Stephen McHattieCarla GuginoJeffrey Dean MorganPatrick Wilson
Medium: film
Year: 2009
Director: Zack Snyder
Writer: David Hayter, Alex Tse, Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore
Keywords: Watchmen, superhero, gangster
Country: USA
Actor: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer, Stephen McHattie, Laura Mennell, Rob LaBelle, Gary Houston, James M. Connor, Mary Ann Burger, John Shaw, Robert Wisden, Jerry Wasserman, Don Thompson, Frank Novak
Format: 162 minutes [theatrical cut]
Website category: Superhero
Review date: 25 April 2010
I respect it, but it's a bit boring in the first half before we reach the cool stuff. Admittedly you could be harsh and say that's also true of Alan Moore's original graphic novel, but I've said before that comics have more control over tone than a live-action movie. Cinema's more in your face. The audience can't control the pace at which the story unfolds and you're locked into immediate realism in a way that comic-book artists aren't.
Most controversially, the movie has an uncharacteristic failure of nerve in the squid. This might easily have been the correct artistic decision given the medium, but it still makes the film less interesting. Moore's squid is a stupid-looking comic-book monster. That's the point. It makes absolute sense for armageddon to take that shape, in a story about juxtaposing comic superhero conventions with the real world. However for Zack Snyder to go there would have arguably turned his $130 million artbuster into a Godzilla flick. I can understand that. The substitution they've made is clean, intelligent and works smoothly, but personally I think it makes it a lesser work.
The interesting question to ask here is what the film's added to the story. Why should you watch it instead of just rereading the book? After all, they haven't updated it to make it more relevant to the 21st century, unlike V for Vendetta. Well, first of all it's addressing cinematic superheroes as much as comic book ones. Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg reminded me of both Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton, my generation's two superheroes from either end of the 1980s. His costume's also the one that's been tweaked the most, making it cooler. This works for me. Since by definition he's now become a movie superhero, make him a commentary on movies. As an example of this, it's interesting to see how scary Snyder's made his superheroes, even the non-sociopaths. Nite Owl unleashed will shatter anything in his path. He and Silk Spectre break necks, snap bones so violently that the limb explodes and regard this as both fun and sexually arousing. These are the kind of fights you'd really get if you started mixing it up with guys who could punch holes in walls.
I like the gore, by the way. That works better than in the comics, partly just because of the medium and partly because Snyder's made a couple of nasty little changes I rather like. I've heard that this was done partly to counter any attempt at editing together a PG-13 version of the film, since Snyder didn't have final cut, but it's still a contrast to the jolly superheroics we're used to.
The actors weren't big-name stars at the time, but his performance as Rorschach turned Jackie Earle Haley into one. He's the film's not-so-secret weapon, never failing to make it electrifying whenever he's in the action. Admittedly that's just as true of Moore's Rorschach in the original, but damn, Haley's good. After the entire first half has been a bit slow and challenging, "Rorschach vs. the police" is where the film suddenly gets awesome. In prison he's terrifying and there's a lot in his final challenge too. Of the others, Jeffrey Dean Morgan hits all the right notes with his shocking and yet richly developed Comedian, Matthew Goode is the controversial one (since he's playing David Bowie rather than being Tom Cruise) and Robert Wisden as Nixon has a nose that looks like a penis. The only bits I wasn't sure about were a couple of moments where actors seemed to be having trouble playing opposite the walking special effect that is Dr Manhattan.
It looks nearly perfect. There's some unconvincing old-age make-up, but Dr Manhattan somehow looks wrong in just the right way. He looks unreal and really alien without ever coming across as a bad special effect. In comparison one of the aborted Watchmen movie projects over the years was going to have him played by Arnold Schwarzenegger painted blue. The opening credits are obviously great. I also liked the Silver Age superheroes, which is a new aesthetic for modern superhero movies and yet one that feels right and immediately gives a weight of fictional history. Admittedly film nerds will point at the Kirk Alyn and George Reeves Supermen and the 1940s Batman serials, but that's not the same.
The music is heavy-handed, though. In a less high-minded film, I'd call that a mistake. Here it's clearly a choice.
Is it an important movie? Hell, yes. It's crazy that something like this made it through the Hollywood studio system, even from Warner Bros. They're the only studio out there right now with balls and integrity and I shudder with horror at the idea of what we'd have got if Fox were doing, say, Harry Potter. This film doesn't have a hero. Instead it's an ensemble piece with a cast of dangerous and scary head cases. It's chilly and not particularly engaging in the first half, but it picks up with Rorschach and the third act feels more traditionally structured. It's a blast to see these walking nightmares at last going up against each other.
I've come to the conclusion lately that any film will be better for respecting its source material, even if that original is nonsense. If filmmakers go in treating the property as something to be strip-mined, then the finished product will simply be more Hollywood. It'll only ever be as good as the hacks making it. However if your filmmakers respect the original work and want to recapture what made it special, no matter how eccentric or ephemeral, then you'll get something with at least some richness and texture. In this case, Zack Snyder respected the blue blazes out of Watchmen. He approached it as if he was adapting literature, which of course he was if you're a comics fan. It's creating an entire alternate reality in multiple historical eras and a dizzying level of detail that somehow never overloads you. It doesn't spoon-feed. It has its own complicated rhythm, more intellectual and slow-burning than you'll probably be used to.
It's easy to see why it didn't make as much money as Warner hoped, but it bears comparison with Alan Moore's original and that's something you'd have never predicted. This is a film we'll still be talking about in twenty years, not just as a superhero movie.