Superhero movies have been getting better. With last years Iron Man and The Dark Knight setting new standards in comic-book narratives, it seems we are that much closer to seeing the eventual perfect superhero movie. Watchmen, like Iron Man and Dark Knight, comes very close, but not without a couple of flaws along the way. As a fan of the source material, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, I went into Watchmen a skeptic, and emerged a satisfied fan. Here, director Zack Snyder has taken one of the most beloved pieces of pop-culture, a graphic novel listed as one of the 100 best novels of all time by Time magazine, and made a universally relevant film that will stand the tests of time.
Watchmen opens in an alternate 1980‘s, a reality where super heroics halted the Vietnam war before it escalated, and Nixon is enjoying his 5th term as President. Watchmen follows the timeline of American history, only things ended differently in this history infused with masked avengers leading its way. The opening credit sequence is remarkable, a glimpse into this alternate history where WWII, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy Assassination, the Lunar Landing, and even Andy Warhol’s art are greatly influenced by the Watchmen, and their predecessors, the Minutemen. The credits are backed by the fittingly iconic Bob Dylan song, The Times They Are a-Changin.’ The originality of the opening made me think back to another remarkable credit sequence that opened Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.
The Watchmen themselves are a diverse group of masked avengers including the sexy stereotyped Silk Spectre, the Batman like Nite Owl, overindulged Ozymandias, crazed Rorschach, loose-cannon the Comedian, and real-life superman, Dr. Manhattan. All of the Watchmen are masked avengers, not heroes adorned with super powers. Dr. Manhattan is the only one with any real powers, a blue man who obtained the power to change matter by a scientific accident. Calling Manhattan a man is a bit of an overstatement, he is actually so detached from his former self and those around him that he eventually exiles himself to Mars. Each character in Watchmen has a complex back-story, a reasoning behind their desire for masked justice. The film takes a lot of time to trace back to these stories, which is a necessary element of the storytelling, however, at almost 2 ½ hours, the film could have loosened them a little more than it did.
Most interesting of all the Watchmen is Rorschach, the darkly disturbed antihero. Rorschach’s mask, a constantly changing inkblot, cleverly hides his identity behind the façade of his changing psyche. Played pitch-perfect by Jackie Earl Haley, Rorschach embodies the dark theme of paranoia that controls the films narrative. A narration of Rorschach’s journal, read by him throughout the film, paints an affectively dismal picture of how greed and fear are consuming the masses. Haley’s detached performance of gruff angst, along with Billy Crudup’s performance of Manhattan as a detached former shell of a human being, are by far the most noteworthy of all the films performances. Detachment and paranoia are the fuel for this complex storyline of Russian nuclear dominance, greed, and vigilantism and all its implications, good and bad.
As a fan of the graphic novel, I came out of Watchmen satisfied with what I saw. Here is a truly dark superhero movie, a film even more bleak than the Dark Knight, that taps into the deepest reasoning behind America’s paranoid ignorance, and the blinding ramifications of man‘s god-complex. Snyder did well, he chose his cuts carefully, and translated the comics with a beautiful attention to detail. It has been said that the comic frames were actually used as storyboards for the film (like Snyder’s 300), and it shows. The only problem that I really found with the film was its length. As difficult as it must have been to cut down the comics, I felt the numerous back stories could have been further cut to make the movie about 15 minutes shorter. Snyder’s stylistic use of slow-motion has become his trademark, and while used in some of Watchmen’s action sequences, Snyder was smartly conservative in over-stylizing. Watchmen is not your typical action-packed superhero film like Spiderman and Iron Man. Here is a film that goes beyond the special effects to uniquely explore the humanity of its characters, and the special affects their actions have on themselves, the world, and each other.