Sunday, March 08, 2009
Movie Review: Watchmen
Friday night we headed out to the theatre to brave a screening of the DC Comics adaptation, Watchmen, directed by Zack Snyder of 300 fame. My last post went deeply into my love and reverence for the Watchmen source material and honestly I was seriously concerned as to whether or not the film version could even be in the same league as the novel.
For me at least, I thought the creative staff behind the film hit one out of the park. I loved it. Not in the same way I loved the book, but in the sense that this is about as good as you can get with such a heady and serious plot. Director Snyder has the comic pedigree with his previous hit, 300, an adaptation of Frank Miller's excellent graphic novel. In that film he was almost slavish to detail and exactingness. With Watchmen, a bigger novel and undoubtedly bigger project, Snyder walked a fine line of reverence to material and theatrical changes to make the film work for today's audience.
The film stars Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, Malin Ackerman as The Silk Spectre, Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, Patrick Wilson as Nite-Owl, and Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach. Let's start by talking about the casting. Snyder really tried to find the right actor for each role, forgoing big name stars in order to find the right actor to bring these characters to life. Haley is spot on as Rorschach, a diminutive ball of fury and anger all bottled in a series of neurosis. My biggest fear was Malin Ackerman as the Silk Specter, with little film experience, she had to carry the only female role in the film as a woman who is on one hand the only tie to humanity for the Nation's greatest weapon; and the other a lonely, embittered former crime fighter without direction in her life. Ackerman nailed it though, being both vulnerable, tough, and sexy all at the same time. Perhaps my only complaint was Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, a character who comes of in the film far darker than he did in the book. A bit more menacing than I thought he should be. Crudup is good as the dispassionate superman Dr. Manhattan, and I thought Morgan was an utterly superb Comedian, dark and twisted, but ultimately a tragic figure.
Let's look at the film itself now. The plot is almost similar to the novel. Its a dark time in 1985. Richard Nixon is in his fourth term as President, superheroes have been outlawed since 1977, with the exception of the nuclear powered Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian, both in the employ of the US government. Nite-Owl has retired, spending his weeks reminiscing with the man who first donned the cowl as Nite-Owl, before passing it on to him. Silk Specter has retired but is currently dating Dr. Manhattan who is involved in government research. Manhattan is slipping further away from humanity, and truthfully, Spectre is his last tie. Rorschach is still prowling the streets illegally fighting crime, which leads him to the apartment of a murder victim, who turns out to be his former Watchmen teammate, The Comedian.
Believing this to be the work of a "mask" killer, Rorschach launches an investigation, first warning his fellow vigilantes. After warning Nite-Owl, Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre, he begins to dig deeper into the Comedian's past. Nite-Owl, reluctant to resume the cowl, warns the final member of the team, Ozymandias. Ozymandias was the first to retire and built a huge financial empire when he unmasked himself. That combined with his sup[er intelligence and speed made him one of the richest men in the world.
As Rorschach digs deeper, we get to understand the origins of each of the heroes and what motivates them. Dr. Manhattan, almost godlike in his power, has lost faith and touch with humanity around him. Rorschach is obsessed with justice, he sees no gray areas in the world, only black and white, right and wrong. Silk Spectre, who never wanted to be a hero, but now knows nothing else. She is a woman in search of an identity. Nite-Owl, suffering through his own impotence without the cowl, and who can only feel like a man when he has it on. Ozymandias, dedicated to the betterment of humanity, but unrelenting in the face of an objective.
Silk Spectre decides to leave Dr. Manhattan after realizing that his grasp on humanity has been lost, she turns to Nite-Owl for comfort. Manhattan, hurt by her loss and accused of causing cancer in his former girlfriend and colleagues, flees Earth to Mars to contemplate his place in the world. The mask killer also strikes against Ozymandias, but fails. Meanwhile Rorschach is framed for teh murder of one of the Comedian's former enemies. Nite-Owl teams up with Silk Spectre and they decide to free him from prison. Finally finding a sound reason in Rorschach's conspiracy theories about a mask killer, the two bust him free.
When Manhattan returns and asks Spectre to come with him, they both teleport to Mars, where she has to find a way to convince him to stop the end of the world. With Manhattan gone, the Russians believe that they can move freely with America's superman to stop them. Nuclear tensions are at an all time high, and only Manhattan has the strength to stop them. When Rorschach and Nite-Owl delve deeper into the evidence, it leads them to someone they never thought possible, and someone who believes that a few millions deaths from nuclear fallout could usher in an age of peace.
I don't want to spoil the ending or the reveal. Snyder did take a few liberties with the film, cutting sections of the book, specifically the text heavy prose pieces that accompanied each issue. Tales of The Black Freighter, the pirate comic subplot that a young boy is reading in the novel, is actually a parable of the main villain and his descent into darkness. Its a pirate comic, but the characters journey runs parallel. The other prose section are excerpts from the original Nite-Owl's autobiography. Each of these are not critical to the film, but help deepen your understanding of the characters. Both will actually be released as an animated DVD in the next few weeks and will be re-cut into the films DVD release as an Absolute version of the film. The only other radical change is the ending, but this works. In the book the world is confronted by possible extinction from aliens, in the film its a much more real world threat of nuclear holocaust. While the nuclear threat is heavily present in the book, the resolution in the film version actually helps to keep the film in more of a reality.
My only other complaint in the film is some of the CGI on Dr. Manhattan. As a glowing blue naked nuclear powered character, sometimes the simple mechanics of lining his speech with his lips seemed a bit off. Otherwise I liked the run time of the film at a solid 2 and a half hours and the casting. I heard complaints that the plot was to complex or convoluted, but both people I went with haven't read or finished the novel and they followed it easy. There have also been some complaints about the sex and violence in the film. For me, that goes back to this being really the first super hero comic to be made for adults. I thought the nudity and sex actually served a purpose to each character. in Dr. Manhattan it shows how even a simple thing like the importance of modesty has been lost with his powers. For Nite-Owl, finding his manhood after putting on the cowl again is important, it is a symbol of how he values his self worth. In apathy, he is powerless, in costume he finds his purpose.
I don't think you have to be a huge Watchmen fan or a purist to enjoy this film. It finds a great balance of action and storytelling, really deconstructing the super hero myth. When your protecting the world, who protects it from you? I really just liked the movie. It reminds me of why super hero comics aren't just for children, that they can carry a bigger tale and have the depth and meaning of a a "regular" drama. Watchmen is a must see film and easily one of the best comic book movies ever made, a film to make you think, where one viewing won't cover everything that the film has to offer. The movie asks "Who Watches the Watchmen? I think the safest answer is that you should.
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