Should I Watch..? Watchmen
What's the big deal?
Watchmen is a mystery superhero film released in 2009 and is the long-awaited adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. It is set in an alternative 1985 where the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US brings the planet to the brink of nuclear Armageddon as a group of former crime fighters reunite to track down a serial killer possibly targeting them. However, this is not your typical Marvel-flavoured superhero blast although there are action scenes included. This is a much more cerebral affair and offers something very different to the likes of Iron Man (1) or Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2). Critics were divided when the film was released - many praised it as a largely faithful interpretation but others were upset at large changes to the original story, the glossing-over of much of the novel's themes and overly stylised violence which many felt the novel Watchmen tried to avoid.
What's it about?
The Watchmen are a group of masked crime fighters in a parallel version of our own universe. Their existence has a dramatic effect on history - the Comedian was responsible for the murder of JFK while the omnipotent Dr Manhattan wins the Vietnam War for the US, allowing Richard Nixon to continue to serve as US President well beyond his second term. However, Manhattan's presence fails to prevent the escalation of the Cold War between Russia and the US and by the mid 80's, anti-vigilante feeling among the general population result in the Watchmen disbanding. Manhattan and the Comedian covertly work for the Government while Rorschach, a thoroughly disturbed and ruthless individual, continues to work illegally.
Investigating the murder of Eddie Blake who is severely beaten and thrown from his penthouse, Rorschach discovers that Blake was the Comedian and theorises that someone may be targeting them. He attempts to warn his old buddy Dan Dreiberg, the Nite Owl who happily left the crime fighting life behind, but Dan remains somewhat sceptical. So too does billionaire businessman Adrian Veidt - previously known as Ozymandias before he publically revealed his identity. Dr Manhattan and his lover Laurie Jupiter, who adopted the mantle Silk Spectre II after her mother, also have other concerns - Manhattan finds himself implicated in a health scare among former colleagues while Laurie finds herself increasingly isolated from her all-powerful partner...
Laurie Jupiter / Silk Spectre II
Jon Osterman / Dr Manhattan
Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias
Sally Jupiter / Silk Spectre
Jackie Earle Haley
Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Edward Blake / The Comedian
Dan Dreiberg / Nite Owl
David Hayter & Alex Tse *
Release Date (UK)
6th March, 2009
Mystery, Sci-Fi, Superhero
What's to like?
While superhero films have long been box office gold, it's refreshing to find one that is more interested in character and spectacle than simply throwing your favourite characters into CG-flavoured battle. Watchmen is a genuinely unique work, providing viewers with a real challenge that fires the imagination like little else. Its cast of characters - all of whom are alien to us but yet familiar at the same time - allows the story and conspiracy to develop naturally and the focus is the story and not the heroes. Having said that, few will forget Haley's portrayal of Rorschach - he is a darkly charismatic presence, a bit like a diminutive Marv from Sin City (3) but without the moral code Mickey Rourke brought to the film. And despite being behind his ever-changing mask, Haley's confident and brutal performance inspires the rest to up their game. There are no big names in the cast, helping to solidify their plausibility and not distract from the film itself.
Snyder's work on movies like 300 (4) sees him in good stead here as Watchmen is a truly beautiful movie to watch, imitating each scene of the comic as much as possible. Manhattan's scenes on Mars are incredibly detailed and intricate - worth watching in HD if possible - while Manhattan's glowing blue body feels an accepted part of the film, even if it takes some getting used to. And when the action does come then it allows Snyder to take over to some extent, pausing Moore's story to allow the director to indulge in slow-motion action scenes that don't really suit the tone of the film but look cool nonetheless.
- Look closely at all the US flags shown in the movie. They have 51 stars instead of the traditional 50 - this is because, in the comics, Vietnam becomes the 51st state when America win the Vietnam war.
- Author Alan Moore has publically disowned any and all movie adaptations of his work including V For Vendetta (5) and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (6). Snyder hopes one day that Moore will watch it and believe it is a decent representation of the original novel.
- The film had been stuck in development hell since 1986, before the final issue had been published. Part of the reason was due to the astronomical budget requirements, leading many to believe the novel was unfilmable.
What's not to like?
Yes, Snyder does take some liberties with the story including changing the ending somewhat. It isn't completely different as some have said as the end result is still the same. That aside, the film also misses out a lot of the background detail that was lovingly included in the novel while the boy reading the comic-within-a-comic Tales Of The Black Freighter is only briefly glimpsed although an animated version is included on some DVD and Blu-Ray editions. With the novel, context was so important as the story jumped about through time and space - in the movie, it gives the film a strangely disjointed and disorientating feel.
It also isn't what you call entertaining. Great as the novel is (which I was inspired to read after watching this film), I felt little compulsion to read it again and I'm like that with the film which is downbeat and depressing at times. It suffers from what I call Shawshank Syndrome, after The Shawshank Redemption (7) - both are fantastic movies, offering different things but still excellent pieces of cinema in their own right. But neither lend themselves well to being watched again - they stay with you instead of making you hunger for more. Watchmen is probably Snyder's best film and by some margin, I'd say but part of me wishes that the studios hadn't been some stringent with the editing and trying to make the movie appealing to a mass market. Because if anything, Watchmen is something unusual to be savoured by connoisseurs and not the popcorn-munching masses expecting another by-the-numbers effort from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Should I watch it?
If your idea of a perfect superhero film is Avengers Assemble (8) then you probably won't get much out of this. It's closer in tone and style to The Dark Knight (9) but lacks any kind of mass appeal. The film is an intelligent and visually stunning picture that relies on Moore's superb storyline and Gibbons' artwork rather than Snyder's propensity for stylised violence. Watchmen might lack the clout the original novel had but remains a loving and largely faithful interpretation - I think even Moore himself might like it. Well, possibly...
Great For: people tired of the norm, people who enjoyed the novel
Not So Great For: action fans, Marvel fans, people who like big blue squids
What else should I watch?
Watchmen will continue to divide opinion for quite some time but one thing everyone can agree on is that there isn't much else out there like it. Marvel Studios continue to release bright and noisy action epics based on their entire back catalogue (how long before we see a Howard The Duck (10) reboot?) with the Captain America trilogy, the big-budget blockbuster Avengers Assemble and the off-kilter sci-fi space opera Guardians Of The Galaxy (11) being the best of a fairly repetitive bunch. Alternatively, there are a whole host of Batman movies out there from the camp 60's version to Christopher Nolan's award-guzzling Dark Knight trilogy. But as is usually the case with DC and Marvel, they are opposite sides of the same coin whereas Watchmen is a different unit of currency altogether.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox