Friday, March 6, 2009

Watchmen (Movie Review)

Before my review of the Watchmen movie, I should give an idea of where I'm coming from regarding the original graphic novel. I discovered and read Watchmen during college (late 90's) soon after I started collecting comics seriously. As it did for many others, this book changed the way I saw superheroes and their potential in the medium of comics. Because of this work, I also soon devoured Alan Moore's "V For Vendetta", and "From Hell", which I also greatly enjoyed for their complex, intelligent stories and character analysis. Alan Moore is a force to be reckoned with in the world of comics and his properties have not been treated well by Hollywood. Despite being enjoyable films in their own right, "V For Vendetta", "From Hell" and "The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen" strayed considerably from the source material when Hollywood got their hands on them. "Watchmen" is regarded very highly by myself and many comic book fans, so I was very interested to see what "300" director Zack Snyder would do.

I am EXTREMELY pleased. This is easily the most faithful live-action adaptation of specific comic book source material ever made. That doesn't mean it is simply the comic book filmed on a set. Changes were made throughout, the most notable being the end of the film. (More on that later) But all changes allowed the material to be more accessible in a format for which it was not designed, while retaining the substance of the graphic novel. The story is streamlined, but in no way butchered. Material removed was in most cases not missed, considering the short time limitations that even epic move lengths demand.

"Foul! Foul!", some fanboys may cry. But we DO have to take into consideration that this is a movie. Not live action fanboy wish fulfillment. It has to stand on its own merits. If we want people to experience "Watchmen" as we know and love it, follow Alan Moore's cue (just this once) and tell them to read it. My review does take into account the source material, but I'm not scoring it based on my own wish fulfillment. I wanted to see if it was a good movie.

Still, let's talk about the differences a little bit. Snyder brings a welcome dose of action-movie sensibility to the combat sequences of the film. This is not really an "action movie", but Snyder shoots each action sequence as though it is. Much of the cool visual's from "300" reappear to great effect in this movie. The heroes are also more physically capable in the movie than they are in the comics. I think this is important. First, it helps break up the pacing of the film. Second, it reminds moviegoers, who may not be comic fans, what it means to be a costumed hero.

The graphic novel was written for people already very familiar with superheroes. Showcasing their heroic abilities wasn't a priority because readers could easily fill in the gaps with stereotypes they had developed from years of reading comics. Adding enhanced action and combat sequences helped us remember that, while this IS a complex character study, it is set set FIRMLY in the world of superheroes. (Something "The Dark Knight" failed to do with its over-emphasis on the happenings of Gotham City and lack of emphasis on Batman. Too much "realism", not enough superhero.)

Another change, reflecting Snyder's admitted tastes, was a little too much sexiness. Granted, sexual elements become much more noticeable when translated from comic page to live action, but Snyder actually lengthened one particular scene handled with discretion in the comic book, turning it into a typical Hollywood skin show. This scene doesn't last too long and the rest of the movie is more conservative(with one exception, hold that thought...), but it's still very "R-rated" and more naked than it needs to be. Hopefully the DVD will start a new chapter after this moment in the film, allowing a convenient "quick skip" option without missing worthwhile moments of the movie. Meanwhile, if you can't wait for DVD, here's a little trick: When Dan and Laurie start getting "frisky" on Archie (his "owl-ship"), a Johnny Cash-sounding song starts playing (called "Hallelujah", I think). Just admire your popcorn until this song is done playing and you'll be safe.

There is one exception to the conservative handling of nudity in the rest of the film, and that is Dr. Manhattan. Male frontal nudity is very common when he enters a scene. Not in a sexual context. He just likes being naked. It isn't "in your face" and it happens to be computer generated, but it's still there and fairly common throughout the movie.

Regarding more specific changes, Dr. Manhattan's perception of time was not communicated as effectively as it could have been. It felt more like Jon experienced constant flashbacks instead of existing in all moments of his life at once. I'm hoping some of this will be fixed in the director's cut, but the movie doesn't suffer much.

Without giving any major spoilers, I can say that the greatest changes of this movie are near the end. No squid, but a different idea that makes perfect sense and makes the movie more approachable to the average viewer. And to be completely honest... I like the new ending better than the original! Nite Owl sees something happen that he didn't in the comics that makes for great drama and an added action beat. And we aren't suddenly asked to introduce giant aliens and psychics into the world of Watchmen, which felt out of left field in the graphic novel. The new ending accomplishes the same thing, but in a way that fits inside the story so much better.

Regarding the performances in this film, I couldn't be much happier. Patrick Wilson brought the everyman quality that Nite-owl needs in order to work. Billy Crudup brought a unique take to Dr. Manhattan's voice that I was completely taken with after hearing him speak for just a couple scenes. Haunting and detached throughout, when Manhattan talks, it's as if he's always retelling a faded dream he can barely remember. Jeffrey Dean Morgan delivers a Comedian who is unlikeable, yet understandable. He's the prophet of the story, sizing up his environment and telling it like it is. A poor decision is made to have Carla Gugino play both the young and the old Sally Jupiter. She works wonderfully as the young, but between the unconvincing make-up and her young-sounding voice, she doesn't successfully sell herself as a 67 year old woman. To her credit, I think this is near impossible and should have been achieved by having two women play the role. We've learned to suspend disbelief in this territory.

The standout performance in this movie is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. Alan Moore has created a wonderful character concept, but I found myself safely removed from him (as I do with all of Moore's characters) as he exists on the page. Moore's characters are fascinating and make us think. They do not tend to make us feel. I was taken out of my sterile psychiatrist's chair and gripped, in two different scenes, by Haley's performance. Even brought to tears in one of them. He is the heartbeat of this movie.

Visually, this film is a treat. Nearly every shot is artfully thought out, much like Dave Gibbon's original art panels. The costumes are updated and reflect modern superhero movies (the 90's in particular) the same way Gibbon's original designs reflected comics of the 40's through the 70's. They step away from practicality and realism to stand in greater contrast to the all too real nature of these flawed characters.

Visual effects are also exciting and spectacular. Though clearly not an action film, Snyder often adds excitement through some dazzling eye-candy.

The movie works great as a period piece, taking place in the 1980's and earlier. The varied and highly ironic soundtrack keeps us sitting in the appropriate decades and in the right moods for the movie's themes.

Which brings us to Relevance. There is a ton in this film worth discussing. Human nature and its natural state of corruption is the major theme. The worth of human life is another. Too often we confuse the two. If our worth is based only on our goodness, we have to face the idea of being worthless. This is likely why so many people prefer to live in denial of our evil nature and choose to believe that we are "basically" or "naturally" good. But biblically speaking, our worth in the economy of the universe is not based on our moral performance, but on the fact that God created and loves us. We are both naturally evil and of tremendous worth. (Yeah, wrap your head around that one.) This movie touches on both topics and lends itself to their discussion.

Truth is also a key point. Is it better to live with a lie if it means peace between people or nations? Or should truth be valued and sought after even if it means dealing with pain otherwise avoided? Regarding truth, I've gotta side with Rorschach on this one. No Compromise.

From top to bottom, this is a fantastic film. It is driven by very human characters with very real emotions, without sacrificing the wonder and expansiveness of the superhero genre. (Take good notes, Chris Nolan.) The themes are rich and the visuals are beautiful. Though it misses some opportunities for adapting great elements of the original work, in several ways it is superior to the graphic novel. Plan to have coffee or dessert after this one. There will be plenty to talk about!

Rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language

Quality: 9.5/10

Relevance: 9.0/10


  1. I loved they way they bridged different generations throughout Watchmen, both with props (like the floppy discs) and with music

  2. I completely agree. It was certainly a period peice, but because Doc Manhattan introduced new technological options, 1985 sometimes looks a little more futuristic than it normally would, resulting in a very timeless quality.