Walking into Zack Snyder’s expensive big-screen version of the seminal 1980’s graphic novel, Watchmen, I knew two things: The story fused superhero lore with Reagan-era cold war paranoia and a Dashiell Hammett hard-boiled mystery. And that the seeds of many a modern comic book or graphic novel and their film adaptations came from the pages of Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s book. All in all, the film is pretty compelling myth-making, albeit for those who are willing to invest in its highly specialized world. It is smarter and ambitious than than swath of lazy comic book films popping into the multiplex every year (Ang Lee’s Hulk and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight excepted) even if it is not quite up to snuff as a pure popcorn muncher or really have any semblance of humanity on display.
The movie struggles to balance its dark images (gore, nudity and sexual violence are not watered down here) while also providing a more audience friendly comic book spectacle. Watchmen hums and sizzles when it is focused on the film’s core strength: The dense morass of personality issues and ethical dilemmas when people take it upon themselves to be above the common man. How society and the powers that be adapt to having these ‘wild cards’ occasionally available for one use or another. As heroes, villains and everything in between (And Watchmen lumps nearly all of its characters in the fuzzy middle ground – most of these heroes are more scary and dangerous than comforting and caring). The recent Batman film treads these same waters, but somehow manages to make the people (Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, and Rachel Dawes) worth caring about. All hints of real intimacy or the tender side of human nature is completely absent here (the exception being a masculine moment involving forgiveness and a handshake). Even when the film stops to give nearly every character a complete back-story in its extensive 160+ minute run time. Even classic noir like The Maltese Falcon or more modern noir fusions like Blade Runner had a moment of convincing or at least curious intimacy. Watchmen is playing more in the neighborhood of Kiss Me Deadly – throwing kindness, mercy, or charity out the window to merely replace it with “occasionally something beautiful is born out of something vulgar.” I am unclear as to whether or not it is saying that the defeat in Vietnam made American a better place, or only if this applies to ill-intended conceptions. Tempting, perhaps, to say that this is the Zodiac of superhero films, but it not quite. By a fair bit.
Watchmen instead favours navel gazing and deconstruction over investment in the characters or their eventual ends or personal interactions. Yet it proposes an Outer Limits style solution (explicitly referencing the TV show at one point) to the Cold War and looming nuclear Armageddon. A solution that is both costly and transient to the point of being a bad joke. The bloody Have A Nice Day button which is shown in many configurations is quite apt. “Everything is so tangled up” is a quote from the film that sums up the modern world, its myriad interconnected problems and the dark realization that superheroes are probably not going to help humanity all that much for all their noise and furor. It goes so far as to postulate that most of them are otherworldly or alienated at best (Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias) or psychotic at worst (Rorschach, The Comedian). Even the the sympathetic or naive ones like Night Owl II and Silk Spectre II have serious issues (He can’t get it up without the suit on, she is emotionally stunted and on firmer ground kicking thugs assess). While I did not particularly care for any of them one whiff, it was fascinating where the consequences of their actions were going. The road to hell is paved with the best of intentions gone terribly awry and elaborately constructed solutions along the way are transient sanctuaries at the very best. The Black and White approach is as equally untenable as is the path of compromise. Yea. Nihilistic and Bleak are two valid descriptors for this enterprise.
Yet how to swallow the camp and patent silliness of a sex scene that goes well past the conceit that conventional intimacy is a failure for these folks while latex outfits, busting heads and naughty night-time sojourns on the Owl-bus as a definite turn on, or the cornball Egyptian super-palace in Antarctica or the overblown clock-palace on Mars? It probably works better on the printed page (your mileage may vary). When the film resorts to ‘comic book action’ (perhaps a desire to appeal to the four quadrant movie-going audience) and Snyder’s typical slow-mo and speed ramp photography (thankfully this is much less than 300) or takes somewhat overblown contemplative trips to Mars things are clumsy and awkward. And what’s the deal here? Are these folks (Dr. Manhattan excepted of course) supposed to have superpowers or not, haven’t they been sort of retired for a few years after failing to succeed The Minutemen first generation heroes? I’m not looking for a training montage here to justify their instant return to duty, but it sure seems like the movie would play better grounding these folks as people rather than kinda-sorta-maybe giving them heightened senses and fighting ability. (Nitpick alert: Why did Rorschach’s mask have to be animated? Would a simple blot be too underplayed? And what was up with Matt Frewer’s ears? I guess the ‘reality/fantasy’ was not a priority to establish, but being in both worlds so to speak undercuts the film in small ways.) The rescue of children from a burning building fails to generate any sort of altruism or notion of heroism. The films gloss does it more than a bit of a disservice. Imagine if this thing was shot more like Seven? When the film is scribbling furiously in the margins and finding new was to re-evaluate comic book heroes and villains and their belief systems it sizzles. It being an ensemble piece and not a ‘lone hero’ story, that the acting varies wildly doesn’t hurt things too much. For the record, Jeffrey Dean Morgan essays a despicable yet totally fascinating blend of The Joker and Iron Man known as The Comedian with real aplomb. Likewise Billy Crudup and Jackie Earl Haley command the screen even as their characters are equally unsympathetic. Others fare not so well and are either forgettable in their line readings (some of the dialogue is howl worthy) or down right silly. Comic book geeks eat this stuff up, but for all its hard R rating, much of it plays pretty childish.
When Watchmen deals in bold block typeface with the national character and narrative of the United States of America by way of an alternate United States it is hit and miss. Yet, dense reams of exposition are handled remarkably with real gusto and grace. Two sequences stand out as remarkably achieved: The first is a sort of ‘wax museum’ opening credits sequence which charts the history of the United States after costumed heroes (normal folks with a streak of goodwill and can-do spirit) start plying their trade to help folks which eventually results in the double-edged sword of the same costumed vigilantes starting to take it upon themselves to get involved with world politics (From JFK to Moscow). Iconic American imagery (from Betty Paige to Apple Computer’s epic “1984” inspired commercial) all compete for space in the background and foreground without ever slowing things down. Snippets of the perils of being a costumed hero from being shot to ending up in the mental ward are all articulated. The source of “No Capes!” which like many elements borrowed for Brad Bird’s The Incredibles show up here, as does the ‘outlawing’ of this type of behavior because the heroes behave as if they are above society. The introduction to a bonafide superman in the form of Dr. Manhattan, someone who is without a doubt beyond human is also handled well in a satisfying blend of graphics and performance leads to very significant changes in how the world turns out. The choice of bringing in Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Pat Buchanan and other political players as full characters, rather than background exposition makes for an embarrassingly bad high school rendition of Dr. Strangelove. Perhaps it would have been best to do what Good Night and Good Luck did with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, leave him to the TV and radio sound bytes, a ghostly and powerful presence rather than the goofy actor in face paint and a rubber nose. Better is the use of iconic popular music in the film to set the tone. From a pleasant restaurant date set to 99 Luft Balloons to a funeral with Simon & Garfunkel, to the alternate history credits with Bob Dylan and a third act journey set to the strains of Jimi Hendrix. And when in doubt (And Nick Cave is not available), you can never really go wrong with Leonard Cohen. These are not simply ‘cool music video’ moments, but actually drive the narrative, plot and story forward. My only disappointment with this is that they were unable to work XTC’s Dear God somewhere in there. I can think of just the scene, too.
Dr. Manhattan’s “Just how super is super?” metamorphosis (via the usual freak science accident) is not just hinted at in the ‘introduction montage’ but is a rather thoroughly explored idea in Watchmen. The rich scenarios around his very presence elevates the movie in an interesting way that was also touched upon in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. The hero as a God. (Amusingly, the industrial baron Ozymandias makes good coin marketing toys of all the superheroes, another form of iconography, worship (the fanboys) in the culture). In fact, while watching Watchmen, most of its dense wellspring of ideas have already been spun out hither and yon into core elements of other comic book films (some great, some not so great). It is an interesting to see all these ideas vying for screen time here, and that the movie is coming out so far after so many of the ‘borrowers.’ (Hell, even Rorschach’s rousing stint in prison vaguely recalls a similar scene in last years Hancock) This should make for some re-watch value of the film if only for all of the images and ideas in the margins of the screen. No worries, however, the main themes and ideas are easy enough to digest upon the first go around. While the emotional arcs are either stunted or not even bothered with in the first place, Watchmen is a wax museum tableaux of an interesting time and place. One worth a visit.