To paraphrase a certain television theme song: “You take the good, you take the bad and there you have the Watchmen.”
For years, there had been talk about translating Alan Moore’s classic 1986 graphic novel to the big screen, much to the chagrin of the eccentric author himself. To be fair, Moore has never been a fan of seeing his work on the big screen, raising a stink the size of a sewage plant for each film made from his stories regardless of how good or bad the end result. Moore was full of equal ire for both the excellent Wachowski Bros.’ imagining of V For Vendetta and the suck-fest that was League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — a film so craptastic that not even Sean Connery’s presence could redeem it.
Watchmen, however, holds a special place in the heart of comic book fanboys (and girls). The 1986 graphic novel attained legendary status for its story of a disbanded team of superheroes bonded together once more when someone sets about murdering or discrediting the surviving members. Set in an alternate universe in which Richard Nixon is a multi-term president well into the 1980s, matters are further complicated as the United States teeters on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Zak Snyder, who previously directed the screen version of yet another graphic novel, 300, was the lucky cat to inherit the task of capturing Watchmen for celluloid posterity. In terms of subject matter, Watchmen is darker fare than usual for a comic book adaptation. Many of its images and themes (including rape, child abuse, and a prison inmate getting hot cooking oil to the face) are unsettling and presented in graphic detail. In fact, the first five minutes of the film includes a brutal fight scene that sets the film’s mystery in motion.
In an aesthetic sense, Snyder’s signature stamps are all over this one. Cinematically speaking, 300 looked like a beautiful painting. A beautiful, bloody, grisly painting – but a beautiful one nonetheless. Snyder employs an equally striking visual aesthetic to Watchmen as well. There’s almost an incandescent glow to the entire production.
Employing yet another staple of Snyder’s cinematography, the story-setting opening montage is shot with a minimalistic motion that could almost be perceived as barely-moving still shots. By contrast, the film’s action sequences weave between slow-mo and lightning quick, utilizing close up and full-body action shots.
Visually, Watchmen is striking. It has to be, clocking in with a nearly three-hour run time. Justifiably, Alan Moore’s story requires a stretch of time to flesh out as much of the book’s complex tale and characterization to the screen as possible.
While the action (for the most part) moves swiftly, there are scenes that are tedious and really don’t lend a lot to the film. Most of the tedium involves some rather prolonged sex scenes that give the flick a sort of superhero soft-core type of feel. Factor in several gratuitous ass-shots and the atomic Dr. Manhattan’s big, blue, flaccid penis appearing on screen once every ten minutes and that superhuman Skinemax vibe gets even stronger.
All griping aside in terms of the film’s pacing, Watchmen is a solid comic book adaptation. Great attention to detail is paid to the costuming and even musical direction to set the tone for the film. Taking a page (quite literally) from the Watchmen graphic novel, the film is bookended with Bob Dylan songs: “The Times They Are A-Changin’” serves as the backdrop for the opening credits montage and My Chemical Romance’s cover of “Desolation Row” (quoted heavily in the Watchmen text) is featured at the end. I’m tacking on additional bonus points for including Nena’s German version of “99 Luft Balloons” – perhaps the most cheerful song ever written about nuclear holocaust – in the flick. Watchmen gets big ups, too, for its subtle inclusion of Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” in a boardroom scene involving superhero/tycoon Adrian Veidt outlining his plans to visiting politicians.
With the film’s script, visuals, and sound bases covered, that leaves its final major component: the acting. While there are no thoroughly wooden portrayals in the film (Billy Crudrup’s Dr. Manhattan effectively emotes without emotion, as his character calls for), there are a handful of strong performances in the film.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan turns in a standout performance as Watchmen‘s most fascinating character, The Comedian. A multi-layered anti-hero, his story is told through a series of flashbacks. As a character, The Comedian’s actions are morally reprehensible: He has a way with women that would make Chris Brown and Ike Turner look downright romantic and hair-trigger willingness to take the most violent action possible in a situation. Morgan’s outstanding portrayal elevates The Comedian from being a one-dimensional ruffian to a sympathetic character who can almost wordlessly express regret and reasoning for his actions.
Equally good is Oscar-nominee Jackie Earle Haley as the enigmatic Rorschach. Haley’s performance relies mostly upon voice as his character wears a full facemask throughout much of the film.
The rest of Watchmen‘s main cast (Malin Ackerman as Laurie Juspeczek/Silk Spectre, Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl, and Matthew Goode as Ozymandias)’s performances range from good to adequate, with perhaps the exception of Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter, the first Silk Spectre. Her portrayal takes the character from a young, plucky superheroine sex symbol to an aged, alcoholic plagued by regrets in her retirement.
If you’re not a fan of the graphic novel or the genre in general, Watchmen may not appeal to you. Although Alan Moore claimed that the film adaptation dumbed down and “spoon fed” its audience, Snyder’s envisioning of Watchmen actually seemed almost overly intellectual. The film’s resolution requires viewers to pay attention throughout its two hours and 45 minutes to achieve full impact.
Giving credit to the cantankerous Moore, however, his work translates well to the screen. Rather bleak in its assessment that humanity is its greatest threat to itself, that sometimes the least human of persons can best understand just what makes our own Doomsday Clocks tick. Even 20 years later, Watchmen relevantly addresses fears and emotions that plague us all – superhuman or not.