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March 11, 2009 > Movie Review: Watchmen

Movie Review: Watchmen

By Jeremy M. Inman

Directed by Zack Snyder
Rated R

It's always difficult to adapt a beloved comic book into a feature film; filmmakers struggle to walk the line between giving long-time fans the depth and complexity of the original material while retaining a cohesive and understandable story for newcomers to enjoy. In the case of Watchmen, the Holy Bible of graphic novels that single-handedly redefined the comic book medium over 20 years ago, director Zack Snyder certainly had his work cut out for him.

Comic book writer Alan Moore's pinnacle work, Watchmen weaves a rich and twisting tale of life as a costumed vigilante in America in 1985. Only history took a different course in the Watchmen time line, and by 1985, the U.S. had won in Vietnam, there was never any civil rights movement, and President Richard Nixon was entering his fifth term in office, thanks to a hastily-passed amendment proposed at the tail end of the U.S. success in Vietnam.

All of this is in large part due to the presence of a single man - Doctor Manhattan, the very blue, very naked bald guy from the trailers. Manhattan, formerly the physicist Jon Osterman, is the result of a lab accident which granted him the ability to alter matter on an atomic level, thus making him the only character in the entire story that actually has super powers. Manhattan's God-like powers, now on the side of the U.S., make him a major player in the country's military and economic strategies. He is the single greatest nuclear deterrent on Earth, keeping hostilities of Communist Russia at bay but heightening tensions between the major super powers.

It's in this America that the story takes place, opening on a rainy night in 1985 following the apparent murder of a man named Edward Blake who, unbeknownst to the public, is the mask vigilante The Comedian, a mercenary working for the U.S. government and a member of a group of independently-practicing crime fighters collectively referred to as The Watchmen. Other members include Dan Dreiberg, wealthy tinkerer who goes by the alter ego Nite Owl, Adrian Veidt, self-made millionaire and Olympic-level acrobat who fights crime under the alias Ozymandias, Laurie Juspeczyk, the only daughter of famous 1940s crime fighter Sally Jupiter, who fights under the same alias her mom used as the Silk Spectre, Jon Osterman who now goes by Doctor Manhattan, and Walter Kovaks, an uncompromising sociopath who calls himself Rorschach after the ink blot design of his mask which constantly shifts due to the unique material it is made out of.

It's Rorschach who first sets out to uncover the truth about Blake's murder, which provides the baseline for the entire narrative. Rorschach develops a "mask murderer" theory and sets out to warn his former colleagues, all of whom are now retired thanks to a piece of legislation called the Keene Act which banned costumed heroics in the mid-1970s. Throughout his investigation, Rorschach, later aided by other members of the Watchmen, primarily Nite Owl, uncovers a much larger conspiracy which threatens to push the world, already on the brink of nuclear war, into Armageddon.

One of Alan Moore's breakthroughs in the comic book medium was that Watchmen was the first story to be told non-linearly, opting to follow a thematic escalation rather than a series of chronologically contiguous events. Information about the past is released only when it serves to illustrate the evolving themes of the story, something arguably easier to do in a print medium than on film. So how did Zack Snyder and cohorts fare in adapting a narrative so deep, so complex, and so mind-blowingly large in scale as Watchmen?

The short answer: they did about as good a job as they could in an attempt to condense a 12-issue miniseries into one movie. The problem is there's just too much information in the graphic novel to fit in one film. Subplots had to be paired down or cut out all together, often removing valuable character development which then had to be either forgotten or awkwardly crammed back in someplace else. The result is a convoluted tale which struggles to find even footing while balancing six main characters and a timeline spanning 40 years.

Zack Snyder is an extremely capable visual director, but what makes the story of Watchmen so enduring is the complexity of its characters. Often pivotal emotional developments from the comic are neglected in lieu of an extended action sequence, which is arguably necessary to keep newcomers in their seats, having obviously expected an action movie.

But that's the inherent problem. "Action" in the original Watchmen is relatively sparse, and yet Snyder revels in every extended fight scene, shooting them in glorious super slow motion but ultimately wasting time that could be more adequately spent delving deeper into these characters' motivations. The original story is a dark, often too real depiction of a group of dysfunctional human beings with major emotional problems cast suddenly into a plot where their actions might very well affect the fate of the world. But in the book, this plot was secondary to the reader's evolving understanding of what compels these people to fight crime - a working deconstruction of the super hero psyche and an examination of what "real" society would be given the presence of superheroes. This is effectively glossed over in the film, which instead revels in the villainous mastermind scheme, leaving viewers with little emotional understanding by the end of the movie.

This might be a good time to mention that this is not a kid-friendly movie. Watchmen doesn't pull any punches; it more than earns its R rating. The graphic novel was full of dark and disturbing adult concepts and the movie is no watered-down version in this respect - dealing with issues ranging from murder, to rape, to sexual impotence and deep-seeded mental conditions as well as scenes of sex and intense violence.

To Snyder's credit, the film is rich in the same sort of visual detail that made the graphic novel so groundbreaking in its medium. Also, for the most part, it's well-acted, particularly by Jackie Earle Haley and Patrick Wilson who play Rorschach and Nite Owl respectively. Ultimately, though, it leaves the viewer with a sense that the film has a much more meaningful layer just below its surface - something truly epic in scale that the movie just barely touches on. The result is a film that is visually stimulating, superficially entertaining and emotionally engaging by the barest minimum - a good movie that should have been great. If you intend to see the movie and haven't already read the graphic novel, please do, but see the movie FIRST. That way, you won't know what's missing yet, and you'll have a wealth of much deeper material to appreciate when you open up the book. Do it the other way around and you'll only find disappointment...

Like me.

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