Set in an alternate version of 1985, Watchmen unfolds in a world on the brink of imploding. The Cold War has caused paranoia in both the streets and in the White House. The world watches as the doomsday clock, a symbol of how close the U.S. and Russians are to nuclear war, inches closer and closer to midnight. Clearly times like these call for superheroes, such as the famed Watchmen, to step and save the day. Unfortunately, due to laws banning “costumes”, most of the Watchmen have retired and taken up regular jobs. The world’s smartest man, Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), runs a billion dollar corporation that makes everything from reactors to Watchmen action figures. The omnipotent Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) works on his experiments while trying to navigate his relationship with Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). Night Owl II (Patrick Wilson) leads a quiet solitary life, only occasionally reminiscing about the past with his predecessor. Only the masked vigilante, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), remains on the streets dishing out his vicious brand of justice. When a fellow Watchmen, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is brutality murdered, Rorschach believes that the lives of the other members may be in danger as well. Can Rorschach solve the mystery behind The Comedian’s death before more Watchmen meet a similar fate? Will there be a nuclear holocaust? Or will someone be brave enough to intervene?
While I would love to say that these are the core questions of the film, the truth is they barely touch the surface of what Watchmen is really about. The film is an extremely faithful adaptation of the graphic novel. Due to the denseness of the source material, I was surprised by how much stuff director Zach Snyder was able to cram into the film. While some will ultimately grumble about the close to three hour running time, I would argue that the film actually needs to be longer to fix several of the pacing issue. This partly explains why a “Director’s Cut” is coming to theatres in July, followed up by an even longer “ultimate edition” (which includes the animated Black Freighter story intertwined) on DVD around Christmas. Does being this committed to the book negatively affect the movie? Well it all depends on how you look at it.
Studio cash grab aside, just by making the film Snyder falls in “a damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. Hardcore fans would have vilified him if he took too many liberties with the story in general. Movies such as From Hell (average at best) and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (horrendous) are perfect examples of how tinkering too much with the source material can kill a story. Yet by being faithful to the text, and hardcore fans, he opens the door for accusation of a lack of original vision. I have no problem with films retaining the essence of the source material while still providing its own unique variation. Yet I also feel that not everything needs to be made into a film. Watchmen is a perfect example this. The graphic novel is good, but at no point when reading did I think to myself “wow, this would make a good movie.” Not because I am a purist, but mainly because I did not think that the story could truly translate.
Personally, I liked that Snyder kept his adaptation fairly close to the text. While I did enjoy the innovated ways he incorporated the Minute Men into the opening title sequence; I was also glad Snyder did not try and update the era of the plot. I do not think the film would have worked in a modern setting (Iraq war, etc.). Granted, I did not need a shot for shot remake, but I was happy that essence of the characters stayed intact. Is it perfect? No. Yet Snyder did the best anyone could have done adapting this type of material. He ultimately made an entertaining that delivers despite its various flaws.
The main problem with the film is the uneven pacing. Some parts lagged, while others felt too short. In regards to the latter, the character of Night Owl II lost a little lustre because of this. While Patrick Wilson does a good job in the role, the awkward tension between Owl and Spectre in the novel is missing in the film. As a result, certain scenes between them come off as laughably bad (e.g. the “Hallelujah” scene). Snyder needed a little more time to develop the love triangle arc better. In regards to the parts that lagged, I would have made the following cuts to pick up the pace: 1) The fight sequences. To clarify, I would get rid of the “slow motion/speed up/slow motion” aspects to the fight sequences. While this may be Snyder’s signature style, I found the fight scenes tedious and distracting. I would have preferred if he just played the action straight. 2) I would make slight cuts to the scenes on Mars between Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre II. The message would still be conveyed, just in less time. 3) Lastly, I would make cuts to the mother daughter scenes between Sally Jupiter and Silk Spectre II. Again, you get the gist of their relationship early on so no need to drag things out.
Still, these issues were not enough to ruin my overall enjoyment of the film. The performances are strong for the most part. Most notably Earle Haley’s Rorschach and Morgan’s Comedian (the weakest link is Akerman). Also, the visual effects and art direction are outstanding. Is the Watchmen film a pop masterpiece? No. Is it even the best graphic novel adaptation? Not even close. Yet I will admit that the film is far more entertaining than I expected it to be. I still do not think the movie should have been made, yet I was not disappointed with what Snyder presented.
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