Movie Review: ‘Watchmen'(2009) directed by Zack Snyder

Watchmen (2009) directed by Zack Snyder

Well, I went to see Watchmen on Saturday, and I have to say that for anyone that has read Comic Books written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons, and colored by John Higgins that was published by DC Comics back in the mid 80’s, this movie is very, very good. But if you have not read those comics in any of their forms, you are going to have a number of issues with the film, because there is just going to be a LOT missing in it for you.

First of all, this is NOT a story of heroes vs villains. It’s not about big knock down fights with fantastic powers going off left and right. This is NOT a light film about light things. It is DARK in the emotional and moral senses. It deals with HEAVY issues of corruption and higher and lower good. It’s about how even the heroes are (or were) human.

The movie is set in an Alternate History version of the year 1985. And one of the core things about the Watchmen that was played up in the comic book promotions of the time, and was only partly played on in promoting the movie is that of ‘Who Watches the Watchmen?’. And the era it was released in, back in the 80’s (1986, 1987 to be specific), the world was a very different place than it is today. We had different worries and different views. There was no real ‘internet’, MTV was about MUSIC VIDEOS, Ronald Regan was president and Gorbachev became the Soviet Leader and the Berlin Wall was still standing until the end of the decade. The USSR still existed and was involved in a war in Afghanistan. And the comic was very much and allegory of the times.

And comics back in the early 1980’s, before Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns it has been said that superhero comics were starting to become… almost a parody of themselves. (Reference: A Short History of American Comic Books by Claude Lalumiere.).

And now, I am going to quote a paragraph from the Wikipedia article on the comic:

"Moore used the story as a means to reflect contemporary anxieties and to deconstruct the superhero concept. Watchmen takes place in an alternate history United States where superheroes emerged in the 1940s and 1960s, helping the United States to win the Vietnam War. The country is edging closer to a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, freelance costumed vigilantes have been outlawed and most costumed superheroes are in retirement or working for the government. The story focuses on the personal development and struggles of the protagonists as an investigation into the murder of a government sponsored superhero pulls them out of retirement…"

So, all that being said, many people who will see this movie will not have read the comics. And those that did may not have even fully understood them, as they won’t have the context for what the story meant then.

But this review isn’t meant to be a review of the comic. It’s the review of a movie.

Okay, the movie. First of all, it is LONG. 2 hours and 43 minutes long. And you really only feel it a small part of the time. As the final edit of the film makes sure that every scene has something going on. And most of the time that is accomplished through flashbacks. Each flashback deals with things that add to the story. Either they reveal things about how the characters dealt with their teammates (usually how they interacted with The Comedian, who gets murdered in the first few minutes of the film) in the past. Many of the flashbacks tell snippets of character’s origins or motivations. And they are used very well.

The performances are all very good, in my opinion. Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan, does a really, really good job of portraying someone who has become something way beyond human. He keeps a almost spock-like straight face at all times, yet also manages to show emotion through just small changes in body language and manner. His scenes as his pre-super self show how he can also express a full range of emotion and hint at what he will become.

Jackie Earle Haley plays Rorschach, and has the challenge of playing 80% of his screen time, if not more, while where a full-face mask. So he has to do his acting, while under the mask, through body language and voice. And his scenes where he is without his mask, his skill shines even brighter.

Patrick Wilson (Who played and sung the part of ‘Raoul’ in 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera) as Nite Owl II is the person we sort of see the most of, other than Rorschach. He’s sort of the ‘everyman’ of the crew. The Idealist who hung up his cowl and retired that part of his life when The People (aka the government manipulated world opinion) decided superheroes/vigilantes were no longer needed. The actor does a great job playing the part… both parts, really, once he gets back into the action.

Personally, I felt that all of the superhero cast did really, really well. But there’s also one of the non-superheroes that I have to mention. And that is Robert Wisden who played President Richard Nixon (now in his 5th term in office — as thanks to his sending Dr Manhattan to Vietnam during the Vietnam War, the US ‘won’ the war, so term limits were repealed and he keeps getting re-elected). What can I say. Playing Richard Nixon is NOT an easy thing. But he does it really well. He comes across very presidential, having to make the tough decisions, and at the same time still holds a hint of ‘the crook’ about him.

The film is dark, contains LOTS of violence (most of which is NOT comic book violence, but is very much the human sociopath sort – some of which made me look away from the screen or go ‘ew’), a sex scene, underplayed full male nudity (Dr Manhattan only wears clothes when he has to – he sure doesn’t feel he NEEDs them any), and a great deal of special effects. I highly recommend it to any fan of actual comic books, especially those that have read the original Watchmen comics or the many times reprinted Trade collection of the comics. This film really does focus on the morals (or loss/perversion of them – And, in one case, the complete apparent lack of them) of Superheroes.

As a note, the movie was missing several things. The first was the comic that had been within the original comic book, called Tales of the Black Freighter – based on what I have heard and read, this has been spun off into it’s own production, that will either be a part of the BluRay release of the Watchmen movie, or will be it’s own movie of some sort, apparently on DVD along with Under the Hood tomorrow, March 10th, 2009. Second is that the movie did NOT have even one appearance, at least not that I saw, of the Treasure Island comic book store. Okay, so that’s an obscure reference, but it means something to me because I shop at Treasure Island Treasury of Comics as my personal comic shop. And the third item missing from the film… humanity. Yes, I am sort of cribbing that from a review in the San Francisco Examiner. (Review in question – here) In that article the reviewer calls it "faithful-to-the-book" but "too devoid of humanity and ugly in tone". That is somewhat true.

All told, I feel the film was more than worth seeing. I would have preferred to see it in IMAX, but there’s too much demand and not enough tickets to see it that way on my impulsive schedule. I rate it 3.5 stars out of 5. If you are a fan, it is a must see. If you are not a fan, get the book and have it ready to read after you have seen the movie. It will help a lot of it make better sense.