This one lends itself to some indulgence. When I was a kid, my uncle Steve had two graphic novels on his bookshelf that I was told I was too young to read. They were Sandman: The Doll's House and Watchmen. To say I was curious about these books is an understatement on par with saying I am only a little bit cooler than my friend Linus. Truth be told, I often snuck glances at their pages when no one was looking. And the imagery I saw, of a man with mouths for eyes, a man in green claiming he was not a person but rather a place, a man in blue walking around stark naked, a hardboiled-detective-looking-dude with ink blots on his mask, and, of course, a happy face pin smeared with a single drop of blood... this imagery triggered my imagination in ways few other books - among them The Dark Knight Returns - had ever done. I was dying to read them. And on my thirteenth birthday, my uncle Steve gave me a present. It was Watchmen.
Oh! To say I was overwhelmed is like saying I'm only slightly handsomer than Linus. I felt like an adult! I felt like I'd graduated to some next level of comic book maturity (though by this point I'd actually already read Dark Knight Returns and - believe it or not - The Killing Joke, which even I admit I shouldn't have read at that age, but which I also admit HUGELY influenced the artist, writer, and reader I am today). I tore through Watchmen like it was ice cream, alternately perplexed and awed (you know, just like I am with ice cream). Some part of me was no doubt frustrated by the long interstitial segments comprised of psych files, excerpts from books, essays written by the characters, and articles on fictional comic books. There is no way I could have realistically known what I was reading. But I knew that it changed my world. I knew that this book was telling a story in a way I'd never seen before, and even at that age I knew what I was reading was awesome.
Here was a superhero story in which there were no superheroes save one. Where costumed crime fighters were simply that: ordinary people who just liked dressing in costumes and fighting crime. Where the state of geopolitics had been completely changed by the arrival of a true superhero, the god-like Dr. Manhattan, and so the United States won in Vietnam, and Nixon was in his fifth term as president. Where in light of the moral gray area in which these costumed adventurers existed between crime fighters and vigilantes, the government had banned masks, and forced the nation's superheroes into retirement. And all had complied but one: the ethically ambiguous Rorschach, whose mask was comprised of ever-changing ink blots. Now the murder of one of their crew, the cynical, sinister Comedian, had driven Rorschach to uncover the identity of the person he believed to be "pickin' off costumed heroes."
To understand why Watchmen was so revolutionary, it's important to consider the state of comic books in the mid 1980s, when the book came out. For author Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons to take the stereotypical comic book superhero and essentially set him in the real world was groundbreaking. If there really was a Batman-type character out there, what would he be like? What sort of person dresses up and goes out at night to hunt criminals? A nutjob, that's the sort. What sort of man dresses up like an owl and goes on adventures in the first place? The sort of man who is literally impotent without that costume and that sense of purpose. What would it mean if there really was a Superman in the world? And, perhaps the biggest question of all, is a superhero still a hero if in order to save billions he must murder millions?
And there it is. It was a questioning and revising of the entire concept of the superhero, of what it means to be a hero at all. And it didn't simply impact the mood and subject matter of almost every comic book made since, it also manages, to this day, to affect how one reads the traditional comic books that came before it. One can no longer look at Silver Age Batman without considering the implications of his nocturnal predilections. And to read a comic book these days, very nearly any comic book, yes, even that one, is to see the influence of Watchmen. From the darkness to the grittiness to the self-consciousness and tongue-in-cheekness of an entire culture aware of the deeper meanings of what they are reading and writing and drawing. Most who have never read Watchmen or who read it late in the game take these things for granted. But that self-awareness wasn't there before, not at all like it is now. You can even see its influence on other forms of popular media. The writers of Lost cite the book as one of their main influences, and to watch the show, with its shapeshifting narrative structure and flashbacks within flashbacks, it's easy to see why.
Long thought unfilmable, Watchmen has finally made it to the big screen by way of Zach Snyder, director of 300, and writer David Hayter, who fought for nearly a decade to defend the faithfulness of the screenplay against studio notes that sought to turn it into, you know, something people would "get".
(As a side note, it never ceases to fascinate me, this song and dance, this tug of war, between the artist and the producer, one struggling to bring something new into the world, the other struggling to shape that something into something they think will appeal to what they perceive as their audience. Both thinking themselves in the right. I pretty clearly tend to side with the artist, seeing as producers and executives have a much flimsier track record of contributing anything of true originality or meaning to the world. Still, I speak as someone who loves a lot of mainstream entertainment, and works in movie advertising, so I think I have the ability to see both sides.)
And, what's the verdict? In all honesty, I believe it to be about as great an adaptation of Watchmen as fans of the book can ever expect to see.
What it gets right - the aesthetic, the mood, and, to a T, the character of Rorschach, who was always my favorite - it NAILS.
What it gets wrong - Richard Nixon, the casting of world's smartest man Ozymandias, the revelation of who's behind it all - it screws up like a goofy junior high basketball player attempting a Globetrotters-style move during the big game.
As a viewer, it's difficult to distance myself from the book I know so well, that Moby-Dick or Blood Meridian of graphic novels. And so there are compositions in the book that I've loved for years, and when I see them in the movie, and they set the camera just a little bit too far to the left, I sit there thinking "Noooo!!!! It was sooo perfect in the book!!!"
The flip side of the experience was the pure thrill of seeing characters, images, and stories with which I'd essentially grown up on the big IMAX screen looking and feeling a LOT like what I'd seen and felt while reading the book. And so watching the movie was a hugely nostalgic experience that took me back to when I was thirteen. A scene would pop up and I'd think to myself, "Yeeeaaaahhhhh!!!! They got it!!!" or I'd reminisce about how the sex scene in this movie was the first sex scene I'd ever read in a comic book, or I'd be struck by how certain sections of the film were affecting me in the same way those sections of the book did. Certain characters or parts were always more engaging to me. than others And anytime Rorschach or Dr. Manhattan were on screen, the movie had me completely, so that I was no longer comparing and contrasting, or considering alternatives. I was along for the ride.
There are no words to describe what Jackie Earle Haley has done with Rorschach. He is nothing short of a revelation, and if by the late Heath Ledger the precedent has been set that an actor can win an Academy Award for playing a comic book role, then let's begin the grassroots campaign in support of Haley now, lest his achievement be forgotten come Oscar season. He and Dr. Manhattan, and their conflicting ideologies, have always been at the heart of Watchmen, and in Haley the film scored its greatest victory. There isn't a flaw in his performance. He has taken a character that could have been arch or campy or unintentionally funny and made him brutal, vicious, insane, and yet broken, wounded, and perhaps the person with the most conviction in the entire film. The film is worth seeing if only for him.
Much has been said about Malin Akerman's performance as Laurie Jupiter, but, in all honesty, I didn't mind it. It's true she didn't carry the same gravitas as heavyweights like Jackie Earle Haley or Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, but she holds her own, and she's sexy as hell. No, for me the weak link was Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt, AKA Ozymandias, the smartest man in the world. A man who has trained himself to physical perfection and has become so fast he can literally catch a bullet. As portrayed in the comic book, Adrian is believable as an entrepreneur whose aims in his mind justify whatever means necessary and whose confidence and arrogance and ego does not, somehow, preclude a sort of devious charisma. To watch Goode is a bit like watching a decent actor on an off day, in a role in which he was miscast. The man is too slender, too young, too one-note to pull off the character.
Further items of inexplicability include the curious last-reel introduction of Bubastis, Veidt's genetically engineered lynx, whose purpose in the book is to set up the ending, which has been changed for the purposes of the film so to render the cat's presence more confusing than anything else. It's hard to fathom why, in a film that looks and feels as good as this does, in a film that cost as much as this did, anyone thought it a good idea to, rather than casting an actor who looked or acted like Nixon, instead cover a man's face with some of the worst prosthetic makeup this reviewer has ever seen, so that the actor didn't resemble Nixon so much as he resembled a villain from Dick Tracy. One wonders also why, in a film whose entire point is that wearing a costume does not give a person superpowers, the powers that be would give the primary characters the ability to pull off Matrix-style action choreography, punch through brick walls, fly across rooms and smash into stone statues without breaking bones. It's enough to confound many audience members, who, never having read the book, will doubtless leave the theater not having realized that there is, in fact, only one superhero in the whole movie, and that everyone else is just a normal person.
One crucial scene involves retired crimefighter Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) and Laurie Jupiter taking on a gang of thugs in a dark alley. Where in the book the scene is about them rediscovering their skills as well as their love of adventuring, in the film they simply engage the thugs and proceed to dispatch each in self-assured methods of escalating violence and awesomeness. It's a terrific scene that nevertheless misses the point of the original.
I'd have to watch the movie again to see whether Snyder worked in any of the signature stylistic or structural elements of the book. For instance, the chapter "Fearful Symmetry" begins with a panel that mirrors the last panel in the chapter, and each subsequent panel mirrors its counterpart at the end until they meet in the middle of the chapter in a wicked-cool two-page splash of eight perfectly symmetrical panels, each of which mirrors its counterpart on the facing page. No doubt some of that is up on screen, waiting to be picked out. There is no way one viewing of this film can reveal all its secrets. That said, while many will complain about the length, I felt instead what was missing, and long now for the extended director's cut.
This is a rare film. A big-budget superhero movie that appeals not to the lowest common denominator but rather to the thoughtfulness inside us all. It's poetic, intelligent, dense, exciting, violent, sexy, and heartbreaking. Not a perfect film, and not even a perfect adaptation of Watchmen. But it still stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of what else is out there, and to miss seeing it in the theater would be to deny yourself a truly awesome filmgoing experience.