Who watches the Watchmen?
TLR Rating: 7 Reels.
Zack Snyder is…well, a controversial director. His signature “Snyder-esque” style: filled with grand panning shots, a sense of gloom, and gratuitous violence are not meant to appeal to everyone. But when you come down to it, the main problem with most of his problematic movies is his imposition of the Snyder-FilterTM on all characters regardless of the source material. This is why ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ received mixed responses (and that’s putting it mildly; also, this author hated it. Yes, even the ultimate edition). But there is one Snyder film whose source material is not only dark enough to receive the Snyder-treatment but actually benefits from it. That film is 2007’s ‘Watchmen’, adapted from Alan Moore’s near-flawless Watchmen graphic novel.
At its heart, ‘Watchmen’ is a deconstruction of the superhero genre. It is a parody and a satire. It doesn’t give us brightly-colored symbols of hope to look up to. Instead it gives us some empty shells of human beings, whose identities have been reduced to that of bright costumes and masks. Instead of giving us a Superman to save us, a Batman to clear the streets of crime and a Wonder Woman to protect us from evil, we are given a few damaged ‘heroes’, deeply flawed individuals who are no better than the people they wish to protect.
The film is set in an alternate history 1985. The Minutemen, a group of costumed crime fighters formed in 1939 in response to costumed criminals has evolved into ‘The Watchmen’. ‘The Watchmen’ have drastically influenced world events. The godlike powers of the only super-powered being in this universe, Jon Osterman a.k.a. Dr. Manhattan have tilted the Cold War in the USA’s favor and helped them win Vietnam. This has resulted in the Cold War escalating into the brink of nuclear war between America and the USSR. Back home, anti-vigilante sentiments have led to the outlawing of masked vigilantes. Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian now operate as government agents, while Rorschach (played by Jackie Earle Haley), who is many ways the protagonist of the film, continues to operate as an outlaw. Events are set in motion when The Comedian is murdered. Rorschach sets out to investigate the murder and comes across a web of lies, deceit and Machiavellian manipulation. He is joined by Silk Spectre and Nite-Owl on his quest for the truth.
But the more we read into these characters, the more we realize that they are broken husks. We are not supposed to root for them. We are supposed to feel sorry for them. And yet, one can’t help but feel some measure of sympathy and support for Rorschach, despite his violent, misogynistic, homophobic nature. This here is a man who is ready to stand up for what he believes in, even though those ideals might not be acceptable to everyone. Having said that, the adaptation strays from the graphic novel when it comes to its characters. A lot of the nuance apparent in the comic is washed away by Snyder-grade bleach, and the only character that manages to still appeal to us after this treatment just so happens to be Rorschach.
The visuals, in true Snyder style, are great. Watchmen is a visually-appealing film. The blue-and-gray filter, which has become an all too common (and all-too annoying) feature of most modern films, is used to great effect here. It matches the gritty tone of the movie and in many scenes, even enhances it. The action is visceral and graphic, and can range from satisfactory and thrilling to downright disturbing. The film is a tad too long: the theatrical release was 2 hours and 40 minutes while the director’s cut clocks in at over 3 hours. It probably could have been made quite a bit shorter by cutting out all the unnecessary slo-mo scenes, which do nothing but bog down the pacing of an otherwise gripping story.
Most of the actors, unfortunately, are adequate. Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of the angry, intense and complex Rorschach is utterly brilliant. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian is also great, but unfortunately quite short-lived. It would perhaps be unfair to criticize Billy Crudup, as his Dr. Manhattan was meant to be robotic and emotionless. However, the others: Matthew Goode (Ozymandias), Patrick Wilson (Nite-Owl II) and Malin Åkerman (Silk Spectre II) somewhat fall flat.
‘Watchmen’, in many ways, is like its characters: flawed but real. It might not be as perfect of a masterpiece as its source material, but all imperfections considered, it is still a very good film that manages to make you think beyond the mask, that makes you think about the human. This is impressive, considering the fact that Alan Moore himself once called his graphic novel “unfilmable”. He still doesn’t like this film adaptation, but maybe that’s for the best. This is a film you either love or hate, much like Rorschach’s black-and-white morality.
Now if only Snyder hadn’t tried to impose the Watchmen theme on BvS…
The author is an avid fan of sci-fi, animation, period pieces, slice-of-life comedies and dramas. When he is not attempting to review films, he usually writes about random stuff, takes terrible photos and debates with strangers on the internet.