CAPSULE: WATCHMEN (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Zach Snyder

FEATURING:, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffery Dean Morgan

PLOT: As the film opens in an alternate past in 1985, Richard Nixon has been re-elected to a fifth presidential term as the Cold War rages on, costumed superheroes are integrated into the national security defense framework, the nuclear Doomsday Clock has ticked forward to five minutes to midnight, and ex-Watchman “the Comedian” has just been thrown through the window of his Manhattan high rise.

watchmen

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Watchmen is about as weird as big-budget major studio releases will ever be allowed to get, which weirdness explains why Watchmen was released as a Spring rather than a Summer blockbuster.  All the oddness, however, resides in the scenario.  Once the rules of this alternate universe are laid out—superheroes are real, they have tawdry affairs and abuse their power in bursts of sociopathic violence—Watchmen goes about its business with strict action-movie realism.

COMMENTS: The brilliant montage over the opening credits is a distillation of “all-too-human” vignettes in which we see four decades of masked avengers interact on a fictionalized American history stage, to the strains of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’.” A costumed moth-man is dragged off to an insane asylum, and a glowing blue man in a three piece suit shakes hands with a grateful JFK, and Andy Warhol paints pop portraits of caped crusaders. The opening captures what is good about Watchmen: the setting is so original that the film relocates you into its own peculiar universe, which is what escapist entertainment is supposed to do.  And this one has just enough of a veneer of philosophical and political depth (“who watches the Watchmen?”) to give adults an intellectual justification to sit back and enjoy a comic book on film.  The flawed superheroes are briefly sketched, but their slightly twisted archetypes capture our interest.  The noirish Rorschach has an inflexible vigilante code of justice and ever-shifting inkblot mask; atomic superman Dr. Manhattan deploys his colossal blue CGI penis as unashamedly as he does his godlike power to create special effects, all the while suffering existential detachment as his contemplation of quantum realities alienates him from human ones. The script weights the amount of time devoted to each of the intertwining stories and backstories well, supplying a rich context without becoming confusing.  The film’s nihilism ultimately appears as little more than a tonal choice, much like a decision to film in black and white instead of Technicolor. The setting is absorbing enough to make most overlook the films more than occasional gaffes, from the excessively visceral, bone-cracking and blood-spurting violence meant to deglamorize the heroes to a laughably glamorous moonlight lovemaking scene in a hovering owlcraft.

From the standpoint of someone who hasn’t read the beloved comic book graphic novel from which the movie was adapted, it’s amusing to observe Internet kvetching over the movie’s supposedly superhuman power to drain the source work of it’s magic.  Even reviews by professional critics often devolve into column-length comparisons of the literate merits of the original to the relatively pedestrian film version.   But, coming to the film not expecting it to have the intellectual depth and characterization of a novel, I found the movie Watchmen to be an excellent advertisement for the source material.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Watchmen’ is… going to be the ultimate tough sell: there will be those who view the film as a bewildering mishmash of underexplored themes, thinly sketched characters and noisy, excessive violence… And yet, there’s something admirable about the entire enterprise: its ungainly size, its unrelenting weirdness, its willful, challenging intensity.”–Tom Huddleston, Time Out London (contemporaneous)

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: WATCHMEN (2009)”

  1. I read the Watchmen collected comics at one of those “defining times of life” just before true adulthood and, upon finishing, felt compelled to do Something out of the ordinary (in the end, I merely walked to and from a friend’s house at dawn – though to my credit the house in question was in a neighboring city and not just down the street).

    Some years later I re-read it and I was still impressed by the content, though less so than before.

    When the movie came around, somehow I missed it during its theatrical release. However, I immediately purchased the director’s cut of the work and thought – “Well, that’s just about as close to the source material as anyone could reasonably hope for.”

    The differences between the two works can largely be summed up by running time concerns and the changing of the ending. In regards to the former, I feel they cut no more than was appropriate, leaving pretty much all the important character and story arcs in place.

    As for the change in the ending, it is likely I will offend purists, but I feel that the movie’s sleight-of-hand for a finish was much more daring and at the same time more logical than Moore’s original ending. Certainly it changes a great deal of the tone, but it is apt that the character who gets “framed” is of such a disposition that he concedes it was a smart thing to do and is in a position to just walk away from the scene, leaving things once more in the hands of those who have skin in the game (in this case, both literally and figuratively).

    The fuzzy-electric wash that covers all the images (save the animated interludes) and characterisations that are exaggerated but relatable nicely provide the comic-book feel. Frankly, as a fan of the original, I feel the director and all those involved did the comic the wonderful service of giving it an intelligent and accurate translation to the big screen.

  2. Agreed with the above – I’m a massive fanboy of the graphic novel, and I think the movie is about as good as you could hopeful, though not as good as the proposed Terry Gilliam version.

    1. Glad to find you concur. As to your remark, “though not as good as the proposed Terry Gilliam version”, I suspect that many modern movies aren’t as good as a potential Gilliam version.

      Now, once they adapt (do justice to) Frank Miller’s “Batman”* books, I’ll be a happy man.

      (*: I have no hope held out for either of Ted McKeever’s classics, “Eddie Current” and “Plastic Forks”, ever being put to screen. Ah well.)

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