Review by Jack Foley
WATCHMEN has been written off as “unfilmable” by its creator, Alan Moore, and is regarded as the “Citizen Kane of graphic novels” by many of its fans. So, Zack Snyder clearly had his work cut out confounding or living up to expectation depending on where you sit.
But just as he did with 300, based on another revered graphic novel [by Frank Miller], the director has triumphantly proved that nothing is impossible… not even a violent, complex story that subverts a genre and includes full frontal male nudity and a rapist as a central character.
Watchmen won’t be to everyone’s taste, and it will surprise anyone expecting “just another superhero movie”. But it is a hugely entertaining piece of filmmaking that has the audacity to be faithful to the dark origins of the source material, and to turn the genre on its head.
It’s not without flaws, but Snyder deserves a lot of credit for taking such difficult subject matter and turning it into such a winning formula for success.
The plot of Watchmen is very complex. Set in an alternative USA in 1985, when Nixon is still in power and the Cold War is at its height, the film follows the fortunes of a disbanded group of masked vigilantes, who are forced to come out of hiding to solve a new murder-mystery involving one of their own.
The victim is a former mask named The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who is seen being thrown from his apartment window by a masked assailant during the violent opening sequence. Investigating his demise is former colleague Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a psychopathic former mask who believes The Comedian’s demise could mark the start of a sustained campaign against his former colleagues.
Trouble is, The Comedian wasn’t without enemies, due to his reputation as a murderer and rapist – he was behind the Kennedy assassination – so was his murder an act of retribution, or part of a conspiracy involving the impending nuclear war between Russia and the US?
Helping Rorschach to find out are a similarly rag-tag bunch of former masks, including Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), a Batman-like figure suffering from performance anxiety in everyday life, Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a blue glowing master of all matter who is losing touch with humanity, Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), Doc Manhattan’s frustrated ex who is carrying the burden of guilt from her mother’s past indiscretions, and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a billionaire genius who has profited from his own action figures.
Snyder’s movie flits back and forth between the present day murder investigation and each of the character’s back stories and, in doing so, creates a rich, complex story that does require a lot of patience to follow. It’s also very dark and very, very violent.
Where most superhero movies follow a set pattern and only flirt with their dark sides, Watchmen wholeheartedly embraces it and boasts characters who are flawed, who don’t really possess genuine superpowers, and who don’t necessarily have a happy ending in store.
It’s both a strength and a weakness of the film, given that some of the character’s actions are reprehensible. But then it is refreshing to be in a “genre movie” that doesn’t play by the rules!
Rorschach, for instance, would sooner beat a confession out of someone than play fair, and even boldly declares boldly “I’m not locked up in here with you, you’re locked up in here with me” during a brief prison stint. The Comedian, meanwhile, would rather shoot the pregnant mother of his child than take on any responsibility. Watchmen is designed to shock, and does so frequently.
It’s universe, too, could be deemed a little hard to crack for newcomers to the graphic novels, although Snyder gets around this brilliantly by throwing in a mesmerising montage sequence early on that sets about establishing the alternative universe his characters inhabit, where several of the most iconic moments in US history given an alternative spin set to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’. If you’re not immersed by the time this ends, you probably never will be.
Performance-wise, Wilson, Haley and Morgan emerge as the pick of the bunch with Morgan, in particular, getting a much-needed image makeover that’s a million miles removed from his Grey’s Anatomy/PS I Love You persona.
While Snyder proves yet again that he’s a great visual stylist and can use a soundtrack well – his film embraces several genres (including noir to violent ‘80s action) and includes some great music moments that draws faithfully from Moore’s graphic novel references.
On the downside, the film’s length can feel a little exhausting, while some of the violence is borderline exploitative. The 18 certificate is hard-earned and Watchmen isn’t for the sensitive viewer. Crudup’s glowing blue naked Dr Manhattan can also be distracting and doesn’t always convince as the God-like being he should be.
But given how much the odds were stacked against him, and the fact that it’s so defiantly different, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is a film that demands to be seen and is, genuinely, the first must-see ‘event’ movie of the year. It’s an impressive achievement that boasts high enjoyment value.
Running time: 2hrs 40mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: July 27, 2009
- Buy it on Blu-raay (Amazon)
- Buy it on 2-disc Limited Edition DVD (Amazon)
- Buy the single disc DVD (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Patrick Wilson interview
- Jeffrey Dean Morgan interview
- Malin Akerman and Carla Gugino interview
- Jackie Earle Haley interview
- Billy Crudup interview
- Matthew Goode interview
- Zack and Deborah Snyder interview
- Watchmen stars attend world premiere
- Watchmen world premiere photo gallery
- View Watchmen poster art
- Watchmen character photos