First, I should start by announcing that I have never read the very popular graphic novel "Watchmen', the source for the new film directed by Zach Snyder ("300"). I'm not sure that makes a difference, but I know there are a lot of ardent admirers out there and I hope these same admirers will read this review with an open mind. If not an open mind, at least with the ability to recognize the fact that others may not like the film as much as the diehard fans of the graphic novel probably do.
In the 1940s, the Minutemen form together to become a force of superheroes, prepared to help people in their time of need. Among this group are the Night Owl, Silk Specter (Carla Gugino), the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) who is involved in an accident at his lab and becomes Dr. Manhattan. The Minutemen are a ragtag group who wear hand-sewn costumes and basically fight villains with their bare hands. They are treated as heroes and this status seems to affect many of them in the wrong way. As time passes, some of these folks retire, others continue working for the government and some new folks join the group. Flash forward to "Present Day". It is 1985. Nixon is still in the White House and superheroes have been banned after one too many protests. So, the current Watchmen, Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), Silk Spectre's daughter has taken over the reigns and now becomes Silk Spectre II, Night Owl II is now Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson). Rohrshack (Jackie Earle Haley) and Ozymandias, who's alter ego Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) is an industrialist, have gone, more or less, undercover. The US and Russia appear to be getting closer and closer to a nuclear war, promising certain annihilation. In fact, this possibility leads Dr. Manhattan to exile because his ability to see the future doesn't paint a good image for him. When the Comedian is murdered, the group reunites, in a fashion, and begins to investigate his murder, leading them to some surprising revelations.
"Watchmen" as an idea is better than "Watchmen" as a film. From the moment I first saw trailers about this film, I was intrigued and gradually became more excited as the release date approached and I became aware of how many ardent fans there are of the graphic novel. Basically, a story about superheroes, these characters come from more real places, have more human emotions and problems, and get into more violent situations. In short, a more adult superhero experience. Great. Sign me up.
Zach Snyder, the 'visionary' (as the trailers and commercials for the film proclaim) director who created "300" is probably the right choice to bring this highly visual universe to reality. The Watchmen inhabit a sort of alternative universe. Nixon is still the President, enjoying his fifth term in office because he is so popular. We won the Vietnam War, thanks in large part to the members of the Watchmen (The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan are shown in combat). So things are different in this world. And everything appears real. Yet, it also has that comic book sort of appearance. Especially when some of the characters become their alter egos. Dan Dreiberg could be an extrapolation of Clark Kent. Snyder seems to have an innate sense of how to show us everything we need while filling in all of the extra space with unique and interesting details.
But Snyder doesn't seem to have as good a handle on both narrative and character development.
From what I understand, Snyder adheres pretty closely to the source material, so perhaps this is a criticism that should be addressed to Alan Moore and the other folks behind the graphic novel. But as director, Snyder is ultimately responsible for all elements of the finished film and can make (and should have made?) changes to the story to strengthen it. I suppose if he had changed the story too much, he would have heard about it from the legions of fans, so he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.
Yes, these characters are more human and more adult than many superheroes. And some of this works. For instance, a burgeoning relationship between Silk Spectre II and Night Owl II (Malin Ackerman and Patrick Wilson) leads to a believable place in this relationship, attributing some real moments to the film's R rating. But because they are also more human and more adult, they are not necessarily squeaky-clean characters. Or in some cases, even likable. Is it necessary to like a superhero? I kind of think it is. If you don't like a superhero, can you root for him to win a battle against the 'villain'? And in "Watchmen", it gets even more complicated than that. Is there a villain? A true villain who is working for a bad end? That is, at best, debatable.
Yes, Snyder seems to have fun creating certain environments for the characters. But he has already shown he can do this with the interesting and very visual "300", which was an unexpected and very good film. In "Watchmen" he creates dingy, grimy cities circa mid 40s and mid 80s. He also creates more than a few superhero-type fortresses and shows us the interior of a vehicle used by the new crew of the Watchmen. It is an interesting film visually. Because the film presents an alternate history of our country from a certain point, everything looks similar, but these similar items also look a little surreal. Grimy things are grimier, sexy people are sexier, beautiful things are more beautiful. This aspect of the film is accomplished in spades.
Snyder takes these moments of realism to an extreme. As the Watchmen battle various bad guys, using their fists and karate kicks, we see bones break and blood spurt. This is an interesting addition, and helps to make the story seem more adult. But Snyder also seems to linger more on the broken leg, for example. When the leg breaks, his camera slows down and lingers briefly on the broken limb, highlighting this moment of it. It is brief, but because he pauses and accentuates the action, it is all the more memorable. And maybe even disturbing.
"Visionary director Zach Snyder"? Something about the Warner Bros. publicity department labeling the director of their own film as "visionary" rubs me the wrong way. Snyder may very well be a great new talent, but visionary? This is a label that should be bestowed after years of great films. As a marketing tool it just seems desperate.
The actors are serviceable if unremarkable in their various roles. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jackie Earle Haley are certainly the best of the bunch, as they each play the most complicated characters. Morgan (TV's "Grey's Anatomy") plays the Comedian, a super hero who seems to enjoy many vices, smoking, booze, killing, and only occasionally tries to do the right thing. Having been around the longest, he also has the opportunity to become the most interesting. He has seen many things in his life as a superhero, both good and bad, and it isn't completely clear how these have affected him.
Jackie Earle Haley ("Little Children", "Breaking Away") plays Rohrshack, a member of the Watchmen who has difficulty controlling his anger. When the Comedian is murdered, he leads the rest of the Watchmen in the investigation, propelling them into the rest of the story. He is also the most aggressive, hiding his real features behind a mask (that looks like the same thing Scarecrow wore in "Batman Returns") covered with ever changing ink blots, he attacks most people with the slightest provocation. And he doesn't stop until he makes sure the deed is done.
Patrick Wilson ("Little Children") plays Dan Dreiberg whose alter ego Night Owl II seems to be the moral compass of the group. As Dreiberg, he looks like Clark Kent, complete with thick-rimmed glasses and nerdish looks. As Night Owl, we learn he inherited a lot of money allowing him to set up the headquarters for the Watchmen. There is a very good scene when he and Silk Spectre, as their alter egos, are confronted by a large group of hoodlums. Against seemingly invincible odds, they quickly dispatch the group.
Malin Ackerman plays Silk Spectre II and is the daughter of Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), who now spends all her time in a booze-shrouded mist. Ackerman is certainly very pretty, but she is kind of boring as an actress. Every time she appears on screen, her facial expression seems to be the same. She is interested in both Dr. Manhattan and Night Owl and both are interested in her. She also uncovers a dark secret about her past and confronts her mother with the truth.
Billy Crudup, an actor I usually greatly admire and enjoy, plays Dr. Manhattan. Manhattan, a former scientist who gets caught in one of his experiments, gains a power allowing him to control all of the molecules in his body. This same experiment turns him blue. And seems to rob him of the need to wear clothes. It is more than a little disconcerting to see a computer-generated character designed to look like an outstanding body builder. And to see this man walking around naked, with his blue testicles hanging out for most of the film. I think the idea is that Dr. Manhattan's accident has caused him to reach a new level of power and enlightenment. He doesn't need to live on Earth. And doesn't appear to like to live on Earth. And wonders why he should try to save a planet he no longer has any ties to. During a conversation with Silk Spectre, he takes her to Mars so they can converse more freely. Of course, she has difficulty breathing and he quickly creates a safe building for her. But why go to Mars in the first place? There are a lot of questions left unanswered in "Watchmen".
And I don't get some of the alternative reality references. For instance, why is Nixon still in office in 1985? A co-worker tried to tell me that this made him more of a monarch than a President, and this is what gave him so much power. But these points of argument must come from the graphic novel, because they certainly aren't explored in the film. Nixon only makes a few appearances and no one really seems to be affected by him that much. And why have a monarch at all when it doesn't seem to really affect the story
"Watchmen" is interesting visually, but the acting and narrative are a few KAPOWS short of a masterpiece. Quite a few ZOWIES.