WARNING: This review contains spoilers! DO NOT READ THIS UNTIL YOU'VE SEEN THE FILM!
When the twelve-issue limited-run comic book series Watchmen was originally published in 1986 and through 1987, it proved to be a revolutionary work in the graphic storytelling medium. Watchmen, which was later republished in a best-selling trade paperback omnibus edition, was celebrated as being the most complex, the most psychologically realistic, and the most adult mainstream comic book ever created up until that point. However, Watchmen wasn’t universally embraced as some critics felt that with its abundance of violence, nudity, sexuality, and politics (the most offensive of all) that the generalized innocence of the comic book superhero had been lost. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if that perceived innocence had ever really existed in comic books at all or whether the innocence belonged to the reader and not the comic. After all, for the first twenty something years of the industry, the primary readers of comics were children. Naturally, in the writing of a comic book or any book for that matter, the author and the illustrator must give their readers what it is that they desire and if you’re writing for the jaded adult reader then the content of the book will reflect a more mature and complex set of desires. As you can imagine and as often is the case with a groundbreaking work of art, Watchmen had a polarizing effect on those that read it. People either loved it for its nihilistic and cynical story or loathed it for its heavy-handed satire and self-referential modernity, which made it difficult to read for those unfamiliar with the archetypal characters found in comics. Since when were comic books meant to be subversive, philosophically challenging, and ironic? At the time comics were still being regarded as “childish stuff”, but that was changing dramatically and soon the balance would shift around completely.
For the past decade and a half, Hollywood has been rapidly adapting comic book and graphic novel characters for the cinematic medium. As these films proliferate, rise in popularity, and display the commercial potential of superheroes on the big screen it became obvious that eventually the Watchmen would join the pantheon of comic book super heroes turned movie heroes. But would they fit into that pantheon comfortably and would audiences accept them?
Super heroes have proven themselves to be some of the most popular and profitable properties in the entertainment industry. Yet what makes them so endearing and enduring as figures of our pop culture? Is it because superheroes are extremely athletic, usually physically attractive, and are of above average intelligence? Is it because they reflect our innermost fantasies of adventure, heroism, and our desires for strength and power? Perhaps superheroes hold such a great appeal simply because we crave idealized role models who give us something to aspire to and to inspire us to be uncompromising in our morality while we witness them triumph over the forces of evil. Well, if that’s the case then Watchmen will be a rude awakening for most viewers.
Ever since DC Comics
published Alan Moore
and Dave Gibbons
’ epic anti-hero saga, there have been many attempts of adapting it into a film. Many writers and filmmakers have had their names attached to the project of adapting Watchmen
, but until recently all had failed. One director even went so far to say that Watchmen
was unfilmable. That was the general consensus until Zack Snyder
directed the visually stunning, though superficial and somewhat offensive film 300
, which was based on Frank Miller
’s popular graphic novel. When Warner Bros.
and DC Comics
saw the success of that film, Snyder was promptly chosen to direct the “unfilmable” Watchmen
The screenplay, written by David Hayter and Alex Tse, is surprisingly faithful to the characters and the events of Alan Moore’s story, but they do seem to misplace the essence of Watchmen: the idea that superheroes would be more destructive for humanity than beneficial. The writers have also made the decision to leave out many supporting characters and subplots for a number of reasons ranging from the budgetary to the artistic to the limitations of screen time. Even after the film was completed and edited into its final cut for theatrical exhibition, there was over an hour of deleted materials. Some of that material found its way onto the Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood DVD and Blu-ray discs. These two deleted plot elements chronicled the adventures of a sailor struggling to reach home at all costs and featured an autobiography of an aging costumed vigilante turned auto-mechanic. Unsurprisingly, there were rumors of an extended director’s cut of Watchmen long before the film even was released in theatres. But what would it be comprised of?
In an alternate history, costumed crime fighters emerge during the late 1930s and early ‘40s to battle criminality and fight for the American way of life. But there’s a dark side to these vigilantes that is always seen by the general public. Behind the masks are people who possess immense flaws. They are bigots, egomaniacs, racists, sociopaths, sexists, rapists, and murderers. It’s only a matter of time before the world sees them for what they are… but will we live long enough to regret their existence?
But then a new kind of hero appears: Dr. Manhattan. Dr. Manhattan is the first superhero to have true super powers and he can manipulate all matter to do virtually anything he imagines. His presence alters the course of human events in the latter half of the 20th century. Because of him, America won Vietnam and Nixon was able to extend his executive powers and remain president term after term. To ensure his political power, Nixon outlaws vigilantism in 1977 and the costumed heroes give up their adventurous alter-egos for their mundane lives as normal citizens. The first generation of super heroes, which were most active in the late 1930s and then through the World War II era are mostly dead, having died rather unglamorous deaths at the hands of either their archenemies or at the hands of lowlife criminals. Of those original heroes, known as The Minutemen, only three are still live in 1985… Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl; Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre; and Edward Blake, The Comedian. The next generation of heroes emerged in the 1960s and included Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Nite Owl II, Silk Spectre II, Rorschach, and The Comedian.
In 1985, a former “hero”, The Comedian, a.k.a. Edward Blake, has been mysteriously assassinated. Another costumed vigilante, the sociopathic and extremely Right-wing Rorschach has taken it upon himself to find the killer and bring him to justice… whatever that may mean. But soon Rorschach becomes determined that the death of The Comedian is more than a murder, and that a conspiracy may be behind it: a conspiracy to kill the last of the super heroes. Rorschach is the last of the costumed crime fighters to remain active after President Nixon made vigilantism illegal with the Keene Act, but he refuses to abandon his violent masked alter ego, not for the president, not for anyone.
Rorschach seeks out the surviving former members of the super hero group that he was once part of. He first visits with Dan Dreiberg, formerly known by his hero name Nite Owl II, now an overweight and pathetic figure of a man, who spends most of his time reminiscing with other ex-heroes about the glory days. Rorschach tells Dan his theory that someone may be “gunning” for former “masks”, but Dan is hesitant to believe that that’s a possibility.
Next Rorschach sneaks into a government testing facility where Dr. Manhattan, once known as Jon Osterman before becoming the world’s first superhuman hero in an atomic test accident, resides with his girlfriend and fellow masked crime fighter, the sexy and strong-willed Laurie Jupiter, a.k.a. Silk Spectre II. Laurie loathes The Comedian since he had once tried to rape her mother, Sally Jupiter, the first Silk Spectre. Laurie has a strong aversion to Rorschach who she sees as being an extremist and a sociopath and her opinion is not much improved when Rorschach comes to them with news of The Comedian’s death and his conspiracy theory. After being asked to leave and refusing to do so, Rorschach is teleported outside of the facility by Dr. Manhattan. When Laurie asks if Dr. Manhattan had foreseen The Comedian’s death, he explains that there is a disturbance that is affecting his ability to accurately differentiate between past, present, and future. He also explains that this is likely caused by a nuclear explosion in the near future. Laurie is stunned and angry that he’d kept this from her and accuses him of becoming too distant from human emotional needs.
Meanwhile, Dan visits Adrian Veidt, also known as Ozymandias, a rich, and brilliant, but egotistical former hero, who has capitalized on his celebrity and formed his own company and become a billionaire. When Dan announces Rorschach’s theory, Adrian seems a little distracted, but he listens nonetheless.
Later at Edward Blake’s funeral, Dr. Manhattan, Dan Dreiberg, and Adrian Veidt all reminisce about The Comedian’s violent and disturbing past. But Laurie couldn’t make it, due to her strong feelings of dislike for the masked sociopath. She ends up being teleported to her mother’s house by Dr. Manhattan. There she is disturbed to find that her mother harbors a fondness for Edward Blake, despite the fact that he had tried to rape her.
After the funeral, while Dr. Manhattan and Laurie are making love, she is disturbed to find that he has duplicated himself and that he’s also working on a project in the testing facility while he’s in bed with her. She breaks up with him, feeling that he no longer understands or cares to understand human beings.
At Manhattan’s suggestion, Laurie begins visiting Dan Dreiberg and together they recollect about their days as costumed “crime busters”. At first they only acknowledge their mutual platonic friendship, but then a sexual chemistry begins to form and they soon realize that they are falling in love. One night after they fend off a gang intent upon robbing and raping Laurie, the two go back to Dan’s place. Adrenaline surging through their bodies, they begin to kiss and attempt to make love. But Dan reveals that he’s been impotent since he gave up his exploits as a hero. His feelings of inadequacy and impotence to change the world in the way he had hoped has resulted in his inability to make love to the woman of his dreams, literally. That night Dan has a horrific nightmare in which he and Laurie are standing naked in the middle of a desert, kissing. And as he reaches for her, her skin peels away to reveal her in her Silk Spectre costume underneath. She likewise peels away his skin and his Nite Owl costume is revealed. Then as they embrace, an atomic explosion in the distance lights up the night and the shock wave tears them both apart. When Dan wakes covered in a cold sweat, he comes to understand that the reason he and Laurie are unhappy is that the people they are now are the real costumes, that they’re true identities are the ones that they abandoned when vigilantism was outlawed, and that he’ll never feel like a man again unless he becomes active. When Dan catches Laurie playing in his hovercraft, they decide to take it out for a romantic rendezvous, but a fire in a nearby apartment building interrupts. They suit up into their costumes and barely save the tenants from the flames and smoke before the building collapses. They deliver the tenants to safety and then take off into the skies. This unexpected act of heroism reawakens their passions for life and for each other and they finally make love.
While Dan and Laurie unite in passion, Dr. Manhattan lives a lonely existence of quiet reflection. He is scheduled to appear on a news program to discuss the crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union, but when he arrives for the live broadcast, he is surprised to find that almost all of the questions are in regard to him. One reporter even suggests that Dr. Manhattan’s very existence may be detrimental to humanity and was the cause for a number of Dr. Manhattan’s old acquaintances having developed cancer. Incensed when he’s accused of having caused the cancer of his old best friend and of his former lover before Laurie, Dr. Manhattan has an emotional outburst and exiles himself to Mars. There, on the red planet, he begins to create a large, complex structure out of the planet’s surface and he reexamines the events of his life with a deep sense of regret and melancholy.
Rorschach’s belief that there’s a conspiracy theory against the heroes proves to be true when an assassin fails to kill Adrian Veidt and dies before Adrian can question him. This reinforces Rorschach’s vigilance and he continues his detective quest and uncovers an insidious plot that goes deeper than he could have ever expected. During the interrogation of Moloch, a former villain who he had seen visiting Edward Blake’s grave, Rorschach discovers that Blake, dressed as The Comedian, had broken into Moloch’s apartment and hysterically declared that the “whole thing is just one big sick joke.” Realizing that Blake had been killed for accidentally intruding upon a plot of epic proportions, Rorschach hits the street again looking for answers and willing to get them any way he can.
When Rorschach is arrested after a violent stand-off with the police, he’s sent to a prison. There he must not only outsmart the psychiatrist who believes that he should be in a mental institution rather than a prison, as well as defend himself from the other prison inmates, many of whom he sent to jail in the first place.
It becomes apparent that a cataclysmic event is on the near horizon and that the world does need its heroes again, so Laurie and Dan reassume their dual identities and break Rorschach out of prison. After returning to Dan’s house, they are met with a surprise: Dr. Manhattan has returned from Mars. He insists that Laurie must come with him to Mars, so he teleports them both, while Dan and Rorschach remain behind on Earth. On Mars, Dr. Manhattan and Laurie have a long discussion about the future of the human race and whether they can be saved. Laurie believes that Dr. Manhattan’s return to Earth could prevent the nuclear war that everyone is anticipating could break loose any time and destroy the world and all life. But to her dismay, Dr. Manhattan tells her that when she left him he lost his last link to humanity and that he no longer has any stake in the planet Earth or its inhabitants. Then after a heated argument, Dr. Manhattan allows Laurie to experience his perspective of time, in its true non-linear form. She is stunned when he reawakens long forgotten memories and she is further horrified at the revelation that Edward Blake was her father.
Back on Earth, Rorschach and Nite Owl hunt down any clues that could lead them to the mastermind behind the conspiracy against the heroes. When the trail leads to a small company that is partnered with Veidt’s own company, they break into his offices and there uncover the terrible truth. They have been betrayed by one of their own. They search Veidt’s files and realize that he has a hidden project in Antarctica. They gather up some necessary supplies, Rorschach deposits his personal journal in a place of safety, and then they board Nite Owl’s hovercraft and begin their long journey to confront Adrian Veidt, said to be the smartest man on Earth.
When they arrive, they can’t believe what they find. Adrian, dressed as Ozymandias, awaiting them. He confirms their worst fears. He has betrayed them, had other heroes killed, set up a deceptive rouse to alienate Dr. Manhattan with the false accusations that he caused cancer, and even hired the man who had attempted to kill him. Ozymandias is the mastermind behind it all. Shocked to the point of denial, Rorschach and Nite Owl inquire as to what Ozymandias’ master plan is. Surprisingly he tells them. He explains that he believed that only by uniting the world through tragedy and fear could the inevitable nuclear holocaust be avoided, so he created a machine that would duplicate Dr. Manhattan’s ability to explode any object by disassembling that object on a sub-atomic level. Ozymandias has no specific object in mind, but rather entire cities. When Rorschach challenges Ozymandias and declares that he won’t let him get away with it, Ozymandias explains that he already has gotten away with it. The detonator has already been triggered.
Dr. Manhattan and Laurie return to Earth after Dr. Manhattan senses a great disturbance on Earth. When they return to New York, they find the city in ruins and everyone is dead. Immediately aware again, Dr. Manhattan teleports himself and Laurie to Antarctica, where they plan to confront Ozymandias. However, when they arrive Ozymandias reveals the true brilliance of his scheme. On a series of television monitors, they watch as various world leaders agree to end the hostilities and unite to defend themselves from their new enemy… Dr. Manhattan. Since the atomic blast patterns matched those created by Manhattan, the world believes that he is responsible for them and therefore has turned against humanity. The Soviets and the United States agree to a truce on the grounds that they must not be divided when such a formidable opponent threatens not just their own countries and states, but the entire world. Manhattan realizes that Ozymandias’ plan has worked and that the only chance for peace will be at his own expense and that he can no longer reside on Earth. But Rorschach, who has sworn to reveal the man behind the conspiracy to the world, will not agree to go along with the façade… not for the sake of humanity and not even in the face of his own annihilation. He demands that Dr. Manhattan kill him if he doesn’t want the world to know the truth. Accepting the fact that Rorschach won’t compromise his beliefs for anything and that he has little other choice, Dr. Manhattan kills Rorschach as Nite Owl looks on in dismay. What have they fought for, this gross deception, this perversion of humanity that promises peace but only at the expense of individuals and what kind of peace can last if it relies on a world living in fear of its own destruction?
Dr. Manhattan departs Earth to find a place elsewhere in the universe where he might be able to better relate to life forms. Perhaps he will create his own world and his own race of people and maybe they will not resort to violence, or deception, or exploitation of one another.
Laurie and Dan’s relationship flourishes despite all that they’ve been through. Whether they will continue to fight crime remains unknown… even to them.
Adrian Veidt’s dream of being remembered throughout history as a great leader may or may not come to fruition, though he may have temporarily united the human race, he will be plagued with guilt and doubt. His will be a life of endless questions, which even the smartest man on Earth won’t be able to answer.
As for Rorschach, though he may have been a violent and bigoted man, he died with the knowledge that he lived by his own code of honor, even if it was a warped one. And his journals would prove that when they were plucked from the bin in the news office of a newspaper publisher. Then Rorschach’s promise to reveal the man behind the conspiracy will be kept and the truth will out. But what will that mean for the world and will the dissolution of Ozymandias’ façade cause the wars to be recommenced?
The film features an impressive ensemble cast, most of whom give strong performances, though there are a few notable exceptions. The cast includes 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 II, Malin Akerman as Laurie Juspeczyk / Silk Spectre II, Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter / Silk Spectre, Stephen McHattie as Hollis Mason / Nite Owl, and Robert Wisden as President Richard Nixon.
Most of the performances remain generally the same as seen in the theatrical cut, so don’t expect any major changes in the quality of the acting itself. However, there are more scenes of characterization so some of the film’s characters, who had seemed particularly one-dimensional in the original version of the film are given a bit more depth. In my initial review, I complained that Malin Akerman’s portrayal of Laurie / Silk Spectre was nothing more than an alluring woman in a sexy outfit and lacked any real characteristics or believability. In this extended director’s cut, her story arc is expanded and she benefits from a number of new scenes and additional footage, which shows her character’s more internal qualities. I also said that Patrick Wilson failed to capture the essence of the Dan Dreiberg / Nite Owl character of the book and that he made the character into a cipher and a pushover. Here we see more of his charm and his vulnerability. Other characters that receive more coverage are the Hollis Mason and Sally Jupiter figures, portrayed by Stephen McHattie and Carla Gugino. This is a welcome change to the overall mood of the film and brings the viewers deeper into the story, but as I say, it does not improve the flawed acting. That of course means that Robert Wisden is still just as awful as Richard Nixon, who deserves to be caricatured, but not without wit or any sense of accuracy. Instead in his case, we get a bad imitation of a very recognizable and generally disliked political figure.
The theatrical cut of Watchmen was a commercial success for the most part, though it didn’t do as well from a critical perspective. Overall, the response was mixed. Many agreed that Zack Snyder’s attempts to remain as faithful to the book were admirable, but resulted in a film that was inaccessible to newcomers that were not familiar with Alan Moore’s book. There were also those that complained of the film’s length and the numerous characters and plot structures that made the film, in their eyes, hard to follow. Some hailed the film for its unrelenting portrayal of its severely flawed main characters and for the way in which the film played with viewers’ expectations of a “superhero” film. Still, there were others who hated the film citing its cynical perspective on the nature of humanity, and the gratuitous scenes of graphic sexuality, nudity, and gory violence, all of which are pervasive throughout most of the film. Comic book fans were also divided in their response to Watchmen, though for different reasons. Those who liked the film appreciated the way the story deconstructs superhero archetypes and subverts genre expectations. Those who disliked the film usually accused the film of falling short of Alan Moore’s epic initial concepts or that the film’s director had failed to comprehend the ironic tones of the graphic novel.
It’s odd, especially when relating to a multi-dimensional story such as Watchmen, but in a way all of the reactions to the film are warranted. Zack Snyder’s vision wasn’t that of Alan Moore’s, his worldview and his aesthetic being wholly different, and though the screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse was very reverent to the source material, it could never recreate the comic book format in its entirety and complexity. No other medium could ever match the startling brilliance and depth of the book.
All in all, when one considers the difficulties of adapting such a beloved and detailed book into a film, Watchmen as a film is a great success despite its many shortcomings. Is the film a masterpiece in the same way as the book is? No, not hardly. But will the director’s cut change that?
Usually when an action, science fiction, or fantasy film is released in a director’s cut, the only significant changes made to the film are the addition of a few scenes of sex and violence. When you look at Zack Snyder’s filmography, that’s exactly what you would expect. To my great surprise and to my relief, the twenty-four minutes that were reinserted into the director’s cut of Watchmen are mainly character or dialogue-driven scenes that help to further develop the plot and the central protagonists. This isn’t at all what I was expecting from Snyder, whose previous films were nothing but scene on top of scene of sex, violence, and special effects. I find myself pleasantly proven wrong about his ability to tell a story, though I still question his capability to direct actors and create convincing characters. Ultimately, this director’s cut is a terrific improvement over the theatrical cut as it favors substance as well as style, rather than relying on style alone to sustain the film’s length. And with this version, which runs at three hours and six minutes, that could have become a real issue, but the story’s inherent suspense and melodrama keeps it from becoming at all tedious. In fact, I was more riveted by my second viewing of Watchmen than by my first, when I saw the film at my local theatre’s midnight premiere.
The 2-disc Special Edition DVD includes a fascinating twenty-eight minute documentary, “The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics”, which through a series of interviews explores the cultural impact of Watchmen, a music video by My Chemical Romance’s cover of Bob Dylan’s song Desolation Row, and eleven video journals (ranging from two to five minutes in length) that chronicle the film’s making. The Special Edition DVD also includes a digital copy of the film that can be uploaded to your computer or portable digital device.
My only slight hesitation about recommending this excellent DVD is that there will be an even more elaborate 5-disc Ultimate Cut DVD set coming out November 3, 2009 that will include the director’s cut as well as The Tales of the Black Freighter sequence reincorporated back into the film, plus a director’s audio commentary and a wealth of other special features.