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Movie Review: Watchmen
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Week of Geek: Watchmen

Watchmen movie posterWatchmen
Directed by Zack Snyder
Starring Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson
Rated R
Release date: March 6, 2009

This movie should not exist. There have been rumors of its making finally happening for many years. How many acclaimed visionary filmmakers have tried and failed to make this movie? Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass, and Darren Aronofsky are the most well known. I’ve been reading the reports of development and false starts in the pages of magazines like Wizard and entertainment web sites since I was a kid. The material first came to me more than a decade ago after I had read about it for many years and after digesting the collected volume in a single setting I stared off into space wondering how in the hell they could ever make a movie of this. It was impossible, a mad folly that would frighten even Werner Herzog. There was just too much in this book to absorb. I myself even attempted to create a movie version in my head just for fun and see how it would play. It practically fried my brain, but then again I wasn’t a director or a screenwriter.

What brave soul would take on Watchmen, the landmark comic miniseries created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that ran for twelve remarkable issues from 1986-1987 and has been credited with ushering in a darker and more introspective age of comic book storytelling, and not just live to win to tell the tale but conquer the bloody thing? Why did George Leigh Mallory attempt to climb Mount Everest 75 years ago and die in the process? “Because,” as he said in an interview with the New York Times in 1923, “it’s there.” But his son John also had something to add: “To me the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is half done if you don’t get down again.” Zack Snyder, the former music video and commercial director who made a blazing feature directorial debut with the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead and followed it with the blockbuster 2007 adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300, took on the mountain that defeated many a great filmmaker before him and reached the goddamned summit.

About this time into the review I would launch into a synopsis of the movie but some reason I don’t want to do it this time. This film had been a long time in the offering and I don’t think I’ve looked more forward to a movie coming out in my entire life. Nope, not the Star Wars prequels, the fourth Indiana Jones, The Dark Knight, or even Freddy Vs. Jason. To see a Watchmen movie finally made a reality in my lifetime is to see a long-cherished dream come true. I knew that whether it was a good film or not ultimately didn’t matter to me because the important part was that come hell or high water I was going to be in that theater on opening night sitting in a room mostly filled with people who shared my dream. It was a great night even though not everything went according to plan.

Earlier that evening I met up with some friends I haven’t seen in a while and for a few hours we held court at a local sushi restaurant talking, drinking, and enjoying the finest food that I know I’ve had in a long time. Then after a brief sojourn to the apartment that was shared by several of my friends we walked several blocks to this brand new theater for the midnight screening of Watchmen. The start of the screening was delayed several minutes and with a massive geek mutiny brewing the projector whirred to life. After trailers for Observe and Report, Star Trek, and Terminator: Salvation and a strange theater announcement that due to a projector foul-up was run backwards (the spoken words sounded like Esperanto) and we all laughed heartily at the movie we’ve all been waiting for all these many years began with the logos of Warner Bros., Paramount, DC Comics, and Legendary Pictures being presented as simple and static images against a canary yellow background. No flash. That’s all to come boys and girls.

Even with a running time of two hours and forty-three minutes it won’t be difficult for fans of the original Watchmen comic to notice that Snyder and his writers David Hayter and Alex Tse (original artist Dave Gibbons is credited, but writer Alan Moore took his name off the film) had to do a lot of omission and compression to translate the basic story and subtext of the miniseries to celluloid. When the film is released on DVD there will no doubt be an extended director’s cut and that’s where one of the crucial elements of the comic that I felt was missing from the movie will hopefully be restored: texture and detail. When Moore and Gibbons created Watchmen they weren’t just giving us a story of superheroes tackling the threat of global annihilation but a incredibly nuanced vision of an alternate universe that a lot of us wished had existed (Superheroes! Supervillains! Cool!) but at the same time we’re also glad didn’t (Nuclear war! Richard Nixon as a five-term president! Aaaagggghhhh!).

These days it’s commonplace for comic writers and artists to create “revisionist” versions of classic superhero books where the worlds these heroes exist in resemble the real world more than they ever had before. We see masked crimefighters becoming media celebrities and the villains they fight are reimagined as twisted but sympathetic figures just as capable of redemption as they are of committing evil deeds. In the comic Watchmen former masked avenger Hollis Mason (Nite Owl I) retires from his life of battling the forces of evil and writes a tell-all book of his years as a superhero called “Under the Hood,” which always made sense to me if it was a heightened reality Moore and Gibbons were trying to achieve. Mason was a crucial supporting character in the book, a wise and haunted link to the more innocent years of superheroics, but as portrayed by veteran character actor Stephen McHattie in the film he gets a single scene cameo and “Under the Hood” gets only a few mentions and an occasional glimpse. Much like the “Tales of the Black Freighter” comic-within-the-comic that ran parallel to the story throughout the miniseries and was relegated to a separate animated film released on a tie-in DVD, many important elements of the universe surrounding the events of Watchmen had to be sacrificed to squeeze the story into a running time longer than that of The Dark Knight, and the movie still feels like it’s about to come apart at the seams.

Then again would we have really wanted a slavishly faithful cinematic adaptation of the miniseries? Like all great works of literature the book of Watchmen will always be out there for new fans to seek out and thrill to as I and so many others once did. The film has to be its own beast and the filmmakers have created a beast as strange and magnificent as Bubastis, the genetically-engineered lynx that serves as pet to Ozymandias, the intellectual “Superman” of Moore and Gibbons’ universe. Zack Snyder has defied two decades’ worth of gathering odds to craft a living, breathing pop-art historic adventure fantasia that honors the original miniseries while marching to the beat of its own drummer. It’s not a perfect film because I don’t think a film could be made of this material that would ever be considered “perfect.” With the visceral energy and fluid invention that made his first two features stand out far from the rest of the pack, Snyder brings the visual and literal intensity of Watchmen full force to the big screen in ways few filmmakers could barely attempt. The action sequences come to life with even more flying gore and cracking bones than Moore and Gibbons committed to the comic page. The opening fight between Edward Blake a.k.a the Comedian and a equally matched assailant that destroys furniture and punishes drywall gives us a rousing indicator as for what’s to come and from there we’re treated to several brutal fight scenes loaded with the speed and fury that powered the battle scenes in 300. Snyder rarely shies away from showing us the hideousness of real violence as Rorschach and the Comedian go about their dirty work.

On every level Snyder’s skills as a filmmaker were going to have to grow substantially if he was to make a successful adaptation of Watchmen and any fears of the director taking the amazing but artificial look of 300 to unseen heights are dispelled from the moment the movie begins. The tone for the film is set in the opening scene and the credits sequence. Within the walls of his apartment, aging cold warrior the Comedian is watching a debate about the nuclear arms race on “The McLaughlin Group” (instead of using the real people actors were drafted to portray host John McLaughlin and panelists Elenanor Clift and Pat Buchanan). After he’s attacked by a shadowy figure and thrown out a window to his death, his smiley face button with a single runny drop of blood on it hangs in the air a bit longer and then joins the Comedian’s remains on the pavement below. Then we’re launched into an amazing credits sequence which gives us a compact history of the alternate universe with clever inversions of iconic moments in American history all scored to Bob Dylan’s somber tune of defiance “The Times They Are A-Changin'”. Dr. Manhattan shakes hands with President Kennedy but cannot stop him from being assassinated in November 1963 (by the second gunman on the grassy knoll….the Comedian). A snapshot of the retirement dinner for first Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter, looks strangely like the Last Supper. Superheroes are shown dead or being dragged off by men in white coats. Lesbian crimefighter Silhouette gets to kiss a beautiful woman in New York on V-J Day (Screw off sailor!) but ends up violently murdered. This is gloriously geektastic history in liquid motion.

Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs/Rorschach. The cool kid on the dirt bike from The Bad News Bears is playing the sociopathic vigilante of the Watchmen universe who has become an unlikely pop culture icon. Jesus Christ, that works brilliantly. Haley came back from cinema exile several years ago with a lauded performance as a pedophile at war with his personal demons in Little Children. The actor has never outgrown that look of a little boy lost but that same look suits the character of Rorschach to a T. The trenchcoat-sporting nocturnal avenger of justice had an upbringing that would make Bruce Wayne join the Hare Krishnas. Lowering his voice to an eerie gravelly register gives every line of Haley’s dialogue a vicious punch that could make anyone sit up and pay attention. Rorschach is the loneliest character in the book and film because his devotion to punishing the guilty knows no end. He continues on into the darkness when his teammates decide to give up the fight under pressure of government prosecution when the Keene Act of 1977 made being a costumed crimefighter illegal.

There’s no question Haley gives the best performance in the film. Rorschach and him are a perfect match of actor and role and together they comprise the dark soul of the movie Watchmen, the only one of us willing to go to greater lengths in the pursuit of what they believe is just. Yet he’s also the person we fear becoming. Midway through the film Rorschach gets set-up for murder and ends up in prison where he’s ironically subjected to an inkblot test and his sordid past is brought to life. We see for ourselves at what point on the beaten path Rorschach mutated from being the Shadow wearing a mask that itself is an endlessly shifting inkblot test to someone closer in nature to the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Unfortunately the subplot about how Rorschach’s revelations about his life comes to bear heavily on his liberal-minded prison psychiatrist is missing from the theatrical version and I hope they filmed it and will include it on the inevitable extended cut DVD.

Billy Crudup as Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan. The only superhero in the Watchmen universe with real superpowers, Dr. Manhattan is a god created by science, Moore and Gibbons’ subtle commentary on the eternal conflict between logic and belief. Through a mighty visual effects undertaking the character is rendered onscreen exactly as so many, myself included, have imagined. The bulk of Crudup’s performance had to be recreated digitally in post-production, but Crudup is such a good actor that he makes the character his own, the mark of truly great acting. I’m glad they didn’t do any major alterations on the actor’s voice because it’s important to remember that the doctor may have become an omnipotent figure by the hand of his own science, but he hasn’t completely disconnected himself from his birth race. There is a sadness in that voice and his stark white eyes, the look and sound of a being who knows how it’s all going to end but doesn’t know if he really wants to do anything to affect the outcome. The most controversial element of the Watchmen film has been the ending which has been somewhat changed to make Dr. Manhattan a more integral character in the finale but the bleak tone of the miniseries has been retained. Yeah, as it’s been numerously reported, the giant squid is nowhere to be found and I did miss it but without spoiling the ending I will say the purpose for which it was created is ultimately achieved and for a big studio epic superhero adventure with a budget topping $100 million to go for that final reel gut punch you have to respect that.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Blake/The Comedian. I know Morgan’s been on a bunch of television shows whose success is hard to explain (to me at least) like Grey’s Anatomy but outside of his performance as a badass town sheriff in the 2005 horror indie Dead & Breakfast , I didn’t know much about the man’s acting. After his performance as the vicious government operative the Comedian, Moore and Gibbons’ deranged living parody of all those gung-ho patriotic heroes prevalent in the comics of the 1930’s and 1940’s, the man has sold me. This is not a man whose actions can be condoned in any way but there is a crushing sadness in the character during his later years. In a way the Comedian has reached the same plateau the Joker of The Dark Knight came to. The world is just one great joke and even we’re faced with certain death all we can do is laugh at it. Morgan manages to give us fleeting glimpses at Blake’s long suppressed humanity in the midst of the gleeful flamethrowing mayhem.

Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II. The filmmakers really toned down Dreiberg’s schlumpiness from the comic. As originally envisioned by Moore and Gibbons, Hollis Mason’s successor as Nite Owl was a sad sack inventor who only really came to life when he was in costume taking the fight to the bad guys from behind the stick of the soaring Owl Ship. Being forced to hang up his cowl took Dreiberg’s lifeforce away and he basically went to pot, gaining weight and receding into partial reclusiveness. Wilson probably gained a little weight and he certainly looks nerdy enough wearing horn-rimmed glasses. At least Wilson, who co-starred with Haley in Little Children, is a talented actor capable of communicating a character’s innate loneliness through simple facial expressions. Watching him suit up as Nite Owl once more late in the film to kick ass, save lives, and please his luscious lady Laurie all with a smile on his face is pure joy to watch.

Malin Akerman as Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II. This was the Watchmen casting that I think made a lot of us think (or yell), “What the fuck?!” The girl who’s best known for going topless in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle in a role Julianne Moore would have rocked hard? Interesting but it was always destined to fail. But personally it’s not entirely Akerman’s fault because she does just fine with the part and we are after all dealing with material that could defeat most actresses for the sheer amount of emotional hopscotch they would have to play in the role. It doesn’t help that Akerman is 31 years and Snyder and company didn’t try too hard to make her look at least a little older because her character started crimefighting when she was in her teens, which was more than a decade before the Keene Act was passed and that’s eight years before the movie begins. I guess I was expecting the Laurie of the film version to be as mature as she was in the comic, but then again much like Rorschach, Laurie was deprived of a proper childhood because her mother forced her to begin preparing for a life of crimefighting at an early age so I think it makes sense that she looks frozen in time and who doesn’t begin to mature until she accepts her destiny as a superhero. So on a certain level Watchmen is the story of Laurie’s coming of age.

Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias. Imagine if Doc Savage had been reenvisioned as a capitalist whose intellect barely rivals his ego in size and who cast off the shackles of living with old money so he could build a brand new fortune from selling out the legacies of him and his costumed peers. I didn’t question Goode’s casting as Ozymandias at first because I admired his performance in Scott Frank’s The Lookout and he was good enough of an actor to dig deep into this morally complex character. As a result of Snyder and his writers distilling the Watchmen miniseries to its essentials, Ozymandias is the main character who seems to get the shortest shrift. But Goode still does fine work fighting to balance Veidt’s ambition, compassion, and most of all his madness.

Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre I. Another link to the formative years of crimefighting, but also a stark reminder of the tough choices that have to be made to live in that world. Old age makeup can’t take away a sliver of Gugino’s classical beauty and charisma and she gives a terrific performance in a role that has been pared down for the film. Matt Frewer, who had a small role in Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, shows up for a few brief scenes as cancer-ravaged reformed supervillain Moloch and oozes with pathos. Danny Woodburn (Kramer’s actor pal Mickey from Seinfeld) chomps cigars and delivers a zesty bit of ham as pint-sized crimelord Big Figure. Canadian television actress Laura Mennell ably portrays Dr. Manhattan’s bitter former lover Janey Slater as another living casualty of the superheroes’ occasional indifference towards humanity.

I loved the look of this movie. Snyder retained the services of the great production designer Alex McDowell (Fight Club) to bring the detail-rich world of Watchmen off the page. The sets are wild with eye-popping visuals ripped right from Moore and Gibbons’ imaginations. I need to pick a copy of the score album because I loved Tyler Bates‘ music. Being a fan of Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and the film work of Vangelis (especially his score for Blade Runner), Bates’ score delighted my ears. It was a fantastic score for a film set in an alternate 1985. Cinematographer Larry Fong works visual miracles behind the camera, making each scene look like panels from the comic given life, and his work is put together in fine shape by editor William Hoy. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson makes the various superhero outfits look plausible rather than overly flashy.

Watchmen may not be the perfect epic we’ve dreamed about since the late 1980’s but it’s a weird and beautiful beast indeed. Violent, erotic, blackly funny, and thrilling this is a comic geek’s glorious widescreen wet dream made flesh and will inspire debate for years to come. For what’s it worth, Watchmen the movie is here and ready to rumble.

BAADASSSSS will return.

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