It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that I've been waiting for this film for most of my adult life. I was 23 years old when the 12-issue miniseries by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons debuted on the comic shelves in the late Spring of 1986, and it wasn't long after it wrapped up the following year that the talk of a Watchmen movie began. Just to get my credentials - or, rather, the details of my intense relationship with the subject matter over the intervening 23 years - out of the way up front: I own 4 different printings of the comic series (original serialized format, two different trade paperback editions and the oversized Absolute Watchmen volume that came out a few years ago); I've read Watchmen, in one form or another, nearly 10 times over that stretch; I place it, along with Alan Moore's other magnum opus, V For Vendetta, at the very top of my favourite comic stories of all time; and I own a page of original artwork from the book. For all of these reasons, and many others, this is not just another movie for me.
With a running time in excess of two and a half hours, I knew going into the viewing last night that we wouldn't be shortchanged, at least. This was not going to be "Watchmen Lite", in which most of the secondary arcs were excised in order to focus our attention on just one or two plot lines and get it to fit within a comfortable ninety-seven minutes. As it turns out, screen writers David Hayter and Alex Tse, along with director Zack Snyder, retained about 80% of the original material and something like 90% of its spirit.
Not surprisingly, what's missing is much of the ironic nature, subtlety and complexity of the Moore/Gibbons masterpiece. The first clue that I got to that fact came early: several times in the first half hour of the film, various members of the "superhero fraternity" refer to themselves as "the Watchmen." Anyone with only a passing familiarity with the comic series or less would probably say, "Uh... no duh! That's what they're called!" But in fact, that's not the case. Despite the series being titled Watchmen, there is actually no group within its pages who go by that name. Instead, it refers to the spray-painted slogan that begins to show up in the mid-1970s, once public sentiment turns against the costumed adventurers as the result of a police strike (which comes about when the cops decide that vigilantes are making their jobs too difficult). When long-haired hippies cover tenement walls with crimson red graffiti asking "WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN?", it's not a literal reference to any super-team in existence (as would be the case if someone scrawled "WHO AVENGES THE AVENGERS?" in the Marvel Universe, for example) but rather an alarm bell sounding in the words of the poet Juvenal (who wrote, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" in Latin), from nearly two millennia ago. It essentially demands to know, "If they're operating outside the law to guard against our misdeeds, then who's guarding against theirs?" That's one of the central themes throughout Watchmen, and yet I can't help but believe that you water that message down considerably if you make the mistake of believing that "Watchmen" is simply the group name for the heroes (and again: it's not, simply or otherwise). Either the film-makers didn't get this distinction, or they decided that their audience was too stupid to. In any event, something was lost in the process.
If that seems like nit-picking, well... it is! What you'll likely find, if you happen to come across reviews of this movie by fans of the comic (like me), is that much of what we'll devote our attention to are nits. I could point out, for example, that Rorschach's backstory is weakened, ever so slightly, by the change imposed upon it in his fateful scene with the child-murderer. In the comic, Rorschach handcuffs the wretch to a furnace pipe, leaves him a hacksaw with which to cut off his own arm, and then starts the man's home on fire. He thereby gives him a chance to survive, albeit with ridiculous odds. In the film, however, he uses a cleaver to kill the man. Again, as with the point noted above, this suggests a lack of understanding on the part of the film-makers. Watchmen is a very dense piece of literature. Every single thing in it happens for a reason, and an adaptation that (out of necessity) removes or alters bits needs to do so very carefully. My reading of that scene has always been that it was that encounter, that moment in which Walter Kovacs had no choice but to stare into the abyss, only to discover that "the abyss stares also," that transformed him from "Kovacs dressing up as Rorschach" to "Rorschach posing as Kovacs in order to move through the city unnoticed." That metamorphosis, from a world view that allowed at least some grey areas in it to one that could no longer abide them, required more than the swing of a meat cleaver to complete. It was his choice to torment the killer with his own slim chance at salvation, and then to stand on the street outside and watch it all burn, that completed his rebirth. (Fire as a transformative elemental power also shows up in V For Vendetta, when V emerges from the concentration camp while it all goes up in flames around him.) Less of that breath-taking energy comes across in the film version, unfortunately. And I can think of at least a half dozen other places where I similarly winced to see an impact lessened by what I'd characterize as an unfortunate tweak.
So yes, there are details aplenty for die-hard Watchmen fans to complain about (and we will!). But there's also a whole lot to love about this adaptation. Moore and Gibbons were geniuses at creating a fully-realized, internally-consistent world of 1985 in which to tell their tale, and that aspect is on display here as well. It's not really the same look and feel as you'll find in the comic book, as the electric cars, hover bikes and funky cigarette holders are nowhere to be seen when the story begins. But a very effective credit sequence, under the always-welcome sounds of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin'," sets up the premise that men and women decided in the 1940s that dressing up in gaudy costumes and catching crooks might be fun, and that makes it easy to just roll with that conceit as the story progresses. The divergence between our history and the events in the Watchmen universe become poignantly apparent when the god-like Dr Manhattan ends the Vietnam War in a matter of days. In one of the most spine-tingling lines from the comic series, the Comedian tells Dr Manhattan, "I mean, if we'd lost this war... I dunno, I think it might have driven us a little crazy, y'know? As a country." Seeing that sequence, in flashback form, even the Watchmen-neophyte has no choice but to conclude that "This is no version of history that we've ever seen!"
As far as creating the physical world with that history, I'd say that the special effects were somewhat hit and miss. I loved seeing Archie, the owl ship in action, and most of the visuals involving Dr Manhattan worked for me (and for the women in the audience: full frontal male nudity!) but several of the costumes looked ridiculous and I simply couldn't buy most of the Mars architecture. I had expected to hate the "slow mo" scenes but I take my hat off to Snyder and the rest: they actually dazzled me, seeing them in context like that.
Less dazzling were some of the performances by the ensemble cast. First, though, I want to say: every single one of them seemed committed 100% to their part, and that's not always the case when dealing with the dreaded "comic book material." There were no winks at the camera, no one hamming it up or going over the top... but there were also no "star turns" that I could see. Now, it's more than possible that Heath Ledger's mind-boggling take on the Joker in The Dark Knight has raised the bar to the point where I simply now expect some sort of break out performance when the material is so strong. Don't look for that here! Jeffrey Dean Morgan ("Denny", for Grey's Anatomy fans) was fine as Edward Blake/The Comedian, but he didn't really fill out the larger-than-life, completely-amoral character that inhabits the comic book. I wanted to see a man who truly didn't give a shit what anyone thought, and instead I saw what looked like a man who wanted us to believe that he didn't care. Again, though, maybe the fault here is really Ledger's... so to speak.
On the flip side, I thought Jackie Earle Haley completely nailed Rorschach, both in and out of costume. Fans of the prison scenes in Watchmen will be delighted to see Haley's affect-free delivery during his interview with Dr Malcolm Long and his encounters with Big Figure and friends. His gravelly, Christian Bale-like narration style bothered me at first, but then I came to enjoy it and eventually realize that he had to sound like that. He's Hill Street Blues' Mick Belker on steroids, after all... as shown in the flashback scene where young Walter Kovacs bites off part of a bully's face!
Matthew Goode, as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, seemed to strike the wrong note from his first appearance on, and at no point came across as "the smartest man on the planet." I was surprised to see Matt "Max Headroom" Frewer in the role of Edgar Jacobi/Molloch, but he made the most of his limited screen time. Both Malin Akerman (Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II) and Patrick Wilson (Dan Drieberg/Nite Owl II) sold me on their characters, but they suffered from the same problem that most of the cast did: it felt, for most of the film, like they were more focused on the words that they spoke than the emotions behind them. If anything, perhaps the actors held the source material (which all of them supposedly read, and re-read) in too high a reverence... after all, it wasn't just the dialogue of the original Watchmen that fascinated us, but also what it revealed about the people at the bottom of the speech balloons. Too often, the people on screen didn't seem to get that. Or, maybe this criticism, as well, stems from what Heath Ledger showed us in last year's comic book blockbuster.
I loved the famous faux-cameos throughout, which must have kept the casting director busy, searching for celebrity lookalikes. You'll easily spot JFK and Jackie, Mick Jagger and David Bowie, Ted Koppel and Henry Kissinger, as well as an unimpeached Richard Nixon, of course. There are others, as well. I thought that their inclusion worked well at re-anchoring us, reminding us at different points that while this is an alternate history on screen, it's still the planet Earth and some things didn't change (including Glam Rock in the 70s and early 80s, apparently!).
If anything worries me about someone viewing the movie without having read the book, it's that both of the big revelations toward the end of the film seem to come almost entirely from left field. To avoid spoilers, I won't give them away here. But in one case, an unknown relationship is revealed, while in the other it's the villain's motivation and master plan that are laid bare. Unlike in the printed version, though, we don't get the slow build up to them here. We aren't provided all of the clues, as Moore and Gibbons did so effectively, to make us slap our foreheads at the moment of reveal, and say, "Of course! Why didn't I see that coming?" Instead, I imagine that many will react with, "Huh? Where did that come from?" Which is too bad, because those were a couple of Watchmen highlights for me, even on subsequent re-readings where I could pick up on new examples of foreshadowing that I'd never noticed before.
I suppose, "inna final analysis," (as Bernie the news agent says in the comic), while we didn't get a perfect Watchmen movie, we probably got about as close to one as we could reasonably expect. Gone is the symmetry of opening and closing the story with Rorschach's journal (ruined by the addition of a largely unnecessary sequence showing the Comedian's death as the film begins); lost is much of the incredible juxtapositioning of dialogue to visuals; removed for the sake of brevity are many of the third-tier character bits that would have made us care more about the climatic world events that occur near the end. But what's left is still a very large chunk of a literary masterpiece. It's a very good film adaptation of perhaps the greatest comic book series of all time. Anyone intrigued by the film who seeks out the source material will find layers and depth not even hinted at within the frames of Zack Snyder's production... and that's not necessarily a bad thing!
I'm not sure that I'll view Watchmen the movie as many times as I've returned to Watchmen the comic... but at the moment, at least, I'm looking forward to seeing it a second time.
Rating: *** 1/2