Who watched the Watchmen this week? I did! And it was awesome!

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Alan Moore’s revolutionary 1986-87 comic book, illustrated by Dave Gibbons, has frequently been called unfilmable. Hollywood has tried and failed numerous times throughout the years to capture this outstanding and ingenious work, and Moore’s disgust with previous adaptations of his books (V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) induced him to refuse any writing credit for this film and vow he’d never see it. The book’s intricate and labyrinthine structure, fully realized back-stories and breathtaking visual transitions between plots certainly do seem impossible to adapt to the silver screen. But goddammit, Zack Snyder tried, didn’t he? This is a man who loves the source material. He loves it the way we love it. And it shows.

A quick recap for those unfamiliar with this strange universe: Watchmen is set in an alternate reality of 1985 America, in which the prevalence of masked avengers—or superheroes—has changed the outcome of major historical events; most notably, the United States achieved a decisive victory in Vietnam due to superhero involvement and Richard Nixon, cashing in on that success, amended the constitution to allow his re-election for a staggering five terms. A rather alarming notion, no?

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Popular opinion began to turn against the masked heroes after some police strikes and violent riots, and the Keene Act was passed in 1977, outlawing all costumed avengers. By 1985, the members of the Watchmen, an organized group of these avengers that once enjoyed a cheerful notoriety, are living largely disparate lives.

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The Comedian, aka Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), has continued his activities since the Keene Act as an active government operative:

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Rorschach, aka Walter Kovacs (Jackie Earle Haley), lives against the law as a vigilante:

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Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), retired two years before the Keene Act and turned his celebrity into a billion dollar business: Veidt Industries:

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Nite Owl, aka Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), never released his identity and has lived as a depressed nobody with a basement full of high-tech gadgets for the past several years:

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Dr. Manhattan, aka Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup), is the only member of the Watchmen to possess true superhuman abilities, due to an accident while working in a nuclear physics lab. Like The Comedian, he is sanctioned by the U.S. Government. The threat of his immense power caused the Vietcong to surrender, bringing about the end of the Vietnam War, and he currently offers the United States a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union:

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Silk Spectre, aka Laurie Jupiter (Juspeczyk in the book, played by Malin Akerman), was pressured into the superhero gig by her mother Sally, the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino):

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Laurie was happy to retire from the business and lives in a domestic partnership with Dr. Manhattan.

The film opens with The Comedian’s murder by an unseen perpetrator. Rorschach becomes convinced of a conspiracy to eliminate all of the masked avengers, and takes the initiative to investigate the crime and warn his fellow Watchmen.

This film is dazzling. Director Zack Snyder (300) utilizes many provocative forms of technology, innovative editing techniques and visual manipulation to perfectly encapsulate the imagery of Moore’s world. Every shot is vivid and voluminous. It entertains the eyeballs while the brain is scrambling to absorb all of it.

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Snyder uses the opening credits as a short autonomous story to explain all of the above to the audience, with gorgeously shot newsreels and snapshots: perfect mannequin displays of information and history. Much of the book that isn’t explicitly represented in the film is mingled together here, so fanpersons won’t want to sneeze for fear of missing a moment of subtext included just for them.

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The fight sequences are flawless. Snyder takes his time with every punch and pummel so that the audience can fully experience how totally bad-ass these guys really are.  Much like reading a comic book, we mark each time the fist connects, each perfectly executed feint. It’s a lot more fun to watch than the typical frenzied dervish of violence that most directors employ today.

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The script adaptation is rather impressive, as well. David Hayter and Alex Tse had the unenviable job of transforming this brilliantly convoluted, utterly unconventional story into a linear narrative that brand new audiences can appreciate…under three hours. And they did a pretty good job. They had to leave out a few of the most stirring aspects of the original story (Hollis Mason’s saga and the lonely newsstand owner both come to mind), but I can understand every cut they and Snyder employed to make this film possible, and when they could, they’d tip a wink to those of us who knew what was missing.

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Oh and the soundtrack was a masterpiece. Many of the songs were lifted straight from the comic book, and each was employed perfectly. When “Unforgettable” plays during The Comedian’s murder, or “Boogie Man” plays during the riot, we’re treated to an immediate impression of familiarity, of recognition. The most stirring of these moments is Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence,” playing over The Comedian’s funeral in a rain-drenched cemetery. That scene is nothing less than poetry of sight and sound and I’d watch it again this very second if I could.

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The casting was hit or miss. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Blake/The Comedian is inspired. He’s a big, gruff dude’s dude and he captures The Comedian’s ability to make you root for him even though he’s a violent, cynical beast.

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Billy Crudup does a great job as Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan. CGI’d to the brim, he still manages to evoke the placid, bemused and sometimes infuriating neutrality of the Doc. His flashback that introduces the audience to Jon Osterman before and up to his accident was compelling and poignant. And his ex-girlfriend Janey Slater just couldn’t have looked better, could she? Finding that actress was quite a piece of luck.

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I loved Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II. Dan is one of my favorite parts of the comic; he’s so tender, nerdy, passionate and normal. He’s so believable as a superhero-gone-to-seed, with his ill-fitting suits and his pudgy six-pack. I’ve got a big crush on this character and Patrick Wilson nailed him.

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But the real find here was Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. I’ve read that Haley is a great fan of the comic and fought to win this role. I believe it. Only a true believer could pull off Rorschach’s grumbly, clipped way of speech, his jerky movement and terrible integrity. This guy is AWESOME. Early in the film, Rorschach (who, unlike the other Watchmen, is never Walter Kovaks. Not anymore.) is thrown into jail alongside dozens of men he helped to imprison, men who are aching to exact their revenge. He never compromises, never fears, never loses faith. When threatened, he neatly disfigures the intimidator and roars with bone-chilling fervor, “None of you understand. I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with ME!” Every second Rorschach is on screen, the scene is charged with rapture and wrath; every moment he’s missing, the film is lacking for it. But he’s never cooler than when he’s in prison. Guys. The prison sequence. is fucking. amazing.

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Now the bad news. Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre is a vapid black hole of celluloid. Her hollow, useless voice grates, her static face is a paradox to the overwrought sentiment she’s forced to spew. She sucks. She was obviously cast for looking right, and she does look just exactly right.

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But that’s not enough, is it? I mean, Laurie’s not exactly my favorite character from the book. She’s a bit of a Negative Nancy, but she’s still the only female member of the Watchmen and I’d like it if she were portrayed with a little more effort and feeling than Akerman brings to the role. Particularly because she gets to be the girlfriend of both of Marla’s crushes, the Doc and Dan.

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I love the awkward romance between Dan and Laurie in the book, and I actually still like it just fine in the movie (schmaltzy sex scene aside), but that’s just because Wilson as Dan is so freaking good.

More problematic is Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias. Veidt’s a heavy role and I think Goode is another person cast for his looks rather than his talent. Veidt should boast a precarious, aristocratic air of nonchalant power. Matthew Goode? Not so much with the aristocratic. Or the nonchalance. Or the power. I mean, really. You tell me. Does this guy look like the smartest man in the world? And in that suit, for godssake!

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This character has a lot of provocative depth in the book, whether or not you agree with the choices he makes, and none of that was fleshed out enough in the film. He makes some critical decisions without any understandable motivation, and that’s a writing issue. Unless the writers included the motivation and then it got cut due to Goode’s acting suckitude. That’s highly possible.

Another issue: in the book, the Mars sequence is magnificently beautiful and one of the most inherently cinematic parts of the entire story. I couldn’t wait to see this part on film, and frankly, I was disappointed. I mean, it was pretty cool, but I didn’t catch myself holding my breath, flexing my fingers and chewing my lip in an anxious, awestruck stupor the way I did when I read it. It just didn’t manage to capture the tranquil life of Dr. Manhattan’s sanctuary.

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However, the scene where Dan and Laurie decide to air out their old costumes and do some good is just as rousing and fun as in the book. As Nite Owl’s ship, Archie, soars through the air after a thrilling rescue mission, it definitely makes you want to triumphantly pump your fist in the air and whistle, just like the book did.

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The crux of the matter here is that this movie is as successful an adaptation as could be made out of Alan Moore’s graphic novel. Zack Snyder cares, and that shows. He didn’t do this for the money or the acclaim or for any reason other than his fanatical love for the material. This is no slick commercial bullshit—it resonates. It signifies. But it’s still a film adaptation of a book that should never be adapted. I don’t think this movie needed to be made. I agree with Alan Moore when he said, “My book is a comic book. Not a movie, not a novel. A comic book. It’s been made in a certain way, and designed to be read a certain way: in an armchair, nice and cozy next to a fire, with a steaming cup of coffee” (from Wikipedia).

Still, I think Zack Snyder is talented as hell, and he can surely say that while making this film, he lived by Rorschach’s motto: “Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon.”

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5 Responses to “Watchmen”

  1. “Nite Owl, aka Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), ”

    aka Erin’s boyfriend.

    I, as decidedly Not A Watchman Reader, really enjoyed it. It had punch and gravitas, sarcastic humor and really serious moments. My problems with the casting was exactly the same as yours, but basically, Dan Dreiberg and I can live in happiness forever and I’ll be just fine.

  2. I agree with you on the casting. Rorschach and Dan are my faves. I think Malin Akerman was ok because she at least looked like Silk Spectre. Matthew Goode had the problem of not looking like Veidt and not being able to act. In the book, he’s totally square jawed and a gymnast. Does the picture above look like a gymnast?

    Overall I think the movie did a good job with coming close to the book. I am actually really happy with the way it came out because there are so many ways that they could’ve done wrong. It’s also admirable that they were able to cut out some major parts and still convey the same feeling and tell the same story for people who are not familiar with the book. I’d be interested to see all the parts they cut. Luckily they are available separately so the studios can get more money out of me.

  3. I agree with both the idea that it is an awesome movie, and that it is an adaptation that should never have been made. I think the fact that Moore disassociated himself from the movie helps separate the two. I, for one, plan on thinking of “Watchmen” the movie, and “Watchmen” the comic book, as two separate things. Sort of like Quentin Tarantino the actor, and Quentin Tarantino the director. Great review, chief!

  4. ok, that sex scene? THE WORST!! GAH!! and also the WORST choice of song, ever. i mean, i love leonard cohen, but… no.

    that aside, i really enjoyed the pants out of this movie!! i totally agree with you, meredith, that this adaptmation didn’t really need to be made. BUT it was still super fun to see the story come to life on the screen, esp. with zack snyder’s help.

    and i’m kinda glad they took the pirate/survivor comic out. i mean, it’s brilliant in the comic but it would never have worked in the movie.


  5. This movie is just not my thing, and I have no intention of seeing it. But I’m happy to have your review so that I can hold my own in conversations about it! And to Mandy: Quentin Tarantino the actor! Ha!

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