So much of the criticism and praise of Watchmen centers on the dilemma of adapting the acclaimed source material. Many deem the original graphic novel “unfilmable,” others disagree. Theaters are overstuffed with the baggage that everyone brings to the film’s viewing experience: Can it live up to my expectations? What will be different? Why did Snyder choose to ignore this element? After years of near-shame for having never read Watchmen, I’m now almost proud of the fact because I don’t have to deal with the baggage. I can watch the film and just think of it as a film. My thoughts on the movie are by no means quintessential, but I feel that, in a way, I’ve watched a different film than half the people out there. That’s the film I’ll review.
Say what you will about Zack Snyder’s almost perverted obsession with slow-motion (or the back-and-forth speed changes he always employs), but he cleverly uses it to his advantage in the film’s opening sequence, a fight between an unknown criminal and the down-and-out hero, the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who looks so much like Robert Downey Jr. that I heard little kids claim that Iron Man was in Watchmen). Instead of setting the glossy fight sequence to thumping techno beats, it’s instead accompanied by the song “Unforgettable.” Not only does the music inject the scene with irony, it also turns the fight into a dance—almost a waltz. The speed changes have a rhythm and a purpose. Every step, counter-step, shove, missed punch, flip, and slam is just part of this dance sequence.
Watchmen follows this up with another of the film’s strongest scenes: a just-too-lengthy credit sequence that takes us through the modern history of this parallel universe, showing the Watchmen and their predecessors, the Minutemen, changing the course of events (and sometimes keeping them on track). The sequence is brilliant as a sort of wax museum of an alternate reality, even if it begins to feel a little Forrest Gump-ish as it plops fictitious characters next to historical figures. Many incarnations of Superman have him fighting wars against aliens and threats to humanity, but usually shying away from the petty inter-human conflicts that lead to our own wars. The Watchmen, however, seem to have no problem helping the U.S. government out of these sticky situations. In a spectacular sequence, we see the godlike Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) towering over Vietnam, combusting humans as helicopters lead the charge and the Comedian blazes enemies down below. It’s a change in history that makes total sense, given the nature of the situation and the willingness of many characters to compromise any morals (more on that later). This alternate reality also has Nixon as president in 1985, serving his fifth term. It’s intriguing, but the caricature of him that the film rolls out is uninteresting and tonally inconsistent. Maybe I had to be alive when this guy was in office to really “get it.”
The Watchmen, as we starts off, are no more, and the film touches on a little bit of a backstory of why. There’s mention of a law to ban “masks,” and in flashbacks we see rioters with signs that read, “Who Watches the Watchmen?” The words are there, but that sense of distrust when it comes to the city’s superheroes was never quite palpable to me. This could be because the disbanding of the Watchmen happened too long ago, but regardless, I do wish the reasons were explored a little further. Could it be because of heroes like the Comedian, whose moral compass is so out of whack it may as well not exist? Is a “hero” who plugs the woman who claims to be pregnant with his child really a hero at all? Why do the Watchmen need watching?
Thing is, I’m okay with the film holding some of these things back. I don’t need to know everything that happened. This is a retired bunch of superheroes, and I enjoyed the process of learning who they once were, little by little, bit by bit. Sometimes leaving me wanting more is a good thing.
The story is selective when it comes to telling character backstories, and it usually chooses the characters who, in the present, just aren’t nearly as interesting as others. That’s why we barely get a backstory on Rorschach; played by Jackie Earle Haley, he’s the most interesting guy here. We do, however, get a lot of exposure to the past of Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II (Malin Åkerman), because in the present, as far as I can tell, she’s pretty much just a beautiful woman who can fight really well in tights. That’s not all that interesting, so Watchmen throws in the story of her alcoholic mother, the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino). There’s also Dr. Manhattan, who, for a glowing, ever-nude, brilliant being, is pretty darn boring. I think I was less interested in his robotic musing and more interested in counting how many times Zack Snyder would willingly show the character’s penis on screen (I lost count), which is why it was a bit of a relief to eventually learn how Manhattan came to be (the backstory is only slightly more interesting than the character himself).
Despite such shortcomings, I still found myself enraptured well into the film. The comic book action surprisingly doesn’t overwhelm, partially because most of it is seen through flashbacks. I often felt as though I was watching a character piece similar to Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998). That film observed characters counting down the handful of hours they have left until the end of the world. The choices they make in how they would like to spend those last moments prove to be riveting without using any sort of Armageddon spectacles as a crutch. Most of Watchmen plays similarly. With the Doomsday clock ticking closer to midnight, the Earth is faced with the seemingly imminent possibility of an all-out nuclear war. The difference between Watchmen and Last Night is that these characters must eventually choose whether to prevent or allow the catastrophic climactic event.
A film that seeks to be about characters will eventually buckle if those characters lack depth, and that’s what happens with Watchmen. Dr. Manhattan’s backstory comes so late in the film, and his character is so unappealingly dull that by the time he makes decisions significant to his character, the Watchmen, and the world, all impact is lost. I simply didn’t care anymore, and the same can be said regarding a villain who just doesn’t get enough exposure (speaking of which, just because a mastermind villain withholds minor details of his ultimate scheme, claiming that he’s “not stupid enough to give the whole plan away,” doesn’t make it okay to have him conveniently reveal everything else in a long expository speech).
The film chooses to become more plot-driven in its final act, and ironically, that’s when it loses steam. Instead of giving us more human developments to chew on, we have to stay with the film as it tries to unite characters who were branched off due to story obligations. Through most of the film, the visuals complement the story and the characters. Near the conclusion, when there’s little mystery left (character or plot), the visuals unfortunately are the story and characters. Final sequences and fights that are supposed to be the most meaningful and invigorating feel flat, lifeless, and underwhelming.
Without knowing anything about the graphic novel, the film I saw was one with interest and potential, but also one that eventually gave in to genre expectations. Watchmen, despite containing moments and sequences that will linger with me for a very long time, is just not a complete film, and that frustrates me.
Jonathan Pacheco is a current web developer and future freelance writer. He blogs and reviews films at Bohemian Cinema.