Watchmen is one of the best films of 2009. It’s challenging, subversive, fascinating. It can’t compare with the original graphic novel, as made by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore but it never could. Watchmen, the comic book was a revelation in its time. It took a part of our culture (superheroes through comic books) and perfectly dissected it. From the panels on down, it dealt with why they were created, and their limitations -from the character’s personal sexual hang ups to using their archetypes to show what they meant, and how they failed. My full review of the director’s cut is after the jump:
Though people love Rorschach, what Rorschach represents and how he goes about his business is both compelling and loony. And yet Rorschach is the perfect distillation of elements that go into The Punisher and Batman. The Comedian is American imperialism gone wrong, and so he makes an excellent stand in for Captain America, but also is a version of those other characters that also represent Rorschach. The Nite Owl/Dan Drieberg also fits into the Batman mode, the rich industrialist with toys, but he’s also an isolated nerd who has problems with women, but is intensely moral, which is reflected also in Ozymandius, who is that much more intelligent and rich and sexually reserved. Dr. Manhattan is the god figure/ the superpowered being (like Superman, etc.), but the ultimate extension of that is that he becomes removed from society. And Laurie/Silk Spectre represents the female characters of comic books, partly defined by her love interests. On top of that the book takes 1985 and the tensions of the era, and deconstructs them, and how comic book characters might exacerbate those issues. And that’s just scraping the surface of the book.
After a protracted development process that almost saw the film off the ground with Paul Greengrass as the director, Zach Snyder came in and finally got it into production. He of the stylish but somewhat vacuous enetertainments Dawn of the Dead and 300. Fans were concerned. They had a right to be, but what Snyder did was try and be as faithful as possible. As such, he can’t quite pull off the complete deconstruction. Though there are elements to that, had he tried to make Watchmen in the cadence of modern comic book movies that might have been there. Alas, it’s hard to suggest there is a through line from X-Men to Spider-Man to Hulk to The Dark Knight in terms of approach. And so the film has that polished sheen, but does not offer the same brechtian distance.
The story is nearly identical. The Comedian/Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered, which sends Rorschach (Patrick Earl Haley) on the case. He thinks there’s a mask killer on the loose. He tells Nite Owl/Dan Drieberg (Patrick Wilson), who then tells Adrian Veidt/ Ozymandius (Mathew Goode), and Rorschach passes it on to Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) who live together. But Richard Nixon banned masks so only Rorschach is still on the prowl. As the Comedian gets his funeral, the gang reflect on their past, as Manhattan goes to Vietnam and ends the war, and The Comedian sees the end of masked vigilantes which comes about partly because of his own brutality, and partly because Nixon wants it so. By 1985 Nixon is in his fifth term, and the Russians seem close to wanting to go nuclear. And as Dr. Manhattan leaves the planet, and someone tries to assassinate Veidt, Rorschach’s theory gains some credence. Such sends Laurie and Dan into each other’s arms, and into their costumes.
The problem with adapting great literature is that you’re setting the bar high, so you can’t outdo (as Steven Spielberg could with Jaws) so much as have your take, and if the film fails in any way it is in that. It succeeds in getting the story across, but doesn’t add so much to it, except in the corners and margins. But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t breathe, and that’s probably Snyder’s greatest accomplishment managing to get a lot in without making it seems staid.
The greatest invention is the ending, which upset fans who had a couple of months to at least get ready for it. But the change is perfect. And here I enter spoiler territory. In the end it is Manhattan’s signature that is used to dissuades countries from going to war, and in that the film does manage to do something completely different and utterly brilliant. By doing so, Ozy creates a God to keep the natives passive. This a wonderfully preserve twist on the idea of the ubermensch, while also something of an anti-theist screed.
As for the director’s cut, there are 24 additional minutes of screen time, ranging from lines of dialog, to more on the government keeping tabs on Laurie to an additional scene of Hollis Mason getting murdered. All the addendums are fine, but none were missed in the end. Perhaps when Snyder puts in the Black Freighter footage it’ll flow a little smoother, but I prefer the theatrical cut, which is not available stateside on Blu-ray.
Warner’s Blu-ray release comes in English. 5.1 DTS-HD and widescreen (2.35:1). The transfer is amazing, as to be expected. Disc one comes with Maximum movie mode, which has Snyder stopping the movie at moments to provide commentary, some PIP footage, and branching points to still galleries, and to “Focus Points” which are the eleven webisodes (33 min.) from release. Snyder doesn’t seem comfortable, and though his information is good, this format doesn’t feel smoothed out yet. Disc two offers three documentaries: “The Phenomenon: The Comic that Changed Comics” (29 min.) which talks about how the Moore-penned novel was a defining moment in comic book history, and much of what it meant, while “Real Super Heroes: Real Vigilantes” (26 min.) talks to the real-world phenomenon of people looking to protect themselves. The piece comes out more on the side of cops than would-be superheroes. “Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World” (17 min.) gives the spotlight to James Kakalios, who was one of the science advisors on the film, and talks about the practical implications of much of the science in the movie. Also included is the My Chemical Romance video for Desolation Row. Disc three offers a digital copy.