Kevin's Review: Watchmen - Who Watches the Watchmen?
by Kevin Powers
March 7, 2009
There's a poignant phrase that shows up often in Watchmen, simply, "Who watches the Watchmen?" The question has a clear purpose in the story, which is to call attention to the authority enjoyed by the 6-person superhero team. But the same query is surely on the minds of studio execs now that the heralded comic book series has finally made it to the big screen. Who will flock to the theater to watch a two-and-a-half hour journey into an altered '80s reality? And does Watchmen truly deliver? While the film's quality has incited debate, the short answer to this question is that, truly, everyone should watch the Watchmen.
Watchmen was originally published in the late '80s and for the longest time was passed around in hopes of a big-screen adaptation. The story's nuance, complexity and span earned it the long-held title of "unfilmable." It's a common claim as of late, therefore, that director Zack Snyder has done the impossible and successfully brought to life "the greatest superhero story ever told." While Snyder's film is remarkable on many levels, the weight of the novel's acclaim is a polarizing blessing and curse. Most die-hard fans of the printed story will claim it doesn't measure up and is sorely a breezy, faint impression of the original. Virgins of the story will furrow their brow at the odd costumes, the naked blue guy and the eccentric '80s landscape, which seem out of place in these times of Iron Man and The Dark Knight. But for all its unique and adapted flavor, Watchmen is still a wonderful cinematic accomplishment with depths and tones rarely seen in this genre.
Part of what makes Watchmen so intriguing is the parallel universe it portrays wherein these characters play key roles in our own history. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) assassinates JFK, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) helps end the Vietnam War, and everyone is in fear of an escalating nuclear arms race with Russia. The subtle weaving of fact and fiction proves smart and far more grounded than most comic-based tales we've seen. The '80s setting, however, might throw some off. For instance, the costumes are pretty homely and the soundtrack is a veritable 'Hits of the '80s,' the likes of which would cost you $19.99 by calling a toll-free number. It's not exactly what you would expect, but it's faithful to the source material. There's no way around the "period-ness" of Watchmen, so you just have to accept it and move on.
The themes of the film, however, aren't restricted to a specific period of time. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is disillusioned, cynical and has found the only way to really stop bad guys is to kill them. The Comedian is selfish and a moral relativist that has no qualms bullying those around him, while Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) is the exact opposite. And Dr. Manhattan has so much power that he's losing his connection to humanity and begins to see people and life around him in purely objective terms. The struggles and identities of the six characters come to life by way of Rorschach's investigation into The Comedian's death, which proves the proverbial tip of the iceberg to the story. Haley as Rorschach delivers the one true standout performance.
How The Comedian is killed represents the aspect of Watchmen that everyone should enjoy. Snyder does a magnificent job in these fight sequences, slowing down the camera for us to witness every little ass-kicking detail. These scenes are a bit sparse during the first part of the film, but be patient and you'll be pleased. For those just looking for this kind of eye-candy, you'll also enjoy the fairly gratuitous gore. Sure, Steven Segal patented the backwards arm break, but I've never seen the move in such gory detail as when the Nite Owl does it. And don't expect Dr. Manhattan's omnipotent power to be particularly tidy; in lieu of simply making someone disappear, he splatters them like they left the top of a blender.
Some have argued (and will continue to argue) that Watchmen should never have been made into a movie. In fact, the writer of the original comics, Alan Moore, reportedly cursed the production because he was so incensed by the thought of an adaptation. Admittedly, I'm not a huge follower of the source material, but I am exceptionally grateful for Snyder bringing the story to the cinema. The movie is truly one of the most visually unique and unabashedly epic superhero tales I've had the pleasure to witness. It isn't perfect and ultimately may buckle under its own weight, but you should nevertheless head out to watch the Watchmen.