This one is coming in a little later than usual. I knew that out of any movie I had ever reviewed, I would probably have to do the most explaining myself on this one, due to the fan base. I wanted to take my time with it… Reviewing this film, I run into very similar obstacles I did when reviewing Sex and the City last year. No really… I did… With Sex and the City, I had to separate my male brain from my film critic brain. With Watchmen, I have to separate my fanboy brain from my film critic brain. So, with that said, here goes nothing…
OH Before I get to it…
Fired Up! – 2.5 stars – not as bad as I expected, but still not that good.
Revolutionary Road – 3.5 stars – Great performances, but otherwise quite drab.
The Wrestler – 4.5 stars – A great bio-flick, even if it’s fake.
What do you do when charged with the task of filming what is considered not only the greatest graphic novel of all time, but one of the greatest novels of the 20th century? What has been dubbed the unfilmable? Where your every cinematic and artistic choice will be scrutinized by fanboys and critics alike? If you’re Zak Snyder, you make the best damn movie you can, and hope for the best.
Set in an alternate 1985, where Nixon is still president, American/Russian tensions are at an all time high, and costumed vigilantes are the norm, Watchmen is an epic morality tale. After the Watchmen, the second generation of costumed vigilantes are declared illegal by a government ban, few refuse to give up the good fight. When someone kills one of their own, the remaining few must figure out if it was random, or part of a deeper conspiracy to wipe out ex-heroes.
Since I would be spending a significant amount of time delving into the film, I decided to keep the summary brief and concise. The story is much bigger, and better than that summery leads you to believe, but all I can say is, read the book.
The performances matched the scope of the film. In that they were epic. Any lack of character development that exists, the blame falls on the editor. To fans they were beloved. But to the un-initiated, they were problematic. No matter who the usual comic hero is, Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, there’s an expectation of perfection as the hero. The alter-ego may be full of character flaws. But the hero is perfect. Again, to the fans, we know the Watchmen. We know their flaws. We know their moral ambiguity. For Jackie Earle Haley to create both the unlikable Walter Kovacs and questionable Rorschach to both satisfy the fans in their expectations and appeal to the un-initiated, despite him being a dislikable character. It’s not just true for Haley’s Rorschach. It’s true for Patrick Wilson’s nebbish Dan Dreiberg/dauntless Nite Owl II. Malin Ackermin’s Laurie Jupiter tends to over-anylize things, but her Silk Spectre II is fearless. All of the actors involved made the characters relatable, likeable and personable, but never let you forget that there were lines that were going to be crossed.
Aside from Haley (Little Children, Bad News Bears), the stand-out performances belong to both Jeffrey Dean Morgan (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and Billy Crudup (Almost Famous) playing Edward Blake/The Comedian and Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan, respectfully. Going scene to scene for Morgan, you’d get Blake’s twisted, depraved side, and then in the next you’d get his vulnerability. In one scene, you got both. At the same time. As for Crudup’s Manhattan, he was a man so detached from our world, he eventually just leaves, only to later realize the value in humanity.
This film never could have lived up to any fan’s expectations, unless that fan’s expectations were low. While that statement may inherently contradict the 5 star rating I gave it, it’s exactly why I took so long to write this review. With any film based on something with a huge cult fanbase, and such a prestigous pedigree that Watchmen has, fan’s (aka “fanboys”) expectations are going to be extremely high, and extremely strict. We (I say we, as a fan of the novel) look at it through the prism of the source material. It’s true for X-Men. It’s true for Star Trek. It’s true for Watchmen. We hold the cinematic adaptation to a higher standard than other films. An impossibly high standard.
The first thing I learned in film class (even though it is, technically, blatently obvious) is that books and films are two vastly different mediums. Things can be done in books that can never be done on film. Each individual reader has their own interpretation of the written word and the artistically rendered panel. It’s true for “Frankenstein.” It’s true for “Grapes of Wrath.” It’s true for “Watchmen.” The cinematic version is one man’s interpretation… the director’s, in this case, Zack Snyder. And when it comes to properties that have such a rabid following, he not only has to please the fanboys, but also appeal to a general movie going audience. He also had to make changes, because somethings in the book either a) won’t translate to film or b) would make the film 4 hours long.
Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300) made the film as he saw it, to the best of his ability. But he knew full well going in that people weren’t going to like it. That was the chance he took. I admire him a great deal for taking that risk. He had the balls to step up to the plate. He had the balls to make the best film he could.
The film never suffers from pacing problems. It appears to be a scatter shot focus, but there’s so much story to tell, and so little time to tell it, even if it does run almost 3 hours long. He effectively uses the opening title sequence as exposition, setting up the back story of masked vigilantes, and how we got to where we are now, in terms of the actual film. Specific back stories are explored more indepth throughout the film, but the credit sequence is where we are brought up to speed.
There were a few faults I did end up seeing, but this could cycle back to the “fanboy’s personal interpretation.” I felt the focus was on the wrong two characters. Too much Silk/Owl, not enough Rorschach. I still feel that, since the thrust of the story is Rorschach investigating Comedian’s murder. But the Silk/Owl segments are integral, too. I initially had reservations about the changing of Rorschach’s back story, as pertaining to what finally pushed him over the edge. The book’s explanation was pitch perfect, and gave a moral ambiguity to the character. The film removed that. As was pointed out by friend/co-worker Jeff, had they gone with the book’s version, people would have easily drawn a connection to Saw, and that would have left a bad taste in many viewers’ mouths.
The major fault with the film, is also a fault of this review so far. Little was actually done with Adrien Veidt/Ozymandias, played by Matthew Goode (Match Point). It’s important to the story. Both book and film version. But little is done with him. For a layperson, that would be quite frustrating and confusing. For a fanboy, it’s just frustrating.
When reviewing a film, you have to place it both in context of it’s time, and in context of the history of film. This film is visually stunning, well put together, a faithful adaptation and wonderfully acted. In the history of film, does that not earn it recognition amongst the finest? It does. In context, when judged against it’s contemporaries, is it a step above? Does it raise the bar? Does it change the game? Yes.
I give it 5 stars because Zack Snyder and crew set out to make the best movie they could given the odds they were up against. And they overcame those odds. Any nit-picking aimed at the film is just that… nit-picking by a fan is angry that the tiniest detail that THEY wanted wasn’t in the film. Nit-picking by a fanboy who expected 1 Million%, not fully understanding that percents only go up to 100.
Also, make all the jokes you want, but the glowing blue Dr. Manhattan nudity… I didn’t have a problem with it. I didn’t notice after awhile.