Watchmen is hailed by many critics as the greatest achievement in the the comic book medium. It has garnered praise not only from within the comic book community, but from traditional literary critics. Since its release in 1986 critics and fans have claimed it is unfilmable. It’s too big, has too much back story, and has too many characters. Numerous writers and directors have taken a crack at getting a film adaptation off the ground, but none came close to fruition until Zack Snyder took the reins. Snyder, the polarizing director behind 300 and a remake of Dawn of the Dead, committed himself to making a film that was entertaining and groundbreaking, yet as close to the source material as possible. But as word of Snyder’s involvement spread to Watchmen fans, questions started to crop up. His previous works features eye-popping, groundbreaking visuals, but some felt they came up short on meaning and depth. Would Snyder be able to match his visual flair with the kind of top-notch storytelling required to do Alan Moore’s story justice? Or would he create the cinematic equivalent of a vapid sorority girl: great to look at but boring after an hour?
In short the film is a healthy dose of both style and substance. The visuals are amazing. They’re stylish. They’re impeccably composed. They’re dense. Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong use many of the comic’s panels as templates for iconic shots, lending the film a certain amount of authenticity. The effects are excellent, from Dr. Manhattan’s icy glow to Mars’ burnt brick dust. Rorhshach’s mask is incredibly conceived and executed, with its ever-changing patterns contrasting the inflexible nature of its wearer. Overall this is a movie that looks spectacular throughout.
Unlike many action movies with spectacular visuals, the story doesn’t take a back seat in Watchmen. Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse do an excellent job conveying the massive amount of information in the story’s alternate-history without resorting to a lot of expositional dialogue or spoon-feeding the viewer. They effectively mix voice over, flashbacks, and narration, and like the comics they pass the storytelling from character to character. Unfortunately, even with all of these techniques there are times when the story plods along a bit. While much of the dialogue is taken from the comics and translates well, some of it comes across as forced and corny.
Music is featured heavily in the comic and used prominently throughout the film. At times the song selection and placement are almost transcendent, such as the alternate-history montage at the beginning, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are A-Changing”, and a character’s murder scored by Nat King Cole’s “Unforgetable”. At other times the music is laughable, like KC and the Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man” during a riot or Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” over a character that actually wants to rule the world. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” accompanies Dr. Manhattan’s foray into the Vietnam War in a unsubtle and clunky homage to Apocalypse Now. The worst of the bunch however is Leonard Cohen’s original version of “Hallelujah” over a sex scene. If Snyder was really intent on using the song, why not use Jeff Buckley’s more tender version? He wins back a few points for using the Jimi Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower” instead of Dylan’s original, which is featured in the comic.
Characters are the driving force behind the comics and Snyder generally does a good job bringing them to the screen. Not surprisingly their backstories aren’t as fleshed out on screen as they are in print, but that’s to be expected. Many of the actors do a great job bringing giving life to their characters. Billy Crudup’s monotone delivery and subtle facial expressions beautifully reflect Dr. Manhattan’s growing detachment from the human race. Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl is less bumbling and nerdy than the comic version, but has more sadness and humanity about him. Jeffery Dean Morgan brings a touch of maniacal glee to The Comedian. But the real star is Rorschach. Jackie Earle Haley’s growling delivery makes Rorschach’s unflinching and uncompromising quest for justice believable.
Not all of the performances are as effective however. Matthew Goode’s foppish Ozymandias is difficult to accept as any kind of hero, much less the fastest and smartest man on Earth. Malin Ackerman is pedestrian at best as Silk Spectre II, but at least she’s better than her mom. Carla Gugino was so bad as the aging Sally Jupiter that I couldn’t appreciate the solid performance she put in as her younger self.
Naturally the movie isn’t a 100% faithful adaptation of the original comics. The comic-within-a-comic, Tales of The Black Freighter, was cut because of time (though will be available on DVD, and included in an extended cut). That doesn’t bother me though, since it was the least-compelling part of the original. The most impactful change however is the ending. Snyder and company significantly changed the mechanism of the ending from the original, though kept the overall outcome the same. The comic’s ending is full of moral dilemma and difficult choices, and lacking in answers. The movie’s ending has all of those things. And it makes more sense. The ending of the movie is better than the ending of the comic. There, I said it.
In all, Watchmen is a very good, if slightly flawed, adaptation of an incredibly challenging story. It manages to pack an enormous amount of material into 160 minutes, and does it with style. It works well as both pure entertainment and as a morality play. Snyder and crew should be commended for pulling off something most people thought was impossible, and doing it with aplomb. In the end we don’t get an answer to “who watches the watchmen”, but I can safely say that everyone should.
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