So – the economy is still on the verge of collapse, everyone I know is nervous about employment and 401Ks – the future is, as always, uncertain and anxiety-producing in ways that seem newly frightening.
But the big topic of discussion this week, of course, is “Watchmen,” the epic comic-book movie adapted by Zack (“300”) Snyder from the iconic graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
The debates will be multiple and hard-fought: Is it faithful enough to the original? Too faithful? Is its violence outrageously graphic? Is it as good as its rabid fan base hopes? Nay, make that: Is it as excellent? As transcendent? As transporting? Or is it a nihilistic bit of pop garbage meant to pollute the minds of teens and young adults?
Seriously: What is “Watchmen” but yet another distraction – a bit of apocalyptic storytelling meant to take our minds off the apocalypse now?
That’s what I hate about this moment in time: There’s no such thing as simply seeing a movie like this and enjoying it on its merits. The hype machine has been pumping since before Snyder rolled the first camera. It’s been building to a deafening roar since the first of the year. You can’t escape it – it’s impossible not to get burned out on it, whether you’re interested in the subject or not.
There are so few surprises anymore at the movies. That’s my theory about why “Slumdog Millionaire” was such a hit (aside from its obvious feel-good/uplift appeal): that it came out of nowhere, with no stars. It was an irresistible surprise that had the good fortune to take on the momentum of a snowball rolling downhill.
“Watchmen,” however, comes with prefabricated momentum – it’s practically mandated. But this is still a movie that’s bound to polarize the audience.
So I’ll admit: I was happily surprised. This movie delivers as a splashy, bloody comic-book adventure that stays true to its roots without being slavish about it (despite numerous images taken directly from the comic’s pages). It’s both headlong and thought-provoking, attacking the notion of heroism and the role of the hero in society in ways that “The Dark Knight” only talked about.
Snyder, working from a script by David Hayter and Alex Tse, takes what was a 12-issue series (collected in the so-called graphic novel) and finds ways to weave an amazing amount of material into the film. He creates a story that has the strength to bear multiple digressions and flashbacks, as it unravels the mystery created in the film’s opening sequence: a battle between a masked figure and an aging crime-fighter known as the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) that ends with the Comedian being hurled through a floor-to-ceiling window and plummeting 30-plus stories to the rainy Manhattan pavement below.
The Comedian (real name: Eddie Blake) is dead but lives on in the memories of his former comrades-in-arms, a group of masked crime-fighters known as the Watchmen. Masked crime-fighting has been legislated out of existence, however, branded as vigilantism; his former colleagues have disappeared into private life, until they’re interrupted by the Comedian’s murder.
Leading the charge is Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a bitter little pill who wears a blank white full-head mask on which inkblots coagulate and dissolve, according to his mood. He challenges his former teammates back into action. But the Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) is now a paunchy nerd. Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), known as Ozymandias, is a billionaire who revealed his secret identity years before. Laurie Jupiter (Malin Ackerman), known as the Silk Spectre, lives with Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a physicist who was accidentally bombarded with radiation that transformed him into an omnipotent nuclear-powered weapon.
The year is 1985: Because Dr. Manhattan helped Pres. Richard Nixon win the Vietnam War years earlier, Nixon was able to change the Constitution and win three more terms. Nixon now is counting on Dr. Manhattan to save the USA, should the saber-rattling Soviets launch the nuclear attack they seem to be threatening.
Rorschach, a gravel-voiced psychopath, is convinced that the Comedian was killed as part of a plot to eliminate former masked crime-fighters. But it takes some doing to get his teammates on board for an investigation into what kind of plot is actually afoot.
Snyder keeps his camera in motion, whether bouncing back in time or hurling the action to the surface of Mars (where Dr. Manhattan goes to escape the pressures of Earth). And he’s not afraid to depict the gruesomely bloody action that marked the original comics.
Indeed, though this is a comic-book movie, it should not be mistaken as a movie for kids. Rape, dismemberment, slow-motion bullet hits (and, of course, Dr. Manhattan exploding people into gory chunks – not to mention his ever-present penis) – your 12-year-old may be begging you to see this but don’t give in. Wait until he’s at least 13.
Still, movies with brutal action are a dime-a-dozen; torture-porn films have lowered the bar (or raised it, depending on your point of view) when it comes to what’s permissible – or expected – in a mainstream R-rated film. But “Watchmen” never feels egregious or sadistic in its violence; the bloodshed always seems to serve the story.
And the plot itself, though altered, has not been watered down. This is the most bittersweet of stories, one in which heroism isn’t necessarily rewarded and being right ends up being cold comfort.
By necessity, certain elements of the graphic novel have had to be jettisoned. Generally speaking, they’re the kind of affectations that work on the page (a comic within a comic, a running bit of dialogue between a newsstand owner and a kid who hangs out there reading his comics) but not on the screen. On film, they’d have been a distraction, filigree that ate time but added little. And, frankly, on the page, they’re the kind of thing you can easily skip over if you get impatient with them. (Yes, I know, heresy to “Watchmen” true believers.)
The cast is a true ensemble, with each delivering what’s necessary to stand out and make his or her plotline compelling, without drawing focus when it needs to be elsewhere. I particularly like Jackie Earle Haley as the coolly rabid Rorschach; he manages the impressive feat of giving an expressive performance while having his face covered for most of the film. I also admired Billy Crudup’s ability to find the emotions in a character with a completely flat affect as Dr. Manhattan.
I’ve seen “Watchmen” twice now and enjoyed it as much the second time as the first. I’m a fan of the comic, if not a devotee. I think this will be a movie that divides audiences right down the middle, inspiring either love or hate, with little middle ground. Love is a strong term but it was as satisfying a distraction as I can remember.