[One of the things the comic book fans are talking about after the Watchmen movie is what will it look like to someone who never read the comic? Most of us are able to help it along a bit, with our knowledge of the comic book, adding layers of stuff to what is not really earned -- the embrace between the news vendor and his costumer during the blast for example. So I thought it would be fun to run this review.]
Before starting I think it’s first necessary to inform any and all readers that I had not even heard of this Watchmen thing before trailers and hype started spreading throughout the internet like an unstoppable epidemic. Within a few months, the mass hysteria over the greatness that was to premier in theaters in March of 2009 was a little too annoying to ignore, so I researched it and discovered that Watchmen is actually a graphic novel by Alan Moore that most comic book readers put up on a pedestal right next to Halo and God. The novel involves colorful characters in costumes going around fighting crime and a secret plot against them all (according to Wikipedia). My reaction: so? It sounded to me like a typical, clichéd, stereotypical crime fighting story with nothing particularly interesting about it except for the fact that it takes place in an “alternate” 1985, where Richard Nixon still rules (I didn’t make that up). Despite my own personal questions about it, Watchmen apparently doesn’t have the same effect on most people, who revere it with the utmost loyalty and have been salivating over the film since it was announced. Naturally, I had to know what all the fuss was all about. I haven’t read the comic, like I mentioned before, but I did feel obliged to get in on the secret that everyone in the world except me seemed to know and go see the movie.
First impressions were positive. It’s always a good thing when a movie can completely dash all doubts about the stupidity of its setting right out of the starting gate. The film opens with a beautiful flashy montage showing the development of alternate history in which it takes place along with the opening credits that made me completely forget about its implausibility and pulled me into the story’s setting quite well. I was impressed. Good job, so far, Watchmen.
Then it goes south.
The story begins with the murder of a former superhero, who gets thrown out of a window by some guy dressed like a rejected version of the Joker. A fight preludes the death that’s complete with slow motion dramatics and loud sounds to cue hit points. It turns out that, according to Rorschach, a vigilante with a shape-shifting mask and the personality of that recently-divorced guy at the bar, has the feeling that there’s an underlying conspiracy to get rid of all former superheroes, who have been outlawed (think The Incredibles if they ended up in a Grand Theft Auto game). This sets off a chain of stories which are essentially all interconnecting origin stories that lead up to about an hour of present time “saving the world” stuff. There’s a blue God guy named Dr. Manhattan (I’m assuming that’s a really, really bad and obvious allusion to the Manhattan Project), this Batman wannabe who isn’t cool enough for bats so he dresses like an owl, a girl who wears the suit from Kill Bill, and maybe another one or two that were lost in the shuffle of goofiness that is the Watchmen.
Now comes the inevitable criticism, and it really stems from one thing: tone. Watchmen is a movie about guys who dress up in very, very colorful costumes and is supposed to deal with superheroes in the “real world,” which in itself is an oxymoron. It’s hard to take the film as seriously as it wants us to when you have giant blue penises swinging around and “Hallelujah” blaring when one of the heroes finally gets it up after saving people from a burning building. Add that in with the fact that it doesn’t even take place in the real world, it takes place in an “alternate” world, which again takes away the suspension of disbelief. The film tries to mix things that look like pieces of a MadTV skit or a Saturday morning cartoon with downright seriousness, something that was attempted before in Spider-Man 3, and look how well that turned out. If you’re going to try and put your superhero in a realistic setting (um…The Dark Knight) then make it a realistic superhero, not a giant fu*king God-like being who’s practically unbeatable and has a summer house on fu*king Mars!
The acting isn’t very good, and jumps around from overacting to underacting. For example, when Dr. Manhattan goes from a geeky scientist to blue Mr. Clean, he steps into some giant machine to get back his watch (Watchmen, get it?), he gets locked in, and the two scientists behind the glass window practically shrug their shoulders, showing very little, if any, dread for what’s about to happen. What the hell is the point of that machine, anyway? Does it have a practical purpose besides turning people blue? Then, later on, you have the Shakespearean overacting, like from Rorschach. I know he’s a moral absolutist and sees the world in black and white, but seriously, dude, you’re wearing the Invisible Man’s outfit and killing people with hairspray torches, crack a joke once in a while!
I hear an expression sometimes when I ask people if they liked a particularly movie: “It’s good…if you’re into that sort of thing.” I can’t think of any better way to describe this film than that phrase. Watchmen is a movie for people who like Watchmen the graphic novel. Just like U2-3D is a movie for people who love U2. I have no doubt that it remains faithful to its source material considering it runs longer than it takes to actually read most books these days; I don’t see how they could’ve left anything of significance out. It feels like it goes on forever, with the stories all winding down to a single 40-minute climax that would’ve been better suited for a mini-series on the SciFi channel.
Watchmen isn’t bad. It has enough action to keep you entertained, the effects may not be dazzling but they do the job, and Rorschach carries the film fairly well when the other characters don’t. Unfortunately it’s bogged down by its contradictory intentions, its silliness mixed with staidness, its confusing back stories and its unacceptable length. This results in what is no more than an average movie for those who aren’t already in love with its source. There’s nothing particularly horrible about it, but nothing great either. Most of the themes explored have been explored in movies many times over (this includes its ending, which really lacks any emotional gravity) and the effects aren’t anything revolutionary. If you love the original graphic novel, then I have a strong feeling you’ll love the film as well. To us, the mainstream, it’s just another super hero movie, but the people who worshipped the novel over 20 years ago I think will be satisfied by what it has to offer, and that it acts as a perfect companion to any previously established Watchmen collection. For the rest of us, it’s been there, done that, with nothing new to bring to the table.
Running time: 2 hours 43 minutes (there was a misprint at the movie theater I went to that read 1 hour and 43 minutes…imagine my bladder’s surprise)
[Some things I found interesting about this review: the observation that the plot is perfectly normal for a superhero book, seeing the Comedian as similar to the Joker, the fact that the movie makes you think of other movies in the shadow of Watchmen such as the Incredibles, and the notion that the oft quoted observation that this is what superheroes would be like in the real world is not quite right. I made a small edit to this post that is discussed in the comments.]