Watchmen Scores on the Big Screen

Photo by Clay Enos

    By Broadside Style Writer Ross Bonaime

    They said that it could not be done. It was said to be unfilmable. For years, some of the top directors have attempted to make Watchmen, easily one of the most celebrated graphic novels of all time, into a feature length film, but to no avail. Then Christopher Nolan opened the floodgates with Batman Begins.

Nolan ushered in a new era of superhero film, one where the internal struggles and the decisions that heroes make are just as important as the maniacal villain. Over twenty years after Alan Moore's original novel was released, Zack Snyder (director of 2004's Dawn of the Dead remake and 300) makes his impressive adaptation that will make fanboys drool and make the uninitiated run to the comic store.

Watchmen occurs in an alternative version of 1985 where Richard Nixon is still president and nuclear conflict with Russia still has America's interest piqued as the Doomsday clock counts down to the start of nuclear war. However, what truly changes history is the rise of masked heroes in the 1940s. Years later, after the first era of heroes had either died, retired or gone insane, a new group called Watchmen arrive to pick up where their predecessors left off. These heroes help alter the outcome of events such as Vietnam and the Nixon administration. Ultimately when the people choose "no more masks," the Keene Act is passed, which leads to the outlawing of costumed vigilantes.

Years later, one of the Watchmen, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is thrown out the window of his apartment, and marks the beginning of a series of murders of former masked heroes. Leading the search for the killer is Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), with a mask that changes based on how he feels, and his former partner Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), who tried to continue the legacy that his forerunner started while trying to solve his current midlife crisis.

This leads the former Watchmen to come out of the woodwork, such as Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the proclaimed smartest man in the world who has become a successful billionaire, Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), who is trying to follow in her mother's footsteps and trying to understand her boyfriend, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the only true "super" hero, who is as close to God as man has ever seen. Together, they deal with how far is too far when trying to save the world and just how much will you give up to do the right thing when the stakes are higher then you ever thought.

Watchmen introduces some of the most intriguing heroes ever brought to film. Morgan as The Comedian is essentially the anti-Captain America, where shooting protesters is all just part of the larger cosmic joke to him. Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II take the most stereotypical views of heroes and flip them on their head with the decisions they are forced to make. But the two who really propel the story are Rorschach, who will go to incredible lengths to exact justice and Dr. Manhattan, who chooses to spend his time on Mars rather than worrying about the small quarrels that engulf the people of Earth.

Behind the mask, Haley is able to invoke more emotion than most unmasked heroes and as the ink blots move, we can see the gears moving in his head, trying to do what is best for society, regardless of the harm it may cause him. On the other end of that spectrum, Crudup perfects the role of Dr. Manhattan. He floats through the world as more of a bystander than a participant of it and struggles with the pain of knowing how everything in the world works and the burden of too much knowledge. His existential crisis on Mars makes for some of the most incredible scenes and the impeccable performance by Crudup truly makes Dr. Manhattan a credible character.

As a director, Snyder has been hit-or-miss. His Dawn of the Dead remake showed a first time director truly standing up to the task of recreating a classic horror film. But 300 took the original source material too literally, making it a vapid and lifeless adaptation that became more about cool effects and awesome fight scenes than about interesting characters and worthwhile story. Yet from the montage near the beginning of the film, literally setting up what has passed from the beginning of masked heroes to the inception of Watchmen set to the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing," it is obvious that Watchmen is in the right hands. Snyder actually used the novel's panels as storyboards for the film and with the help of his director of photography Larry Fong, they truly take the look and feel of the novel and put it into motion.

Snyder shows a deep admiration for the original novel and he is impressively able to pack a substantial amount of the novel into a film that clocks in at less than three hours. Unlike with 300, Snyder does not take Watchmen directly from the page to the screen and is able to see that sometimes it does not translate perfectly in such a way. Therefore he does take liberties with the story to make the story more cinematic and arguably improving the story by editing some of the cracks throughout. Snyder's biggest fault is that he sometimes starts to fall into old habits, such as the unnecessary slowing down of certain scenes. In fact, the opening slow motion death of The Comedian is so similar to the famous well scene in 300 that all that is missing is the killer proclaiming, "This is Sparta!"

A good film will bring you into a world and tell you a phenomenal story. A great film will put you into the shoes of the characters in the film and ask you what exactly would you do in such a situation. Watchmen does just that. The seamless script from X2 scribe David Hayter and Alex Tse give this film an episodic feel that goes perfectly with the novel and keeps the main issues and arguments intact.

Watchmen is one of those great films that is able to engulf the viewer just as much as the book from which it is adapted. Snyder and his immaculate cast bring this impossibly deep world into a beautiful film that asks just as many questions as it answers. It does not let the audience sit back and watch flashy sequence after sequence, but rather makes them contemplate questions that most superhero/action films do not even dare try to tackle. The result is one of the most engrossing and captivating films in recent years.

Rating: A

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