“Watchmen”, the critically acclaimed comic book limited series from the creative duo of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, was always something I admired more than I loved. But there’s no denying the mark it left on the industry. Told through twelve issues that were published from September 1986 through October 1987, “Watchmen” was a complex sociopolitical story that director Terry Gilliam once called “unfilmable”. Yet 20th Century Fox, Universal, Paramount, and finally DC Comics sister-company Warner Brothers all took their shot at a big screen adaptation.
“Watchmen” eventually went to Zack Snyder whose bold style made him both perfect for the material and a question mark. There was no doubt he could create a visually immersive world fitting of Moore’s vision. But could he wrangle together Moore’s fascinating yet complicated narrative? For the most part yes, but much like the highly esteemed comic series, that too is complicated.
The film is a dystopian neo-noir that skips along an alternate reality timeline. The bulk of the film takes place in 1985 at the height of the Cold War. Nuclear paranoia hangs over the globe as the United States and the Soviets wave their sizable nuclear arsenals at one another while a doomsday clock ticks down to the projected Armageddon. Meanwhile costumed heroes, who for years impacted world events from the Vietnam War to Watergate, have been forced into retirement by the government. So the hero-less world sits and waits for what seems like its inevitable doomsday.
That’s a really broad summary of the backstory and setting which actually plays a significant role in the film. Numerous references to the past and meaningful flashbacks take us as far back as 1939 to introduce us to a superhero team called the Minutemen. A montage tells us of their glory days and their tragic demise. At one point we stop in 1959 to witness a lab accident that transforms nuclear physicist Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) into the glowing blue matter-bending Doctor Manhattan. We learn of the formation of the next wave of crimefighters called the Watchmen who are forced to disband in 1977 after “costume adventuring” is ruled illegal. This is just some of the table-setting and world-building that packs weight on this densely plotted story.
Back to 1985, reverberations from the past are constantly being felt and some old wounds are opened up when a former Watchmen named The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is beat to a pulp and thrown to his death from his top floor apartment. His murder barely leaves a mark with his former teammates save for Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a part masked vigilante and part sociopath who operates like a hard-boiled 1940’s private detective. Rorschach’s investigation leads him to believe that someone from their past is targeting the Watchmen. So he sets out to warn his ex-partners, Silk Spectre (Malin Åkerman) whose mother was an original member of the Minutemen, Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) who still struggles to find his place in a post-Watchmen society, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a billionaire entrepreneur and the world’s smartest man, and the unintentionally cold apathetic Doctor Manhattan who is preoccupied with something a tad more….global.
The film’s central story quickly turns into a murder mystery with a handful of interesting twists and a few conspiracies to unearth along the way. But there’s much more going on which Snyder along with screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse manage to fit it with varying degrees of success. The movie shines brightest as a gritty and cerebral deconstruction of the now lucrative superhero genre. It also questions our real-life concept of “heroes” and challenges several societal constructs. And while there is no overtly political message, it does examine political power and how quickly it can be swayed in one direction or another. All of these things were fundamental to Moore’s series and Snyder makes sure they’re present in his film as well.
But while Snyder has brought this “unfilmable” story to the screen in the best way imaginable, he still can’t entirely keep it from feeling a bit cramped even at 160 minutes. Part of it is due to his faithfulness to the source material. While a couple of changes were made to the story and some action scenes extended, Snyder generally sticks to the look, themes, and tone of the comic. But this means pouring a lot in and covering a ton of ground some of which is inevitably shortchanged. And that same allegiance to the material means he covers some things the movie could have done without. For instance a certain romance springs up between two key characters that is a big part of the story. They aren’t the most convincing pairing mainly because the movie wastes time on sex scenes that could have been better used elsewhere in their relationship. But these scenes were in the comic so…..
Still I can’t overstate the challenge of bringing “Watchmen” to the screen which makes what Snyder has done here all the more impressive. His filmmaking strengths are vividly on display as “Watchmen” looks incredible and the world he visualizes is compelling and immersive. The characters are given a surprising amount of attention and the performances are strong (maybe a quibble of two with Matthew Goode but that’s it). Still, this is a jam-packed movie that gives you lots of plot often with little time to process what you’re given. There is a 215-minute “Ultimate Cut” out there that may solve some of these problems, but I’ll let you find that out for yourselves.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS