Watchmen (2009)

Director: Zack Snyder

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By Roderick Heath

And lo, there was Alan Moore, bearded, cranky god of the graphic novel. Moore’s totemic work had an instant effect on all the other comic book artists of the late ’80s and ’90s: suddenly every one of them seemed to have recurring pop images turned into grim symbols; digressive, associative story flow; purple passages; and sadistic antiheroes. Watching Watchmen, I felt locked in a time capsule of the cyberpunk geek culture I grew up with. Still, I’ve always been a bit cynical then about the actual level of depth and sophistication of the “graphic novel.” Nothing I’ve ever come across has actually struck me as rivalling Thomas Mann, if you dig my drift. Moore’s habit of having his cake and eating it, in filling his pages with excruciating violence, sexual peccadilloes, and general dinginess, whilst complaining about how much of all that stuff there is in our culture, is hardly sacrosanct. In any event, Zack Synder’s super-sized effort to film Moore’s most lauded work is both an impressive film and a fascinating failure. It lurches onto the screen disjointed, riddled with digressions that replicate Moore’s experimental style, which expanded his own medium, but are unwieldy when translated into cinematic technique. The film is the product of a prodigy steeped in, not intellectually concerned with, his own medium. The plot lacks propulsion, and the finale builds to a supposedly troubling, morally ambiguous finale barely discernable from any other comic book climax: heroes confront villain with preposterous scheme, with the twist that they don’t exactly save the day, and what exactly constitutes saving the day is left questionable.

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Amongst Watchmen’s many peculiarities is that, in essence, it’s a set of character sketches in the guise of a tale of Fu Manchu-scale supervillainy. Although it goes somewhere eventually, that’s not half as interesting as puzzling out the contradictory nature of The Comedian, actual name Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a nihilistic creep more than superhero, or absorbing the inhuman perspective of Jon “Dr. Manhattan” Osterman (Billy Crudup, much CGI-ed), the divided soul of Laurie “Silk Spectre” Jupiter (Malin Akerman), and the multiple varieties of impotence suffered by Dan “Nite Owl” Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson). It all sounds like a sketch show gag: I recall comedian Alexei Sayle’s skit of a Superman movie directed by Ken Loach, where Jor-El’s skills still can’t get him a job.

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But Watchmen has bigger fish to fry than mere parody: it’s engaged and entranced with, as well as troubled by, the idea of the superhero. Behind the drama is a mock-pantheon of traditions and predecessors, spanning the devil-may-care ’40s to the vicious mores of the mid ’80s. The inventive opening credits lay out this lore, with the original “Minutemen” resembling the naff heroes of classic serials, whilst tweaking history with amusing verve, from one of the older heroines, Silhouette, taking the place of the sailor in pashing the girl in Alfred Eisenstadt’s Times Square VJ-Day snap, to The Comedian assassinating Kennedy. After The Comedian is hurled from his apartment window by a masked assailant, his former confederates in the Watchmen, a now-banned paramilitary enforcement group, face a nagging threat: is someone out to destroy them? And why? Haven’t they all been banned by fourth-term President Richard Nixon and no concern to anyone?

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Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), both the craziest of the group as well as being, in a perverted way, its conscience, feels they are all targeted. He’s still pursuing his bent (a little too Travis Bickle-esque), driven by intense personal demons, whilst Dan has settled into thickening blandness. Dr. Manhattan is shacked up on an army base with girlfriend Laurie, but drifting ever further away from a human identity, and Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt (Matthew Goode), the world’s smartest and richest man, is driving toward a world-saving idea with Manhattan’s aid. Doomsday seems imminent, with the U.S. and Soviet Union close to nuclear annihilation. Dan aids Rorschach in warning the other Watchmen and calling them together for The Comedian’s funeral: they each have intense, telling memories of their most amoral companion. His love of naked violence, which stretched from trying to rape Laurie’s mother, Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), the first Silk Spectre, to gunning down protesters and his own pregnant Vietnamese girlfriend, seemed to mark him as an unredeemable psychopath. Yet another man soon emerges in the happier associations Sally has with him and his utterly uncharacteristic crying fit in front of a former enemy (Matt Frewer), shortly before his death.

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Most of the Watchmen have questionable motives. The Comedian did repressive work for the government, and Manhattan casually obeyed Nixon’s request to win the Vietnam War. Most immediately sympathetic are Laurie, who felt pressured to follow her mother’s footsteps, despite the fact it left Sally alcoholic, isolated, and haunted by memory and Dan, for whom crime fighting was a liberating experience, and who pays tribute to the noble tradition he sees himself as having inherited by spending time with his predecessor, the first Nite Owl (Stephen McHattie). Dan and Laurie’s love affair (once she gives up trying to keep Manhattan rooted to earth) is the centrepiece of the film, both its most traditional aspect and its cheekiest riff. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) tickled the edge of the sexual fetishism latent in the genre, where the more recent Nolan-Bale Batman films avoided it entirely by making Batman a kind of asexual monk given to using supermodels as beards. But Snyder via Moore goes for gold: Dan can’t get it up for Laurie until they finally suit up, Dan in his rubber muscles and Laurie in skin-hugging leather stocking-boots; they venture out into the night and save some people from a fire, then it’s peeling off the latex and banging in his flame-spitting balloon of lurv; the film gains a genuinely sexy punch in a triumph of adolescent fantasy.

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Dr. Manhattan also identifies a dirty, if more subtle secret of the genre: like Superman, he’s not actually a human being—at least, not anymore. Having been caught in a nuclear accident and able to manipulate matter, space, and time, Manhattan finally shoots off to Mars for a spot of meditation and misanthropy after he’s victimised for seeming to cause cancer in some of his loved ones. He builds something not unlike the Fortress of Solitude and ponders whatever it is a man who now exists as a field of subatomic particles ponders. His state demands the question of why a being with superhuman powers would continue to act in a fashion like a standard-issue homo sapiens, including attachment to ideals of justice and compassion that have merely human roots. Manhattan becomes godlike, but rejects the notion: “I don’t think there is a God,” he states at one point, “Or if there is, he’s nothing like me.”

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And at the low end of the totem pole, Rorschach, framed and imprisoned, is the superhero as right-wing, vigilante psychotic—Bruce Wayne without the glamor, only the demimonde’s leaking outrage. He narrates a tale to the prison psychiatrist of once locating and butchering a child murderer as a way of illustrating what it is that drives him. As he soon proves with his fellow inmates, the only real difference between him and the most loathsome of them is that his savagery is aimed specifically at whomever he sees as a villain.

Call me a tool of imperialist brainwashing, but I found Watchmen best when it gave in to its disreputable impulses. When Laurie and Dan go in for a prison break of Rorschach (who hardly needs rescuing), it’s because they, like me in the audience, think it’s time for a bit of action—peace is boring. Snyder is a born action director, and he hits his stride in this crazed sequence, where Laurie and Dan’s delight in breaking bones and splitting skin is mirrored by Rorschach’s even less-principled ruthlessness turned on the midget gang boss who had intended revenge on Rorschach for having him imprisoned. Arms are sawed off, skulls cracked on toilets, men electrocuted. It’s well pitched to both thrill and inspire cringing. Earlier, when Dan and Laurie, in their civilian guises, are assaulted by a street gang, they leave the gang shattered, deftly underlining the fact that the Watchmen are actually lethal weapons lacking the well-parsed philosophical principles of the heroes of any western or wu xia film: they’re more dangerous than any villains, in their way, an idea that the story eventually takes to the nth degree.

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Snyder doesn’t elide Moore’s specific, posthippie radical dissatisfaction with the Reagan-era zeitgeist, a portrait of 1985 as a cocoon of reactionary fantasy surrounded by terrors. This is a large part of both the enthusiasm and dread people had for the film: the graphic novel is an alt-culture artefact brought to screen by the organisations that serve up fascistic entertainment blithely. Snyder plays up the ’60s bent behind it by loading the soundtrack with (rather too obviously, but brilliantly recorded) peacenik-era anthems, whilst generally resisting rendering the tale as antique. Otherwise Snyder, though close as a remora to the source, desires to deliver an epic, thought-provoking but still essentially generic action-adventure film. The comic probably would have found its most accurate director in Alex Cox, an artist from the same milieu with the same intellectual bent, and sense of humor as Moore.

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Snyder’s weaknesses are that he has little independent wit and no touch for the interpersonal. Scenes that ought to be nuanced and weighty, such as Laurie and Sally’s loaded confrontations, end up cheesy and unconvincing. The finale is somehow sterile. Where it begs for riotous, apocalyptic consummation, never before, ironically, has an act of mass-murder seemed less important. Ozymandias blows up a large portion of New York to make people think Manhattan has appointed himself God and force the world to make peace for fear of destruction—which Manhattan eventually agrees with, to the point of exterminating Rorschach rather than letting him tell the truth about Ozymandias’ deed. It’s a pretty torturous plan if you ask me, a cheap metaphor for the nuclear deterrent, as well as evoking the conclusion of the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). And yet it’s also just a bunch of guys in funny costumes thumping each other on a kitschy set.

Despite this shrivelled conceptual core, Watchmen conjures a vast and vivid fantasy realm for much of its length. Snyder’s mise en scène is restlessly inventive. The good, surprisingly lowkey cast helps. Haley is a grizzled powerhouse as Rorschach; Wilson, one of Hollywood’s least vain actors, perfectly embodies a guy who’s a dweeb out of costume and a terror in it; and Goode’s Ozymandias channels David Bowie as a faintly alien pretty boy with barely any actual love for the race he wants to save. Even the much abused Akerman isn’t actually any worse than most of the comely starlets around at the moment: she’s solid enough a corporeal presence to work as a sinuous ass-kicking femme fatale, but also blearily innocent. Flawed and misshapen, Watchmen is still one of the most worthwhile large-budget films of recent years.

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    16th/03/2009 to 2:09 am

    This has to be one of the most reliable write-ups I’ve seen on Watchmen yet, Roderick.
    I saw the movie this weekend. I have no connection to comic books, yet I was supremely disappointed, for most of the reasons you mentioned.
    I could have used a lot less plot device and geopolitical commentary and seen the story invest me in its characters and themes.
    Dan and Laurie flying around in the owl mobile came close to the gee-whiz of the Star Wars films.
    The rest: I can really do without these neo noirs with the rain and the urban decay and the loner on the edge. I can’t believe someone would write that shit, but I guess back in 1985, Alan Moore did. Ugh.
    Jackie Earle Haley is the man. Damn shame about the movie though.

  • Rod spoke:
    16th/03/2009 to 4:46 am

    Well you sound like you hated it, Joe, where I enjoyed it despite the faults.
    But I know exactly where you’re coming from about the rain/noir/loser stuff. In ’80s comic culture that became the definition of edgy and cool and since the likes of Se7en and more recently Sin City (both of which I do hate) we seem cursed to have to put up with that adolescent’s-concept-of-noir style a lot more in movies.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    16th/03/2009 to 7:04 am

    “Flawed and misshapen, Watchmen is still one of the most worthwhile large-budget films of recent years.”
    Well gentlemen, I take that final summary judgement here from Mr. Heath as being a general validation of the film. I must agree with Rod, as this film was sweepingly operatic, existential and suggestive, and despite the inherent and inevitable flaws, it is indeed one of the most “watchable” films in this genre.
    Of course, this fantastically exhaustive review is a true marvel, whether you like the film or not.

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