Directed By: Zack Snyder
Starring: Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman
Recently, I reviewed the original Friday the 13th on blu-ray. I commented that modern audiences would find this film clichéd. The film is clichéd today because it has been re-cooked and stolen from for 30 years. Modern audiences have seen the tropes created by that film over and over again and when they sit down to watch it now, they don’t stop to think they’re looking at the innovator of the genre that has become predictable today. In that way, Watchmen has something in common with Friday the 13th. After that seminal comic book series hit shelves back in 1986, countless comic book creators went to the Watchmen well over and over again. There wouldn’t be a Frank Miller without Watchmen. Sure, he was around early on, but his best work came after Watchmen. Comic book fans have seen the flawed hero plenty over the last 25 years, but this kind of hero has yet to get representation in film and it’s really going to be a hard pill to swallow for mainstream movie fans, but that’s not the only problem they’ll have. The story told in those comics and on the screen here is what makes a film like The Dark Knight possible.
Watchmen is a dense character driven drama first and a super hero story in far second. The film, even with the changes made from the original book, remains one of the most challenging films ever made and definitely the most challenging super hero film ever made. I’m a huge fan of social commentary in narrative film, even if I don’t agree with it completely, and it’s soaked in this film, often in heavy handed ways and at other times, more subtly. There’s political commentary centered in the 80’s, there’s the question of humanity and what it takes to be human (classic sci-fi elements here), and other questions about what it takes to be important in the world both in an epic way and in a subtler way. A man whose father was a watchmaker now finds himself running out of time; his humanity rapidly slipping away from him and he didn’t even realize it. Another man, who has given up the life of a hero. now finds himself mentally, and physically impotent, and woman who finds herself subservient to others as she suffers a horrible act that was perpetrated on her mother. At the same time, this re-envisioned and twisted version of the 1980’s finds itself on the brink of ultimate destruction. This barely scratches the surface of the dense story of Watchmen. The first half hour of the film is easily the most challenging as more information is slung at the audience in that act than in most complete movies. The easiest way to enjoy the film is to just let it all flood over you and plan to watch the film a second time to get the nuances.
There are action sequences in this film and they look amazing but the film is two hours and forty-seven minutes long so there are long periods where there is no action, and that’s a good thing. If you’re someone that watches Battlestar Galactica for laser fights, you’ll find yourself in familiar territory here. The action that’s in the film is fantastic but it plays second to the drama and character development. Snyder does a pretty amazing thing with the more exploitation elements of the film that may be misunderstood by fans of the book. The original comics, when they came out, where considered very racy and violent. The violence and sexual elements were meant to put a fine point on the identity of the characters. By today’s standards, these scenes in the book are fairly tepid. Snyder amps up the violence and the kink and sexuality in the film in order to garner a similar impact from modern audiences. Hardcore fans of the book need to understand that changes needed to be made to make the story work on film and for a modern audience. Similar situations came up with the Lord of the Rings movies and they came out ok, Watchman fares just as well. This is not a super hero movie for the kids. It is rated “R” after all. These are heroes, but they are also people and the flaws of humanity are some of the most important thematic elements of the film represented in every character in the film.
Yes, the film is too long but at the same time, not one scene of the film needs to be cut. In fact, I can’t wait to see the even longer director’s cut. Imagine if you had to tell the story of the Avengers and the Young Avengers in one movie with all of the back-stories necessary to introduce each character and you start to see the challenge of portraying the Watchmen. As much as I love the Avengers, they are missing all of the dense commentary that makes Watchmen so important. Telling that kind of story seems impossible but Snyder was able to do it here to near perfection. When I stepped out of The Dark Knight, my first words were that it was too long. I followed that up with a statement of how much I loved the film. When I stepped out of Watchmen, a film longer by 10 minutes or so, my remark about the length of it was around fifth or sixth after many other points about how the film affected me. The problem with The Dark Knight is that the Joker and, to a lesser extent, Harvey Dent, were the only characters given real depth. Other characters made the film run long. Every character in Watchmen is important both thematically and in the main story. Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan get all of the quotable lines but Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II are just as fantastic and as important in the story. Nite Owl II, Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach all have a very specific way of delivering lines, essentially due to most of their dialogue being taken right from the source material. Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, and Patrick Wilson all give career making performances by really getting the reason their dialogue was originally written the way it was and truly bringing those characters to life the way they were supposed to be. The Silk Spectre II may seem more typical in many ways compared to the rest of the heroes but her growth as a character is still important and Malin Akerman’s performance is terrific. She was featured in some of the more emotional moments of the film and she made those moments real even if there is a glowing guy in the scene and some other people with super powers hanging out. Carla Gugino may be the world’s only true modern day pin-up girl both in looks and in attitude. She truly becomes the original Silk Spectre, both young and old. Others go unnamed only due to length of this article. Mathew Goode is worth mentioning because for the most part he’s good but not as perfect as the previously mentioned actors. He does a good enough job for the most part but he attempts a slight German accent that never really makes sense from a character perspective. Thematically, there are tons of reasons for the accent, but it just doesn’t quite work. Other than that ,this cast of character actors is one of the best ensembles of any film in years.
A movie that runs this long requires a level of precision that is here for most of the running time. Through the middle, there is about 15 minutes that appears to bog down just a bit. That said I still wouldn’t cut a single scene. Also, for a 130 million dollar movie, there are a couple of instances of weak looking CGI. Overall though, the style and use of the CGI is top notch. I can see how some viewers might find themselves disconnected from the characters due to their flaws and the overall weight of the storytelling. That reaction in and of itself brings a different kind of viewing experience, not a bad experience just a different one. I found myself enthralled by the characters and the highly detailed world in which they live so much so that the emotional developments did impact me. Watchmen is one of the most ambitious films made in many years, at least since the Lord of the Rings trilogy and it will go on to influence new filmmakers for many years to come. This is a true conversation piece, not just a few hours of escapism. As much as I loved Iron Man last year and The Dark Knight, this film is more ambitious in form and story than either of those films could have ever hoped to be. Watchmen absolutely requires multiple viewing to take it all in and I can’t wait to watch it again. Is it my favorite of comic book movies? Hard to say, but it is the bravest of them all. Zack Snyder and Warner Brothers deserve a lot of credit for giving Watchmen the time and budget it deserves even if it does alienate so many mainstream viewers. People actually walked out of the movie part way through during the screening I was in. As I said, this is a challenging film and some folks just won’t be up to it. This film is more important than its box office. Hopefully, people will go and see this film and appreciate it but if I were a betting man, I’d say the film won’t be breaking records the way The Dark Knight and Iron Man did.