I am a Watchmen fanatic. I just decided that it would be better to come right out and say it, get it out in the open. I first read the Graphic Novel (one of the most celebrated graphic novels of all time, by the way) when I was 14. In the years since then, I’ve read it many, many times. I find it to be one of the most creative, dark, intense, and beautiful works in the comic world. For years, I dreamed about the possibilities of seeing my beloved Watchmen come to life on the big screen. My heart nearly stopped with excitement upon hearing the news that Zack Snyder, the visionary director who brought to life 300. All seemed to be going well. Word was that there was a great script out there, and Snyder became such a big fan of the graphic novel that he was hell bent on staying true to the source material. Great news. Then, my heart nearly stopped again, during the whole “lawsuit fiasco,” which I will not get into here. It had been called “the movie that will never get made” because of all the failed attempts to bring it to life over the last 15-20 years. And with news of the lawsuit, I feared that the prophecy would hold true, that Watchmen would never come to be. But, by the grace of God, the lawsuit was settled and the film completed.
I bought tickets when they first became available. I’ve seen it multiple times already. I’m glad I did, because I’ll tell you that anyone who attempts to review this film after only one viewing cannot possibly give the reader an accurate depiction of the film. This is the hardest review I’ve ever had to write, because I’m determined to keep this review relatively spoiler free. I strive to review this from the mind of a man who knows nothing about the graphic novel. I pride myself in being objective, just like this review will be. Finally, before the review begins, I’d like to recommend to you all that if you see and enjoy the film, an amazing way to enhance the experience is through the releases of Tales of the Black Freighter and the motion comic. Black Freighter is an animated adaptation of a fictional comic within the comic. It is great to see that director Zack Snyder decided to take on the Black Freighter story, despite the fact that it doesn’t exactly have a place in the main film. Clack Freighter is an integral part of the Watchmen experience. The motion comic is a semi-animated version of the Watchmen comic itself, taking panels and reading the dialogue out loud, and adding minor animations to make the comic come alive. It is a great way to enhance your enjoyment of the film. Plus, if you saw the movie and you’ve never read the graphic novel, go pick it up!
<The following review contains MILD SPOILERS>
This is the film I’ve waited my whole life to see. This is the review I’ve waited my whole life to write. You see, Watchmen is a hero story like you’ve never experienced before, not even in Nolan’s The Dark Knight. For anyone to do an accurate, true to the source material type film, it would have to be, because Watchmen was a hero comic like we hadn’t experienced before it, and rarely have experienced since. The story is centered in an alternate timeline, United States in 1985. Richard Nixon is still the President, having been elected to a fifth term, and costumed heroes have been outlawed. There was a time, not long before then, when they were a huge part of American lives. Costumed avengers existed, stopping crime and keeping the streets clean. But things went wrong. Terribly wrong, eventually leading to the passage of the Keene Act, effectively putting an end to costumed super heroes that are not sanctioned by the government. As the world became a turbulent place during the events of the Cold War (Or Watchmen’s version of it, still involving Russian Nuclear armament) the people lashed out against the heroes, finding themselves wondering, who watches them? Who governs the heroes who are supposed to dish justice? Hence the by now well known term, “Who watches the Watchmen?” When one of the aged heroes is apparently murdered, those who once protected the city set out to find out the truth, and uncover a secret that none of them expected, not even the all powerful Dr Manhattan.
The film follows a group of heroes, only one of which has actual powers (Dr Manhattan), as their origins are kind of revealed in the beginning of the film through a series of flashbacks. Flashbacks are used frequently in this film, both as a means of establishing a back story, and to give the main characters a true look at their fallen “hero.” Some may have problems with this system, and I can understand why. It can be hard to follow at times, and it can be frustrating to see the film push forward through a series of glimpses backwards in time. Ironic. The flashbacks are used to establish the back story of the characters, and it is also a means of showing the movie-goer just what some of the “heroes” are really like. It is quite shocking to the un-initiated, and you will find yourself rather confused when you see what these “heroes” are capable of. The things they’ve seen (and done) are horrific. These are the people we trust to enforce justice? But it all works well. Personally, I have no problems with the flashbacks, as they are a fine way of telling the story the way it was intended to be told. This is, without a doubt, a comic based property that comes as close to the source material as we are ever going to get. I believe that it will also help to prove to Hollywood that we can indeed make a comic property into a successful film while staying true to the source material. This film could change the way Hollywood makes movies.
I mentioned irony a moment ago, and that was not the only ironic moment in the film. I found that this film is riddled with irony, and this is part of it’s genius. Sure, there are things that anybody can enjoy, but there are also things that only the wise movie-goer will understand, much like there are things in this film that only fans of the graphic novel will understand. Does this impede the plot in any way? No. The film is accessible and enjoyable to ADULT AUDIENCES (Don’t bring your kids, parents, this is not Superman. You’ll scar your kids for life if you let them see this.) that have read the novel, and to those that haven’t. To those who have read and grown to love the graphic novel, you will find yourself pleased with Snyder’s interpretation. He proved his love for the source material by staying true to it when it would be easier to have just changed it. To those who know nothing about Watchmen, then you will find the movie to be powerful, stunning, breath-taking, awe inspiring, and beautiful. It was simply stunning, and audiences everywhere will enjoy the drama found in a film about a subject that doesn’t typically lend itself to that type of thing.
I find the movie filled with symbolism. You have to look to find it, but it is there. Take this small bit from the very beginning of the film (Trust me, spoiler free!): As the Night Owl 2 leaves his weekly visits with the original Night Owl, he walks through the gate in front of the place where Night Owl 1 calls his home (An auto repair shop), you find a sign on the fence that is focused on for just a second, but it sends a message. The sign reads “We fix ’em. Obsolete models a specialty.” Think about it. I trust you’ll get it. Or how about the “crazy man” who seems to follow the heroes throughout the beginning of the film? He carries a sign which reads “The end is nigh.” The characters are a fascinating study of the world. They worked together for so long, yet they are so very different. They all had their problems, with varying degrees of severity. These “problems” separate the “heroes” from what we would traditionally imagine them to be. you think super hero, and you think “All American” and “Powerful” and “Just.” But with the Watchmen, you could argue that ALL of them are true heroes in name only. Each one has a dark side that they are hiding. Let me explain by breaking down the characters (without spoiling them, of course):
Dr Manhattan is the all powerful one in the group. He is, essentially, elemental energy in human form, a man who stands 100 ft tall and with the powers to see into time (forward and backward) and to transport matter, as well as destroy it instantly, with a mere thought. His extreme powers have helped him grow into a man disconnected from this world, a man who no longer feels for the Earth or it’s peoples. Ozymandias is a rich and powerful man, one who cashed in on his fame after he hung up his “hero shoes” with the passage of the Keene Act. He is described as the most intelligent man in the world. He too, seems disconnected through the world, and despite his very public life, he has secrets to hide from everyone. Silk Spectre 2, the daughter of the original Silk Spectre, who operated as a crime fighter in the “golden age” of heroes, well before the Keene Act. She is a reluctant hero, feeling forced into this life because of what her mother was. Night Owl 2, the man to take up the mantle after the original owl retired and published a book about heroes after the Keene Act was passed. Night Owl claims to be tired of fighting crime, and seems glad that he is no longer a protector of the city. But strangely he finds it hard to say that… The Comedian, the “hero” who was murdered at the beginning of the film, was an “All American Hero” in the mold of Captain America, if Captain America was a cold, heartless ass hole. He was a savage, often claiming humanity will never stray away from it’s savage nature, no matter how hard we all try to hide it. Finally, there is Rorschach, the psychotic detective and conspiracy theorist. He is a keen mind, with razor sharp wit. He is also cold, blunt, calculating, and violent. All together, they made up The Watchmen, and apart, they each played an integral part of the film. But I promised no spoilers!
The film is full of questions. If you pay close enough attention, you will discover them. In these questions, you will find the themes that are intended to be explored, both in the graphic novel and the film. What has the experience of being a super hero done to the retired heroes? What has it done to the world? What happened to the American Dream? I will not give you the answers to these questions. But they expose some things to think about, which in turn leave you with more questions. You will come out of the experience understanding more about our world because of all these things from the Watchmen’s world. How should we respond to fear? Would the world be any better off today if costumed heroes existed? Watching Watchmen will give you the answers to these questions. What if you feel like you have everything? Or if you feel that you know everything? How do you connect to a world that you struggle to feel connected to? You are also faced with stark contrasts. Is humanity worth saving? Is the world any better off with heroes, or are we all doomed despite the best intentions of our so called “protectors?” “What in life does not deserve celebrating?” Yet the omniscient Dr Manhattan, as he so eloquently puts it, says “The Existence of life is a highly over rated phenomenon.” How do you save the world? A tough question, even for a man made god. Killing millions to save billions. The Ultimate “joke.”
Yes, this is a “hero film” unlike any other, because just like the graphic novel, it forces you to think; to challenge your perceptions. By now, I’m sure many of you have heard of the infamous “rape scene.” Yes, it is there. Yes, it is a little longer than it was in the comic. But it was tastefully done and masterful. It is, indeed, a scene that will be burned into your memory. It was powerful and scary. A classic example of how your perceptions of heroism will be changed. The Night Owl (2) asked the Comedian in one scene, “Whatever happened to the American dream?” To which the Comedian replied “It came true. You’re looking at it.” It is important to note that the landscape of the scene was that of despair and pain. Innocents were hurt, as the city was crumbling. Is this the American dream? This seems to connect to our times so closely, which I find amazing. The novel came out so long ago, yet it is still so culturally relevant. The film based on 20 + year old source material, stays relevant to our times. Even non-fans will be able to connect to the film in this way. Why? Why does this stay true to what we know of today? More on that later.
The story is easy enough to follow, despite the flashbacks. The music, while corny, is sufficient enough to set the mood and to convey the character’s emotions without a need for dialogue. In Dr. Manhattan’s case specifically, that is good. As his eyes are just white, it can be hard to tell how the character is feeling, and it is surely hard to humanize him. But Billy Crudup, the actor who plays Manhattan, does this to perfection. His subtle facial expressions and the cold, calculating tone he uses to speak, is amazing. Crudup has done a fine job portraying a disconnect and near emotionless omniscient being. And the film, on a whole, does an amazing job with the complex plot of the graphic novel, and translates the source material to film quite well. You simply won’t find a better comic adaptation than this.
While there are changes to the story, including the infamous giant killer squid (which would never have worked), the film was as close as any film will EVER get. It is littered with classic scenes and lines, lifted straight from the panels of the comic itself. This film could serve to change the way we all look at the “hero” genre. It could also convince studios that making a comic film that adheres to the established facts from the comics, can also be a rousing success. Honestly, without any knowledge of the source material beforehand, this film would’ve changed my life. It DID change my life. I know that sounds pretty dramatic, let me explain. I will forever have high expectations for adaptations of my favorite comic book films. The bar has been raised. Now I know that a true comic adaptation can be done. It was breath-taking. It was purely amazing. Who will watch the Watchmen? I will. Time and time again, until the day I tire of watching movies. It was stunning, beautiful, powerful and awe-inspiring. This film was a fantastic analysis of humanity, it really was. The film may seem like a crazy, distopian future tale, but it really isn’t that far off from what humanity really is like. Don’t watch the film thinking this couldn’t happen, because (aside from Dr Manhattan) it really could happen.
I want to leave you with my final impressions. This is what I left the theater thinking of. I said the film is lined with questions, irony, and symbolism, right? Well, there was a running theme throughout the plot line involving the Comedian’s death. A mysterious “joke.” It all boils down to humanity, like the Comedian said, we are all savages. This is especially true for all of us in the real world. Look around the world. We ARE savages. And humanity won’t change. If anything, this film helped me realize this. A sad revelation, but one I believe to be true. Eventually, we will bring about humanities downfall. Humans have always tried to kill each other. To quote the movie: “Nothing ends. Nothing ever ends.” We will continue down our destructive path. “In your hearts, you know this to be true.”