Here’s a film I’ve been wanting to cover for a long time. Watchmen is a film that had been in development for nearly 20 years by the time Zack Snyder was able to bring it to the silver screen. In the past directors such as Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass and Terry Gilliam had all made attempts to get this film made. Gilliam even termed the comic it is based on as unfilmable. If you’ve ever read the comic you’d probably agree. The story is thick with dialogue, richly layered with subtext and has some of the strongest character writing of the 20th century. I say with no intended hyperbole that Alan Moore is one of the greatest writers of modern times and Watchmen is his work at its most complex and creatively brilliant. When I first read the comic about 15 years ago I tried to envision what a film would be like. I just could not see it. I figured that Watchmen would be better suited to a 6-8 hour TV series, but then the budget would be ridiculous. I went to see this film in the cinema on release day expecting the worst, after all… there’s been a long line of terrible adaptations of Alan Moore’s work beforehand. Click the link to find out what I think of Watchmen.
Watchmen (the film) is as close to a masterpiece as Zack Snyder is ever going to get. There, I said it. The guy has his skills and he excelled them with this work. I honestly cannot contemplate a world where Zack Snyder directs a better film than Watchmen. It’s not a masterpiece in the same sense as Tokyo Story or Chinatown are masterpieces, it’s just a masterpiece on his terms. When I was watching the director’s cut version of the film last night for the first time in ages I was struck by just how vividly shot, constructed and assembled the film is. This is an instance where a director had a very clear vision and a passion for what he was making and he did everything he could to make the absolute best film possible. I guess I should make an attempt to explain to anyone not in the know what Watchmen is about. Oh boy.
Watchmen begins with a murder. An ageing former hero known to the world as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is throw from his apartment window and winds up a human bean juice stain on the pavement below. The mystery of who killed him leads the normally quite sane and super well adjusted “hero” Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) to conclude that someone is out to kill masks. Masks being the term for crime fighting vigilantes in this alternate 1985. At this point in this version of history the cold war never ended, Nixon is still in power and the doomsday clock, a figurative countdown to mankind’s destruction, is set at 5 minutes to midnight. Another former hero named Adrian Veidt, or Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) to his fans, is an entrepreneur and all round super genius determined to solve the cold war crisis by making resources irrelevant with a free infinite power source he is developing. He is developing this with the one man in the world who actually has genuine, real life powers, and is possibly the only reason the Russians haven’t attacked, Jon Osterman, otherwise known as Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup). Dr Manhattan was created due to an accident with an intrinsic field generator that resulted in him being able to manipulate all matter and perceive his entire existence at once, all except a period of time coming soon which has him troubled.
Rorschach is hoping to enlist the help of another retired hero named Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) but he’s comfortable living his retired life. Years before the film starts Nixon had passed a bill that outlawed costumed crime fighters. Some, such as Dan, took this as a chance to live in anonymity. Rorschach never stopped. His devotion to justice, or at least his form of justice, leads to his desire to find out who killed The Comedian. As the story moves along we do not follow what you’d expect to be the path of your regular superhero film. This isn’t a film about stopping an obvious evil, at least not at first. The film is about who these people are that wear these costumes and fight crime. What motivates them, be it the need to fight injustice, because they can, because they want to save the world, because it’s the only way they can get off… or because it’s all one big joke to them. The film also tackles what it means to the world when there is an actual, near God like superhuman living among them. For a Zack Snyder film that is a hell of a lot of narrative weight to carry.
Snyder isn’t known for his skill to tackle… well, themes… at all. I mean, he’ll pretend he is but generally his films are just eye candy. I’ve always found him to be worryingly inconsistent over the year. His Dawn of the Dead remake is a visceral and occasionally brilliant slice of action horror, although I feel a lot of it’s wit comes from James Gunn’s script. That owl film… Legends of the Guardians or something, that was a solid kids film that had a handful of missteps… and I cannot fully endorse any film with Owl City on the soundtrack. 300 is mindless but does have some very interesting subtext regarding masculinity bubbling underneath. Man of Steel was visually impressive but a pretty mediocre film all round. Sucker Punch… terrible, plain old fashioned terrible. Watchmen is Zack Snyder managing to pull off all the stuff he does well, the masculinity and semi sexual subtext, the visually appealing art direction and the skill for creating what can only be described as a comic book art style. All of these factors are handled as well, or better than he ever has over his career.
What holds this film up and prevents it from being the sort of mindless nonsense Snyder is so well known for is the very strongly constructed script by David Hayter and Alex Tse. Hayter is a certified nerd who understands comics and the characters contained within better than many working in Hollywood. He had previously scribed the first 2 X-Men films. He was also The Guyver and Solid Snake so… He’s pretty awesome. His screenplay was actually described by Alan Moore himself, a man who doesn’t want his name attached to any films based on his work, as being the closest anyone could get to recreating the comic on film. When Alex Tse was brought on board a number of changes were made, the film was returned to a cold war setting and a sub-plot concerning an energy crisis was added, but this is largely Hayter’s work.
Within the film’s 3 hour runtime most of the elements that make up the rich tapestry that is Watchmen the comic are translated across well. Some people take issue with the film’s conclusion, as it changes a number of elements, but the outcome is still the same and the alternative would have required a lot of pace destroying additional scenes. Despite being largely devoted to giving us character based storytelling, not the usual focus on a film about superheroes, the pacing rarely feels as if it is faltering. Effectively the story, which is told over a period of 40 years with flashbacks to earlier generations of heroes which included the Comedian and the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), is split up into episodes. There’s no title cards but each segment is clearly devoted to one or two characters after the initial set up. At the Comedian’s funeral, for example, we see scenes from his life remembered by various former heroes attending the event. This gives us a chance to learn who the Comedian was and who our main cast are by their reactions to his actions. It’s through these scenes that we learn of what motivates Ozymandias, that Nite Owl has a idealistic view of crime fighting, we also see what role he played in Vietnam alongside Dr Manhattan and in the process learn of Manhattan’s dwindling compassion towards humanity. Later flashbacks reveal incidences in The Comedian’s life that show just how unsavoury a character he was. His relationship to the first Silk Spectre being a strong sticking point with her daughter Laurie (Malin Ackerman) who took up the mantle of Silk Spectre in the 70s.
Whilst it is fair to say that these flashbacks can occasionally result in a stuttering of the film’s pacing, especially as a number happen with 20 minutes of the film’s start, they all enrich the universe and characters in a way that never makes them feel like a waste of time. One surprising element of the film is Snyder’s eye for satire. I really wouldn’t have expected it of him but he seems to know how to play up certain scenes to provoke a wry smile. Particularly the post hero action sexy escapades of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre. A lot of this was in the comics but Snyder clearly understood what they meant to the story and how a little moment of humour is what you need from time to time to remind you that you’re watching a story about men who dress up in tights.
The opening montage conveys this especially well with various moments from the history of this world and how they parallel ours. This montage is set to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ as we see heroes hanging with David Bowie and Mick Jagger at the height of their stardom. We see the downfall of the original heroes, known as the Minutemen. We see historical events shifted a little into this reality. The montage is shot in slow motion which gradually increases in speed until it hits a normal pace as the timeline reaches the film’s setting of 1985. This sequence does an admirable job of getting you into the frame of mind needed for the dark, violent and structurally complex film that lies ahead.
Snyder’s visual style is al over Watchmen. Some may see that as a bad thing, what with his love of chroma key, virtual sets and excessive slow motion. Luckily Watchmen uses a lot more actual sets with only the exteriors of of two locations being largely virtual. There’s a lot of computer generated imagery, some of which doesn’t work such as the usual culprit that is CGI blood, but generally the look and feel has a lot more of a textural and tangible feel than anything he’s made other than Dawn of the Dead. He utilises his favourite slow motion from time to time but, thankfully, not to the degree 300 and Sucker Punch did. It’s really only used to highlight a few comic book poses here and there. What really adds to the films rich visuals is the set design. It has to be among some of the best displayed on this sort of film in years. The amount of detail in the Comedian’s apartment at the film’s open is incredible in itself. There’s tiny details such as pictures of the original Silk Spectre, fertility statues, copies of Hustler, along with expensive items of luxury brought off the back of less than scrupulous work he’s done for the government. To look over the set in detail would likely tell you everything about The Comedian. Which is what a great set will do.
The cast do a fine job of carrying their roles. Patrick Wilson is spot on as the awkward and idealistic Dan Dreiberg. Jeffrey Dean Morgan appears to effortlessly play the most charming arsehole to have ever existed. Jackie Earle Haley gained a lot of praise for his portrayal of Rorscach, which actually creeped me out a little on first viewing because, and I’m not lying, that voice was exactly what I would have in my head when reading the comic book. Turns out it was the voice Alan Moore had too, which I discovered when I saw him reading pages of Watchmen on BBC 2’s the Culture Show. Personally I feel as if Billy Crudup deserves more praise for his work as Dr Manhattan. He performed the role on set wearing a mo-cap suit fitted with masses of blue lights so he would give off the otherworldly glow described in the comics. He plays the role with such a serene calm in his voice, an almost total lack of emotion, but keep an eye on his expressions because they tell the true story. The Dr Manhattan effect is a genuinely ground breaking piece of work that is handled with more nuance that even Smeagol in Lord of the Rings.
In the end Watchmen isn’t a film that everyone will connect with. It’s long, the story is told in a near anthology like structure with its constant zipping back and forth through time and there is actually quite little action for what the film would appear to be to most people. What it is though is a careful study of who a hero can be, or would be. What makes up these people. How a world could be effected by a man with superhuman power. There’s a lot to take in but every moment of Watchmen is committed to adding layer upon layer of depth to this world. Yes, you could argue that the murder mystery element gets shoved out of the main focus at times, but in its place is something equally as interesting. It seems strange and wrong to say this, but somehow Zack Snyder was able to do what Gilliam, Aronofsky and Greengrass were unable to, he was able to make the unfilmable film… and do it well.