A mere 23 years in the making, through which we’ve been subjected to fits and starts with multiple directors trying and failing to adapt Alan Moore’s unfilmable graphic novel, the Watchmen movie is finally here. Who would have thought then that after so long, it would fall to the Zack Snyder, director of 300 to get this oft-mooted project off the ground and into multiplexes? And more importantly, was Alan Moore right when asked by prospective director Terry Gilliam about how he’d make the film in replying that he simply wouldn’t? Well that’s a question we intend to answer. Do we even need a Watchmen movie?
For those who have read the iconic graphic novel, the answer might be a resounding no. Why bother adapting something that is already utterly perfect in almost every conceivable way? In some respects they’d be right, as the original source material is undoubtedly unsurpassed as a deconstruction of the superhero myths that we’ve all grown up with. The titular Watchmen are real people, with all of the deep flaws and insecurities of real people. It’s as far away from the lantern-jawed all-American hero you can get. Watchmen’s members are morally dubious social outcasts, who suffer from murderous tendencies or crippling impotence. They’re definitely not the cocksure do-gooders from a million other comic books and therein lies Watchmen’s brilliance: it’s gritty, steadfastly grounded in reality.
Zack Snyder has approached Watchmen using the graphic novel almost as a storyboard aid, lifting shots and compositions wholesale. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing of course, as it makes for an extremely faithful adaptation. More importantly, Watchmen remains faithful to the character-driven narrative that leaps between flashbacks to the 1940’s and the unfolding drama in the alternate 1980’s universe where America won the Vietnam War and Nixon is still in the White House. The scene is beautifully set during the movie’s opening, a fantastic sequence set to Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ where Watchmen’s skewed reality is shown through montage, drawing you irresistibly into the story while simultaneously providing a chunk of exposition in the first few minutes.
What follows is an uncompromising, violent and fast-paced comic book movie with depth that never fails to entertain for the duration of its 160-minute running time. While the action sequences find an over-reliance on slo-motion and exaggerated sound effects accompanied by sudden bursts of unflinching violence, it’s never at the expense of the intense (super) human drama throbbing beneath the surface. With uniformly fantastic performances from an ensemble cast of character actors, Watchmen has more in common with a movie like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia than any of its comic book ilk. Jackie Earle Haley’s performance as the no-nonsense, misanthrope Rorschach is the lynchpin, his gravel-voiced readings from his journal filling in the gaps of his investigation following the brutal slaying of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian. Morgan’s portrayal of The Comedian too is unique in that it dares you to feel sympathy for a character whose dark past involves unsettling incidents of mass murder and rape.
Haley’s co-star from Little Children, Patrick Wilson also does a fantastic job playing the uneasy and apprehensive Dan Dreiberg, who once fought crime as the goggled crusader, Nite Owl. Billy Crudup’s subtle expressions as Dr. Manhattan shine through under a layer of luminescent blue CG and Matthew Goode plays the foppish millionaire and ’world’s smartest man’ Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias scarily well. Malin Akerman also looks incredibly sexy as Silk Spectre and manages to convey the confusion of being caught up in an unusual love triangle with Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl nicely. As impressive as all of these performances are though, it’s still the blot-masked Rorschach that leaves the most lasting impression.
He’s a sadistic sort, raw and intense, willing to inflict harmful bodily trauma on anyone foolhardy enough to cross him or refuse to answer his questions. A dirty great meat cleaver through the skull or a face-full of searing hot chip fat are just two examples of Rorschach’s vicious reprisals and indicative of the level of violence to expect in Watchmen. Snapped bones, severed arms and bodies eviscerated in crimson showers of blood and viscera are just a few other standout examples.
Returning to the question of whether we actually need a Watchmen film or not, the answer is yes and no. Yes, because it more than stands up as a fantastically entertaining and provocative film in its own right and no, because one could argue that the graphic novel does a far superior job in relaying the dense, multi-layered story in greater depth and detail than a film could ever hope to achieve. However, if the movie encourages people to discover the most seminal comic book work ever written, then that’s no bad thing. Ideally though, you should read the graphic novel before seeing the film if you can, although failing to do so won’t tarnish your enjoyment of the movie. Nevertheless, there’s no escaping the fact that no matter how good the film manages to be - especially in the face of such adversity - the original book will always be much, much better. Still, Watchmen is a great movie that will reward repeat viewings and we look forward to the definitive DVD release, which promises to feature even more footage, including the animated Tales of the Black Freighter episode. Who watches the Watchmen? We do. Now we recommend you go watch too.