Fresh off the heels of mega-hit comic-book adaption and meme goldmine 300, Zak Snyder had the world at his feet. Like a conquering hero, the grandiose success of only his second feature film afforded him his pick of the best, juiciest and most bountiful of projects. He could have done anything. He could have slipped into a franchise like Bond or the X-Men. He could have played it safe and made a sequel. Instead he choose to adapt the unadaptable He’d make The Watchmen; the labyrinthine, epic comic book that had lingered in development hell for nearly twenty years. The plan was to steer the floundering ship into port, and once again prove that he was the Alpha and the Omega of all comic-book movie directors. Fuck Christopher Nolan’s puny Batman or Hugh Jackman’s pathetic Wolverine. Snyder was gonna make a giant budget movie about a giant blue man with his giant blue CGI dick out.
1985. New York City at bursting point, ready to spew it’s drug-addled whore-guts out all across the world. This was Taxi Driver era NYC, when Times Square was filled with sex shops and every corner held untold danger. But there is more to fear here than some crack addict gang members tossing dope and ripping off purses. We’re in the middle of a Cold War. Russia threatens America with a sizable nuclear arsenal. But, as we’ll learn, the US has an ace-in-the-hole.
One guy doesn’t give a crap though. He’s lived through worse, and is now reclining into a life of retirement. The Comedian, AKA Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan – The Losers) is an ex-CIA spook, Vietnam vet and long-time masked vigilante. While he may be in his dotage now he’s still shredded, and a loaded gun is never far from reach. All that doesn’t make any difference when some unknown goon breaks into his lavish apartment and knocks six shades of shit through him. As a final insult he’s thrown out of his high rise pad head-first. Cause of death is listed as gravity via the use of concrete pavement by the arriving cops. But why him? And who’d be badass enough to whip such an old warhorse so easily? This mystery will prove the driving force of the movie – just who did kill the Comedian?
Hopefully in the next three hours we’ll find out.
The world of the Watchmen is much like our own but two major historical things are different. First, in the 40’s, when crime was running rampant, a group of NYPD suited up as the Minutemen, a group of masked vigilantes. This inspired a wave of costumed heroes that would permeate through the public conscious for the next 40 years. Second, the American’s win Vietnam. How they pull this off we’ll get to later, but imagine an 80’s America where Nixon has been elected for office for a third time in a world where we’re on the brink of nuclear armageddon. I don’t know what else might have changed. Perhaps Van Halen wouldn’t have split and Beyond Thunderdome was actually a good movie. Snyder doesn’t go into that much detail.
In ’85 masked heroes were outlawed years ago, and the last great superhero gang, the Watchmen (of which the Comedian was a member) all went their separate ways. But one chose to continue working. The violent sociopath Rorschach still terrorizes the underworld of NYC. Wearing a simple brown suit, his true identity hidden by a cloth mask, he alone decides to investigate the Comedian case. A break in gone bad it wasn’t. Some punk managed to take out the Comedian? Impossible.
He surmises that it’s possible some “mask” killer, potentially an old super villain with a hard on for revenge, was the culprit. He warns each of the remaining Watchmen in turn: Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson – Bone Tomahawk), AKA Night Owl – basically the unofficial Batman, save he’s a guy with bad eye-sight and a bit of a gut. He’s your pure good guy, who is part depressed the whole hero thing is over and part relieved. He doesn’t believe Rorschach, but at least has the grace to warn the World’s Smartest Man, Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode – The Imitation Game). He’d previously shed the superhero guise of Ozymandias to become a successful businessman and philanthropist. He’s currently busy working on a clean, renewable energy solution that he believes will end the Cold War.
Last on the list are Silk Spectre and Dr. Manhattan. Thankfully for Rorschach they both live together. Too bad it’s in a super secret government base. ‘Schach has some mad skills though and he manages to break in to warn his former partners. Silk Spectre is actually the second to take up the guise, the first being her Mum. Going by her real identity now, Laurie (Malin Akerman – Rampage), isn’t happy to see her psycho old pal. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup – Alien: Covenant) could care less. He knew Rorschach would come, just as he knows he’s going to leave disappointed.
Now, like his other major work, V For Vendetta, writer Alan Moore conceived The Watchmen with both a sense of realism and social commentary in mind. Watchmen specifically was Moore’s critique of the classic superhero genre. All the characters are human and yet while the ex-heroes are all badasses, they’re all also flawed. But no such commentary could be complete without a reference or link to the granddaddy of all superheros, Superman.
Dr. Manhattan is Moore’s Superman.
Once a nuclear physicist, a freak accident at a government lab quite literally destroyed young Dr. Jon Osterman. After a token funeral (there was nothing left to bury) weird shit starts happening around the base. First there’s a weird ghost floating about, then a central nervous system that is seen chilling by the water cooler. Eventually, during the middle of lunch, Osterman re-appears, reforming himself atom-by-atom into a giant, all-powerful super being. He’s dubbed Dr. Manhattan.
Now Manhattan is not merely the equal of Superman. He’s far more powerful. Seriously, he could blink the old Son of Jor El or whatever the hell he’s called out of existence. Let’s list some of his powers. Manhattan is invulnerable, can phase in and out of reality or teleport himself or others to anywhere in the known universe instantly. At one point he travels to Mars and makes a giant glass house, just for the lols. He can move objects with his mind, multiply and then re-combine himself (handy for sexy time), and can also see his own past, present and future simultaneously. He can even make an omelet without breaking any motherfucking eggs. Dude is that powerful, right. He’s the original Chuck Norris meme.
It was his intervention in Vietnam that won the war, with many of the Vietcong surrendering to his giant blue ass (oh did I mention he’s glowing blue?) personally. He also acts as the US’s natural nuclear deterrent. However, things aren’t all peachy between him and his lover, Laurie. They’ve grown apart. As much as he knows about molecular structure and everything, he’s forgotten how to connect with his beau. Like a God among insects, his humanity is fading. “If only you could see time the way I see it”, he says with a sigh, in his annoyingly passive voice. Lacking in all self consciousness he strolls around naked, continuously working on the clean energy project with Veidt. He has little patience for Rorschach, despite Laurie being concerned that someone may be planning to destroy the indestructible man. In a whim he teleports his former friend to outside the base. He’s got bigger things to worry about, with an impending nuclear conflict chief on the agenda.
Rorschach’s theory is effectively ignored. That is until some dude takes a pop at Veidt. The blonde-haired former superhero manages to survive (though a few of his business partners are taken away in body bags). The would-be killer wolfs down a cyanide pill before he can be questioned and Veidt goes into hiding to prevent any future attacks. A different tactic is used against Dr. Manhattan; publicity. A smear campaign effectively condemns him as some radioactive cancer-spreading twat. With Laurie out the door (shacked up with Dan Dreiberg no less), he literally has no reason to stay on Earth listening to all this childish shit. So he pisses off to Mars for some silent contemplation.
For his sins, Rorschach is framed for murder and cornered by cops in a tenement. Despite a spirited fight, he’s taken in to prison. Unmasked and de-fanged, surely it would be a matter of time before one of the inmates (that he put there) takes a crack at him. Tall order. He’s not in there with them. They’re in there with him. Or something.
With most the players off the board it falls to Night Owl and Silk Spectre to figure out what is going on and save the day. If they can stop boning that is.
The Watchmen was one of the first R-Rated mega modern superhero films. Adapted from one of the highest regarded graphic novels of all time, it was always going to be a tricky sell. You’re always going to have the problem of the die hard mega fans complaining that you’ve missed out this moment or that character. Then you’ve got the casual observer who is not gonna spot all the little references, nods or easter eggs you liter about. Unless the film is pure fucking nitro and it drowns out the cries of these types of morons, someone is gonna pick at it. And today, dear reader, I’m sadly going to be your court appointed moron.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good film. Solid, with a fantastic cast, great production values, and of course a dynamite story. And I respect the shit out of Snyder for trying so hard to be faithful. Honestly, it’s all up there on the screen. Even some of the more inconsequential characters that, in all honesty, could have been cut are all present and correct. But it’s like trying to copy the Mona Lisa using pasta or something. With all the will in the world you may make it look good. People may even recognize it and go, “Shit, that’s supposed to be that famous painting”. The heart might be in the right place. But it’s still gonna be the wrong medium. It’s still gonna be the Mona Lisa made out of spaghetti.
The Watchmen is a long film. Now there’s nothing wrong with that usually. A film has to be as long as the story needs. But it’s here that Snyder’s attention to detail fails him. There’s just too much going on to really get a sense of the greater story or indeed the characters themselves. One moment you get Rorschach reading from his journal and busting perps. The next it’s a flashback to ‘nam. I love ‘nam flashbacks, I really do. But like a lot of the sequences, they feel disjointed and fragmented from each other. There is so much going on that you begin to lose sight of the whole thrust of the story.
A good example of this problem can be seen right at the beginning; we open to a titles montage tracing the alternative history of America from the ’40’s onwards. It’s really well executed, with careful (as you’d expect) attention paid to the detailing. It’s like a moving comic-book. Running over the montage is Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changing”. Dylan, known for his short anthemic tunes, is a great choice. He fits the time period (sort of) and expresses the counter-culture sort of vibe the Watchmen is all about. But this isn’t the usual two minute version of the song. No, Snyder has to string it out with an especially extended version of the song to pack in all the little details he wants into the montage. It’s sort of like using one of Meat Loaf’s really long songs (and they’re all long) for a Rocky montage. Rocky montages work because they’re swift, punchy and inspiring. Extended Dylan is a symptom of Watchmen’s real issue; it’s just packed too tight with story and characters and stuff.
I’m of two minds to say the film needed more Rorschach. His journal serves as the film’s primary narrator. It’s him who sets the scene, who drives the story forward. But this force is compromised by all the various other characters vying for attention. Like one of those mongoloids on X-Factor or American Idol, he gets the same five minutes as all the other drek, good or bad. While it’s unfair to say all the other Watch-people are so lowly, Rorschach is clearly the best part of this film. Black and white, like his global hypercolour mask, he doles out harsh justice. He’s reviled by the authorities, hated by enemies and barely tolerated by his so-called friends. He’s Batman turned up to 11.
Jackie Earle Haley really nails it as the masked bastard. As an actor, he had a great run of it back then, following Watchmen with Scorsese’s horror debut Shutter Island and as the Dreammaster himself, Freddy Kruegar in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake. You also have to give major credit to Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian. Every character has their own horrific memory of the Comedian; Silk Spectre’s mum was nearly raped by him. Manhattan served with him in ‘nam, and Night Owl with him during the anti-vigilante riots. Everyone had an impression save for Rorschach. It’s ironic then that he’s the only one who is seemingly bothered that he’s dead! Morgan plays multiple versions of himself in all sorts of different eras. He’s a real scumbag, but like Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, you can’t help but watch the awful things he does and still sort of like him. Morgan really pulls it out of the bag here, despite only really appearing in those fleeting flashbacks throughout. Crazy that he originally turned it down.
To be fair, the whole cast is strong. From minor characters like the original Night Owl, Hollis Mason played by great character actor Stephen McHattie (Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills), to Laurie’s mum, Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino – Sin City). There is no weak link on that front.
Visually the film is very Snyder. It looks slick, though at times evidently CGI heavy. The action, while sparse, is violent and unapologetically gory. I found myself laughing in disbelief when Manhattan annihilates some low life in a club, back in his crime fighting days. The exploded innards adorn the ceiling and the screaming face of the goon’s girlfriend alike. There is also some slow motion poundage, a sex scene similar to that in 300. Sadly this once common “Snyderism” has been missing as of late; Alfred rimming Master Wayne wasn’t even on the directors cut of Batman vs. Superman. While he’s toned down a lot of the slow motion silliness, the dark-looking tone of the movie matches the subject matter. In fact, it almost comes across as too dark in comparison to the ultra-realistic approach on The Dark Knight (2008), or the reds and golds of Iron Man (also ’08).
Thinking about it, those earlier movies probably hurt the Watchmen (released a year later) the most. The world has already been introduced to a complex and character driven superhero story. Both Iron Man and The Dark Knight also featured recognizable popcorn brands and likable characters. The Watchmen was niche to say the least, whose main character (arguably) Rorschach was a raging neo-conservative psychopath. While we can’t really relate with either billionaire Tony Stark or billionaire Bruce Wayne, we still secretly want to be as badass as them. Conversely, I don’t see many kids dressing up like Rorschach or begging Mummy and Daddy for a Dr. Manhattan figure, complete with dangling dong accessory.
Despite all this criticism, I like The Watchmen. When I was seventeen, an old friend of mine introduced me to the world of “adult” comics. He let me read the likes of The Dark Knight Returns, The Sandman, V for Vendetta and The Watchmen. Of the two of Alan Moore’s work there, I think The Watchmen is perhaps the best. And Snyder really puts his heart into this. It certainly isn’t a case of him exercising dickhead control of a project so that it’s “his baby”. No, he’s paying tribute to perhaps the greatest graphic novel ever written. And it was a total bitch to get made, going through numerous studios, rewrites (the great David Hayter – X-Men 2 – famously had a pop, along with Batman’s Sam Hamm) and a twenty year development hell.
So once it’s made and out there and kicking ass, it’s a real shame that the box office or Alan Moore didn’t appreciate the effort. Snyder would of course go on to helm the DC Universe resurgence, directing the disappointing Superman reboot and it’s sequel. During the shooting of the DC ensemble movie, Justice League, his daughter Autumn committed suicide and he bowed out of the project. However, some insiders claim that the studio were unhappy with the direction the megabudget movie were taking, and had him fired prior to his family tragedy.
As for Moore, a few more of his comics would be adapted, to varying success and quality; From Hell starring a cockney Johnny Depp as a opium addicted and psychic detective in Victorian London trying to crack the Jack the Ripper case was actually pretty good. Constantine, from Moore’s Hellblazer comic, I actually really enjoyed too. The latest Moore bastardization would be Batman: The Killing Joke. Part of the DC stable of mediocre animated films, it rattled a lot of cages by featuring Batman and Batgirl as lovers.
Moore was utterly un-involved with the whole mess, like he is with everything else. As he describes it, he wrote stories like the Watchmen and V for Vendetta to show off comics and not as springboards to Hollywood glory. The crazy bastard (and he is crazy – he believes himself to be a wizard) has even demanded his name not be used in conjunction with any such adaptation, effectively talking himself out of millions of dollars. Now that’s pretty badass if you ask me. He continues to write his own brew of comics, and perhaps in a hope that it can’t possibly be stolen or bought by Hollywood, his recent “Necromonicon” graphic novel features some good old fish rape. Seriously. Imagine The Shape of Water meets The Wicker Man.
The Watchmen is an interesting, er watch. It combines Snyder’s unique visual style with a layered, dark story. It suffers from being too resilient to changing much from the original graphic novel (save for one very large element at the end), and instead works hard to pay homage to the source material. I didn’t watch the unabridged, 4 hour directors cut, including some animated sequences starring Gerard Butler (Law Abiding Citizen) interwoven into the film, so maybe I’m missing the complete, full-fat version of the movie. However, as a fan of the comic, I can’t say I didn’t like the Watchmen. Shit, I enjoyed it. It’s sort of like one of your friends recapping a film they once saw, but doing a really good job of it – like using voices, and actions and so forth. Sure, they’ll probably miss bits out, but you appreciate the effort nonetheless and get a sense of what the film is about. Watchmen is very much like that, and certainly remains Snyder’s best post 300 work to date. Get it watched.