After over two decades of controversy, fan anticipation, lawsuits, and thousands of naysayers claiming that it could never actually happen, Alan Moore’s groundbreaking graphic novel Watchmen finally got its silver-screen translation. Although Moore’s name is conspicuously absent from the film’s credits (Dave Gibbons is oddly given solitary “co-creator” credit for the graphic novel), this is an adaptation that does more than stick to its source material. It literally becomes it. Warner Bros. has released director Zack Snyder’s extended cut in a two disc DVD set. The added sequences manage to enhance the movie and further Snyder’s testament of devotion to the source material. Read my review after the jump:
Watchmen is set in an alternate 1985 where superheroes function amongst society. Until President Richard Nixon outlaws superhero activity. Then, a superhero named the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is brutally murdered in his apartment and the Watchmen are brought together to solve the crime. But this is mere plot to bring us into a world inhabited by such colorful characters as Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) and Rorschach (Jackie Lee Haley).
What’s so remarkable about the graphic novel is that it was the first time pop culture had dealt in the subject of superheroes with deep psychological issues. Sure by 2009, after Batman, Spiderman and countless others, the idea of a complex psyche attached to a crime fighter is old hat and pretty much expected. But in 1986 when the graphic novel was published, such a notion was not only fresh and original, it was somewhat subversive. Superheroes are supposed to be unblemished champions always there to save the day at a moment’s notice. They help us with our problems. Who the hell would ever think they’d have real tribulations of their own?
Working with diehard, nearly religious devotion to the comic (innumerable images from the film are exact replicas of the graphic novel’s panels), Zack Snyder has accomplished what ultimately adds up to an astounding cinematic effort. The production design, cinematography and casting are almost eerie recreations of the graphic novel and these aspects alone are something of a visual triumph. Snyder’s Watchmen certainly isn’t flawless, or as good as the graphic novel, for that matter. But because it adheres so closely to its source material, it is the best possible adaptation of a work which is arguably considered unfilmmable. Of course, all this faithfulness to the original graphic novel is somewhat counterintuitive to the movie’s marketing campaign, which read “From the visionary director of 300.” This begs the question: if all Snyder is doing is painstakingly recreating the images and story from Moore’s pages, exactly how does this make one a visionary?
Surprisingly, the movie actually has a couple of improvements over the graphic novel (no he di’n’t!). Before you purist Watchmen fans come running with torches looking for blood, consider some adjustments in the live-action adaptation. The first being Rorschach’s death inkblot left in the snow after he’s obliterated by Dr. Manhattan. Said black mark is missing in the graphic novel and here it affords the character the poetically visual farewell he was lacking. Another, more vividly noticeable change is the elimination of the gigantic squid monster (what the hell was that thing anyway?) that releases deadly psychic waves which crush Manhattan in Moore’s book. The revision here – New York City falling victim to a nuclear blast – is far more believable and just flat-out less weird.
The other outstanding deviation from the graphic novel is the film’s opening credit sequence. Set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” familiar, iconic images from history are displayed and altered as the story of the Watchmen is recounted in a resonating montage. Familiar tableaus – everything from Vietnam to Andy Warhol to the Zapruder film – are referenced in a manner that kicks off the movie in a breezy, enlightening and entertaining fashion.
Mind you, these examples are not meant to show how much better the movie is than the graphic novel (’cause, as I’ve stated, it isn’t), but merely to demonstrate that the film made legitimate attempts at breathing even greater life into an already wildly complex and intricately constructed piece of fiction.
Snyder’s director’s cut offers twenty-four minutes of added footage, the most noteworthy of which is Mason Hollis’ (Stephen McHattie) brutally violent death scene at the hands of some home-invading Knot Tops. But while the sequence is filmed deftly (like all the other aesthetics in the film), there’s a poignancy in the graphic novel to this scene that’s sorely missing in the cinematic recreation. The result is a fierce – if not elegiac – scene that was clearly eliminated for time. The other additions to the theatrical cut – more Rorschach prison interview footage, Silk Specter II’s interrogation (and subsequent pounding of her interviewer’s head into a ping pong table) at a military base and a few further connotations on the Comedian’s sadistic nature (particularly in the Vietnam sequence) – all help to enrich and deepen the film’s world.
The extras, sadly, leave something to be desired. Warner Bros. is clearly holding back the lionshare of supplemental goodies for its mega five-disc release (allegedly replete – among a myriad of other extras – with a copy of the graphic novel, and the straight-to-DVD animated Watchmen and The Tales of the Black Freighter movies) set for later this year. In the meantime, we’re given some bare-bones, mildly informative (read: pretty rote) behind-the-scenes featurettes and a mini-documentary on Watchmen’s gargantuan pop culture impact. Even Zack Snyder’s commentary (sure to be heard on the upcoming new set) is conspicuously absent here. This two-disc version of the DVD release feels more of a taste of what’s to come. Which manages to be both tantalizing and aggravating all at once.