Watchmen – Review

The unfilmable has now become a motion picture event.


Director: Zack Snyder
Notable Cast: Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer

At midnight, all the agents and superhuman crew, go out and round up everyone who knows more than they do.

-Bob Dylan

They did it. They finally did it. Watchmen, the most celebrated graphic novel of all time, has been made into a feature-length film. For the longest time the comic masterpiece was thought to be unfilmable. The material was just too bold and profound for Hollywood to grasp. When attempts were made to turn it into a film, studios encountered funding problems and could never decide on a final script. Filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky would come onboard only to leave and pursue other projects.

But all the turmoil of getting the film made is over. Zack Snyder has turned what was a watershed moment in the medium of comic book literature into a cinematic reality.

To be truthful, I read the novel recently. Yet, it had been residing comfortably in a closet cubbyhole for a number of years. It took an incredible trailer to pique my interest to finally pull it out and read what Time magazine listed as one of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923. And I’m not the only one. Many others have been trying to read the graphic novel in preparation for the theatrical release.

While incorporating sociopolitical commentary into what begins as a murder-mystery, we are presented an allegory of a changing landscape. It may be twenty-three years removed from its original publication date, but with our post-9/11 world and the global climate, this story is as prevalent now as it was back in the ‘80s.

The dystopian paradigm presented within its twelve chapters – of a Cold War-era 1985 with Richard Nixon presiding for a third term – is too surreal. It is a world where superheroes, once revered and celebrated, are banned due to government legislation.

Before pressing on, let’s get one thing straight: This collaborative group of heroes is not officially known as the “Watchmen.” They are referenced as such but in truth their origin dates back to the 1940s and a group calling itself the “Minutemen.” The opening credits is a montage of the rise and fall of the Minutemen. The images act as a timeline of events, and it establishes the notion that director Zack Snyder has a good grasp of the material. Okay, so he gets it. But the true test is if the story is too heavy for moviegoers that aren’t familiar with the comic.

Like The Dark Knight, which demonstrated that a superhero movie could be dictated by a great story, Watchmen provokes you with its grittiness. From a distance the film has high artistic merit. Snyder and his production team do a bang-up job recreating the look and feel of Dave Gibbons’ illustrations. Outstanding visually and on an action level – Snyder again incorporates stop-slow-fast motion in the sequences – the movie is exciting in that regard. Though there are times when the action goes beyond cringeworthy.

Aside from the action, Watchmen is a thought-provoking experience. Because of this, moviegoers may miss some of the subtext, which is further explained in the novel. As someone who enjoys cinema and literature, it’s to be expected. Subplots are cut and situations altered in favor of a more manageable run time. The novel’s non-linear style, thankfully, remains. Actually Snyder’s interpretation is pretty solid, retaining most of what made the graphic novel so great. The major adjustment is the ending, but I feel that the context makes it weightier, leaving you to sit and ponder the ramifications.

There’s been a noticeable trend in comic book films that they be a bit darker, emphasizing the ill-fated lives of superheroes. With the Watchmen, the best depiction is the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Though it is his murder in the first scene that sets into motion a chain of cataclysmic events, through flashbacks you see his transgressions and come to the realization that heroism comes at a price.

Along with the Comedian this group contains vigilantes with the names Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). Dr. Manhattan is the only superhuman in the group, the result of being caught in a machine that disintegrated his bones and sinew.

Ozymandias is the world’s smartest man, believing he has a kinship with Alexander the Great. The Nite Owl is restless, having had his technological gadgets collect dust in the basement. Rorschach, who wears a mask of shifting ink blots (hence his name), is more of an alienating presence. He’s a little extreme in his methods of dispensing justice. Silk Spectre has the misfortune of living up to her parents – more to the point her mother (Carla Gugino), who was the original Silk Spectre during the days of the Minutemen.

As the first, true superhero movie of 2009, Watchmen is decidedly odd yet is something you think about days after. I still am. I’m sure I’ll see it again. Maybe I’ll have the same reaction, or it could be a totally new experience.


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