Hollywood has been trying to make Watchmen ever since the lauded 12 issue series from DC Comics was released twenty years ago. With a variety of writers and directors attached, the adaptation kept going nowhere. Director Terry Gilliam (Monty Python, The Brothers Grimm) was attached to the project in the late 80s, but soon gave up, after realising that Watchmen was unfilmable. Alan Moore, the writer behind the much loved series agreed with him, and after witnessing unfaithful Moore adaptations, such as V For Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Sean Connery’s last film before retiring), it became glaringy obvious that Moore’s works should remain on the page, not the screen.
However, as it was announced that director Zack Snyder was attached, after his faithful 300 film stuck close to Frank Miller’s comic, fans became cautiously optimistic. Snyder is a brave man though. Watchmen is revered, and rightly so. You’re not a fanboy unless you’ve read it. Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece is to the medium of sequential art what War and Peace is to literature, or Citizen Kane is to cinema. Yep, that’s how big a deal it is.
Of course, it’s really only those who have been reading comics for any considerable amount of time who know anything about Watchmen. That’s all due to change now though, and that’s a good thing. Those expecting just another standard superhero movie won’t find that here. It’s a good thing Watchmen wasn’t made twenty years ago, as superhero films weren’t the hot commodity they are today (and Watchmen subverts expected superhero clichés) and special effects have advanced greatly. So, what’s it all about then?
On the surface, Watchmen is about a group of retired superheroes set in 1985 who loosely reform when one of their own is brutally murdered, and it looks like every other superhero is a target. Gruff voiced vigilante Rorschach (named for his moving ink blot like mask), played by Jackie Earle Haley, discovers the death of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan from TV’s Grey Anatomy and Supernatural) in the film’s brutal opener by a mysterious man. As Rorschach narrates throughout most of the film, he warns his former team mates, Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman), the unearthly Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) about the potential mask killer.
The film does an excellent job of creating a fully immersive environment. I can’t remember the last time I was transported to another world with such relish. Keeping the story set in late 1985 is a wise decision, with the U.S versus Russian threat of nuclear Armageddon being pivotal to the story’s structure. The relatively unknown cast do a superb job with their distinctive characters, but Wilson as the slightly overweight Nite Owl II, pining for days of glory past, and Haley as the menacing anti-hero Rorschach stand out.
I won’t say much more, for those unfamiliar with the rest of the narrative, save to say that if you’re expecting another Spider-Man or Iron Man, don’t. Watchmen is far removed from any superhero film you’ve ever witnessed. It’s almost 3 hours long, and is riveting all the way. There’s some great dark humour and typical Snyder slow-mo action, and it’s all mixed up with some resounding themes about the meaning of humanity, the cost of peace and the skewed psychology of crime fighters.
The original 400 page book, which collects the 12 issue series, has been flying off the shelves lately, and is filled with extras that the film can’t capture, such as excerpts from diaries, memoirs and psychiatrist’s notes, all which serve to remind the reader about Moore’s brilliant dedication to detail. The other notable omissions from the film would be the catastrophic and bloody ending, and the Tales of the Black Freighter comic woven throughout the book, though an animated DVD of this will be released at the end of March. The main contention with the film, from loyal comics readers, has been the slightly different ending, but Snyder is extremely faithful to the comic, with literal dialogue used abundantly. The ending, as it is in the comic, would be jarring to cinema audiences, but the intent remains the same and doesn’t suffer for it’s variation from Moore’s creation.
This is a powerful film, and one that will definitely be shocking to some. The violence is brutal, the heroes aren’t what you expect (Rorschach kills, The Comedian shoots his pregnant lover, beats civilians, and much worse) and there is nudity, and raw sex scenes throughout. So, be warned, this isn’t intended for children. Watchmen is an adult film.
The music is great and helps sell the time period. Usually it works, such as the subtle use of Tears For Fears’ Everybody Wants To Rule The World, and at times mis-fires, such as with 99 Luftballoons, or The Sounds of Silence. It’s when choral or classical pieces are used that the effect really works.
Snyder should be congratulated for taking on this mammoth endeavour, and for doing the original proud. His hard work, and the studio backing, has paid off. Those unfamiliar with comics in general may be taken aback, but that’s a good thing. There’s a whole world of intelligent, intellectual comics out there, of which Watchmen sits atop the pile. The movie is its cinematic equal, and I never expected to say that.