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Watchmen (2009) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 04 March 2009
ImageIn the comic book world, Watchmen, along with The Dark Knight Returns, represents a turning point. Prior to these two seminal books, comics were seen as being for kids. While the 1970’s saw darker themes being introduced into the tales of our favorite superheroes, it wasn’t until Watchmen that comic books truly arrived as a storytelling medium equal to conventional literature or film. Winning the Hugo Award and being the only comic book to appear in Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, Watchmen’s place in history was assured from almost the moment it appeared. Since that time, many attempts have been made to turn the comic into a motion picture. Although the piece was generally considered “unfilmable,” that didn’t stop the producers who, in all fairness, are truly big fans of the book. Finally, in 2009 we see the fruits of their labor: Watchmen comes to the big screen, courtesy of Warner Bros, Paramount, and director Zack Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead).

No matter how you look at it, there is no doubt that Watchmen is a Herculean effort from Zack Snyder. The look and feel of the Watchmen world is brought meticulously to life under Snyder's watchful eye; every frame filled with small details to act as nods to longtime fans of the comic, or for those experiencing the film on repeat viewings. My worry is that Snyder got the letter of the comic down, but in his zeal to shove as much as he could onscreen, he forgot the spirit. The movie, like the book, takes place in an alternate 1985, where, in many ways due to the appearance of masked heroes, things are much worse. Nixon is still president, his term limits having been repealed (although I actually don’t consider a lack of term limits to be such a dystopian notion), and the Watergate scandal having been buried before they could surface. In this world, costumed heroes did exist, but have since been outlawed. There are three major exceptions: The cutthroat Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the vicious Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) and the superhuman Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). As the film opens, The Comedian is killed in his home, sparking the interest of Rorschach, who believes a “mask killer” is on the loose. He warns his old partner, Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), along with Dr. Manhattan and Manhattan’s girlfriend (Malin Akerman), an ex-adventurer herself. Nite Owl warns the other member of their former group, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who is more concerned with an energy crisis that is bringing the world dangerously close to World War III.

Sounds confusing? It is. Watchmen is dense, intricate, and complicated. But it was written that way by Alan Moore back in the 80’s. That’s not a problem. What is a problem is that Moore put so many interlocking pieces into the story that when certain elements are removed, they tend to drag the whole endeavor down. There are many important moments in the story that feel less significant on film than they do in the comic, solely because the audience is missing vital information that had to be cut for timing purposes. Snyder has already said two longer cuts will be made available on home video, and I hope these mitigate some of the issues I had with the theatrical release. But as it is, Watchmen feels woefully incomplete.

Of the actors, Jackie Earl Haley was perfect. He became Rorschach and I never doubted him for a moment. Jeffrey Dean Morgan also had my rapt attention whenever he was onscreen as The Comedian. Billy Crudup brings more humanity to Dr. Manhattan than is in the comic, although sometimes at the expense of the character's grandeur. Malin Akerman has really been getting attacked by critics and audiences alike (one audience member commented during the screening, "I've seen better acting from a chair,"), but I don't think she was so bad. She still looks strange in her Silk Spectre outfit, but outside of that she's the hottest she's ever been. Patrick Wilson and Matthew Goode fall a bit short as Nite Owl and Ozymandias, although never so bad that I was taken out of the film. Of the secondary cast, Stephen McHattie gets short shrift as the original Nite Owl; appearing only twice and very briefly at that. Carla Gugino gets more screen time as the original Silk Spectre.

To its credit, the film is beautifully shot, and contains some genuinely thrilling action sequences. Snyder clearly is a huge fan of the original work, and it shows in every detail-packed frame. But there’s something vital missing from this adaptation, something that makes it feel like it’s falling short of the mark, even as it hits many of the right notes. As the story neared its ending, I couldn’t help but think that Watchmen would be better served as a cable mini-series. Would you lose the awe of seeing some of these images on massive IMAX screens? Yes. But you’d gain the ability to tell the tale the way Moore originally envisioned it. And that, ultimately, is what a project like this needs. I give Snyder points for trying his hardest, and do recommend seeing the movie, but I can’t say it was a wholly successful attempt.

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