Watchmen Review

Published 6 years ago by , Updated March 21st, 2009 at 9:21 pm,

Short version: Watchmen is an ultra-violent, sexually explicit mystery film (with a few costumed heroes thrown in) that is visually stunning, but uneven.

watchmen review Watchmen Review
Screen Rant reviews Watchmen

I’ve really been dreading writing this review because frankly, I’m still not sure how I feel about Zack Snyder’s big screen adaptation of the revered graphic novel (yes, I’m calling it a graphic novel), Watchmen.

There are some films that I really wish I could watch TWICE prior to writing a review: Big, highly-anticipated blockbusters tend to taint my initial viewing with expectations. Ideally there would be one viewing where I’d just let the film wash over me and then a second viewing where I could be more objective and analytical.

A little background for context: I read the graphic novel once, last year, following the San Diego Comic-Con. I’m not a die-hard devotee of the book, but I recognize that at the time it was written it was groundbreaking in its approach to the superhero genre. I don’t remember every nuance or panel of the story, but I remember enough for the film to make sense to me.

The problem is – I can’t “unremember” the book in order to give you the point of view of someone coming to the film with little knowledge of the story, and I’m not so into it that I can compare it detail by detail to the book – so take this review for what it’s worth. Some of you will end up agreeing with me and others will probably call me an idiot… such is the life of a guy who runs a movie website.

First off, for the uninitiated, you should know a couple of things:

  1. This is NOT really a superhero movie in the sense that we’ve come to know the genre. It’s not X-Men or Spider-Man – it’s not even The Dark Knight… it’s really more of a murder mystery with a bit of superhero action thrown in for flavor.
  2. It also seriously EARNS its R-rating, people. This is NOT a film you should bring your kids to because “it’s a superhero movie.” There is extremely graphic, horror movie-level gore, scenes of intense, realistic violence, full frontal male nudity throughout the film – and a very explicit sex scene.

Watchmen is also a very “dense” film, one that a viewer will no doubt pick up more details and nuances upon repeated viewings, so I won’t be covering a lot of detail here as far as story.

The film opens with a montage of scenes giving us the history of costumed vigilante crime fighters back in the 1940s. It’s pretty damned cool looking back and seeing men and women wearing homemade costumes and masks taking on muggers and such, sometimes even posing for the newspaper photographers in the middle of capturing the bad guys.

These are the glory days of the masked crime fighter, with society loving them and the heroes enjoying the heck out of what they do – even forming a loose alliance with one another. Eventually in the film we see some of these older “superheroes” who are now either dead or retired – trying to live normal lives.

watchmen comedian window Watchmen Review
The Comedian meets his end in Watchmen

From there we move to the iconic scene from the book – The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), now in his 60s, sitting at home in his apartment when a shadowy figure breaks in and beats him to a bloody pulp – culminating in his murder via being thrown out of a window high above street level.

It is now 1985 and masked vigilantes have been outlawed by the government for almost 15 years; Richard Nixon is in his 5th term as President, and the world is on the brink of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia.

Rorschach/Walter Kovacs (Jackie Earle Haley) is a vigilante who has told the government to go screw itself and still prowls the streets at night. As depicted in the film, I would say that he is probably portrayed as some Liberals imagine all Conservatives to be. He’s borderline crazy (if not actually over the edge), but he knows where he stands and what he believes in – to a fault. He doesn’t believe the killing of the Comedian was a burglary gone bad – he thinks that it was outright murder and that someone is tracking down ex-heroes one by one in an attempt to wipe them out.

This mystery is in fact the crux of the film – we follow Rorschach through his investigation and along the line we meet other ex-heroes Nite Owl II/Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II/Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman). Dan lives a quiet, lonely life (he comes across as a bit of a geek) while Laurie has a relationship with the one true superhero in the story: Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). Things are strained between Laurie and Dr. Manhattan, as he is slipping farther and farther away from humanity due to his god-like powers and intellect.

Rorschach tells Dan his theory about a “mask-killer” (they were once partners) and Dan goes off to warn Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) that his life may be in danger as well. Adrian is a super-genius billionaire who created his mega-corporation after vigilantism was banned. He is supremely confident and is determined to change the world for the better and bring it back from the brink of nuclear destruction.

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Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II and Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II

The film takes us through Dan and Laurie rediscovering that the only time they really feel alive is when they’re in full costume, out there fighting crime. As a matter of fact, Dan goes through a Clark Kent to Superman transformation once he dons his costume, changing from a clumsy, impotent coward, into (as Jesse Ventura so eloquently said in Predator) a sexual Tyrannosaurus.

Overall, what this story is about is showing how really messed up in the head people who put on bizarre costumes to go out and beat up bad guys would be if they actually existed in the real world. We’re talking about your next door neighbor putting on a batsuit complete with mask and cape, going downtown and beating up people so badly that they had to go to the hospital. Sure, it sounds good in a comic book or a movie, but would you really want to live next door to that guy? Would you really feel safe?

Watchmen follows the book very closely for the most part. Where it deviates mainly is via omission of certain aspects of the book and the ending. But what you see on the screen follows the imagery in the book to a “T.” Visually, I don’t think anyone could have done a better job with bringing the artwork from the book to life. I do think that some of what was omitted (and may be in the director’s cut for all I know) might have brought more humanity to the film. In particular what you’ll find missing if you’ve read the book is anything having to do with the old magazine stand guy and the young man reading “Tales of the Black Freighter” while keeping him company.

The format of the film is such that you don’t get to know some of the characters until you’re pretty deep into the film. We don’t get to see the pre-Dr. Manhattan Jon Osterman until we’re probably over an hour into the film. The movie jumps around quite a bit, and I don’t know how that will go over with people who aren’t familiar with the original story. It seems to me that perhaps some license should have been taken with the structure of the film considering the fact that the original story took place in 12 separate comic book issues spread over the course of an entire year. But if you know the story, this won’t bother you at all.

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Naked Dr. Manhattan with the naughty bits blurred (as they aren’t in the film)

Visually, Zack Snyder did a fantastic job with Watchmen. The incredible attention to detail in everything from the background sets to the props and costumes is really something to see. Of course one aspect of the film I could have stood to see a bit less of was Dr. Manhattan’s penis. The logic of the story was that eventually he becomes so detached from human norms that he doesn’t see the point of wearing any clothing. However I’m pretty sure I don’t recall Mr. Happy being so prevalent in the book. Here we’ve got full body shots all over the place and frankly, it was a bit distracting (I’ll never look at Blue Man Group quite the same way again).

The CGI effects for Dr. Manhattan were very impressive, except when it came to him actually speaking – there was a bit of the “uncanny valley” effect at work there and it just didn’t look quite right.

Far and away the best thing about Watchmen was Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. The man is mesmerizing and his performance rivals that of Heath Ledger as the Joker. I loved his interpretation of the how the character would sound, and when he gets to prison you’ll be jumping out of your seat at just how awesome he is.

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Jackie Earle Haley about to go ballistic in Watchmen

Another bright spot was the despicable Comedian. Jeffrey Dean Morgan was great to watch… he was just SO twisted that you couldn’t turn away and he just draws you in.

So what didn’t work? I thought that both Malin Akerman and Carla Gugino were quite weak. Akerman’s performance came across as pretty shallow to me, and Gugino’s first real scene in the film as an old woman almost had me laughing out loud because it seemed so campy. I could take or leave Patrick Wilson’s performance – maybe it was just the character he was playing that left me cold.

I also really didn’t think that Matthew Goode was the best choice for Veidt/Ozymandias. He seemed too frail of build to me, and this became much more of an issue in the final scenes in the film where he displayed what seemed to be superhuman strength in a film where the only super-powered being is supposed to be Dr. Manhattan. This also came up in the early scene where the Comedian is fighting for his life – he punches through what looks like solid brick, and while it might look cool, it didn’t seem to make sense.

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Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt

Aside from the Comedian and Rorschach (and maybe even Dr. Manhattan), I never really felt drawn into the characters in the film. They felt like, well, characters – instead of real people. I suppose it was almost akin to an Opera, where you’re very aware of what you’re watching as an observer. It was so obviously trying to honor the source material that you could actually TELL that’s what it was doing.

So in the end, is Watchmen a good film? I think so. Was it a great or close to perfect film? I’d have to say no. It felt long to me, and we have the issues I pointed out above. It is however yet another comic book-based movie that breaks the mold, and lays the groundwork for more non-traditional comic book stories to be turned into films.

I think it’s definitely worth seeing, and I’ll be very curious to hear what you think of it. I really think Watchmen is destined to be a cult movie – not very mainstream, but with a smaller and very dedicated core of fans loving it as time goes on.

Our Rating:

4 out of 5

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  1. Cult movie Vic? Curious as to why and to me that would be like saying the first SPider-man movie will be a cult my ticket for tomorrow night @ 2030…yeehaw!!

  2. thank you for your review ! i loved it.
    i hope to see it in an imax this weekend.
    i hope i wont be distracted by the penis too much ;). It would be hilarious to see though, how my home country (which is religious and very conservative at parts, ISRAEL) would receive this frontal nudity assault….

  3. Nice review, Vic. A question first:
    Why do you discern the source material as a graphic novel rather than a comic book? I’m not bothered or anything, just wanted to hear your reasoning behind it.

    Good call on Goode’s depiction of Ozymandias. It’s bothered me from the beginning. Someone with a nice jaw (like Christian Bale!) would havelooked better.

  4. @greenknight

    I say it’ll be a cult movie because it didn’t feel “mainstream” to me. But despite this I think there will be a hard core fanbase for it as time goes on.


    I said “graphic novel” because a lot of people get so annoyed when it’s called that 😛 and because that’s essentially what it is – it was published as individual issues but if you ever pick up a copy you can see very clearly that it is one big novel.


  5. That was a good review Vic. I had that same sort of reaction to Tim Burtons Batman when I saw it 20 years ago for the first time. I liked it but it also threw me in many ways. Yet, I was drawn to it and wound up seeing it 10 times. I liked it more and more with each viewing. To this day I know its highly flawed but it still has greatness to it.


  6. Dammit – I am seriously considering seeing this tonight at the local midnight showing… work be damned! Of course… they pay me too…

  7. Vic is there really that much of Dr.Manhattan’s blue junk on screen or is it about as much as was in the graphic novel? I don’t want to be the guy who suggests so all of his friends to see a movie that is filled with guys junk on the screen and they never listen to a movie suggestion of mine again lol.

  8. @Stephen

    Let’s just say it was definitely more than a cameo.


  9. Hey Vic, be careful comparing someone to Heath Ledger. I can see all of the TDK fanboys foaming at the mouth already… lol

  10. Vic,

    GREAT review, man, but I wonder why you didn’t go with a 3 or 3.5 star rating?


  11. @Heath

    Because I’m wondering if I might have been hyper-critical while watching it and might think it’s better upon a second viewing. Ideally I think I would have given it a 7.5/10 but there’s no way to do that on a 1-5 scale (3 3/4 stars?) so I rounded up.

    Funny, I looked back at my review of “300” and I gave that 4 stars as well. 😛


  12. Hey Vic, that guy that plays Rorschach looks a bit like you 😛

  13. Vic

    Just got back from the 1215 show. I’ll agree with your assessment. Without spoiling the end for the die hard fans, I was disappointed how Ozy brought the world together. I understand why Snyder would do this though being that the ‘monster’ in the book would take another half hour or so of movie to explain.

    Still a great movie and will go see it again.

  14. The movie did well to capture the spirit of the print version, and in some cases go beyond. I haven’t seen movie actors look so close to the original rendering since um, Speed Racer by the Wachowski Brothers.

    The moving nature of Rorschach’s “face” was fascinating just shy of distracting. HEY I just realized what that fabric reminds me of–the old “Magic Window” toys where blue, black, and white sand could shift and fill in randomly.

    Was anyone else annoyed that the name was pronounced to rhyme with “horse shack” (instead of horse shock)?

    I caught a glimpse of the newspaper vendor and the comic book reader at about the time the ink blot tests tumbled out of a briefcase. (I suspect that they appeared earlier also).

    Okay, the big joke will certainly be about we now know how the “man” got in Manhattan. I believe news of this will turn some guys–I know a few who were extremely offended by the nudity in Beowulf. In Watchmen, I was far more visually puzzled by a few feet up, where a face without pupils spoke in a voice that reminded me of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    Anyway I have a different take–the biggest phallus was Nixon’s nose. Between his nose and Molech’s ears, it was almost like watching an episode of Farscape.

    I’m concerned about the pacing, especially the first thirty minutes after The Comedian’s demise. I’m not sure the non-linear storytelling is audience friendly.

    The theatre I saw it in (at midnight) was very large and well-filled in. Not totally packed, but you couldn’t find a pair of empty seats.

  15. Rorschach’s name is pronounced ‘Roar-shack’, so the movie was right. It’s not ‘Roar-shock’. The American tendency to sometimes pronounce an ‘a’ as an ‘o’ is not correct. I had great amusement watching American Idol where contestants performed songs by a group they called ‘Obba’ – it’s Abba with an ‘ab’ sound like ‘crab’ or ‘grab’.

  16. I’m scared. I really don’t want to have to endure a bunch of Dr. Manhattan nudity. That’s the kind of thing that can ruin a movie for me, as I’m not the type of guy that doesn’t even want to see female nudity. It just doesn’t seem right and I don’t enjoy it. *sigh*

  17. I havent seen the movie yet am goin catching a showing tonight. Ive read alot of reviews theyve been very mixed. Im shocked because the hype for this movie has been massive people said it was guna be amazing and now I’m hearing people sounding very disappointed in the picture. Theres nothing worse than getting excited over a film then being disappoined man.

  18. having not read the novel prior to seeing this movie, i think most of the “flaws” you point out arent really an issue. i do agree with the scene where he kills the comedian was a bit super human as well as when veidt catches the bullet.

    i went there with a positive vibe, and must say that i had no problem getting the flow of the movie and what all the characters were.

    i do think that some of the music during the movie could have been a better choice.

    i think it deserves a 4.5 out of 5 and because mr manhatan should have kept his underwear on more often.

  19. The film is mindblowing. I just finished reading the comic book a week ago and I loved it. I agree with Mr. Haley being the best of the lot, brilliant, as convincing as when he performed the dude in Little Children.

  20. First, let me say that I have held off reading any of the reviews prior to seeing the film.

    And now that I am starting to (yours being the first), let me say that I totally agree with you (except for the penis — not a fan of looking at them, it just didn’t bother me that it was there) on every point!

    Matter-of-fact, I think the first thing I said to my boyfriend was that I didn’t like the guy they chose to play Veidt. I didn’t say why, but your reason is exactly it. That body just didn’t look like it had the potential to have that much power behind it.

    I also wondered if I should see it again for the reason you gave.

    Anyhoo, when ppl ask me what I thought of it, I’m glad that I can just send them a link to this review!

  21. I think showing Dr. Manhattan’s nudity full frontal more in the film is Snyder’s way to show Manhattan’s god-like prescense. It is almost Greek-like in the sense that this is a supreme-being and supreme-beings flaunt themselves to show how pathetic we are compared to them. The David statue comes to mind when thinking of Manhattan.

    I can see why Snyder changed the ending of the film. Even though we might get the “monster” attack intellectually (who have read the book), remember that most of the viewing public might not. I can also totally see MTV making fun of it with that little runt Jack Black or the geek Michael Cera! Hell, I can imagine Stiller parading around as Manhattan and doing something vile with his junk.

    Lastly, I also have a feeling that when we see the entire extended cut this will be THE comic-book movie! So in the immortal words of Robert Downey Jr., “F Batman!”
    And Vic, I shall stick by what I said before, comic-book, not graphic novel! 😀

  22. OK, I’ll ask: Is there something after the credits?

  23. I have my tickets tonight, I am a fan of the book but no uber fan like some. I think because I have read the book I will enjoy it more, but trying to explain it to my friends who have not may be tough.

  24. @huggybear

    That’s not the first time I’ve heard I look like Jackie Earle Haley. 😛


    No idea, I didn’t sit through all the credits – but I doubt it.


  25. @Evie

    Thanks very much!


  26. SK47,
    last week on At The Movies
    the hosts reviewed Watchmen and referred to the source material as a book twice .
    they also called it a novel and only called it a Graphic Novel at the end .
    I thought you might like to know that.

  27. I think the nudity may have the effect that Snyder wanted. Sometimes you should feel uncomfortable. if the emotion is appropriate for the material than feeling uncomfortable is as important as feeling happy or sad. that might be another vote for the cult-classic status. look at anything by Waters. all his movies made me uncomfortable.

  28. To Gary,
    really? Nice!
    My whole deal is that when I hear “Graphic Novel” it seems like a better way of saying “comic book” and not scaring people who might have issues with the term comics, or funnybooks, whatever.
    Yes I understand that when taken in all together, Watchmen is like a novel. But, is comic so bad a word to say? Truthfully, I’d proudly say: Yes, I read comic-books!
    There are worse things to say you are into, for instance, being an avid follower of The Hills and thinking that it is all real!

  29. There is such an interesting variety of narratives out there that explore the idea, the conceit, the mythos, and the tradition of superheroes and what they serve. Personally, I’d love to see a film made from Philip Wylie’s “Gladiator,” the 1930 novel that as good as kicked off the golden age of superheroes.

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