Movie Review: Watchmen

23 years ago, a writer named Alan Moore and an artist named Dave Gibbons set out to challenge the public’s idea of the perception of Superheroes. Using new characters derived from older creations, they created a twelve issue story that has taken on a mythic life all it’s own. That story was Watchmen. Shortly after it’s publication in 1986, the first deal for the movie rights to the story is negotiated for Twentieth Century Fox. One day ago, after 23 years of development hell and lawsuits, the movie was released. Was it worth the wait?

The answer is mixed. This is, in many ways, the biggest “fan service” film ever. The director, Zack Snyder, is familiar with the particular challenges of comic film adaptions, having helmed the stunning 300, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Snyder, who is an unabashed fan of the graphic novel, was determined to be as reverentially faithful to the source as possible. This is both good and bad, but, make no mistake, fans of the original graphic novel have gotten the film they hoped for, but never thought that anyone would be able to make.

First of all, I would like to complement the filmmakers for the inspired decision to take care of all of the back story in the opening credits sequence. It was a stroke of genius and it is set perfectly to Bob Dylan’s The Times, They Are A-Changin’. The movie takes place in a dystopian future, where the threat of Nuclear War with the Soviets has propelled Richard Nixon to a third term as President. Costumed heroes were outlawed by the Keene Act after Police went on strike in the Seventies. It is into this world that we are dropped after the opening credits. First, here is a quick summary of the important points and characters. Watchmen begins in the same way as the book, with the brutal murder of Edward Blake, who masquerades as a costumed hero called The Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan). It is from a pin Blake wears that the property derived it’s signature “smiley face” logo, and it is Blake’s blood that is smeared on it. Let me be clear on this point, this movie pulls no punches from the get go. The fight scenes are brutal and not for the squeamish. Blake’s murder is investigated by the most violent and unstable of our “heroes”: Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), who has one of the coolest masks I have ever seen in a “superhero” movie. The mask is a constantly shifting inkblot pattern, hence the character’s name. Rorschach is a brutal character, preferring to get his information by breaking fingers before asking a question.  Rorschach is one of few costumed heroes to refuse to retire after the Keene act was passed, which has made him a wanted man. He is also the movie’s narrator, with the scenes unfolding as pages from his journal. After Blake’s murder, Rorschach is convinced that he and his fellow former colleagues are being targeted. He decides to warn them. He calls first on his former partner, Dan Dreiberg, once the costumed hero Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson). Dreiberg, though retired, still longs for the costumed life and visits teh original Nite Owl, who now owns a car repair shop, frequently. He has also kept all of his Nite Owl costumes and tools, including his vehicle, a flying ship named Archimedes, Archie for short, in his basement. After warning him, Rorschach sets out to warn two other colleagues: Laurie Jupiter, who was once Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), her super powered lover whose interference allows the U.S. to win the Vietnam war. The now reside on a Military base where Dr. Manhattan is collaborating on a project aimed at creating a new source of energy. Dr. Manhattan has become increasingly detached with humanity since Vietnam and this has allowed the Soviets to move into Afghanistan. After an extremely creepy bedroom scene involving Laurie and Dr. Manhattan, she leaves him. Dan has gone to see the final of their former comrades, Adrian Veidt, once the costumed hero Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). Veidt is now a successful businessman and is Dr. Manhattan’s partner in the energy project. Dr. Manhattan has constructed a reactor capable of duplicating his power. Meanwhile, Laurie decides to meet with Dan. The attraction is obvious. When Dr. Manhattan attends the funeral of the Comedian, Laurie visits her Mother, Sally Jupiter, the original Silk Spectre. Here, it is revealed that Blake raped and assaulted her when they were both members of the crime fighting team the Minutemen.  When Dr. Manhattan is led to believe he has give some of his former friends and co-workers Cancer, he exiles himself to Mars. On Mars, he revisits his origin and build a gleaming crystal palace. Dr. Manhattan’s exile causes Laurie to be evicted from the base, so she seeks out Dan, who insists he stay with her. Viedt is attacked by an assassin who committs suicide by cyanide pill. Dan and Laurie try to consummate their new relationship in the most hilarious sex scene I have ever seen, as Dan finds he cannot *ahem* perform. Dan pitches the idea to Laurie that they should come out of retirement. After suiting up and saving a family from a burning building, Dan finds he can finally perform and he and Laurie do the deed in the Owl Ship. Meanwhile, Rorchach has been arrested for the murder of the Comedian’s old enemy Moloch (Matt Frewer), which he did not commit. Rorschach is unmasked and his real name, Walter Kovacs, is revealed. He is examined by a prison psychologist and a particularly gruesome part of Rorschach’s back story is revealed. After an incident involving, Rorschach, another inmate, and some cooking grease, the prison is on the verge of a riot. When the inmate dies, the riot explodes. In the middle of all this, Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II break Rorschach out of prison. Before he lives though, Rorschach takes care of a particularly bothersome inmate in the men’s room. Upon there return from the prison, Dr. Manhattan returns to Earth and Laurie goes with him to Mars. On Mars, his disconnection from humanity becomes clear when he does not immediately uinderstand that Laurie cannot breathe on Mars. They have a conversation where Jon explains the virtues of Mars over Earth. Jon tells Laurie that she is blocking her memory. He unlocks her mind and she learns that the Comedian was her Father. It is this revelation that changes Dr. Manhattan’s mind, as her creation due to the union of the Comedian and her mother can only be described as a miracle. Meanwhile, Rorschach and Nite Owl, working as a team again, search for clues to Adrian’s attacker. Getting a lead concerning a comapny called Pyramid, they break into Veidt’s office and hack the computer. Rorscach discovers a psychological profile on Dr. Manhattan while Nite Owl discovers Adrian is the mastermind. Rorschach and Nite Owl head to Antarctica where Viedt has a sanctuary. Here, they confront Veidt and learn that the energy replicated from Dr. Manhattan is to be used to trigger controlled nuclear explosions aroudn the world, killing 15 million people. These explosions are meant to force the governements of the world to uniformly blame Dr. Manhattan and caese their conflicts with each other, thereby uniting the world in peace. Viedt admits he killed the Comedian after Blake found out about the plan. He also admits to giving cancer to Dr. Manhattan’s colleagues to cause his exile, killing Moloch and tipping off the police to get Rorschach captured and hiring the assassin that tried to kill him.  After a short fight scene, where Ozymandias wipes the floor with Nite Own and Rorschach, Laurie and Dr. Manhattan appear. Having been to New York and seen the devestation, Dr, Manhattan and Laurie confront Ozymandias. After a short confrontation, where Dr. Manhattan grows REALLY big, Dr. Manhattan realizes that the plan must remain a secret for peace to survive. He announces he is leaving for another galaxy where he might create some life. Nite Owl and Laurie agree, grudgingly, to stay silent. Rorschach however, will not make that compromise. He is met outside by Dr. Manhattan, who has no choice but to kill him. The plan works, and all of the countries put aside their hostilities, ending the Cold War. Laurie and Dan, now officially a couple, visit Sally Jupiter, where Laurie reveals she knows the truth and forgives her mother. At the end of the movie, a Newspaper editor, distrught over having nothing to print, tells his employee, Seymour, to print something from the “crank file.” At the top of the pile is Rorschach’s journal, having been left in the mail slot before he travelled to Antarctica.

There are a few points about this movie which I would like to be perfectly clear about. THIS MOVIE IS RATED “R”, and there is a very good reason for that. This film is extremely violent, has some very disturbing scenes and has a fair amount of sexual content. In addition, Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan is naked almost ALL OF THE TIME HE IS ON SCREEN. Apparently, in the movie message boatrd community, it being referred to as “lower Manhattan.” It is not something I was prepared for because, obviously, it had to be blurred out in all of the promotional photography. But, it is absolutely unavoidable when you see the movie. Second, this movie is slavishly faithful to the source material. So, if you are watching a scene wondering why it is shot in a specific way, just know that it was written that way in the source material. I’d say about 85-90% of the movie is panel-for panel fron the source. Thirdly, if you have read the novel, or have no plans to, this movie is probably not for you. As exclusive as that may sound, it is the truth. If you have no background for interpreting the story, you will probably hate the movie. The fight scenes are cool and the violence and sex will sell it, but you will have no feeling for the characters whatsoever.

Now, as with all adaptations from pre-existing materials, Some things had to dropped or changed to make this fit the screen. This is where I have to applaud Zack Snyder. He made sure that as much of the original source as possible was translated intact. The stuff that was dropped or changed was, in most cases, a big part of the book, but not of the main story. One of the biggest ommissions in the film is the newspaper seller. He acts, in the book, as a sort of “real world” link as the main story is playing out. But, he is in every chapter of the source novel, so it would have been hard to include him the same way in the film. The second major omission is the death of the first Nite Owl, at the hands of a street gang. But, the biggest ommission is the exclusion of the Pirate comic book: Tales of the Black Freighter. It would have been difficult to try and fit this side story into what is already a very complex movie, so the filmmakers decided to produce it seperately and release it seperately. It releases on DVD March 24th. The biggest alteration to the story is the ending. In the graphic novel, Viedt has scientists building a new life form on an island, which the Comedian discovered. Veidt has also managed to perfect teleportaion and is able to telport the creature to New York, where it explodes upon arrival, causing the nuclear death and devastation that frightens the world into peace. The rest of the ending is the same on film as in the book. Also missing from the movie are the chapters from Hollis Mason’s book Under the Hood and the interview will Sally Jupiter. These however, should make it to the DVD as extras.

In the end, this movie is the first that I have to score twice. The acting, effects, sets and music are phenomenal whether you have read teh graphic novel or not. But, the story and character development can only be appreciated if you have read the book. Only then can you truly appreciate the gargantuan task of bringing what many call the “Geek Bible” to the screen at last. The bottom line is: if you have read the graphic novel, go see this movie immediately, as you moment has arrived. If you haven’t, you are better off waiting until you have, as you will not appreciate the accomplishment the fimmakers have achieved.

Watchmen gets a 4 out of 5 IF YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK, a 3 out of 5 IF YOU HAVE NOT.

Watchmen is rated R and is currently in theaters. You can also see the film in IMAX.

Agree?, Disagree? Post a comment and let me know.

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