A film review by Craig J. Koban
2009, R, 163 mins.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
He certainly gave the US a rather lopsided advantage in that conflict.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
expectations. On those
levels. It has perhaps doomed itself to a PHANTOM
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
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.
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.