This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
There’s probably never going to be another graphic novel that reaches the same level of notoriety as Alan Moore’s seminal Watchmen. It’s so good even those who would otherwise turn their noses up at the funnybook scene were forced to admit its worth, and by extension the fact that having protagonists clad in Lyrca does not necessarily stop those characters being intriguing or having something to say about society. Having finally got round to reading this for the first time, shamefully, scant weeks before the release of the long awaited film adaptation, the second thought occurring to me (after “this is an excellent novel”) was that it’s not the sort of novel that would necessarily translate to an excellent film.
Talk of Watchmen being un-filmable is rather overblown, but it’s fair to say that a good chunk of what elevated the work to its lofty status is the world that Moore created for his characters to inhabit rather than the narrative itself. From the comic book within the comic book to the text extracts of character’s autobiographies appended to the ends of each issue, there’s at least some case for saying that it’s not going to be either directly applicable to a movie adaptation or possible within reasonable running time constraints. This is not the same as saying that it’s un-filmable, just that it’s going to be easy to botch it utterly.
Watchmen, however, has not been botched, and seems to have had the good fortune of being made by people who respect and revere the original work. The plot remains, for the most part, identical to Moore’s, set in an alternate eighties where vigilante-style ‘masked adventurer’ was briefly a valid career choice. The tide of public opinion, however, had swung against guys like Night Owl (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Roscharch (Jackie Earle Haley) and the Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), and masked vigilanteism is now outlawed apart from a few government sanctioned ‘troubleshooters’. While Roscharch refuses to stop his uniquely disturbed and violent brand of crime-fighting, the others either retire quietly back into public life or, in the case of Adrian Veidt nee Ozymandias, run the largest and most successful company in the world.
Of those sanctioned, there’s not much that anyone could do to stop Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) even if they wanted to. The only member of the Watchmen with actual superpowers rather than a mask and decent knowledge of chop-sockey, an accident at a research facility sees Jon Osterman dissolved, but he got better. Somehow rebuilding himself, he finds himself able to control things on a molecular level and become something akin to a god and the cornerstone of America’s defence policy. Who’d let the nukes fly when there’s someone who can make them disappear in flight? Mutually assured destruction just got less assured.
Still doing the government’s wetwork is the exceedingly unpleasant Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose ‘work’ helps ensure that Richard Nixon can rewrite the constitution and keep himself in for more terms than any country should be forced to suffer. It seems to catch up to him, as it’s his death by defenestration and the resultant investigation of what appears to be the serial killing of masked adventurers that links the film together, somewhat loosely, admittedly.
The plot, to be honest, is the movie’s weakest feature, just as it is with the graphic novel. For once, and you appreciate the rarity of saying this about what is nominally a superhero film, that’s fine, because the characterisation and ambience are the heart of the film, not its action set-pieces or special effects. Which is rather unfortunate, given the marketing campaign that heavily implies, if not outright promises, that it’s going to be about action set-pieces and special effects. I’m at least half convinced that much of the second week drop-off that this film suffered after a great opening comes from simple mishandling of expectations. If you lead people to believe that it’s going to be one thing while delivering another, regardless of quality, people have a right to call you on that. As an action film, Watchmen is vastly sub-par.
The point that needed to be made was that it is not an action film, and this simply has not been made clear to those coming to Watchmen for the first time. As a meditation on character motivation, society and humanity Watchmen has few peers, lyrca-clad or not. I’d certainly contend that you will walk out of this film with far more to think anout and discuss than you would with, to pick a celebrated example, Slumdog Millionaire. The ponderous developments and the sheer depth of this world is something that really needed more preparation that hoping that The Dark Knight has put people in the mood for something more than big bangs from their big budget tentpoles.
There was always going to be people who would hate this more on general principle than anything else, and true to form they’re happily running around shouting “Epic Fail” to anyone who will listen. Right-thinking people give these no credence, but more concerning are the many who seem to miss the point entirely. Watchmen‘s society is certainly violent and fascistic, as is the whole nature of vigilantism, representing as it does a failure of the rule of law. The film is, if anything, even more violent and bleak than the novel. What it certainly does not do is glorify or delight in it. If anyone walks away from this with anything other than revulsion for the actions of the Comedian and Roscharch in particular, they haven’t been paying attention. This is the exact opposite of a celebration of violence and fascism, which make it puzzling to see it condemned as such. Watchmen‘s world is so far away from utopian that it’s a minute away from nuclear annihilation and complete social collapse, hardly a world to be emulated.
Director Zack Snyder perhaps unexpectedly proves able to mix shocking violence with subtle undertones far more effectively than daffy CG screamalongaSpartafest 300 would suggest, and writers David “Solid Snake/X-Men/X2” Hayter and Alex Tse take an almost reverential approach to proceedings, chopping out or adapting only the barest minimum to avoid the film running much longer than its two hours forty or so. Relatively long film this may be, but it’s so densely packed with ideas that time passes with nary a glance at a watch to be seem. While there’s definitely some elements that might puzzle newcomers to the material, this has done as effective a job at compacting the essence and heart of the graphic novel into a film format and I cannot imagine a better job being done by anyone. The respect in which the production team hold the source is just as obvious here as it was during Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation, and the results are just as startling.
I appreciate I’m doing a lot of telling you it’s good rather than describing why it’s good by this point, which is more or less intentional. I’d rather than you discovered the stylistics, nuanced characters, startling alternate world vision, commendable performances and thought-provoking idea for yourself rather than blurt them out thorough my particular filter of incompetence. Even the viral promotional material coursing through YouTube is golden. If, as it looks like it might turn out, we live in a world where this can’t make a decent amount of money and skidmarks like The Incredible Hulk does I think I might just give up on it entirely. Another of space year 2009’s strong candidates for best film.