Watchmen

| March 9, 2009

I came to the film Watchmen by what is perhaps a slightly different trajectory than either the die-hard fanboys or the uninitiated filmgoer. I did not read Watchmen when it first came out, since I considered it to be just a “comic book”. Real literature had words and didn’t need pictures, and that’s what I thought until last summer, when I saw the first trailer for the film version. Ironically, the images in the trailer intrigued me enough that I bought the graphic novel and read it and became an instant, die-hard fanboy myself, eagerly awaiting the release of the film.
I went into it with very high expectations. Did the film meet my expectations? No. It exceeded them, being everything that I’d hoped for and more. However, I suspect that the film itself is something of a Rorschach test, wherein what you see depends on what you come expecting to see, and the comments of a friend who saw it with me indicate that maybe this is one for the fans, outside the realm of appreciation of non-fans. My friend, who is a very smart and literate filmgoer, was mostly bored by the whole thing, and kept waiting for the story to start, or at least unfold in some sort of linear fashion. Now, if you know the book, you know that the story is not linear in the least. Still, his comments made me wonder whether the effect of the film is a result of what the filmgoer brings to it. Don’t get me wrong – I was absolutely blown away. I just cannot say honestly how much of what I saw onscreen was what was already in my head from the book, and how much was really there. However, I wouldn’t have had any doubts had I not heard that my fellow filmgoer had been bored most of the time. While I was sitting there for two hours and forty-six minutes, I was utterly engaged – in fact, the film seemed to breeze by, moving from set-piece to set-piece with a relentless logic and never-flagging pace.
This effect is not achieved without judicious cutting and slight rearranging of the source material, but none of the omissions really bothered me. Two missing bits that are pretty much an open secret by now are “Tales of the Black Freighter” and “Under the Hood”. The former would have slowed the film down without contributing to the climax, while the latter is hinted at in a brilliant opening-credit montage. I was surprised, however, by several apparently large events that do not appear, although I didn’t really miss them, and let’s just say that an incident near the end of the graphic novel begins much earlier in the film and is extended over a longer period.
Attention to detail is meticulous, and many moments feel like the pages of the graphic novel brought to vivid life. The cast is outstanding, especially Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) as Rorschach, who has to give most of his performance from behind an ever-shifting mask and then proceeds to steal the show from the special effect. It was one of the ironies in the graphic novel that Rorschach, the most alienated and disenfranchised of the characters, goes on to be the most sympathetic. Haley takes us on every step of that journey. Equally good are Billy Crudup (The Good Shepherd) who appears mostly as a special effect but whose ultimate humanity still comes through the motion-capture; Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Grey’s Anatomy) endows The Comedian with the proper degree of pragmatic cynicism and sheer force of presence. Providing the heart of the piece is the relationship between Patrick Wilson’s (Lakeview Terrace) Night Owl II and Malin Akerman’s (27 Dresses) Silk Spectre II, second generation masked heroes who discover that the profession is truly in their blood. (Incidentally, I don’t understand a lot of the critical drubbing Akerman has taken for this role. She brings everything we expect in the character to the screen and has real chemistry with Wilson.) Rounding out the fine ensemble are Matthew Goode (Match Point) as “smartest man in the world” Adrian Veidt, formerly known as Ozymandias; and Carla Gugino (American Gangster) as Sally Jupiter, aka the original Silk Spectre, former super-hero turned alcoholic retirement home resident, and mother of Silk Spectre II. Probably the most amazing thing about the cast, though, is how much they resemble the graphic novel originals, and this extends to such minor characters as Dr. Malcolm Long, Wally Weaver, Big Figure, Bernie, and the Knot Tops.
So – do I recommend the film? If you’ve read the graphic novel, I give an emphatic Thumbs Up. Yes, yes, yes. Watchmen fulfills the promise of adapting this deep and difficult work to the big screen. If you haven’t read the graphic novel? I don’t know. Probably the best advice I can give is “read the book first, then see the movie.” This is the opposite of what I’d usually advise, but then again Watchmen is the opposite of a Hollywood blockbuster. Rather than being dumbed down for the least common audience member, Warner Bros. wisely chose to stand back and let the creative team do their thing while being fully faithful to and reverent of the source. We could have wound up with some fluffy piece of crap like Fantastic Four. Instead, we have a Masterpiece of Cinema. Whether that opinion expands to the uninitiated or remains a tenet of the faithful remains to be seen. For my part, I’m still dancing in the afterglow of an amazing film, and am re-posing my Ozymandias and Silk Spectre I action figures next to my monitor. Hey, shut up. I preserved all the original packaging. These are going back in the boxes when the DVD comes out, to be sold around 2039 as part of my retirement fund.
And… I’m still curious. If you read the book then loved the movie, or never read the book and hated the movie, let me know by emailing me through this site.
UPDATE: Watchmen is now out on DVD, and I highly recommend the Director’s cut, which is extended by twenty-four minutes, but does not seem longer than the original. One of the moments I alluded to being missing in my original review — the murder of Hollis Mason — has been restored, as is Night Owl II’s reaction to it, and the additional footage adds to the overall film. Rorschach has more narration and, while I’m normally not a fan of voice over, this really isn’t that. Again, it adds to the film. If you’re a true fan, then you need to add the widescreen, two-disc director’s cut to your collection, as well as the stand-alone single disc Under the Hood/Tales of the Black Freighter compilation. Tales would not have added to the director’s cut, mainly because its original raison d’etre has been famously removed from the film, but it’s worth seeing on its own. Under the Hood is a clever faux-1985 TV news magazine that in turn reviews a 1977 episode of the same show in which Night Owl I was the interview subject, and it fills in much of the history of the first generation of masked avengers. Again, something you already know if you’re a fan of the book, but so lovingly recreated by Zack Snyder with impeccable detail that it’s a real treat to watch.

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