This world isn’t exactly ours, however. Based on the 1986 best-selling graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (both this book and Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” helped raise storytelling for comics to the adult level and set in motion changes within the industry that are still felt today), the tale is set in an alternate 1985, where superheroes were once a part of everyday life–helping to win the Vietnam War and get Nixon elected to three terms in office–but have since been outlawed by the government. Most have retired, but a few, such as the enigmatic Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) continue to operate, while others such as the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup)–the only living being with actual superpowers–live and work at the behest of the U.S. government.
It is the Comedian’s murder, in fact, which opens the film…allowing for Rorschach–a brutal conspiracy freak with a penchant for killing criminals, in his view bringing them to justice–to begin doggedly investigating the case, which ultimately leads to a type of reunion for the Watchmen, some of whom, like Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) and Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) have been itching to find a reason to don their costumes once more.
Those expecting an action-packed, fist-to-face continual knuckle-buster of a film will in some ways be heavily disappointed. Watchmen is definitely a more cerebral take on the notion of what it means to don tights and head out every night to fight crime. Like Moore and Gibbons’ brilliant graphic novel, the film deconstructs the superhero myth to reveal exceptionally flawed, frightened people beneath…in some instances, exposing a type of confused everyman inside. This makes for relatable characters, but although there’s at least 17 pounds of dialogue within each scene, the script by David Hayter (X-Men, The Scorpion King) and Alex Tse (Sucker Free City, the upcoming Frankie Machine) manages a steady and interesting flow, with few dead spots in between. And director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300) knows that when it’s time to deliver on the fight scenes, they need to be both bloody and intense to keep the promise of maintaining real-world believability. Arms are snapped at the elbow, searing oil is poured on faces, and Rorschach’s origin is one hell of a bloody mess in itself.
Not all is perfect within the Watchmen universe, however, as far as visual effects go. While the effect for Dr. Manhattan delivers suitably on his other-worldliness, the CGI for some shots of New York goes a bit overboard, breaking the viewer slightly from the story. When the arctic lair of Ozymandias (Matthew Goode)–the world’s smartest man–is shown for the first time, one can’t be blamed for shouting out “model!” upon seeing it, in spite of its cute homage to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. The makeup effects for Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden) and Henry Kissinger (Frank Novak) are no great shakes either. Within the storytelling/directing realm, Snyder manages to firmly put forth the conceit that this is another Earth in another 1985 with appropriate music from the period, although there are a few times when certain songs (such as an old Simon and Garfunkel classic) could have been left out entirely in order for the silence of the moment to add more dramatic weight, or allow composer Tyler Bates’ (Halloween, The Day The Earth Stood Still) appropriately moody, deep and sometimes eerie music to take charge. While Snyder’s adaptation of the novel brings new definition to the word “faithful”, the insidious true plot of the real villain behind the Comedian’s slaying has been changed slightly, to a definitively less satisfying degree than what was in the book.
A primary saving grace of the film is the performances by the lead actors, many of whom may not be well known to audiences in general, which was definitely smart casting on Snyder’s part. It’s harder to believe a major star like Brad Pitt as Ozymandias or the Comedian, so it makes sense to go with lesser luminaries in order to put the story and characters first. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Supernatural, Grey’s Anatomy) and Patrick Wilson (Purple Violets, Lakeview Terrace) are arguably the best-known actors in the cast, and Morgan is suitably sleazy yet somehow admirable as the Comedian, who views all of humanity as one big joke, while Wilson does a great job of presenting his Nite Owl II as a man beaten down by the loss of his big dream–being a hero–while being too scared to pursue his second true desire: winning the heart of Silk Spectre II, who in her private life is in a withering relationship with Dr. Manhattan, who grows more distant from humanity with each day. Much has been made in other reviews of actress Malin Akerman’s (Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, The Invasion) supposedly “wooden” performance and “bad line reading”. The truth is, she really isn’t that bad. Akerman is still young, not fully seasoned…and while she might not be able to cry on cue when necessary, she does manage to carry her own as Silk Spectre II, especially where it counts in the fight scenes. Besides which, the true star of the picture–since much of the story is told from his narrative–is Rorschach, the man with the inexplicably ever-changing mask, who could give Batman a run in the brooding department. Seriously, the Dark Knight would take one look at him and go, “Dude, you need to chill.” In spite of his serious nature, Rorschach lights up the story every time he appears, and just as in the graphic novel, his onscreen persona is destined to be a fan favorite.
Mirroring its four-color counterpart, Watchmen the film has elevated the bar once again. Now that the first live action super-team has appeared on the big screen–and more importantly, proving that the concept of doing a super-group with several different actors can work—the impending Avengers film from Marvel has a lot to live up to. And since this newest celluloid grouping is the property of DC/Warner Bros., there’s no excuse now to not get a Justice League movie right. After all, the Watchmen are basically an alternate spin on how the Justice League might rise or flounder in our real world. Perhaps when all is said and done, Zack Snyder should be the one to do that film. Since he finally managed to film the “unfilmable” book after others failed for 23 years to do so, it stands to reason that many in the fan community will consider him to be their real-life superhero.
Who watches the Watchmen indeed?