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Watchmen (2009) – Movie Review

Watchmen movie poster

Written by: David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the comic book by Dave Gibbons & Alan Moore
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode

My Advice: See it.

Welcome to 1985 in a world with superheroes. It’s a world that looks a bit like ours except the hero Ozymandias (Goode) has turned his mighty brain towards business and thus Veidt Enterprises is everywhere. Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden in some admittedly terrible makeup) is still the president. Vietnam was a victory for the U.S. thanks to the intervention of Doctor Manhattan (Crudup) the reality-bending full-on superman. And the Cold War with the Soviets could turn hot at any moment. Into the midst of all of this chaos, retired hero and badass, The Comedian (Morgan), winds up rather dead. This draws the attention of Rorschach (Haley) , the one vigilante still…um, vigilanting after “masks” were outlawed. Rorschach is convinced that there’s a conspiracy at work. And the best thing for everybody would be if he was just being paranoid. But if he’s right…

[ad#longpost]Before we get into the review proper, some ponderings. The story of the Watchmen movie is even more than the story of how it took freaking forever to get made. It’s the story of how to market a movie that’s taken freaking forever to get made–one that has appeal to almost everybody who’s read comics–and how you deal with the expectations. Comic book fans and, for the most part, movie fans in general are pretty jaded. We’re content with good films mostly, because we know the chances of getting a Dark Knight are few and far between. We have a tendency to see movies like comic book addicts buy comics–we continue buying long after we rationally should have stopped (see my earlier comments about Green Lantern during one of those frequent stretches where they run out of ideas and send him into space–again). So we don’t let our expectations get the better of us. When you expect too much–or even moreso, something else entirely, you can have a perfectly good film but not like it. If I marketed a film to you as a horror film and it was a Farrelly Brothers comedy, you’d probably be disappointed, and not just because it was the Farrelly Brothers. I learned that lesson a while ago when I found that the majority of people who disliked the movie Hook stated as their reason “It wasn’t what I expected.”

So the trick with Watchmen, and also why I think it’s gotten such wildly dissimilar reviews: Jawbone Radio sees it twice the same day and Ebert gives it four stars while our own Rob Levy was cool on the matter and others have been nitpicking it to death. They started off by jazzing everybody up with the “We’re going to do it right mentality” by showing us posters based directly off the comic book ads. We saw a Doctor Manhattan that looks pretty much dead-on like Dave Gibbons’ Manhattan. We saw lots of stuff that was lifted directly from the comic. So the expectation is a direct port of the comic to the screen. Hell, one site that shall go nameless was pining over the loss of a product wrapper being discarded in one panel. C’mon guys, seriously?

Anyway, therein lies a trick–because as Terry Gilliam has pointed out, that simply won’t work in a theatrical feature film. There’s just too much information to pack into even a huge film. It would work a helluva lot better as a television maxiseries than a film. So fans of the book walk into the cinema and into this liminal void between high expectations of direct transfers and the fact that you simply can’t do that. I fear a lot of people are expecting the equivalent of a “motion comic,” and the two mediums are just that. What works on the screen doesn’t work in a comic and vice versa.

In fact, the much maligned ending change…really isn’t as much a change as people are making it out to be. The end result isn’t that different and, frankly, upon reflection, the original ending bit just simply wouldn’t work in this film. It works in the comic but would seem random and weird in this film. Now, you could do another version of the film that might incorporate it better, but I thought it worked quite well and certainly better than some other drafts of the film that I’ve mentioned before. Those thinking that the film is too reverential to the story I just don’t get–I never stepped out of the movie due to something that wasn’t there or missing. And I never felt, like I mentioned on our last podcast, like if I had not read the graphic novel, I would have been lost. True, it’s hard for me to put myself in that place, since you can’t unring that particular bell, but still, I thought it was fine.

Helping things along and throwing you in the deep end of the world is the opening credits montage, which gives you all the backstory you need. I’d be fascinated to hear what somebody who had never experienced the graphic novel would think of it all, but I figure the credits would help you through it, personally. If anything does not work, it’s the overblown violence and sex. I’m not one to complain about violence, but why show everything? Honestly, it’s something directors have forgotten these days, whether it’s Del Toro in Pan’s Labyrinth or Tim Burton in Sweeney Todd: implying is sometimes worse than showing. Or showing one smack to the head with a cleaver instead of three. And once you’ve taken the Last Train to Schlongville with Dr. Manhattan hanging out literally, it makes sense you’re going to have other nudity. But what could have been a great scene under the moon (I think you’ll know what I mean when you see it) just goes on way too long and is too explicit. It doesn’t fit. The violence and sex more than anything else feel out of place, like Snyder was trying too hard for his R rating. Or once with it, decided to just see what more he could do. There’s been talk of a director’s cut of this seeing DVD release, if not a limited theatrical run, and I fear that. Sometimes director’s cuts suffer from too much and lose all pacing–The Last Emperor springs to mind.

The cast is quite good and I really didn’t have a problem with anyone. Oh sure, a goodly amount of the old age makeup was lame–and I think Nixon was made to look so goddamn terrible just so he would take your mind off the rest of the makeup in the cast–but that’s not the cast’s fault. The two standouts for me are Billy Crudup, whose voice is perfect for Manhattan, and Jackie Earle Haley who nails Rorschach the way Hugh Jackman nails Wolverine. Fantastic.

I was pleased with the film overall. In my humble opinion, this is probably the best theatrically released film version of Watchmen you could conceivably pull off. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s as good as we’re going to get until somebody does it as a series on HBO or Showtime and does the whole shebang. Maybe that will please the diehards a bit more. Maybe.


  • I, for one, thought the ending in the movie was better than the book. Yeah I know it is heresy, but there I’ve said it.

  • I wouldn’t say *better,* but I don’t think it was *worse.* And the ending of the book always seemed kind of random to me – I was like, “wait, WHAT? Where did that come from?” *flipflipflip*

    It will certainly be the stuff of geek debates for some time to come…

  • Jon: The movie ending might have better by a movie standpoint. In a comic book, you can rationalize a giant space squid who psychically freaks out the populace; that’s a comic book ending. In a live action movie, it’s an easier sell to say the god-like superhero flipped out and atomized a ton of major cities.

    My only complaint would be the end, with the New Frontiersman. With no real reference to the paper (or it’s “progressive” counterpart), it just seemed as a kind of tack-on ending, placed there just to keep the raving fanboys from getting too upset.

    Still, with a project of this magnitude, to get a movie that is this close to the source material without being David Lynch’s Dune in length is a credit to Snyder. Kudos!

  • I watched the film with 2 people who have never read or heard of the graphic novel and they loved it. One is going as Dr. Manhattan for Halloween next year. I personally enjoyed the film for what it was – the film. Not the comic. Willful suspension of disbelief. Bring on Transformers!

  • i just got back from watching Watchmen; in retrospect, the movie leaves me feeling a bit haunted by it’s style and storyline, though in a good way

  • I personally enjoyed the film for what it was.In a live action movie, it’s an easier sell to say the god-like superhero flipped out and atomized a ton of major cities.