I’ve always thought of Watchmen, the graphic novel, as Alan Moore’s way of sitting us fanboys down and saying, “these adolescent power fantasies you enjoy so much are all well and good but in reality only a psychopath would dress in a costume and fight crime.” We, of course, answered, “coool,” and drooled a bit. As we age, us fanboys of the baby boomer generation cling to our pampered youths while at the same time yearn for more sophistication and novelty. Thus a brutally realistic comic book about three dimensional heroes with some really ugly flaws was inevitable. Stan Lee began the long trek of giving comic books psychological depth, Alan Moore and Frank Miller got them there.

When I was reading the reviews of Watchmen I was struck by the almost universal acclaim given to Moore’s opus, no matter how the reviewer felt about the movie or comic books in general. Moore’s Watchmen seems to have broken out of the ghetto of ephemeral entertainment and entered the eternal world of literature. This despite the fact that it is commenting on that ghetto which the literati could not care less about. This means that Moore has hit on themes that resonate universally.

Of course among fanboys, Watchmen is a sacred text, one of those touchstones in every life it enters. Every geek can tell you where he was when he first read those words, “Dog carcass in alley this morning.” It was also regarded as unfilmable, too sophisticated for the modern action movie audience, too crammed with characterization, too heady with great themes. At least three talented filmmakers tried to shepherd it to the screen and failed. Zack Snyder took the detritus of those previous attempts, added his own vision and enthusiasm, and fashioned a masterpiece that is different from Alan Moore’s but still resonates with it.

The plot is indescribable. It starts as a murder investigation and ends up as an apocalyptic struggle with the highest of stakes. More central to the experience is the setting. It’s 1985, but not the one you may remember. Nixon is starting his fifth term. The S0viets are massed on the border of Afghanistan, threatening to roll in. America’s sole nuclear deterrent is a blue superman named Dr. Manhattan, who was created in a mishap in a physics lab. Dr. M is the only superhero in the book and in the movie who has super powers. He has almost complete control over matter.

From the 1940’s to the late 1970’s when they were outlawed, masked superheros have prowled the streets of America, fighting crime. Most of them had deep psychological issues that compelled them to don their masks, and many of them came to unpleasant ends. Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian fought in the Vietnam war, winning it for Nixon. But now the world is on the brink of nuclear war and it’s doubtful that America’s big blue superman can stop all the soviet missiles. Besides someone is killing all the ex-superheroes.

First let me get my one cavil out of the way. The point of Watchmen is that these are real people, highly trained and naturally gifted athletically to be sure, but people with no special powers. They are like you and me. You cannot jump twenty feet, land on concrete and be unaffected. If someone smashes your head into a kitchen counter with enough force to shatter it, you’re not going to keep fighting. Snyder could not resist the temptation to exagerate the action to cartoon proportions. It’s not an issue in other superhero movies. Batman has his suit and helmet-like cowl; Spider-man has his almost instantaneous healing powers; Iron Man has his exoskeleton. The Watchmen don’t have any of that stuff. It’s not realistic and it should have been in there.

Aside from that, though, this film is great. All the performances are perfect from the flashy antisocialness of Rorschach, played by Jackie Earle Haley to the low key nebbishness of Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl. Billy Crudup brings a gentleness to Dr. Manhattan’s detachment, where the temptation must have been to play it completely flat. And of course Jeffrey Dean Morgan breathes fire in the role of the Comedian. He brings out both the ugliness and vulnerability at the core of the character’s soul. The look of the film is perfect as well, since it was taken from the graphic novel. The costumes look good although Nite Owl’s cowl seems confining. See my above argument about realism or my Batman Begins review for my feelings about cowls. As for the much debated change to the ending, I thought it worked almost as well as the books, maybe even better.

Alan Moore had his name removed from this project and vows that he won’t take a dime for it, nor ever see it. That’s his right, I guess. But I hope some night he relents and puts the extended edition into his DVD player. I think he’ll be pleased, not because Snyder’s film is equal to the book–remember people, the book is always better–but because it is the best we could have hoped for, in fact probably better than we could have hoped for.


2 Responses to “Watchmen”

  1. 1 Faith March 23, 2009 at 12:13 am

    That pretty much sums up how I felt about the film (although I wasn’t disturbed by the Hollywood physics–suspension of disbelief and all). I read an article in Geek monthly where they got to walk onto the set and speak with Dave Gibbons, whose praise of Snyder’s efforts was telling. He said it was surreal to be patted on the back by the Comedian, smell the smoke of his cigar, with everything in the set exactly as he envisioned it. He was most jarred when he rounded a corner and found a real, life-sized Archimedes, plucked from his brain and brought to life.

    Plus, how has nobody mentioned the insane sexual tension between Laurie and Dan Dreiberg? Holy cats! The owl ship sex scene was possibly one the hottest to be filmed, even with the cheesy Leonard Cohen song.


  2. 2 Oknight March 23, 2009 at 1:06 am

    I’ve made the point in other forums. The contention that the other “Watchmen” are non-super-powered isn’t quite right. For starters, Drieberg’s gadget invention and Veidt’s combination of precognitive hyper-intelligence and physical perfection reasonably constitute “powers” from the perspective of the “real world”. Dan and Laurie DO fight off an entire armed gang without a scratch in the graphic novel. More that that, Moore was specifically commenting on the Charleton “action heroes” (Blue Beetle, The Question, Captain Atom, etc)that were his (supposedly non-powered) starting point. Moore re-addresses the “non-powered” issue in his “1963” “The Fury” strip, where the supposedly “non-powered” Fury jumps from a skyscraper onto a moving truck by way of flagpoles and awnings. Of course, in the “real world”, Rorschach would have been shot dead within a week. So, in a sense, Snyder’s view of the characters as masters of “wire fu” is the only way that “non-powered” superheros make sense. I don’t begrudge him the Hong-Kongish exaggerations.

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