Watchmen co-creator Alan Moore has a history of distancing himself from any film adaptation of his comic book creations. From the completely bloated League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to the controversial V for Vendetta, the quality of the movies based on Moore’s writing have been very hit or miss despite their critically renowned source material. In this reviewer’s opinion, Moore can be a little sated that this adaptation of his most famous work, Watchmen, is probably the best of the lot, though it does suffer from a few Hollywood excesses.
The plot of Watchmen is very deep and difficult to summarize without spoiling too much. The movie is set in an alternate 1985; America won the Vietnam War (thanks to superhuman involvement from Dr. Manhattan), Nixon is still President and the Cold War has now reached a fever pitch, as nuclear war is ready to break out at any minute. The time of the costumed vigilante has come and gone, with the change to darker, more paranoid times and public resentment. With the rest of the Watchmen either retired or working for the government, only the masked Rorschach remains on the street. With the murder of The Comedian (hero turned government operative), Rorschach suspects that costumed heroes (both active and inactive) are being targeted by some unknown assailant. As Rorschach investigates, not only do we see the now sad or dull lives of these heroes but through many, many series of flashbacks we also get to see where they came from and why many have fallen from grace. It’s a lot of exposition but each character is meticulously developed and then deconstructed (in both the comic and the movie) that I find it very engaging – a lot of detail to digest but very satisfying at the same time. This is not The Incredible Hulk or Ghost Rider… sure it’s got some action but Watchmen is about the stories of these characters and the world they live in, not the BIFFs, BAMs, or POWs.
The big question people ask is, “How true does it stay to the book?” Well, the Watchmen movie is about 85-90% panel for panel from the comic. The set pieces (down to the tiniest details), the “camera” angles and the dialogue – it’s almost all intact and preserved and it all looks fantastic. Having the other Watchmen co-creator, Dave Gibbons, on board most likely provided some excellent guidance. In fact the movie works best when it holds true to the comic as much as possible even though that means a lot of talking, though probably a bit dry and heavy for the viewer expecting Spider-Man 2. The ending has changed a little but I was perfectly fine with it. If you’ve seen the movie and read the book, you’ll understand when I say it was just a different means to the same end. I really enjoyed the opening credits sequence that very effectively showed the rise and fall of the “golden age” superhero during the 50’s and 60’s set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. It’s a credit to the direction of director Zack Snyder, who also directed the movie adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300. For a comic that was often considered to be unfilmable, Snyder pulls off a near literal translation quite well. However it’s when the film gets to the action sequences that Snyder’s own stylistic choices become much more apparent. They are full of over the top violence (bones snapping, blood squirting, etc), almost all done in some form of slow motion for added emphasis. Actions sequences are requisite in Watchmen, but not this brutal and drawn out. It works in a battle-heavy story like 300, but I found it took me out of the deeper psychological experience that the story adequately provides. Maybe it’s there in an attempt to make things more “exciting” but it ends up being Hollywood excess that Watchmen didn’t need.
The casting of Watchmen was interesting; there are no megastars to be found. What was perhaps missing in experience was made up in seeing some fresh faces without any preconceived notions. Let’s face it, Tony Stark WAS Robert Downey Jr, though that worked exceedingly well. Both Jackie Earle Hickey who was very intense as Rorschach (especially when unmasked) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian put in my favorite performances of the bunch, the Comedian being the more surprising of the two. I thought the Comedian character had tremendous presence even though he is a scumbag and appears mostly in flashback sequences. Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl, Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan and Carla Gugino as the original Silk Spectre were also very good. However I thought that Malin Ackerman as the current Silk Spectre as well as Matthew Good as Ozymandius felt flat, though Good does come around a bit later on in the movie. Overall, I’m glad that they didn’t cast any megastars in Watchmen, I think having unfamiliar faces helped put the focus on the story rather than the stars. Though I couldn’t help think that The Comedian passed a remarkable resemblance to Robert Downey Jr.
So what does the Watchmen movie have to say that still applies today, now more than twenty years since the publication of the original comics? The deconstruction of what a “superhero” is and what their motivations are (whether heroic, patriotic, vengeful or even sexual) is still interesting stuff. However, from a thematic point of view, Watchmen also reminds us of how bad the world can be and how much worse it could get if we don’t take steps to prevent it. Does that mean we should wear tights and a cape? Of course not, but each of us striving to be more than we are – to make a difference in the world is what is needed in order for us to prevent our own destruction. Deep stuff for a super-hero flick yes, but the story of Watchmen is deep and thought provoking material despite its often cartoonish medium(s).
The Watchmen movie is a near literal adaptation of the original graphic novel, and I really cannot argue with that approach very much despite some of my complaints. Though I really can’t say I walked out of the theatre super excited after having watched it (I already knew the story inside and out) but I did have a feeling of satisfaction that it was handled well enough. So as far as whether I recommend the movie, I’d say that if you liked the book, then yes. If you like a dense, character-driven story that has many, many layers of exposition and flashbacks, then yes. But if you’re looking for a light popcorn movie or something to take the kids to see, then I’ll look down and whisper, “No”.