Ah, it’s that time of year again. The cold snows of Winter are about to thaw, new leaves begin to bud on the trees and the stream of Oscar films are making way for the torrent of big budget blockbusters. First on the list is the heavily-hyped and long-awaited adaptation of the Watchmen graphic novel. A complicated and detailed tale of an alternate history in which superheroes were embraced as bringers of justice, only to gradually become marginalised as dangerous and unregulated menaces to society. Interweaving the story of two generations, the story is an expansive discussion of power and justice that draws in detail on the lives of 8 (yes, eight) heroes.
However, amid the accusations that WATCHMEN will be confusing and complicated, it is worth remembering that the director is Zack Snyder: the man who implified and stylised 300 SPARTANS in to 300, and took the politicized zombie world George Romero and made the glossy 2004 version of DAWN OF THE DEAD.
His work on WATCHMEN is no different. The story is broken down admirably well, and told in a series of sequences that are absorbing, exciting and, perhaps best of all, manageable. Sure it’s a plot with several big twists, and the characters have more issues than Variety, but instead of this seeming an insurmountable obstacle to be overcome during the epic runtime of this movie, it actually makes it a rich and exciting tapestry that keeps you gripped throughout.
Just to whet the appetites of those who aren’t too familiar with the graphic novel:
The basic superhero narrative is provided by Rorschach, a classic vigilante/pschopath hero whose disdain for society expresses itself through his violent attempts to purge it of its worst members, and whose emotions are expressed through the shifting black shapes of his Rorschach-test style mask.
The Silk Spectre and her successor/daughter are glamorous feminist heroes whose roles explore the meaning of female heroes and provide more than a little emotional intrigue to the proceedings, as well as forming the core of the themes of the attachment/detachment of the heroes to the rest of humanity.
Dr Manhatten represents raw power, and his astounding abilities give some awesome scenes. They also form the basis over the moral debate over how to use power.
Ozymandias is a genius whose power is only exceeded by his intellect. Probably the most underdevloped character in the movie, his part is that of the philanthropist whose actions serve to question how we justify what is ‘right’ for humankind.
Nite Owl is also a little underdeveloped, but he is a hero whose love is for mankind but who is also weak in his conviction. His story, amongst other things, serves to show how easy it is for a hero just to give up his duties and leave the hard work to everyone else, because being a superhero isn’t always that great (apparently!)
The Comedian is a nihilist kind of hero. Almost like Hancock in many ways, his encounters with humanity have gradually embittered him. He deserves more commentary than this, but I’m scared I’ll accidentally drop in a spoiler!
From all of this, would you believe that it’s not too complicated? I certainly wouldn’t. And that’s a testament to how well done this movie is. Although it’s not just about how well the writer and director handle the story, let’s not forget that it’s an action film that needs to provide us with a pretty fucking big wow-factor to win us over.
With its 18-certificate here in the UK, I was ready for it to be violent and nasty and succeed on every level. True to form there are some really horrific scenes of violence ranging from the ones at which the whole audience gasped and winced, to an excellent Rorschach scene which prompted spontaneous ruptures of applause. Plus, as you’ll have scene in the trailers, Dr. Manhatten makes people explode! Hell yeah! Some of the scenes designed for iMax (sprawling deserts of Mars, people falling from buildings, Archimedes emerging from the river and speeding over the city) don’t impress as much as they should. Their heavily CG look just doesn’t quite cut it as much as the closer scenes of violence and emotion that Snyder has done so well.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the movie is the plot change that has been talked about so much. One particular plot line has been overly sanitised at great cost to one of the key themes/stories of the movie (I won’t say what it is exactly for those who don’t know). When they’ve done this when there’s enough violence to warrant and adult rating is beyond me. If you can argue that it’s fine to show a guy’s head smashed into a table or several close-ups of people exploding, plus a big blue cock, then surely this storyline should have stayed.
This gripe aside, WATCHMEN is a hugely enjoyable film. Inevitably it will face comparisons to THE DARK KNIGHT, which might result in the film receiving less praise than it deserves. TDK painted an equally bleak and exciting picture of what it means to be a hero, and the astounding cityscapes which made it so effective in iMax dwarf similar attempts at the apectacular in WATCHMEN, and The Comedian may well receive the unwanted label of ‘poor man’s Joker’. But these would be wide of the mark. The array of subtle themes on show in the various heroes of this film provides a fair more detailed and interesting commentary on power and justice that, at every step, resonates with problems in our own world. This is not just a great superhero film, it’s an important political debate.
This article was first posted on February 28, 2009