The 4,387th ‘Watchmen’ review you’ll read today
Some things to consider before seeing Watchmen, if you haven’t seen it already…
1. If you haven’t read the graphic novel, don’t bother going. Trust me on this. Even with tertiary characters removed or at least trimmed back, the plot is entirely too convoluted to follow without having read the novel first.
2. Understand that many of the negative reviews you may read are based almost as much in general critical disdain for Zack Snyder as they are in dislike of the film. If you think Zack Snyder is a hack, you won’t like Watchmen.
3. Also understand that many negative reviews are likely an attempt to put comic book movies back in their place as loud, dumb spectacles marketed towards 12 year-old boys. The Dark Knight got a pass from most critics, even winning an Academy Award, that’s not likely to happen again for a long time.
4. Disregard anyone who claims that the fact that Alan Moore refused to put his name on it is an indicator of the poor quality of the film. Alan Moore has made a long and fruitful career as a charmingly wacky curmudgeon who goes out of his way to badmouth Hollywood even as he makes money from it. Although you can’t really blame him for being bitter and cynical about film adaptations of his graphic novels. I mean, have you see The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Seriously, have you seen it?
5. If you’re squeamish about stuff happening to people’s hands, avoid this film at all costs. Trust.
Moving right along, what I’ve taken to calling Geekstock ’09 is finally at hand, after many long months of waiting, much of which was spent, in my case at least, watching the various trailers on YouTube ad infinitum, making Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘The Beginning is the End is the Beginning’ the number one most played track on my iPod, lovingly caressing The Art of Watchmen at my local Barnes and Noble and, of course, rereading the graphic novel. I’ve been preparing myself ever since seeing the first trailer before The Dark Knight, with the utmost care and dedication. If I had shown this much incentive in high school, I’d probably be a neurologist by now.
Was it worth the wait? Yes, it was.
Watchmen was pretty much everything I expected and hoped it would be, and as far as graphic novel/comic book film adaptations are concerned, you can’t ask for more than that. I had heard about Zack Snyder’s uncanny effort to make the film resemble the novel as much as possible, to make it seem as though each panel had come to life, and he succeeded. With the exception of a few relatively minor changes to the script (and honestly I don’t think the film suffers for any of them), it is almost startlingly true to its source material. No one can accuse Snyder of taking the movie and making it into his own monster. Well, they could, and I’m sure a small but vocal collective of would-be Comic Book Guys will, but they’d be wrong.
Do I really need to explain the plot of Watchmen at this point? All right, fine, here’s a quick overview: a group of former superheroes (though only one of them is truly invincible) in an alternate universe 1985 New York City find themselves involved in a murder plot that may have something to do with impending war between the US and Russia. These aren’t your typical superheroes, spotless of character and always willing to lend a hand, however. They’re damaged goods, banished by law from exacting vigilante justice and dealing with a host of personal problems, including impotency, paranoia, megalomania and just plain sociopathy. There is no “saving the day” for these “costumed adventurers,” there is at best stopping things from getting any worse than they already are, usually with a tremendous amount of bloodshed and destruction in the process. It’s a dark, cynical story that doesn’t end anywhere near a high note, not even one smile or thumbs-up at the audience.
Watchmen isn’t fun, let’s make that clear. Despite a few weirdly funny scenes, such as a flashback of glowing, blue, giant Dr. Manhattan approaching Viet Cong soldiers to the tune of ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and a slightly tongue-in-cheek sexual encounter between Dan Drieberg/Nite Owl II and Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II, this is a heavy, serious film that doesn’t let up for a second. It is also, however, a feast for the eyes. It’s exciting, it’s gripping, it’s astonishing to watch at times. It’s also extremely violent: limbs are loudly broken, people are shot, heads are smashed through counters and onto pool tables, they’re chopped up with meat cleavers, arms are sawed off. People are literally vaporized, leaving only vaguely body-shaped splotches of blood behind, and it looks fucking awesome. A UK film reviewer described Watchmen as “despicable trash” and stated that it was basically the harbinger of the death of American cinema. Yes, he really said that. I say, if you can handle gore and visible snapped bones, grab yourself a popcorn and sit tight, because this is a ride you’ve never seen before.
Though all the actors do admirable takes on their roles, two stand out among them. Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, the one character that was most at risk for looking absolutely ridiculous when brought to the big screen, what with the constantly being naked all the time, plays him subtly, with a soft, almost tentative voice that belies his superhuman powers. Jackie Earle Haley, perfectly cast as fan favorite Rorschach, looks like he walked right out of the book. The scenes in which he is seen without his mask are truly jarring, the panic he feels over not having what is really a security blanket of sorts palpable in his eyes and sharp features. It lends a tremendous amount of humanity to a character that on the surface just seems like a twisted vigilante but is really just a man whose spirit and sanity has been broken after witnessing for too long the cruelties humans inflict upon each other.
On the down side, because a review should always mention negatives as well as positives, a live action adaptation renders some of the dialogue a bit overwrought and cliched, particularly Rorschach’s Travis Bickle-style observations on the darker side of society and the romantic banter between Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Jupiter. Somehow, lines like “This awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children” just don’t carry over as well when they’re spoken out loud. Then again, in an era of films like Madea Goes to Jail and Street Fighter: the Legend of Chun-Li, I’m just impressed to hear someone in a movie use a word like “abattoir.” It also feels a little rushed in places, as if, and this is undoubtedly true, Zack Snyder knew he had to squeeze in as much as possible within the two hour and forty-five minute running time. I imagine the amount of deleted scenes alone will make the inevitable director’s cut DVD eleven discs long. Also, it’s really violent. Did I mention it’s violent? Holy shit, it’s violent. But, if you read the book, you’d know to be prepared for that, so it’s not really a negative.
I have to admit to being a bit offended at reading not one, not two, but several rather pompous reviews that suggest that one needs to be a bit immature to enjoy the allegories, political satire and bone-crunching violence Watchmen offers. I don’t think it’s immaturity so much as the ability to sit back and be taken in by a Pandora’s Box of a plot and some truly mind-blowing special effects. Just because the movie itself is mostly serious doesn’t mean it was meant to be taken seriously. Again, it’s not “fun,” but it’s definitely an experience, and I thought it was pretty swell. If that makes me immature, than so be it.
By the way, I totally giggled the first time they showed Dr. Manhattan’s wang. Not really. But, dammit, I wanted to.