WARNING: This review may contain spoilers!
For the past decade Hollywood has been scrambling over the rights to adapt comic book characters to the big screen. This year one of the most celebrated graphic novels is being brought to theatres in a cinematic adaptation that may very well be the most highly anticipated film of 2009. But can director Zack Snyder's film adaptation of Alan Moore's masterpiece Watchmen satisfy legions of rabid comic book fans and still succeed commercially and critically? The real question may not simply be, "Who watches the Watchmen?" but rather, "How many will watch the Watchmen?"
Watchmen was created by legendary comic book writer Alan Moore and master graphic illustrator Dave Gibbons. Together they invented a horrific alternate 1985, where Richard Nixon is still president, where we won the Vietnam War, and where the streets are filled with psychotic criminals and violent masked vigilantes. Watchmen was revolutionary, as it presented "superheroes" in a grittier, more violent, and more psychologically complex manner. Though it was very far-fetched and highly stylized, the book helped to usher in an era of more adult, thought-provoking comics and graphic novels. The graphic novel, which was originally published as a 12-issue limited comic book series between 1986 and 1987 by DC Comics, has become the best-selling graphic novel to date, won a Hugo Award, and was named, "One of the 100 Best English-Language Novels since 1923" by Time Magazine.
To adapt this landmark literary achievement into a major motion picture is a no-brainer. As early as the late ‘80s, filmmakers and screenwriters have struggled with the challenges of adapting the Watchmen into a film. Some of Hollywood's top directors, writers, and producers have had their hands in various failed attempts to adapt the story. Terry Gilliam (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brazil, and 12 Monkeys), who was once attached to the film as a potential director, became frustrated with the unsuccessful efforts of writers to create a worthy screenplay from the vast, intricate plot of the book and he ultimately gave up, saying, "It's simply un-filmable."
Since then, numerous other writers and directors have been involved with attempted adaptations, but all of them came to the same conclusion. "It's simply un-filmable."
That was until recently the case. With new maverick directors and brilliant writers emerging every year, and with computer-generated effects reaching a new level of realism, it was decided that it might finally be time to bring Watchmen to the multiplex. During the first few years of the new millennium, a couple of filmmakers (Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass) were given the difficult task, but after DC Comics found them to be lacking the right approach, the project was once again shelved.
In 2007, DC Comics and Warner Bros. came to the conclusion that Zack Snyder (the director of the remake of Dawn of the Dead and the graphic novel to film adaptation of 300) was the right person for the challenge. Snyder, a relatively young and inexperienced filmmaker, had just had a huge success with 300, which gave DC and Warner the confidence that he could faithfully adapt a graphic story into a hit movie.
The film's screenplay, which was written by David Hayter and Alex Tse, valiantly tries to include as much of Alan Moore's original story and maintain the essence of the story's characters, and for the most part it succeeds. Typically when a film is being made based on a popular source material such as a comic book of graphic novel, the end result is a film that embraces the nature of the characters and the spirit of the story, but takes liberties with the events within that story. With the Watchmen, just the opposite could be said. While the story is, for the most part, very faithful to the graphic novel (there are of course, some departures and omissions), what the film lacks are the thematic intentions of Alan Moore's original story. This isn't entirely the fault of the writers, who have clearly approached the story's subject matter with a great deal of reverence.
No, if the weaknesses of the film were to be attributed to any individual, it would have to be the film's director. Zack Snyder, whose immediate talent is directing action scenes, is not necessarily capable of directing scenes of real emotional power or psychological complexity. In other words, he's not an intellectual, at least not when compared to Alan Moore. Watchmen is about much, much more than action or spectacle. It's about the human condition and how we stray from the path of righteousness when we come into the realization that we are not completely powerless, though we may not be able to save the world. It's about corruption and redemption, deception and revelation, ego and humility, impotence and ambition.
Snyder has yet to prove that he is capable of psychoanalysis or of working with a large cast and this results in the simplification of the complex characters. Snyder also mistakenly glamorizes the characters by showing them in long, drawn-out sequences of action and graphic violence, all of which is done in slow motion. This is in direct contrast to Alan Moore's concept of the flawed superhero. The book does not portray its characters as being glamorous or even heroic. Instead Moore gave us a vilification of the superhero. After all, when Alan Moore conceived Watchmen, his initial idea was to deconstruct the superhero genre. Moore's characters are egocentric, wrathful, murderous, sadistic, sexually violent, and racially and politically bigoted. Not only that, but they are also mortal. They can and do die. Before Watchmen comic book heroes never aged and rarely ever died.
The story, which is set in an alternate 1985, begins with the murder of a man named Edward Blake. Unknown to most of the world by his true name, Blake is best known for his morally reprehensible and psychotic alter ego, The Comedian. When a fellow masked vigilante, who calls himself Rorschach, begins his own investigation into Blake's killing, he uncovers a lethal conspiracy that may not only affect all "masked adventurers" but the entire world.
Also targeted for assassination was Adrian Veidt, a multibillionaire capitalist and former hero known as Ozymandias, but he managed to survive the failed assassination. Unfortunately, the assassin is killed before anyone get answers out of him.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the brink of an all-out nuclear war and political and social tensions are increasingly volatile. In the midst of all this Dr. Manhattan, the only superhuman "superhero", begins to experience a dissociative fugue that causes him to lose touch with his own humanity and thus he and his girlfriend, former fellow crime fighter, Silk Spectre begin to drift apart. Silk Spectre, whose real name is Laurie Juspeczyk, finds herself becoming attracted to another former hero, Dan Dreiberg, best known as Nite Owl. But Dan has been suffering from sexual and emotional impotence since he retired from the life of a hero.
During all of this, Dr. Manhattan is told that his very presence may cause cancer and he retreats to Mars out of frustration and there he begins constructing great machines made from nothing but matter, which he has the power to manipulate. Little does he know that he's being manipulated by the same man behind the killing of other heroes and no one knows what the cause of all the insanity is.
It comes as a great shock when Rorschach and Nite Owl realize that one of their own is behind it all, that some self-righteous, egotistical so-called hero plans to destroy millions in an effort to save the world from nuclear war. But is there any guarantee that this insidious plan will work and if it does, what then? Will the world become one great dictatorship with the costumed "heroes" controlling everyone and eliminating free will? Can such power even exist and should it be allowed?
"Who watches the Watchmen?"
The film features an impressively large ensemble cast including Billy Crudup as Jon Osterman / Dr. Manhattan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Blake / The Comedian, Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs / Rorschach, Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias, Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg / Nite Owl, Malin Akerman as Laurie Juspeczyk / Silk Spectre, Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter / Silk Spectre,
Stephen McHattie as Hollis Mason / Nite Owl, and Robert Wisden as Richard Nixon. The cast varies in acting quality and some of the cast just feels wrong in their roles. Malin Akerman, despite her beauty and natural resemblance to the comic book character, can barely convey any sign of genuine expression or deep thought. She's simply eye-candy. Also, Patrick Wilson, who has done some good work in the past, turns the Dan Dreiberg / Nite Owl character into a total pushover. In the graphic novel, he's insecure and fearful of his own inadequacy, but he's not completely wishy-washy and without conviction. It was also very hard not to laugh at Robert Wisden, who portrays an aged Richard Nixon, as his entire demeanor and his facial prosthetics seem to change from one scene to the next. How much can one man's nose grow throughout a movie, unless he's Pinocchio. I mean we all know he's a liar, but this is a bit ridiculous.
However, some members of the cast were excellent. Billy Crudup was absolutely perfect as Jon Osterman / Dr. Manhattan, endowing him with a sense of great intelligence, but also giving us subtle insight into his confused emotional state. Jeffrey Dean Morgan was surprisingly effective as the villainous hero, The Comedian and he gives the kind of performance that makes the character someone who audiences will love to hate. Carla Gugino gives a fascinating supporting performance as Sally Jupiter, and makes the character more relatable than she is in the book, which is really astonishing. But the most amazing performance is that of Jackie Earle Haley as the weirdly likeable Rorschach, who does terrible things unapologetically and refuses to compromise his twisted sense of honor and justice.
Now, I know that some fans will be infuriated by every omitted subplot or any deviation from the graphic novel, but the screenplay really does a good job of taking the impossibly interwoven story threads and removing any excesses or unnecessary details that might isolate viewers unfamiliar with the book.
However, there are certain changes that will undoubtedly upset the die-hard fans. So, prepare yourselves. The film has completely removed many of the "minor" characters and subplots, including the beloved Tales of the Black Freighter and Under the Hood sequences. These sequences will however be included in a separate DVD and Zack Snyder will be reincorporating them into the Watchmen 5-disc Ultimate Cut DVD due out November 3, 2009.
The filmmaker also chooses not to use the original ending of the graphic novel and wisely, he replaces the giant, radioactive, mutant squid with an atomic bomb. This is an acceptable change as there's no way that a giant squid-like monster could be put upon the screen without being reminiscent of an Ed Wood film. There are some surprises in store though. For one, Dr. Manhattan is entirely naked for the majority of the film, just as he is in the book (so if you object to the sight of neon blue glowing private parts, this isn't something you'll want to see). This continual graphic nudity and violence may or may not be a good thing depending on individual tastes and it certainly limits the accessibility of the film to non-fans. Also, the film adds a wonderful opening credit sequence that depicts the alternate history of this world and the way that that history diverges from our own real history.
One very minor complaint I had is in regards to the film's excessive use of popular contemporary music. Though, I appreciate much of the music it was often overwhelming the emotional context of the story.
Ultimately, Watchmen is a daring piece of entertainment that may or may not find acclaim. Though the film is admirable for its scope, its ambition, and for its stunning visuals, it is flawed in its execution. Will it satisfy fans? I think so, though I doubt that anyone will prefer the film to Alan Moore's original creation. Will it entertain those who know nothing of Watchmen? This I really cannot say. Some will find the gratuitous violence, nudity, sex, and the general premises to be off-putting, while others will find it an intriguingly different take on the "superhero" genre. As for critics, unless they are familiar with the book or fans of the genre it seems doubtful that they will embrace the film on a solely artistic level. Still, Watchmen will provoke viewers and hopefully, it will inspire some to read the book and expose them to a medium (comic books and graphic novels) that has gone unrecognized for its true artistry and intrinsic value. After all, we need heroes… don't we?
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