Director: Zack Snyder
custodiet ipsos custodes?"
("Who watches the watchmen?")
Juvenal, Satire VI
For the longest time, comic books were considered solely kids stuff, an unsophisticated form of entertainment with no relevance to those who had put away childish things. But as the world began edging ever closer to the twenty-first century, things started changing. Books like Frank Miller's Sin City and The Dark Knight Returns, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and Garth Ennis's Preacher helped to expand comics beyond their regular audiences, and they all have Watchmen to thank. Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and published by DC Comics, Watchmen was first foisted upon the world as a twelve-issue series that began in 1986. The series was compiled into a single tome soon after its conclusion, and quickly earned recognition as a benchmark in the comic book industry. Moore and Gibbons's acclaimed murder mystery is, at the time of this writing, the only comic book to have both won a Hugo Award and earn an inclusion in Time's list of the greatest English-language novels published since 1923. Rumors of a cinematic adaptation surfaced not too long after the beginning of Watchmen's initial monthly publication, but the project languished in developmental hell for over twenty years before any real progress was made. The movie finally entered production at the end of 2007 before seeing release on March 6, 2009, much to the anticipation of devoted comic book readers around the world. But does the Watchmen movie live up to the seminal comic book that serves as its inspiration?
Welcome to the year 1985, a world where Richard Nixon is still in office after successfully repealing the 22nd Amendment, America won the war in Vietnam before making the country the fifty-first state, and tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union are so high that nuclear war is literally weeks away. But none of that is of any concern to Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a masked vigilante who operates in open defiance of legislation that outlawed superheroes and forced those of his chosen profession into retirement. While investigating the murder of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Rorschach discovers that Blake was secretly "The Comedian," a costumed crimefighter still active under the government's employ. While Blake's exploits had made him many political enemies over the years, Rorschach believes that his death may be part of a broad conspiracy to eliminate various members of what once was the superhero community.
And as it turns out, mounting evidence seems to prove him right. An assassin makes a failed attempt to kill Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), an influential and popular entrepreneur once known as "Ozymandias, the world's smartest man." Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) whose vast godlike abilities have made him "Doctor Manhattan," the linchpin of the American military's success exiles himself to Mars after allegations surface that he may be to blame for the terminal cancer that has stricken many of his former associates over the years. Rorschach himself is framed for the murder of an old foe and thrown in prison. These incidents draw the attention of Daniel Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), a former masked hero who was once the closest thing Rorschach had to a friend. Dreiberg connects the dots and realizes that Rorschach's so-called "mask killer" may somehow be connected to the impending war between America and the Soviet Union. It isn't long before he and Doctor Manhattan's former lover, Laurie Jupiter (Malin Ackerman), find themselves being pulled back into their former superhero identities of "Nite Owl" and "Silk Spectre" in their efforts to discover the root of this conspiracy.
Many people have labeled Watchmen as one of the most important comic books ever published. When something earns a description like "the Citizen Kane of comics," you know going in that it'll be pretty big. Watchmen's influence can be felt in numerous properties both in and out of comics. Its fingerprints can even be seen in the family-friendly Disney/Pixar collaboration The Incredibles, as well as in elements of the first season of the NBC television series Heroes. But a cinematic adaptation of the book had long been considered impossible, as it was believed that the book was so complex that a movie would never work. The idea of a Watchmen movie bounced around from studio to studio, from director to director and writer to writer. Even when the movie was actually filmed and began its marketing campaign, its North American release date was threatened by a nasty legal battle between Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Brothers over the proper ownership of the movie's distribution rights. But after all that time, we finally arrived upon the film that we're discussing currently. And while there are some glaring differences between the comics and this adaptation, I believe that Zack Snyder and company made the best Watchmen movie they possibly could.
The trailers and posters for Watchmen referred to Snyder as a "visionary director." I don't know if I'd go as far as to call him a visionary, but I will agree that he's a guy who knows what kind of movie he wants to make. His two prior efforts the Dawn of the Dead remake and 300 were ultra-flashy affairs that were, at the very least, ultimately true to themselves. And while I don't think Snyder was the first person anyone would have thought of when it came to directing a Watchmen movie, he brings his unique style to the movie and actually does a better job than I would have expected. Though he doesn't gravitate towards a literal translation like what Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City, Snyder still manages to create a visually compelling movie that looks and feels just like the world depicted in the comics. He and cinematographer Larry Fong treat each shot as if they were works of art, and although Snyder is guilty of a few excesses (the violence being almost too violent and the over-gratuitous Nite Owl/Silk Spectre sex scene, for example), he has ultimately fashioned a movie that he should be proud of. I should also compliment the movie's fantastic score, composed by Tyler Bates. I've liked the Music that Bates has done for other movies, and Watchmen is no exception. His music here is quite effective, improving each scene by helping define the mood. I also thought that some of Bates's music sounds like the scores from Blade Runner and The Princess Bride. Maybe it's just me, but I thought it really worked well.
Next on the list is the screenplay. It's credited to David Hayter and Alex Tse, though I'm not sure how much of their work survived the last-minute rewrites by Snyder, Robert Orci, and Alex Kurtzman. Either way, the script is good. It was expected that some elements of the comics would have to be altered, condensed, or outright eliminated, as that happens in pretty much every time a book is adapted into a movie. But I think the writers succeeded without jeopardizing the story's integrity. There's been a lot of talk among fans, however, about the ending. For the movie, Snyder has changed the villain's master plan from what it was in the comics to something that sets one of the heroes up to be a patsy. A lot of the diehard fans have complained that losing the most obvious element of the original ending is bordering on blasphemy, that the movie would need every single solitary detail about the comic's ending in order to work. But if you ask me, I thought the movie's ending worked fine. Complaining about it would be failing to see the forest for the trees. At the end of the movie, things end up falling into the same places as they did in the comic. So while the little details may have changed, the big picture stays the same.
Last but not leas is the cast, the majority of whom I thought did fine work. Patrick Wilson is fantastic as the hopelessly dorky yet quite amiable Daniel Dreiberg. The character is a meek man who only feels strong when he's in his Nite Owl persona, and I felt that Wilson really nailed him, showing all the flaws and imperfections that you'd expect from the character. Meanwhile, I found Malin Ackerman to be a bit on the dull side, but that's more to blame on the character than on her acting ability. The problem with Ackerman's character is that Laurie never really seems to stand out. Even in the comics, Laurie ends up being overshadowed by every other character. She's not exactly one of the more memorable characters, and ultimately, Ackerman doesn't really contribute a very memorable performance. To her credit, though, she does remain consistent.
And then there's Matthew Goode. The casting of Goode was a bit controversial among the super-devoted fans prior to the movie's release, since quite a few of them didn't feel he was the right person for the role. But personally, I thought Goode did a great job. Though his switching back and forth between American and German accents depending on the scene can be distracting at times, I thought Goode was effective in portraying Adrian Veidt as the smug narcissist that he is in the comics. He really works well in the role, so in my opinion, hiring him was the right move. I'll also admit that I was impressed with Billy Crudup as Doctor Manhattan. In other movies, his performance might get lost in the sea of CGI that comprises the visual aspect of the character. But Crudup's work manages to shine through, and he puts forth a respectable performance. He believably conveys the alienation of Doctor Manhattan, a character whose mere existence puts him in the unenviable position of being outside humanity looking in. Crudup's performance might seem cold, perhaps distant, but that only serves the character better.
But perhaps the best performances come from Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jackie Earle Haley. Their work is so good that you don't see actors playing roles, you just see the characters. Though he only really shows up in flashbacks, Morgan is awesome as the thoroughly amoral Comedian. The character rapes and kills without feeling any sort of remorse, even seeming to enjoy himself at times. Morgan handles this well, playing the role with a certain self-assured cockiness that suits the character perfectly. And what can I say about Jackie Earle Haley? He knocks it completely out of the park. Rorschach is arguably the most popular Watchmen character, and he makes a seamless transition from the comics to live action. Haley plays Rorschach as menacing as he is in the comic. His performance is riveting, and whenever he's onscreen, you can't look away. Haley practically steals the movie, and if you need one reason to see Watchmen, it should be Haley's performance.
As I said, I'd once heard the Watchmen comic book be described as being to comics what Citizen Kane was to movies. That makes sense to me. Like Citizen Kane, Watchmens innovations completely changed the industry's landscape. But in regards to the Watchmen movie, I find myself agreeing with Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times. Boucher wrote in his critique of Watchmen that it is, in essence, the superhero movie's answer to Fight Club. When David Fincher's adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel was released to theaters in 1999, it was an incredibly polarizing movie. Individual reaction to it was either at one extreme or the other; people either really loved it, or they really hated it. It's still like that ten years later. And judging by the reactions to the Watchmen movie, it's in the same boat as Fight Club. Like Fight Club, some will argue that Watchmen is a violent, excessive, and ultimately hollow movie with nothing to say, while others will argue that that the detractors don't "get it." People unfamiliar with the comic book just weren't ready for a superhero movie like this, though as someone who loves Watchmen that's on the printed page, I can't say that I was disappointed with the one that's on film. Personally, I'll gladly give Watchmen four stars and the "Sutton at the Movies" stamp of approval. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go try and subtract my intrinsic field. I want to see if that will give me superpowers like Doctor Manhattan.
Final Rating: ****