It’s finally here - after months of hype and numerous pre-release publicity pushes, Watchmen arrives in theater today. For those looking to go beyond the basic review, SE&L has put together this compendium - a collection of articles, features, and commentaries we have created in anticipation of this watershed work. Below, you will find links to everything from our final assessment on the film itself to a look back at Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original graphic novel. In between are takes on director Zack Snyder, a discussion of the changes made between book and movie, and an argument in favor of Jackie Earle Haley as a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee in 2010. So in between trips to the Cineplex, stop by and catch up on all the Watchmen minutia you never thought you needed to know. Come Monday, we will discuss the box office import of the weekend’s returns, and look at the soundtrack elements (songs and score) for the movie itself.
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The end of the world. The extinction of mankind. It is humanity that has brought itself to the brink, and it will take superhumans to save them - or at the very least, make-believe masked versions of said supposed heroes to end the threat once and for all. The question becomes - do they really want to, and more importantly, is the human race really worth saving? In their sensational graphic novel, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons matched Cold War paranoia with basic personal angst to turn caped crusaders into lost, alienated anti-heroes. Watchmen will always remain a seminal literary experience, and for many including the author, an unfilmable piece that no attempted cinema can match. Now Dawn of the Dead/300‘s Zack Snyder has stepped up to attempt the unimaginable - and has sort-of succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
When famed fallen idol (and former US undercover agent) The Comedian is killed, his former colleague in crimefighting Rorschach decides to investigate. His inquiries lead to a horrific conclusion - someone may be murdering masked vigilantes in an attempt to keep them from interfering in world events. Outside of true superhero Dr. Manhattan - a scientist transformed into a literal god when a radiation experiment goes awry - the former crusaders are the only individuals influential enough to prevent an oncoming World War III. When Rorschach is framed and sent to prison, it is up to his only friend Dan Drieberg, aka Nite Owl II, to rescue him. Along with new lady love Silk Spectre II, he will try to spring his friend. In the meantime, the Doomsday Clock ticks ever closer to Armageddon, and all paths appear to lead through former champion Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt and his massive multinational conglomerate.
Somewhere between the off-target outright dismissals and the overindulgent geek praise lies Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, and it’s a sensational sight to behold. This is a very, very good film, a flawed yet fascinating bit of social and psychological commentary masked as the story of forgotten vigilantes and dead personal purpose. It is not the abomination Alan Moore would have you believe, nor is it the perfected vision of the graphic novel Kevin Smith cooed about more than six months ago. It does represent some of the strongest, most compelling mainstream moviemaking in quite a while and reeks of imagination and the visionary. It is also a wholly insular experience, one that will probably have a hard time connecting to an audience unfamiliar with the original source material. Snyder deserves credit for being so bold here. He also requires admonishment for biting off a bit more than he, or any director for that matter, might be able to chew.
Luckily, there are several factors that make Watchmen a must-see entertainment. The acting overall is superb, while certain casting choices - Carla Gugino, Malin Akerman - continue to cause concern. No one underperforms here, but when you’ve got turns as mesmerizing as Billy Crudup as Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the doomed Comedian, and Patrick Wilson as the wistful Nite Owl/Dan Drieberg, everyone needs to be on their A game. The sole singular standout? Jackie Earle Haley’s Oscar worthy performance as last masked avenger holdout Rorschach. As narrator, anti-hero, and primary mover of the Watchmen universe, he is crucial to the success of Snyder’s approach. Without a strong Rorschach, nothing could save this film. With Haley’s heartbreaking turn, combined alongside the story Moore has provided, a new revisionist myth is born.
Snyder also deserves credit for what he accomplishes from behind the lens. This is more than just a photographic recreation of Gibbons’ precise panels. It’s also not the landmark comic as cinema style he perfected with Frank Miller’s 300. Instead, Snyder is working both within and outside his comfort zone. The action scenes, complete with the director’s signature start-stop slo-mo fight sequences, are accomplished and arresting. The last act jailbreak is an exercise in controlled chaos. But we also get moments of solid emotion, times when we sympathize and even grow to care for these larger than life characters. This is especially true of Rorschach’s human alter ego, Walter Kovacs. Haley’s repugnant walk down memory lane, meant to give us insight into how one man becomes so monstrous, is blood and tear soaked. Snyder and his cast are so spot on you won’t know whether to cringe…or cry.
Indeed, a lot of Watchmen offers this kind of massive mood swing experience. On the one hand, it functions outside of formula to become yet another example of The Dark Knight redefinition of the genre. While we anticipate heroics, we don’t expect such a bleak version of said gallantry. For that reason alone, it’s an important, impressive work. But it also does little to bring the uninitiated and uninterested into the fold. Unlike Christopher Nolan, who repositioned his comic book cult outside the categorical realms, Watchmen appears locked in them, faithfulness the ongoing justification for such insularity. Also, at almost three hours, there’s still enough time for everything. While subplots involving the Tales from the Black Freighter and Under the Hood are missed, it’s the past history of masked avengers - including the original Nite Owl and Silk Spectre - that get the rawest deal. Such historical context is clearly missed.
Still, outside such minor quibbles, what works about Watchmen is so gobsmacking and glorious that you instantly ignore anything that doesn’t. From the opening montage which establishes the parallel universe we’re visiting (complete with callbacks to the Kennedy Assassination and the drug-soaked dramas of the ‘70s), to the final threat which almost destroys the entire planet, Zack Snyder has stepped up and delivered a complicated, dense and very dark spectacle, the kind of film that’s potentially off-putting at first but miraculous upon subsequent revisits. There will be wild extremes in experience, those for whom any adaptation of Moore’s work suppresses his muse. But when viewed in time, when taken out of its event module and given room to breathe, to thrive, to exist, Watchmen will work as the quasi-classic it is. Dismiss or delight in it, but there’s no denying the bravado up on the screen. If this is how the world ends, it’s time for such an apocalypse now.
This time next year, if there is any justice left in this baffling business called show, Jackie Earle Haley will be reaping the same kind of universal accolades that followed the late Heath Ledger when he starred as the ultimate sociopath, The Joker, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight - and here’s hoping that the middle aged former child star does so without all the tabloid hysteria of a publicity fueled (or God forbid, posthumous) Oscar campaign. In 2008, Ledger’s unhinged criminal, compelled by nothing other than his innate need for chaos, transformed the Batman franchise into a true psychological thriller. There was never a moment’s doubting the character’s motives - he was insane. But Haley’s latest turn as Alan Moore’s anarchic anti-hero Rorschach in the big screen adaptation of Watchmen is every bit as bugfuck - and beautiful.
As our main protagonist, our personal private investigator and overall window into the Watchmen world, Walter Kovacs (otherwise known as the aforementioned masked vigilante) is a truly disturbed and uniquely fashioned personality. While part of him plays like an FBI profile gone exploitative, there are several, more solid dimensions to the character’s complicated arc. For his part, Rorschach is the last outlaw, the rebel who refuses to drop his caped persona, no matter the law or the legal ramifications of violating same. He is brutal and unapologetic, staring justice square in the face while using whatever means necessary to get his advantage or point across. He refuses to back down, taking the death of The Comedian as a sign that his own lifeline is growing short. By decipher the clues as to who killed the aging icon, Rorschach hopes to find meaning in his own isolated ideal - and the purpose of the once prevalent superhero situation.
In this regard, the man in the ever-shifting mask is the prohibitive polar opposite of the nameless villain with a penchant for perverting everything around him. The Joker is perhaps the most symbolic of Batman’s many villains, since he wirewalks on both the notion of humor and horror quite effectively. It’s the same kind of mixture that makes up the Caped Crusader’s demeanor - especially in Nolan’s version of the comic. Batman wants Gotham City to return to some semblance of normalcy, to get the communal courage to take back the streets and stomp out the various crime lords who appear to rule reality. The Joker wants something similar - he exists for no one but himself - but in his version of the metropolis, Id has replaced Ego as the main means of expression. Random acts of incoherent menace will be his chief way of achieving said aims.
In this regard - the sadistic desire to harm - Rorschach and The Joker are very much alike. Both even have baffling back stories that try and suggest the reason for their simmering psychosis. Of the two, our Watchman’s is the better, since we get to witness how the life of a prostitute’s son turns into a man on a murderous mission. This is especially true when Kovacs speaks to a prison doctor about his past. Indeed, Rorschach’s investigation and “resolution” of a missing child case is more than memorable. It bristles with a kind of cruelty that a certain clown (and scared) faced trickster would totally appreciate. Similarly, The Joker’s take on certain mobsters, self-absorbed and bloated on their own sense of supremacy, would definitely make his ink blotted buddy smile - if only for a second.
But there are real differences between Rorschach and The Joker, differences that go beyond personality and dig deep within the concept of each character’s humanity. Both are philosophical to a fault, but only the former finds a principle behind the prostylitizing. He may often sound like Travis Bickle with a huge hard-on for righting wrongs, but Rorschach is all about returning balance to a world gone wonky. The latter, on the other hand, just wants to tip things over the edge once and for all. He will burn money for no other reason than he can, going so far as to destroy a hospital as a test of personal will. One has filled a prison with his purpose. The other sees nothing wrong with pressing an inmate’s moral mantle against those in the supposedly civilized outside world.
As far as being a complete bad-ass, though, the comic book movie may have a new champion. While Ledger truly turned The Joker into the kind of man who clearly “doesn’t have a plan”, Haley’s Rorschach is so multi-dimensional it hurts. He’s part hero, part villain, part victim, part abuser. He’s torn and broken inside, preferring his mask to a life outside his identity. When he is framed for the murder of dying nemesis Moloch the Mystic, his only concern is his “face”, the expressionistic cloth that covers his frightened, fragile façade. During his interrogation scenes, Haley’s efforts are heartbreaking. He gives Rorschach the kind of dignity we just don’t expect from a psychologically unbalanced individual. Through the actor’s expressionistic eyes, we witness a lifetime of struggle and striving. In his broken, beleaguered words, we understand everything The Joker misses. Crime may pay for a while, but the ultimate price comes for those trying to stop it once and for all. But don’t take this as a sign of weakness. When push comes to slaughter, Haley’s Rorschach rips people apart with the best of them.
Again, if there is any justice, Watchmen‘s arrival as a media event will start the Jackie Earle Haley nomination ball rolling. His work is just as strong - and sometimes stronger - than Ledger’s, and his character is not just some loose canon bit of grandstanding. The Academy did indeed do the right thing by giving the late actor his due. Turns in Monster’s Ball, Brokeback Mountain, and I’m Not There mandated as much. But Haley has the same strong performance past to draw on - and he also has a previous nom for his sensational comeback as “reformed” pedophile Ronald James McGorvey in Todd Field’s Little Children. It can’t be stressed enough - Haley dominates a film filled with amazing, accurate portrayals. He’s the reason Watchmen holds together over its long, elaborate running time. When he’s onscreen, we’re safe. When he’s gone, things threaten to spin out of control.
In a perfect world, Watchmen will walk away with much of the pop culture debate for the next few months, giving way to Summer’s popcorn purpose before re-rearing its raison d’etra again for the eventual DVD/Blu-ray run. Within all that commercial sturm and drang, outside the natural tendency to cast assertions as facts and opinions as truths, there will hopefully be a discussion about Jackie Earle Haley, his turn on the oddly appealing psychopath, and how it compares to ones that have come before. And inside this conversation, between the exaggeration and the evisceration, someone will see the similarities to last year’s equally enticing event movie and draw the only logical conclusion possible. If Heath Ledger deserves awards recognition, so does Haley. Rorschach and The Joker are cut from the same cloth - and it’s some might messy material indeed.
Right now, it’s the studio’s only concern. The film has been completed, the marketing has been revved up, the press has been invited and the (so far mixed) reviews are starting to pour in. Years ago, a pan from someone like Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael might have meant something. In past decades, bad buzz (or in the opposite, unstoppable hype) could have helped predict the upcoming scenario. But Warner Brothers - with a little forced legal cooperation from FOX - are now playing the waiting game. They are gauging the media, deciphering the focus group cues and messageboard clues. They are baiting geek nation and hoping that the critical clique will take the hook and run like Hell. Watchmen is poised to be the first real ‘event’ film of 2009, and its time to crunch the all-crucial numbers.
That’s right; it’s all down to numbers now. Box office returns. Butts in seats. Watchmen may be a fine entertainment, or a stunning piece of visual art (or both…hint, hint), but the bottom line is just that - the reason for the film’s existence. FOX didn’t run to their local civil courthouse to complain about aesthetics. The studio who apparently passed on the film several times wasn’t crying over spilt special effects? No, they sensed a potential cash cow and wanted to make sure to get a bit of the cream for themselves. If the movie doesn’t make back it’s budget, it will be seen as a full blown failure, no matter how it functions as cinema. If it only makes a couple of hundred million, it will stand in line along with The Incredible Hulk, X-Men, and other “not Dark Knight” successes.
So who will be there come Friday morning (or in some instances, Thursday midnight)? Fans will surely be some of the first in line, their thirst for anything Alan Moore and the Minutemen almost unquenchable. For them, this is more than niche. For them, this is the answer to a prayer long genuflected over. Surely, they will be rewarded, minor changes and all. But the truth is, the rabid lovers of the original graphic novel will not be enough to sweeten the greenback starved suits - not in this or any economy. Even if each and every lover of the book came and sat through the nearly three hour movie twice, Warners would still be waking up with a clear case of the deep in debt cold sweats. So how does Watchmen reach beyond this determined demographic? Will anyone other than the faithful show up come 6 March?
Surely, the overwhelming publicity propaganda both on and off line will draw in some of the neophytes, especially those who are already prone toward comic book adaptations. For them, Watchmen will walk a fine line between brilliant and baffling. Moore’s narrative is very much steeped in personal angst and individual alienation, not grand heroics and epic gestures of action goodwill. There’s no prancing Tony Stark substitute, no hardline post-millennial Bruce Wayne wannabe. Instead, all the characters carry the perplexing personality issues of the everyday human. They’re afraid of war. They’re concerned about their aging well being. And they are worried that someone may be trying to end their reign as the world’s mythic masked vigilantes. If they can breach Moore’s tangled web of weakness and self-deception, newbies will find themselves instantly intoxicated.
Teens, especially, will be rewarded for their rapt, text message attention. Zach Snyder, notorious for ladling on the ultra-violence with Kubrick/Burgess abandon delivers enough squishy splatter and luscious gore to make even the most seasoned blood fan cringe - if just a little. Adolescent males will cheer like soccer hooligans over Rorschach’s revenge on a nasty child killer, and the last act jail break features a power tool prototype that even Leatherface at his most Texas Chainsaw Massacre-y can’t match. This may turn off a few of the gal pals in the 15 to 21 pool (those capable of getting in to see this very hard “R” film), but there is also a romanticized lure to the material that makes it the perfect fodder for new age geek girls. After all, when was the last time your saw caped crusaders copulating while flying over a failing city? Or full frontal blue male nudity?
Adults however, will remain Watchmen‘s wild card - and Achilles heel. It’s hard to see anyone over a certain age falling for this high minded spectacle of surreality. The Dark Knight certainly drew in the over 50 crowd because of its decision to go against type. While steeped in funny book formulas, Christopher Nolan simply shifted everything over into the realm of serious crime drama and let the situations sell the stranger stuff. And it worked to the tune of a billion buckarinos. Watchmen has no such realistic core. It’s an alternate reality, a Brazil like combination of socio-political pomp and revisionist retro-raw circumstance. The opening montage may stir a few of the faithful down memory lane, but it’s hard to see a senior citizen sitting still as Silk Specter gets her face smashed by a sex-crazed Comedian - or better yet, as the narrative turns grim and very, very disturbing.
Watchmen now clearly stands on a precipice. It will either be seen as a risky, rewarding experiment or a noble failure that still fulfills the vision of both its director and its devotees. Judgment on the final effectiveness of the film may have to wait until the proposed FOUR HOUR director’s cut that Snyder has promised come DVD/Blu-ray time, and some of the missing subplots - the Black Freighter/Under the Hood angles, for example - will have to bear up to their own sense of scrutiny come release date (a separate disc arrives in stores on 24 March - a SE&L review will arrive shortly thereafter). After all the talk, after all the advertising and viral manipulation, Watchmen stands to be judged on criteria that are as callous as they are indicative of the industry. Get ready to experience the kind of backseat driving and Monday morning quarterbacking that only a potential entertainment phenomenon can create. It’s no longer about the movie. For Watchmen and Warners, it’s all about the money.
It is bound to be the biggest issue debated come Friday. It will be far more contentious than how big the box office will be, Dr. Manhattan’s constant state of obvious “endowment”, or the removal of several subtexts. No, what fanboys and freshman to the entire Watchmen experience will surely be hair-splitting over the ending Zack Snyder and his screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have come up with for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel. It will definitely be the focus of more than one review, and will perhaps turn some potentially favorable notices in strangled, sour pans. One thing’s for sure - of all the things the filmmakers could fiddle with, the Squid is clearly a comic book - sorry, graphic novel - sacred cow.
For those who want to go into the entire Watchmen experience unaffected by spoilers, this may be your point of literary departure. It is impossible to discuss this element of the book and film without giving away the major plot points in both. Again, you have been warned. For its main story thread, Watchmen revolves around a group of masked vigilantes, once active, now banned by the US government. As tensions between America and the Soviets escalate, the world is pushed to the point of nuclear annihilation. Only the superhero Dr. Manhattan - the only member of the group with any true power - can stop the slaughter. But according to paranoid crimefighter Rorschach, there is a conspiracy to stop anyone from saving the day. One by one, the masked avengers are killed, compromised, and framed for crimes they did not commit.
In the end, it turns out that (SPOILER ALERT - LAST WARNING) Adrian Veidt (also known as Ozymandias), desperate to mimic his hero Alexander the Great, has orchestrated a massive hoax to “scare” the nations of the world into working together toward peace. In the case of Alan Moore’s novel, the event in question is the arrival of a huge alien squid who terrorizes and destroys most of New York City. The character known as the Comedian is killed because he stumbles upon the plan. Rorschach is set up as a murderer because he insists upon investigating the man’s death. Even Dr. Manhattan is condemned as being the cause of cancer in many of his former associates. The allegations make him leave Earth, thereby guaranteeing Adrian minimal interference with his plan. The mock invasion does occur, and he is proven right. America and the Soviets vow to help each other, while the remaining heroes decide to keep quite about what happened.
For Snyder’s take on the material, the entire finale has been reconfigured. Instead of a giant squid, Dr. Manhattan’s matter transforming power is harnessed by Adrian and turned into a nuclear-style weapon. He detonates several of these “devices” around the world - not just in New York but LA, Moscow, and Hong Kong (among others). Naturally, everyone understands that Manhattan is the only “source” of this immense force, and in true Dark Knight style, our muscular blue champion decides to play the threat and take the fall “for the better of mankind”. He will let the powers that be worry that he, not each other, will be the final destruction of mankind. Again, everyone agrees to keep Adrian’s secret, and toward the end, we see the philanthropic side of the man coming out once again as his mega-conglomerate is show redeveloping the huge crater in the middle of the Big Apple.
If you had never read the graphic novel, the change wouldn’t bother you at all. The entire subtext in Snyder’s Watchmen (and with Moore more or less, come to think of it), is nuclear annihilation. The comic came out during the chilliest part of the Cold War, right as Reagan was confronting the USSR about their unprecedented build up of arms. Everywhere, especially in Europe, proliferation was condemned, and the concept that we might actually end some disagreement with a barrage of A-bombs was part of our foreign policy. So Moore was taking a timely stance when he delivered Watchmen. The actual Doomsday Clock was actually pushing toward that ominous hour of Midnight. Snyder has simply stepped in and expanded upon it (to wonderful effect, one might add).
But what about those of you loyal to Moore’s original vision? What about the millions of devoted readers who see the squid as the ultimate “outside force”, a threat much greater because of its otherworldly - and unexplainable - nature. Why turn Dr. Manhattan into something malevolent when he’s more philosophical than evil? Well, it seems clear that Snyder was influenced by two factors - one editorial and one contemporaneous. Watchmen the movie could not possibly capture all the aspects of Moore’s dense and detailed narrative. Some elements had to be sacrificed. One of the key facets not found in Snyder’s version is the horror themed comic Tales of the Black Freighter. The story of a shipwrecked sailor and his blood-drenched journey home is important for two reasons. First, it parallels Adrian’s own insane ideas about sacrifice, and, two, it is drawn by a fictional artist, now gone missing, who is later tied to the squid attack.
Clearly, without any of the Black Freighter material in the film - even at two hours and forty minutes, Snyder still couldn’t work it in - the artist/squid material would seem unusual. One moment, the world is worried about mutually assured destruction. The next, a big sea creature is killing innocent New Yorkers. Even in the graphic novel, it takes several pages of exposition before we “get” Adrian’s idea. In the movie, this is not necessary. Nuclear war is so omnipresent and important to the narrative that when the Dr. Manhattan device goes off, producing the same result, the devastation draws an immediate and sheepish response from world leaders. Besides, with the limited effectiveness of such films as Godzilla and Cloverfield, would a visualized monster really work?
Watchmen is centered around humans and their obvious flaws and frailty that to offer up some kind of creature feature deus ex machina dilutes that idea. Not that Moore didn’t deliver a devastating finale for his book. Far from it. In fact, on the page, in simple static imagery, the squid works wonderfully. It has the effect and scope the story needs. But since the medium of film infers a great deal of ‘dimension’ to any story, making the squid real would mean offering it up for scrutiny - and that’s not necessarily the best thing for a complicated story’s denouement. Now, we get the destruction without dissecting the source. The payoff is still the same, and in many ways, the aftermath is more powerful, more realistic. As a result, it keeps Watchmen centered in a universe of people.
Still, there will be quibbling. Some will state that Snyder sucker punched Moore by sticking so closely to the source only to “jump ship” toward the end. They will then extrapolate still more fuel for the author’s “I hate adaptations” fire. Purists will simply balk out of allegiance, while those new to the film will wonder what all the hubbub is about. In the end, squid or no squid, Watchmen works because of its underlying themes and symbols. There is more to it than some alien entity. Still, many won’t be able to see the catastrophe for the calamari - and that’s sad indeed.