The story unfolds in an alternate reality in New York City, 1985. America was victorious in Vietnam, Richard Nixon is still President, and tensions with the Soviet Union are at an all-time high. Most of the main characters are regular people who years ago donned costumes and teamed up to fight crime, but were forced to retire after Nixon approved legislation banning all “Costumed Crimefighters.” Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who used to be a crimefighter named The Comedian, gets thrown from a building in the film’s opening scene. In the wake of The Comedian’s murder, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the only Costumed Crimefighter who never retired, investigates a possible conspiracy. All of the Costumed Crimefighters examine their own lives, trying to reconcile their good intentions with the bleak reality of a dying World that doesn’t want their help.
That bare-bones summary doesn’t even touch the surface, much less scratch it. The characters of Watchmen have deep psychological profiles, the setting has deep history, and the overall story has very deep themes. Only a televised miniseries, created perhaps for HBO or Showtime, could have properly handled this story. The book has twelve chapters, so a six-hour miniseries could have given 30 minutes to each chapter, and even then, material probably would have been cut. Imagine how much would have been lost if Roots or The Lord of the Rings had been crammed into three hours. This forest has so many significant trees that you just can’t show them all in three hours, and because of that, the forest as a whole doesn’t make enough sense.
In reality, Watergate and Vietnam were the primary causes of American disillusionment, but Watchmen examines a world in which those events unfolded differently, causing a quieter, slower, and much more heartbreaking decay. The movie portrays this world effectively in some scenes, especially when The Comedian and Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) attempt to control an angry mob. Their effort to assist people quickly goes awry, and The Comedian begins shooting innocent civilians. “What happened to us?”, Nite Owl asks. “What happened to the American Dream?” The Comedian turns around from the fleeing crowd, gun in hand. “What happened to the American Dream? It came true. You’re looking at it.”
Most of the characters are played well, especially The Comedian and Rorschach. Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a great job carrying The Comedian’s attitude that all of life is a “big joke.” He’s a brutal, sadistic jerk who laughs at the horrors around him because that’s the only way he can cope. Rorschach believes in traditional morality: good vs. evil, though he uses violence to persecute evildoers. Jackie Earle Haley becomes this character, speaking in a raspy voice from behind a mask featuring a constantly changing Rorschach blot. Only one character, Ozymandias, is represented poorly. He’s supposed to be strong and dashing: the ideal man, and certainly the closest to the traditional masculine superhero. In the film, he’s much too creepy.
It’s important to note that, apart from one big exception, none of the characters have special powers. They’re just regular people who decided to make a difference. The movie has a beautiful, stylized polish, similar to what Snyder used in 300, and while it’s a joy to behold, realism would have been more appropriate. After all, this isn’t a traditional superhero story. The characters are multi-dimensional and real, and I wish the gloss had been traded in favor of grit. Even the violence, while extremely graphic, is too pretty and cartoonish. Most shots in the movie are lifted straight from the graphic novel, frame for frame, but the overall tone of realism got sacrificed in favor of eye candy. As soon as realism slips, the story’s power to affect us emotionally slips along with it.
The only character with superpowers is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a man who became God-like after suffering an accident during a physics experiment. He has virtually every power imaginable; he can be anywhere at any time and can do anything. His skin glows blue, he speaks in a calm voice, and he is most definitely not human. He has so many powers that he doesn’t feel obligated to help humans in the least. He doesn’t understand them anymore, and he sees the Universe as being much larger and more significant than the survival of humanity. The one character who could save the World doesn’t care to, and the characters who want to help have slowly become the very evil that they set out to eliminate.
The universe of Watchmen is vast and complex, and I applaud Zack Snyder for performing admirably under the circumstances. The task was impossible from the start, but he did well, making a film that works best as a supplement to the graphic novel. The Director’s Cut adds an important story element concerning Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie), the original Nite Owl from the 1940’s, but it’s just one of many missing pieces. As a stand-alone experience, the film works, but it doesn’t carry the narrative power of the graphic novel. If the film piques your interest, do yourself a favor and read Watchmen. One is a solid effort, but the other is a masterpiece.
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For the Parents:
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity, and language.
NOTHING ABOUT THIS MOVIE IS APPROPRIATE FOR KIDS - PERIOD. I don’t care that it has superheroes, and I don’t care if “Billy’s Mom let him see it,” or whatever. The content is very disturbing, and the themes are too deep for kids to grasp. An R rating means 17 and older, and this movie is rated R with good reason.