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