Watchmen is a film that is caught between two polar audiences: fans of the graphic novel and average moviegoers. If it stays true to its source material, the highly acclaimed graphic novel, the average moviegoer will be put off by its emphasis on exposition. If it adjusts to mainstream tastes, die-hard will strongly spread negative word of mouth and scare away potential audience members.
With Zack Snyder in the director’s chair, it looked as if the film might lean towards more crowd-pleasing tastes. It was marketed like another action-filled superhero flick and his previous film, 300, was a gore-filled testosterone fest of nonstop, over the top violence. Yet Snyder is a genuine fan of the graphic novel. And the film is adapted to the screen by David Hayter (along with Alex Tse), who wrote two of the best superhero films, X-Men and X2.
In an alternate version of 1985, Nixon is serving his third term as president and the once popular superheroes have been banned from any vigilante activities. When The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) dies, his former colleagues think it’s a political killing as he spent his post-superhero years working for the government. But not Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a masked psychopath who still fights crime in spite of the law. He thinks someone is killing off the old superheroes so that they will be unable to stop America’s impending nuclear war with Russia. Rorschach’s illegal night practices start rubbing off on others as Night Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Specter II (Malin Akerman) don their costumes once again.
Meanwhile, Veidt (Matthew Goode), the smartest man on Earth, runs one of the world’s largest corporations and seeks a source of renewable energy along with Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who, after a freak accident, has turned into a blue-skinned, superhuman man able to manipulate space and matter.
Watchmen makes The Dark Knight look sentimental and overly optimistic. New York City has a hooker on every corner and a gang on every street. Crime isn’t a plague, it’s the norm. And the heroes are less than admirable. The Comedian is mindlessly crass and brutal; Dr. Manhattan’s brilliance has left him apathetic towards humanity; Night Owl II and Silk Specter II seem more worried about dressing up and getting it on than doing good and the aforementioned Rorschach has psychological issues. The film waxes philosophical on the destructive nature of man. Those wanting an action packed flick will be frustrated by all the long-winded, existential exposition.
Even more frustrating to the average audience member is that the film follows character arcs and throws time continuity to the wind. Flashbacks abound as characters reminisce about their golden years. Visual cues clear any confusion about what time period the film is in, but for non-fans it’s a chore fitting the pieces together.
Yet even those who can’t piece together the plot will be treated to a display of tantalizing visual splendor. Zack Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong capture the visual look and mood of the graphic novel. It has that distinct color pallet of secondary colors and the nostalgic look of old comic books. It’s not shot for shot, but the filmmakers did stay close to the graphic novel in a number of scenes. But it doesn’t have as good a sense of composition or intercutting of scenes as the graphic novel has, and it lacks a lot of the more subtle, intricate visual elements.
While the main focus is on developing rich characters, the film does take the time to please the crowd with some action sequences. In order to balance the heavy, dramatic sequences, most of the action from the graphic novel is intensified and lengthened. The downside is that Zack Snyder takes his over the top, pornographic sense of violence from 300 and applies it to Watchmen. Things that are left off frame or implied in the graphic novel are displayed with no tact in the film. I’m not one to get squeamish, but the amount of blood and gore will likely turn my stomach on several occasions.
Watchmen is a film like no other because it is based on a graphic novel like none other. It falls somewhere in the middle, trying to both please new audience members with intensified action and glorified violence and keep the old fans of the graphic novel by maintaining the look and existential prose of the source material. The result is a compromise of two disparate tastes. It ends up being an odd juxtaposition of stylized, mindless violence and complex philosophical exposition.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing