Watchmen: Who Watches the Watchmen?

Dan Dreiberg: "But the country's disintegrating. What's happened to America? What's happened to the American dream?"
The Comedian: "It came true. You're looking at it."

Watchmen isn't what you'd call a "child friendly" superhero movie. Malin Akerman (who plays Silk Spectre II) said in an interview that the film belongs in a genre of its own. There's probably some truth to that. If superheroes did exist (and apologies to those of you who think they do), then this is probably what they'd be like: horrendously flawed, disturbed individuals, desperately trying to save the world, but not always doing the right thing.

My expectations for this movie were high. I think everyone's were. The burden Zack Snyder must have felt filming "Watchmen" -- the only graphic novel to appear in TIME magazines list of the top 100 English novels -- must have been enormous. You could almost feel the weight of expectation as the lights dimmed in the movie theatre and a reverent hush descended on those assembled.

We needn't have worried. The film was an absolute belter from beginning to end.

Watchmen is set in an alternate 80's America. The most obvious departure from orthodox US history is the existence of superheroes (or "masks") who help America win in Vietnam, and subsequently secure Nixon a third term as president. Superheroes then fall out of favour with the public and legislation is introduced to outlaw them. Whilst most of the heroes slip off into early retirement, some continue to practise their craft within official government agencies, while others such as Rorschach, continue their work outside of the law.

The film begins with one of the "masks," ex-Minuteman, The Comedian, being killed. Rorschach begins an investigation into his murder and soon comes to the conclusion that someone's out to kill all "masks." Rorschach quickly warns his ex-comrades, and the rest of the movie is essentially the story of the Watchmen reforming and tracking down their would-be killer.

The movie has an 18 certificate, so right away you know what to expect. There are sex scenes, nudity, and moments of such graphic violence that even I, hardened film watcher that I am, cringed at a few of the set pieces. Severed arms, broken bones, and at one point a cleaver being repeatedly thrust into the top of someone's skull, all make you realise that Snyder isn't pulling any punches with this film. It's pretty full on.

Being based on a graphic novel, as you'd expect, the flow of the movie is generally even throughout. The plotting, character development and exposition are so densely packed together, that at times, you're afraid to look away for fear of missing something. I went for a drink in the middle of the movie and came back half way through the prison rescue scene -- which looked simply astounding from the back of the theatre. The look of the film is beautiful. It's dark, it's brooding and most importantly, it's seriously cool.

But it's the characterisation which sets this film apart. These heroes are real. Their stories don't fit the usual superhero template. The Comedian, in addition to burning people alive in Vietnam and assassinating JFK, has the murder of a pregnant woman, and an attempted rape on his less than impressive Curriculum Vitae. Dr Manhattan, an almost God-like being, spends virtually the entire movie naked (for some reason you don't notice -- apart from one rather obvious full frontal), and as the film progresses, slowly becomes more and more detached from humanity, to the point where he seems unsure whether he cares for them at all. These are not heroes you're immediately drawn to -- in fact, some of them are hard to like at all -- but the characters are so well drawn, at least you understand why they behave the way they do.

Apart from Dr. Manhattan, none of the other heroes actually have super powers per se -- but they have costumes and kick ass nonetheless. The combat set pieces are superbly choreographed. I was expecting Matrix-style fight scenes, but what I got was a lot harsher than that. The violence is exaggerated, almost grotesquely so, but it doesn't seem out of place. It just adds to the brutal landscape of screwed up America -- where the doomsday clock is on five minutes to midnight and the Russian threat has never felt more real.

This isn't a film for everyone. If you were turned off by the gratuitous violence of movies like 300 and Sin City, then doubtless you'll have problems with this film too. But if you're a fan of Alan Moore's work (V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell and The Ballad of Halo Jones), or are a fan of Zack Snyder's other movies (300 and Dawn of the Dead), or simply fancy something different, then this is definitely a movie worth checking out!
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Also posted at The Time Meddler.

14 comments:

Mark Greig said...

Great review, Paul. I think Znyder did an excellent, almost Herculean job bringing Moore and Gibson’s so-called unfilmable classic to the screen in such a faithful and uncompromising form (although I am looking forward to his director’s cut later in the year).

It’s still hard to believe that this is a major studio film and an adaptation of a popular work that hasn’t been diluted or toned down just to get the 12A (or PG-13 if you are American) crowed into the cinemas.

Hopefully this will make Warners see sense and greenlight a proper version of Hellblazer, maybe with James Masters as John Constantine. Please, pretty please.

coffee said...

I loved they way they bridged different generations throughout the movie, both with props (like the floppy discs) and with music

Paul Kelly said...

Thanks Mark.

I read the Watchmen graphic novel a few years ago and was genuinely surprised at how well ZS stuck to the book. There were a few bits missing/changed...but like you say, that's what the Director's Cut is for....to fill in the missing pieces. And as far as I'm concerned, this movie can't be long enough.

I was just reading your Doctor Who Blog this morning. It's an excellent resource. And I see from your profile that you're a Douglas Adams fan! Let me guess...radio plays first...then books...then TV show,...then movie? Right? I'm guessing you're a man who knows where his towel is? ;-)

PK

Paul Kelly said...

Hi Coffee,

I agree 100 percent with what you said about the music. It probably shouldn't have worked; but it did. A lot of elements in this movie seemed anachronistic to me. Superheroes and space ships back in the 70's? Blue men fighting in Vietnam? It was such a weird mix of ideas, that at times it was hard to digest.

Probably a movie best watched a few times.

PK

Mark Greig said...

Closeish, it was TV then radio then books then movie then Doctor Who (“What a wonderful butler, he’s so violent!” lol:-). Currently just started Dirk Gently books. Still miss ya, Douglas!

Oh, and yes, I always know where my towel is ;)

Thanks for the feedback on the blog. Glad to see people are enjoying it.

Paul Kelly said...

Hi Mark,

Haha...classic Tom Baker quote (from "City of Death" if I'm not mistaken). Never has a line of dialogue summed up a character so well.

The Dirk Gently books are okay. Actually, as a Who fan, you'll probably find some interesting tidbits in the first Gently novel. Some of the Doctor Who story "Shada" appears in there (with the Doctor character replaced by Gently).

The TV series of HHGTTG was pretty excellent...apart from Zaphods rather rubbish second head.

PK

Mark Greig said...

Hey Paul

Adams did recycle a lot of his Who material in his novels. Life, the Universe & Everything was originally a rejected movie or TV serial script (not sure which) called Doctor Who and the Krikketmen. I think even bits of City of Death were reused in one of the Dirk Gently books.

daniel c w said...

Hi Paul!

What is a Minuteman?
You mention that the Comedian once was one.

Paul Kelly said...

Hi Daniel,

The Minutemen were a group of heroes back in the 1940's. Members were the first Silk Spectre, Captain Metropolis, Hooded Justice, the first Nite Owl, Dollar Bill, Silhouette and Mothman. The Comedian was also a member, until he was kicked out after trying to rape Sally Jupiter. You saw the Minutemen in the movie flashback scenes.

PK

Ramone said...

Hiy Paul,

Excellent review. So when did the Comedan become a Watchman?

Paul Kelly said...

Hi Ramone,

It's my understanding that Watchmen isn't the name of a specific group of heroes, but rather a generic title given to anyone who fulfils the role of protector. The Comedian was a member of the Minutemen (1939-49), before going on to to join Crimebusters (1966-77).

PK

Ramone said...

Hi Paul.

Who is Crimebuster?

Paul Kelly said...

Hi Ramone,

Crimebusters are the group that reformed in the movie. Silk Spectre II, Nite Owl II, The Comedian, Dr Manhatten, Rorschach, Ozymandias and Captain Metropolis (deceased).

PK

celticmarc said...

Paul

Wow. An outstanding review for an outstanding movie.