As a fan of the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel upon which it is based, I have to say up front that it's hard for me to know how someone who has not read it will see Zack Snyder's movie adaptation of Watchmen. That said, I saw it as a very faithful, gorgeous, satisfying, bloody, sick adaptation of a classic, with great casting, effects, and rhythm.
At two hours and forty-five minutes and full of noise, exposition, graphic violence and slightly less graphic sex and nudity, this movie is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, so parents of young children take notice. This is not The Dark Knight, brutal but essentially heroic. This is brutal, nasty and essentially unheroic. Included are depictions of rape, gory mass murder and individual murder, mutilation and deaths by explosions.
Watchmen is the story of a group of superheroes trying to make their way in the world after their superactivities have been banned by law, in an alternate-historical version of the United States circa 1985. Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term in the White House. The Cold War balance with the Soviet Union is tenuous and held in place by the existence of one of these superheroes, the only one with "real superpowers," a cold blue nuclear technician, supercollider and warhead called "Dr. Manhattan" (Billy Crudup, perfect). Right-wing politics have never suffered the setbacks of losing the Vietnam War, Watergate or the real ascendance of freedom movements. America is a bleak, tense, oppressive place on the brink.
Like the graphic novel did, the film goes further than any previous superhero story in asking the question "What if superheroes were real?" It doesn't just make superheroes into relatable people like you and me, as did the classic efforts of Stan Lee's "Spider-Man," "The Fantastic Four" or "X-Men," though it does that too, with darker and funnier results, but also asks what if they were relatable people like you and me who joined the establishment, who fought against the establishment, who fought crime, each other and the rest of the world, with psychological problems, kinks or sociopathic certainties about justice and fate.
Taking nearly all of its direction quite precisely from the graphic novel, Watchmen is a visual, political and pop-culture feast of cultural archetypes from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, Superman, Batman, Captain America, the Silver Surfer, Bob Dylan, Apocalypse Now, Dr. Strangelove, the Justice League and more. Much of its aesthetic reminds one of Genesis's great "Land of Confusion" music video, which was contemporaneous with the original comics. The nuclear tension is defining and rife.
The murder of a right-wing vigilante crimefighter named the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, excellent) prompts the action of the story, which then veers all over the place, back to the origins of the characters and the costumed crimefighter movement and forward to the most esoteric future projections of the mind of Dr. Manhattan.
The killing unleashes the suspicions and investigative efforts of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, superb), a masked vigilante detective, and the only still-active superhero of the previous era besides Dr. Manhattan. Rorschach comes to believe there is a conspiracy to murder former costumed heroes, and his interference in this conspiracy brings other former heroes and villains back into the picture, including Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), two Silk Spectres (Carla Gugino and Malin Akerman) and the arch-villain Moloch (Matt Frewer). I'll leave further plot spoilers out. All of the acting is extremely well done, and the casting of Frewer, famous as the eighties character Max Headroom, is particularly inspired. The soundtrack is just right, too, featuring Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Tears for Fears and more.
It's hard to fault the film, so faithful to its excellent source material, for what it leaves out, but a few things that might have been better incorporated are a bit more about the sadomasochistic leanings of the character Hooded Justice and others (though this is made up for by the handling of Nite Owl and a few other characters), the implementation of the Keene Act banning the activities of costumed crimefighters, the death of Hollis Mason and the street-level view of events provided by the barely present film characters of the news vendor, his faithful comics customer, the staff of the New Frontiersman tabloid and Rorschach's psychiatrist, which probably could have added. Apparently, an animated version of "The Tales of the Black Freighter," the comic-book within the graphic novel, will accompany the DVD.
That said, with time constraints and so much to work with, Snyder's film distills the essence of the story and provides a rich, worthwhile and fast-paced ride through the dark world of the Watchmen. This is an essential superhero movies, one of the best ever.
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