Review: Watchmen

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC Watchmen: A Review

By Robert Mann.

Watchmen is quite possibly the most eagerly anticipated film of 2009. An epic 20 years in the making, there is a level of anticipation amongst fans of the graphic novel quite unlike anything that has been seen lately. As such, if anything has been done wrong (and I mean anything) with it there could very well be an uprising amongst the loyal fans who have waited so long for this film to finally get made. And taken a long time it has. The journey to Watchmen’s release has been a very long and difficult one with it having been in development at virtually every major film studio (20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Universal and Paramount) at some point before finally actually getting put into production as a Warner Brothers/Paramount co-production, and going through a number of high profile directors, including Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, David Hayter and Paul Greengrass, before eventually being brought to the screen by 300 director Zack Snyder. That’s not the least of it either, as recently the film has been at the centre of a bitter copyright infringement lawsuit filed by 20th Century Fox who claimed that they still own the movie rights to the source material. Fortunately things were eventually resolved amicably but the suit did threaten to delay or even completely prevent the film’s release in cinemas. All this shows that bringing the graphic novel to the big screen has been no easy task, as does the fact that it has often been described as unfilmable. However, with self-professed die-hard Watchmen fan Zack Snyder at the film and his work on 300 showing that he really knows how to pull off this type of film, everything up to this point has suggested that this film may actually live up to the hype, and live up to the promise it certainly does.

In an alternate 1985 where American won the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon is still President, costumed superheroes have long been a part of the fabric of everyday society. This has been the case since the 1940s when a team of heroes calling themselves the Minutemen roamed the streets, delivering justice. Among the members of that team were The Comedian a.k.a. Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Nite Owl a.k.a. Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie), Silk Spectre a.k.a. Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino). Since then a new generation of heroes has emerged, known as the Watchmen. Its members include The Comedian, Nite Owl II a.k.a. Dan Dreiberg, Silk Spectre II a.k.a. Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), Ozymandias a.k.a. Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), Rorschach a.k.a. Walter Kovacs (Jackie Earle Haley) and Dr. Manhattan a.k.a. Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup). Dr. Manhattan was once a scientist who, following a freak accident, was transformed into a glowing blue superhuman being with the ability to see the past and future and transform matter at a molecular level. Viewed as a weapon by many, Dr. Manhattan was instrumental in America’s victory in Vietnam, and is also viewed as America’s only defence against the imminent threat of all-out nuclear war with Russia. Things have changed considerably since the glory days of the Watchmen, however, as costumed heroes have been outlawed unless they choose to reveal their identities to the public. Only Adrian Veidt and Dr. Manhattan chose to do so and the Watchmen, as a result, are no more. Everything changes, though, when The Comedian is murdered by an unknown adversary and Rorschach, the only remaining active hero, believes that an assassin is taking out costumed heroes. The washed up vigilante discovers a plot to kill and discredit all current and past superheroes, and as he reconnects with his former crime-fighting legion he glimpses a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future. It is the mission of the Watchmento watch over humanity but who is watching over the Watchmen?



Right from the opening studio idents, which are presented in simple yellow and black (the colours of the Watchmen logo) and made to look they are part of a comic, the look and feel of the graphic novel is captured perfectly. There is no doubt that Snyder is a huge fan of the source material as every scene is a loving recreation of panels from its comic book inspiration, and just as with 300, Snyder delivers an adaptation that isn’t merely a film but almost the graphic novel brought to life. The attention to detail is tremendous and this film could be considered art as much as entertainment because of all the beauty and style that is put onto the screen. Visually, the film is spectacular. The visual effects are eye-popping and there are lots of truly jaw-dropping sequences that really stand out from anything else seen recently, although I won’t give any of them away here. 300 style green-screen technology is combined with live action sets to create an incredible looking and very convincing alternate 1985 New York City, with excellent realisation of how the city could be if things had gone down a very different path. This alternate timeline is made all the more convincing thanks to the inclusion of real historical events that are interwoven brilliantly into the storyline and real historical figures, such as Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Pat Buchanan, Eleanor Clift, Ted Koppel, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, John F. Kennedy, Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Fidel Castro, into the film’s events in some way or form. The opening credits sequence gives some of the back story (and introduces a number of characters), showing how events have taken place leading to the version of 1985 that we see in the film. The feel of the period is also helped thanks to an excellent soundtrack which consists of popular music from the 1980s.

The storyline as a whole is extremely complex but it is very well done and provides an interesting deconstruction of the superhero genre, raising important questions about the boundaries between good and evil, right and wrong. The characters are all very well written, with most not being clearly definable as good or bad, but rather being shades of grey, with each having their own set of beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. This makes for some far more interesting characters than those often seen in superhero movies where a character is generally represented as being one or the other with little crossover. The fact that there isn’t just one superhero but an entire ensemble of varied and unique characters also makes for a more interesting film that you usually get from a superhero movie. The characters also work thanks to great performances from virtually all involved. Rather than casting big name stars, many of the cast members are lesser known actors, but they are well chosen for their parts. Billy Crudup delivers a suitably cold performance as the seemingly emotionless Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman; Jeffrey Dean Morgan is perfectly offbeat as The Comedian/Eddie Blake and convincingly sincere as his broken down older self; Jackie Earle Haley is excellent as vigilante Rorschach/Walter Kovacs; Matthew Goode is believably condescending as Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt, portraying a man with delusions of grandeur well; Malin Akerman is spot on as the sassy Silk Spectre II/Laurie Jupiter; and Patrick Wilson is honest as the most decent of the lot Nite Owl II/Dan Dreiberg. The rest of the cast are all very good as well but there are far too many to mention, although I will point out the very good performance by Robert Wisden as Richard Nixon, who may not be as good as Frank Langella was inFrost/Nixon but is certainly a good second in the role.

One of the things that stands out most about Watchmen is probably just how mature it is. This is not your average superhero movie that is aimed at young viewers. No, this is a full-on hardcore adult movie that pulls no punches in its execution. In the action sequences the violence isn’t toned down on any level. It is brutal, bloody and graphic, in a manner completely unlike any superhero film that you have seen before. This film makes The Dark Knight look like Teletubbies, that’s how violent it is. And there is far more as well. What other superhero movie would include an attempted rape, a graphic sex scene or full frontal male nudity (of the glowing blue kind)? All of this features in this film and more, but it isn’t there for the sake of it. It is the essence of the graphic novel and to remove it from the film would have been sacrilege. All of this is so well executed and so stylishly done that it is itself a crucial part of the film as a viewing experience and it is a testimony to Snyder’s directing abilities that it all works when in other hands it could have completely failed. For all its strengths, however, the film is not completely perfect. Snyder has firmly stated that he would make a film faithful to the source material that would satisfy the fans and he has done just this. If any criticism can be levelled at the film, however, it is that the film may just be too faithful to the source material, with Snyder going to great lengths to include a lot of detail from the graphic novel and the film suffering slightly as a result. The multiple storylines get in the way of each other at times, highlighting the difference between film and comic as mediums, and at 2 hours 40 minutes in length (and this is the cut down version – apparently a 3 hour version will be released on DVD) it does drag in some scenes. Also, for those who are not already familiar with the graphic novel the storyline may be a bit difficult to follow in places, and this isn’t helped by the fact that some things are not shown in chronological order, with flashbacks that are used to show past events not all being clearly recognisable as such. These flaws are relatively minor, though, when compared with the huge achievement that the film as a whole is. Director Zack Snyder has taken a graphic novel that has long been considered unfilmable and made out of it a film that is spectacular, entertaining and interesting in equal measure. It may not appeal as much to non-converts but fans of the source material will find much to love. Watchmen definitely isn’t one of the best superhero movies ever made but it is certainly one of the most different, most original and above all most mature superhero films you will ever see and it is likely that you will never see anything else quite like it again.


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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

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