[9 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Will the real motion picture version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen please stand up? In the span of eight short months we’ve had the official theatrical release of Zach Snyder’s genius take on the title, as well as an extended Director’s Cut DVD and Blu-ray which provided more character context and clarity to what was already a masterpiece, and now a well-timed four disc release which offers what Warner Brothers is calling the “Ultimate Cut”. In truth, it’s yet another editorial go round for the film, this time adding in the animated Tales of the Black Freighter back into the narrative, just like Moore and Gibbons intended (sadly, Under the Hood is left as a bonus feature). It’s all so confusing. No matter, though, since what was already a great movie is yet again made even better by the inclusion of even more context.
Of course, no one will argue with you if you don’t find Snyder’s reverential take on the classic graphic novel anything less than spectacular. We will forgive your pro-Squid rantings and seemingly senseless ridicule of the film’s many artistic triumphs. Indeed, in a few short years, when critical opinion has been snatched away from the grinning maw of Geek Nation, Watchmen the movie will be viewed in a similar light as Watchmen the literary icon - as one of the most powerful, forward thinking, and visually stunning stories of the last 50 years. In the ten years since the artform moved into the 21st century, few movies can match Snyder’s magnificent adaptation, using everything that was great about the narrative and fashioning it into a devastating deconstruction of personal identity and the horrors of human nature.
The story should be familiar by now, but if not… 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.
At its core, Watchmen has always been about individuals questioning their value within a world that has long since turned their back on them. Some respond by hiding (Drieberg). Others choose outright revolt (Rorschach). A few play both ends toward the middle (The Comedian, Silk Spectre II) while others remain unsettled in their role as superman (Dr. Manhattan) just as others secretly strive for the infinite power they possess (Adrian Veidt). Together, they become a contradiction in terms, heroes who no longer act heroically, champions who’ve long since been defeated by a society unsure of how it wants to be depicted - scared and subservient, or strong and self-reliant. Heck, even former supervillain Moloch is seen denying his past. It all comes to a head when something no one can control, nuclear war, comes calling. It is in this very moment of international crisis when the internal chaos becomes even more uncomfortable - and uncontrollable.
Perhaps this is why fans felt the need for the Tales of the Black Freighter subplot. Aside from all the literary allusions inherent in the novel (including the mystery surrounding the creator of the comic), the main thematic thread deals with a shipwrecked captain, racked with guilt over what happened to his men and horrified by the notion that the mysterious ghost ship may be headed to his hometown to complete its demonic aims. Unable to resolve his concept of the actions (or lack thereof) he took vs. how he truly views himself, he is determined to save the day. Fashioning a raft out of the bloating corpses of his massacred crew, he makes his way back to dry dock, only to believe he is too late. A few murders later, and our hero believes he has vindicated himself. Of course, the truth is far more shocking and unsettling.
As this new cut provides yet another excuse to revisit the film, one thing becomes clear on multiple viewings - Watchmen is a solid work of cinematic art. Forgive Snyder all his slo-mo flash and motion picture panache: this is a movie that works on all the levels it’s supposed to and on several it only hoped to achieve. We marvel at the acting - especially Patrick Wilson as Drieberg, Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, and Billy Crudup doing his damnedest to emote from within Dr. Manhattan’s motion-capture CG mannerisms. In between there are effective turns by sensational supplemental players, as well as enough violence and archetypical action to satiate the confirmed comic book genre fan. But Watchmen has always been about more than just heroes fighting fate. Indeed, there is a significant message about what constitutes “saving the world” within all the interpersonal sturm and drang, a point that says more about how little we’ve progressed in the 23 years since it was first published.
If there is any justice, this will be the creative benchmark by which all future speculative sagas strive to mimic. Snyder’s style may seem obvious, but it really is built out of layers of aesthetic and technical brilliance. Just look at the opening credits. In a single song (Bob Dylan’s prophetic “The Times They-Are-a-Changin’”), our director defines the Moore and Gibbons’ entire parallel universe - a world where masked vigilantes rule the streets, where famous historical events are perverted to fit the reality of such caped crusaders, and recognizable reality seeps in to make everything appear too grim, too dirty, and too bloody. It’s the same thing that happens when The Comedian is buried, or when Dr. Manhattan recalls the accident that determined his fate. Snyder takes snippets of story, interweaves them with what we’ve already seen, and strikes a surprising balance between outright fantasy and full blown truth. The result is troubling, revelatory, and incredibly entertaining.
Of course, purists will be wondering if this latest addition to the Watchmen DVD options is worth your time. Well, that all depends. Do you already own the Tales from the Black Freighter/Under the Hood disc? How about the Complete Motion Comic? Want a digital copy of the original theatrical release (the previous Director’s Cut is not offered, oddly enough), video journals, and other exciting added content all in one convenient cardboard case? How about a few exciting extras including everything from previous collections as well as two new commentaries - one from Snyder and one from Gibbons? While not as totally tricked out as some would like (the missing middle version, sans the Black Freighter material, would have been a nice seamless branching touch), the director considers this his final word on the whole Watchmen phenomenon.
And what a magnificent statement it is. Few can argue with the near impossibility of bringing Moore and Gibbon’s excessively dense, creatively complex fiction to the big screen. It’s a fascinating example of individual free association, each reader interpreting it through their own perception of self and how they would react in the face of such frightening socio-political prospects. Some seem Rorschach as a psychotic neo-Con who’s like a less tolerant Travis Bickle. Others rightfully peg him as the last bastion of morality in a wholly immoral world. And some could care less. That’s why Watchmen remains an elusive, ever evolving experience. No matter how many times the film is fiddled with, there will always be more buried inside. Luckily, many of the most hidden elements await the viewer to discover, not the editor. That’s why Watchmen stands head and shoulders anything else in its genre type. That’s why it is a classic - no matter what version you view.