[5 March 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
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.