RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 2: Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” (2009)

The Film…


The Players…

Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, Billy Crudup, Jeffery Dean Morgan and Matthew Goode.

The Plot…

Adapted from comic laureate Alan Moore’s landmark miniseries, the events that transpire after a superhero is murdered in an alternate universe circa 1985 lead a band of once famed costumed avengers—now outlaws—to solve the mystery. However this is no mere murder, regardless of the victim. There are far more sinister forces at work shadowing this mystery, and very little of it has to do with some dead guy wearing a costume. And a smiley face button.

The Rant…

When I was a pup, I picked up the first ish of Watchmen. Didn’t get it. I guess I was not the target audience. Sold the thing for five bucks. This was 1986 dollars. I was too young to know the oys and joys of beer, drugs and sex. I guess I was a wastrel when it came to comics as well. Who’s the latest X-Man? What’s Spidey up to? What’s sex? They do what? To each other? Eewww.

Ha. Since then, I’ve grown up. Sort of. Through waste and disgrace I now have all 12 issues of Watchmen hermetically sealed in a binder somewhere. First issues. Ugh, the geekiness of it all. Am I boasting? F*ck yeah I am.

So when the whirling dervish that is Zack Snyder got the green light to tackle a full-flung take on the mini-series (which had been languishing in production hell for lifetimes) and plaster it to the silver screen, a million comic geeks over were harping about either two things: this had better work or this ain’t gonna work.

And here I am to declare the results in a sober, reserved geeky mindset. Keep in mind, I’ve been a movie nut well before there were ever comic book movies…

The Story…

It’s 1985. But not a 1985 that you’ve ever known, and this most likely is a good thing. Superheroics, once the bread and butter of America’s elite crime fighting policy, are outlawed. Any costumed avenger that didn’t want to end up rotting in some federal prison somewhere hung up their capes and aliases and joined respectable society. Now it’s just sad normalcy for the once burgeoning superhero community.

Except for one outlaw. Slinking in the shadows, on the trial of a murderer. One who killed another “cape.” He investigates the crime scene, gathers clues and shakes up the underworld for scuttlebutt.

He calls himself Rorschach (Haley). And he is a very dangerous man.

Someone killed The Comedian (Morgan), only one of two government sanctioned “superheroes.” A fed hitman, with connections to everything from the Vietnam Conflict to the Kennedy assassination. Another dangerous man, and possibly connected to a conspiracy that would threaten the entire nation. The Comedian, seemingly indestructible, thrown from his penthouse window.

Rorschach smells a rat, and goes on a mission to warn/interrogate other former heroes about the crime. Our dramatis personae consist of Dan Dreiberg (Wilson), formerly known as the Nite Owl, ornithology nut and one-time partner of Rorschach. Jon Osterberg, now known as the entity Dr. Manhattan (Crudup), who has godlike powers over physics and reality, and his girlfriend Laurie Juspeczyk (Ackerman), the Silk Specter, once a feared streetwise martial arts expert. And Adrian Veidt (Goode), calling himself Ozymandias, who used his heroics to build an corporate empire to rival that of Alexander the Great’s (wink wink) conquests. All of whom could be next on the cape-killer’s hitlist, and all could be suspects.

What’s more is that the Cold War is raging to the boiling point, and nuclear war seems eminent. There is pall cast across the country, a dark cloud that it seems only superheroes could remedy. But how could heroes come out of retirement if it meant federal incarceration? Should they don their capes and cowls again and band together to save the country? Or should they just watch their backs and hope they don’t meet a fate like The Comedian’s?

In any or all of these events, the clock is ticking…

The Review…

Where to start?

Okay, the plot. It’s painfully simple, right? Painfully simple, which is all but this comic series and ensuing film is. Funny thing is it’s almost impossible to give too much away about the movie for how dense it is for its 2 hour 45 minute running time. I’m actually amazed the studio heads and/or editors allowed this length. Then again, I doubt a movie could do the comic book justice in only 90 minutes. The book and the film are that inscrutable.

My take on certain points of the film is cursory at best, because there is a sickening amount of details crammed into the near three-hour running time. I’ll try to make this work. Remember, I’m not a professional movie critic. Just a loudmouth with a blog.

At its core, Watchmen is a murder mystery. All the allegory and satire is just applesauce. Very good applesauce, mind you. But try telling a neophyte the plot of Watchmen without tying up your tongue and his mind. Right.

There is a lot more going on here than my perfunctory synopsis the story. I can’t explain it all, and that is what is the most damning about this film adaptation. There is too much going on. Props for Snyder trying his hand at it. He did what no other director managed to do thus far. He managed to do what Terry Gilliam, David Hayter, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass could not. He got it on film. Not only that, but he captured the spirit of the comic quite well, if not the complexity.

There is a holy host of touches that make this movie work. The fact things work at all is practically a miracle. It feels like Snyder got into most of the heads of the readers of the series and tried to make celluloid flesh out of what the mind’s ear heard and of what the imagination piqued.

First of all, the voices are important. It’s hard to believe that the dulcet voice of Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan) that assured us for everything else, there’s MasterCard would be such an eerie complement to the omnipotent Doctor. There’s a wistful innocence and dare I say pity in Crudup’s performance that marshals up emotions that we as the audience should have for him: pity and awe. On the flipside, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach snarl was dead on for my mind’s ear. The voice of a demented, so-called hero. The monologue in the prison interview was especially effective. The dialogue was tight and didn’t seem forced or purple, which could be construed that way if delivered by a different actor.

Along with the voices was the music, especially the now-infamous Leonard Cohen romance scene. Some of these songs also appeared in the miniseries proper, also cued up and overlapped as scenes in the book as well as the screen translation. It’s nice to know the writers did their homework. Then again, all that homework might’ve hurt the film some. It’s always difficult to translate a book into a movie. Something’s always going to be either padded or jettisoned (for Watchmen it was the whole “Black Freighter” subplot, which was later and adapted for a straight-to-DVD release). But scenarists Hayter and Tse may have adhered too closely to the source material, not leaving a lot of room for cinematic interpretation. It’s one thing to see the images leap onto the screen. It’s another to have to keep turning the pages.

The sets reflect the hard, colorful angles of the nine panel pages of the original book. Everything sort of takes a kind of surrealist focus, as if to remind the audience that this is—was—not the 1985 you knew. You get the feeling that despite the heavy-handedness of the source material, Snyder’s having a lot of fun making the film. Granted the fun is dark and sometimes demented, but let’s face the truth: sometimes the best kind of fun is dangerous.

I gave up following the movie frame-by-frame along with the original comics I cracked out for the occasion by the third act. Biggest carp? The ending was racist Hollywood, and with that a lot of other stray thoughts clutter up my mind. Being beaten over the head with exacting efforts can leave one woozy.

Do any of these points sell the film for people who’ve never read the comics? Probably not. They are but touchstones of a valiant effort to bring one of the most complex, dense and literate comic books to the screen. So…

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, especially for fans of the comic book just to see the parallels play out. For non-fans? It’ll make you want to go out and read the comic book. It better.

The Musings…

  • I like the fact they got Dan Dreiberg’s hair just like it was in the comics. It’s the little details like that, which enthralls us comic book heads. We’re sometimes easy to please.
  • I wish Nixon were more of a spectral presence in the film. The ex-president only hit the pages for a few panels, and without much dialogue to boot. It was the idea of a twisted Nixon running the country that dug into most of the atmosphere of the book.
  • “I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re all locked up in here with me.”
  • Using the swinging door as Big Figure’s demise in five panels was very good camera work.
  • As with his other works adapted for the big screen, writer Alan Moore refused to be credited. Him not wanting to be credited is almost as much a thumbprint as being credited. It’s like the old riddle: try not to think about a purple octopus. Get it?
  • In the 1960’s TV sci-fi series The Outer Limits, there was an episode entitled “The Architects of Fear” where scientists plan to save Earth from nuclear war by uniting it against a manufactured alien foe. Not sure if Alan Moore ever saw this show as a kid, but it got me to wondering.

The Next Time…

We go for a Drive with Ryan Gosling.