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I am a WATCHMEN comic fan. I think it’s important to say that right from the start, because it informs my perspective on Zack Snyder’s film rendition. The material works better as a comic, where it finds a perfect middle ground between the visual and the literary. On the screen, it doesn’t have the visceral drive that made THE DARK KNIGHT a thrill ride as well as a work of pop art. That doesn’t mean WATCHMEN isn’t a work of pop art. Those unfamiliar with the original material might be quite perplexed with this heady superhero drama. This isn’t Bang! Boom! Whomp! material. It’s superheroes going through an existential crisis, wrapped around a murder mystery. A murder mystery that might just involve all of mankind.
In an alternative version of Earth, where costumed superheroes have been outlawed and Richard Nixon is still president in 1985, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, TV’s GREY’S ANATOMY) is thrown from his apartment window. He was a masked vigilante before becoming a government assassin. For his former ally Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, LITTLE CHILDREN), his murder is not a random act of violence against a savage man, but a hit on former masks. Rorschach goes to warn his other former partners. Nite Owl II, or Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson, LITTLE CHILDREN), is now a pudgy middle-aged man who longs for his glory days when his superior tech skills and cool costume made him feel like a real man. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, ALMOST FAMOUS) is like a god. He’s the only superhero with superpowers, which are infinite. Human relationships are difficult for him because he views life not in terms of a human lifespan, but in terms of eons. This makes living with him difficult for Silk Spectre II, aka Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman, 27 DRESSES). Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, is the smartest and wealthiest man on Earth, who wants to bring free energy to everyone, making him suspect to the powerful who are invested in war.
WATCHMEN the movie, as the comic, is about ideas and characters, not action. From Rorschach’s point of view, humans are inherently violent creatures. Through his savage means, he seeks to uncover truth and rain revenge down on the wicked. The world has made him bitter, but not cynical like The Comedian, who views humans the same, but doesn’t care who deserves to live or die, to him it’s all a twisted joke of fate. Dr. Manhattan seems indifferent to the suffering of men. Life happens then ends. In the scope of the existence of the universe, why does one life, or even millions of lives, matter when on a cosmic scale their existence is but a blink? With his infinite power, what’s the moral difference between taking and saving lives? These are the dark internal conflicts of WATCHMEN.
Hope comes in the form of the relationship between Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II. Both second-generation crimefighters, they must live up to the pressures of the past. Dan willingly took the Nite Owl name from Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie, 300), who is now retired. Laurie was more or less forced into crimefighting by her mother, Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino, SIN CITY), who had a past with the violent Comedian. Sally has a perspective on cause and effect that challenges black and white views of morality. Can good come from bad? In terms of Dan and Laurie, the bad in the world brings them together, and provides the film with its spark of humanity. So much of the movie argues that the world isn’t worth saving, but the tenderness between Dan and Laurie fights against wishing for doomsday.
Visually, Snyder uses the comic as a template. The ink blots on Rorschach’s mask shift via his moods, and is an element that is far more dynamic on screen than in the comic. Dr. Manhattan is an imposing presence with his white eyes and glowing blue skin. He’s often naked, floating in the air. He can be a hundred feet tall or split into multiple bodies. At one point he is exiled on Mars and creates a glass city out of the Martian sand. All these images are richly brought to the screen, capturing the essence of Dave Gibbons’ drawings.
In casting, Snyder found actors that embody their roles. Haley is gruff and passionate. Crudup is cool and distant, while being a bit ethereal at the same time. Morgan is the SOB that The Comedian is supposed to be. Wilson and Akerman are crucial. They’re relationship needs to work, because it’s the emotional center. When they come out of superhero retirement, the sparks in their eyes brings joy to this dark film.
While THE DARK KNIGHT was an adult superhero drama for everybody, WATCHMEN isn’t. It’s not pop entertainment. It has literary sensibilities, dealing with grand themes about existence. Is it the best superhero movie ever made? No. But it’s up there, because it expands what a superhero film can be. With its sex and violence, it is certainly for adults only. But it’s also for adults who like characters and ideas in their films. This is a “turn your brain on” movie. I say this as a high compliment, but also as a warning. You will enjoy the film more if you let go of your expectations of what a superhero movie is supposed to be. Zack Snyder and all the filmmakers involved should be proud of what they brought to the screen. Big budget films haven’t been this deep since the 1970s.