyder was a perfect choice for WATCHMEN, because the resulting near-three hour, hard R-rated adaptation of the comic is lovingly envisioned, crazily orchestrated, and utterly dazzling appropriation of Moore and Gibson’s super hero Valhalla.  This is as faithful of an adaptation as we are ever likely to see of this material: nitpicky fanboys that slavishly populate Internet chat rooms, bemoaning the omissions this film makes (slightly altered ending, no Black Freighter story, and no Giant Squid…you know what I’m talking about) miss the boat altogether.  No film, no matter how long, could ever approximate the pleasure of reading the graphic novel, but much can be said of just about any film based on literature.   

What’s crucial to understand is that Snyder's WATCHMEN captures most the novel’s subtle - but vigorously manifested - minutia, characters, and themes to create a breathtakingly executed visual feast for the eyes while not forsaking the book’s dark and downbeat psychological underpinnings.  Even though this film has been twenty years in the making, its release could have not been any more timely: Back in 1986, WATCHMEN and another timely and significant graphic novel, Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, unalterably changed the comic world.  We are now seeing the same in the cinematic realm, last year with THE DARK KNIGHT indoctrinating the super hero film genre with some much needed pathos and gravitas.  Now we have Snyder's WATCHMEN, arguably not THE DARK KNIGHT’s equal, but it still thunderously arrives on theater screens with an equal level of worthiness as a genre bending and transcendental work alongside Christopher Nolan’s Caped Crusader opus.  Much like their literary antecedents, WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT stand proudly atop the upper echelon of the most sobering, stunningly realized, and densely imagined super hero epics.  WATCHMAN will have its staunch haters and breathless defenders, to be sure, but the end result is simply the most thanklessly attempted and strikingly executed super hero films you’ll likely to see. 

The film’s story – incredibly devoted to the source material, even with its many subtle and large changes – is almost too dense in scope to disseminate down here with a simple plot description…but I’ll try.  WATCHMEN takes place in an alternate universe during October of 1985 when Richard Nixon, having sustained himself through the Watergate Scandal and managing to win America’s war in Vietnam (with some “help”), has amazingly managed to secure his fifth term in office.  Much like during the real Cold War, the USSR and US are embroiled in an even more dangerous resistance with one another, which seems to be drawing ever-so-closely to a final, humanity crushing nuclear Armageddon (the two have a "Doomsday Clock", which sits at five minutes to midnight, midnight meaning mushroom clouds).  Conservative, anti-Communist politics are very much in vogue, but with a planet devastating war being seen on the horizon, the world has taken a largely dystopian and hopeless view. 

There is one other large historical divergence from this alternate reality from that of our own: The presence of real costumed super heroes, and it is their very presence during the last 50 years that have dramatically effected the outcomes of real world events (as shown on display in a lively and wonderfully envisioned opening credit montage, all in tune with Bob Dylan's "These Times They're Changin" trumpeting in the background).  Events as far ranging to JFK’s assassination to the moon landing to the final and quick defeat of the Vietcong to Nixon’s abnormally long presidency has a super hero angle to it, for better or worse. 

In the late 1970’s a strong anti-vigilante movement hits the nation, so much so that nearly all of the costumed heroes were ordered, by Federal legislation, to abandon their capes and cowls and call it a career.  All of the heroes in the film are evocative of other real world characters that have populated Marvel and DC Comics, but instead are subverted to the point of perversion: All in all, these people are everything from drunks, narcissists, megalomaniacs, impotent nerds, seedy criminals, and attempted rapists and vile killers of women and children…and that’s only a few of them.  Perhaps the creepiest (and most inwardly damaged) is Rorschach (the brilliantly unstable and haunting Jackie Earle Haley), a nighttime vigilante that frequently takes the law into his own hands (like The Punisher).  Then we have one of the sickest of this spandex wild bunch in The Comedian (played with cold detachment by the very good Jeffrey Dean Morgan), as a Captain American-like hero, but with a much more eerie and sadistic trigger finger.  

Then we get into more emotionally grounded heroes, but still with issues, like Dan Dreiberg, aka Night Owl (Patrick Wilson), a Batman-esque prowler in his prime, but now reduced to a tubby schlub who not only has issues trying to find a place in a world that does not like his kind, but he also – gasp! - has troubling getting it up with the ladies.  Then there is Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman, more than adequately cast to fill her hero's tights to perfect, eye-popping pleasure) who develops a bond with the down on his luck Dreiberg.  Yup, she is the second Spectre, right behind her mother, Sally (Carla Gugino, under pounds of shoddy rubber makeup, one of the film’s few technical hiccups) who now lives a quiet retired life.  The only other mortal hero is Adrian Veidt, formerly known as Ozymandias (played with calm spoken and sinister authority by the underrated Matthew Goode), who was one of the few heroes to make his identity public and to use it – along with his business smarts – to create a billion dollar empire.  Logically, if I were a famous costumed hero, making money off of my image by selling action figures would be a smart thing to do. 

The one commonality among them all is that these are heroes that are human and without powers, which makes the presence of the superhumanly powerful Dr, Manhattan stand out (played poignantly, even in CGI form, by Billy Crudup).  He was once a normal scientist that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was transformed into a blue skinned, Adonis-like God that walks among mortal men.  Manhattan is arguably the most intriguing figure in the WATCHMEN universe: he can will himself to be hundreds of feat tall, can see the past and the near future, can dematerialize any object – or person (yuck) – that he lays eyes on, and can instantly teleport himself through time and space.  When unveiled to the public he became the ultimate poster boy for America’s fight versus Communists.  In one of the film’s most compelling, explosively rendered, and terrifically edited sequences, we learn of his origins and how he was essentially hired by the government to be their one-man nuclear deterrent, not to mention the being that single handedly ended the Vietnam War (the sight of the hundred foot tall, pensive looking "doctor" emotionlessly decimating his way through the enemy with "Ride of the Valkyries" blaring in the background makes for an sly homage to APOCALYPSE NOW) .  He certainly gave the US a rather lopsided advantage in that conflict.

I’ll try not to say too much more about the plot, other than to state that it involves one character's egomaniacal plan to save the world by destroying a decent chuck of it (his motto: peace via the shared experience of utter destruction), all while framing one of the heroes in the process.  What’s important, though, is that Snyder’s vision – even with its alterations that will have many a comic geek fuming – is able to so effectively homogenize all of Moore’s searing themes.  Like, for example, if the entire world is essentially going to become a radiated wasteland, then what possible benefit would super heroes have to mankind?  Could they in any way stop the inevitable?  Since the story essentially traverses over the essence of the ability of people, as a whole, to destroy one another, what chance do a small group of heroes have?  It is these twisted allegories that really strike home when one considers the conspiratorial acts of the main “villain” who wants to bring about his own self-induced end of the world scenario, but with decidedly different motives.  What’s especially disturbing is the fact that, in the end, this villain's actions heal the world and undermines all of the heroes while destroying countless lives in the process.  Even more destructive is that the heroes, deep down inside, grow to see his actions as the only right ones during a time of chaos.  This further brings us to the heart of the other major theme of the film and book: Are heroes heroic because of a need to help people, or are they just selfishly trying to deal with their own delicate foibles and deeply vented insecurities?  WATCHMEN argues the latter extreme.

It is through Dr. Manhattan, I think, where the real epicenter of most of the themes intersect.  Here is a figure that is essentially a real Superman figure to the world (much akin to Nietzche's concept on the superman as a self-mastered individual who has achieved full, self-awareness and physical power), but the longer he lives on a planet where he sees the sins of man against man, the more he grows increasingly detached from it.  He can see the future, but frequently does very little to change or alter it.  In the film’s most hauntingly beautifully and sad moments, he engages in a self-imposed exile to Mars, where the peaceful serenity of the barren alien landscape gives him more peace of mind than any human thriving metropolis back on Earth.  At one point – during which Laurie Jupiter (his former girlfriend) pleads with him to save the planet, he dryly and coldly responds, “Why would I save a world I no longer have any faith in?”  The manner with which this omnipotently powerful hero is so cruelly detached from humanity is one of WATCHMEN’s most terrifying concepts.  His emotional impassiveness with anything Earth related is so clear-cut that he even abandons human customs like clothing.  Honestly, why would a god need clothes anyway? 

All of this would not have made the transition to the silver screen without Snyder’s clear persistence of vision with ensuring that WATCHMEN be as faithful as possible to the novel, but still being a fairly self-contained film on its own levels (a Herculean task, if there ever were one).  He does this by embracing all of the idiosyncrasies from the novel, like the details of day-to-day life of an alternate Nixonian America, to the deeper, more transgressive and disturbing subplots that detail the often tumultuous origin stories exploring the motives of the heroes (Rorschach’s in particular is memorably grizzly and nightmare inducing).  Thankfully, Snyder also fully embraces WATCHMEN as an adult-themed work that is laced with some rather explicit adult content (some of the more memorable and giddy scenes play up to the fetishistic allure of the super hero costumes themselves, which is revealed in a rather smoldering love scene between Night Owl and Silk Spectre, where unzipping their respective costumes is not only a sly form of cheeky foreplay, but it also allows Dan to rediscover his lost libido).  The film is also filled with moments of sadistically choreographed violence, but this is crucial to Snyder's motives to ensure that people come out of seeing WATCHMEN (as they did after reading it) knowing full well that this was something inexorably different than what their preconceived notions were for the material.  He also manages to playfully comment on and satirize many conceits from contemporary comic books films that we’ve grow to hate: Ozymandias’ muscle bound suit, complete with rubber nipples, is a clear cut riff at the Joel Schumacher BATMAN films, but it also a sly comment on his character's increasing self-absorption as a superman figure in his own mind. 

WATCHMEN is also an exemplary tour de force audio-visual experience, rich with a vibrant color, sumptuous art direction and costume design, and a nifty usage of classic folk and rock tunes on the soundtrack, which helps to ground this alternate world into one that feels familiar and real.  It’s clear that, like 300, Snyder has thoroughly attempted to make use of Gibson’s comic panels as a source of inspiration, and the film is an affectionately devoted visual chronicle of the book’s volcanic imagery: Moments like Manhattan’s origin, his Martian exile, and his staggering war path in Vietnam; the shocking brutality of an infamous case involving Rorschach's disposing of a child killer; the self-congratulatory lushness and extravagance of Ozymandias’ arctic lair; and, yes, the opening murder scene involving The Comedian’s death (which sets the whole WATCHMEN story in motion) feels like it joyously leaps off of Gibson’s meticulously rendered panels.  Even if you are spiteful of the film’s omissions and changes, there should be no doubt that Snyder has consciously crafted a vehemently assured and invigorating style that does an exemplary job of portraying the book’s alternate pop culture history.  This is a comic book film that breathes with life and feels alive.  The film is generous in the way that there is always something to engage in on the screen.  Especially satisfying is how Snyder even managed to include all of the various visual clues and recurring visual motifs that seemed hidden on the first read of WATCHMEN, but became apparent on future readings.  The film, like the graphic novel, demands repeat viewings on the level of the denseness of its visual palette.

The performances may get lost in the luster of the film’s sheen and polish, but I hope they won’t be overlooked.  Jackie Earle Haley (who absolutely gave a career re-defining performance in LITTLE CHILDREN) does such a thunderously powerful job of finding the hidden depravity and remorseless heart of his “hero” that compromises for no one: it’s one of the finest castings of a comic character that I've seen.  I also found Crudup’s exquisitely solemn performance as Manhattan deeply affecting at times, which is all the more inspiring considering it has to breathe through the remarkable computer trickery that brings his character’s perfect, chiseled visage to life.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who appears briefly through the film, finds just the right balance between playing The Comedian’s unscrupulous vileness with a hint of regretful melancholy.  Matthew Goode, who looks very little like the muscle-bound, Aryan specimen in the comics, nonetheless captures Ozymandias’ god-like self-aggrandizement to disturbing levels.  Patrick Wilson, such a consistently dependable actor, does a good job of playing the meager, mild-mannered, book-wormed façade of an aging hero that has his spirits “lifted” (in more ways than one) by both the allure of returning to the costume and with his chance encounters with Silk Spectre.  Malin Ackerman may give the least textured performance in the film, but she is also straddled with the least compelling character from the book.  She’s adequate and decent in the part and not nearly the devastating performance red herring that many critics have described.  Even more thankfully, she more achieves the status quo for Silk Spectre’s sultry and sexy magnetism that culminates in a scene that plays up to every comic book nerds’ pornographic fantasy: getting laid by an unimaginably hot super heroine. 

At 2 hours and 46 minutes, with a budget of over $120 million, and with umpteen millions of fans frothing at the mouths with restless – and highly distressed – anticipation, Zack Snyder’s long-awaited cinematic translation of the most unfilmable comic book in the history of the medium has the impossible task of fulfilling everyone's expectations.  On those levels. It has perhaps doomed itself to a PHANTOM MENACE-sized letdown.  I sincerely don't think that any WATCHMEN film - no matter how long or faithful - has the strength to appease all the salivating die hards.  Yes, this film has its warts (like the makeup for Gugino’s aging Silk Spectre I, and even more so for the elder Richard Nixon, who my friend humorously stated looked atrociously like a DICK TRACY villain from another film), but if you go beyond obsessive fault-finding and look closely at the core of this film version, then WATCHMEN is an absolute visionary and thematic triumph.  It finds the nihilistic core of Moore and Gibson’s doomed universe (its depressing themes of a world in  social meltdown phase still feels relevant today) while maintaining the intellectually and artistic richness of the source.  The casting fires on all cylinders, the limitless imagination and boldness of the comic’s visuals are on affectionate display, and most of the quintessential characters and story arcs present in the comic – albeit somewhat truncated – still feel systematically and robustly retained.  Perhaps most importantly, WATCHMEN comes jubilantly and victoriously on the heels of the masterful DARK KNIGHT, spelling a new age of both acceptance and adulation of the comic film genre as one of legitimacy.   You'll have to look mighty hard to find two better examples of the super hero film...before or since.

For years it sure seemed like it would take a foolish, delusion, but rigidly determined and empowered, Ozymandias-like madman to pull off a rousing and fully embracing WATCHMEN adaptation.  This Zack Snyder infused WATCHMEN is just fiendishly mad enough.  


REVIEW ADDENDUM  - November 29, 2009

There are three different versions of this film that exists: the 163 minute theatrical cut, the 186 minute Blu Ray Director's Cut that was released in the summer of 2009, and finally a new 215 minute Ultimate Cut that was released on Blu Ray in November of 2009.  In the latter incarnation Snyder has inserted an animated film within the film titled TALES OF THE BLACK FREIGHTER, which readers of the graphic novel know as a comic book within the comic book.  FREIGHTER essentially exists as a story to parallel the de-evolution of Ozymandias' sanity and humanity.  This Ultimate Cut is the definitive version of the film and is the finest one you should seek out.

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