Its hard to remember a film Ive anticipated as intensely as Watchmen.
From its first rumor and then its original trailer I was hooked. The reason for my passion was two-fold.
First was my infatuation with the source material. Watchmen is a 12-part comic mini-series written by acclaimed author Alan Moore. It imagines superheroes and costumed crime-fighters in the real world. We see masked avengers with neuroses and psychological problems. We also see heroes bumping up against historical events. During the Red Scare of the early 50s heroes are called before congressional committees to be questioned about any communist ties. And world history is drastically changed when the all but omnipotent superhero Dr. Manhattan gives the US a strategic advantage in the Cold War. And most interesting for me, we see heroes as representative of different conflicting political and philosophical ideologies. (See my recent Front Page Magazine article on this subject.)
Second, I had good reason to suspect that this story with all its exhilarating complexities and intellectual challenges would make it to the big screen and not be dumbed-down for mass market consumption. Its director was to be Zack Snyder, who previously had tremendous success faithfully adapting a comic book with 2007's 300. Snyder realized that comics were practically storyboards for films and that success could be had by just filming the comic panel for panel. Could he have the same success with Watchmen as he did with 300?
The answer is a clear yes. Watchmen is a new peak in the superhero genre, every bit as good and perhaps better than its cousin The Dark Knight. It should please both zealous fans of the comic like myself and those entering with a clean slate.
The story begins in 1985 with murder. Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan,) better known as the government-sponsored, costumed hero the Comedian, is murdered. Thrown from his apartment on one of the top floors of a skyscraper, his dead body and his trademark smiley face pin, now bloodstained, are discovered by his old superhero team member Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley,) a still-active vigilante who continues his crime-fighting even though such activities were criminalized in 1977 with the passage of the Keene Act.
Rorschach is an example of the detective superhero. Wearing a trench coat and 1930s-style hat, hes known for his face, a black and white cloth with continually-shifting black splotches. Rorschach begins an investigation into the death of the Comedian, and, as a conspiracy-minded sort, he begins developing the Mask Killer Theory. He thinks that perhaps someone killed the Comedian and will pursue other former costumed heroes to get them out of the way of some nefarious plot.
When Rorschach visits Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson,) formerly Nite Owl, his old partner initially dismisses his ideas as just paranoid conspiracy. As the story proceeds he's forced to reconsider that conclusion.
Other members of the Watchmen team of superheroes are also seemingly targeted. There's an assassination attempt on Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode,) a successful businessman formerly known as the adventurer Ozymandias. Strange rumors and stories of cancer also propel Dr. Manhattan (voice of Billy Crudup) to leave earth and retreat to Mars, away from the human beings with whom he can no longer relate.
For Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk (Malin Akerman,) formerly the Silk Spectre and Dr. Manhattans ex-lover, Rorschachs ideas begin to actually have some merit. Could someone be eliminating former superheroes? And what could they be plotting thats so important that they need to go to the trouble of eliminating the Watchmen?
The answer is as intellectually challenging as everything else in the film. Watchmen is a triumph in almost every regard. Beneath its mind-blowing special effects and visuals (which are even better on IMAX) lies a series of conflicting philosophies that should challenge viewers accustomed to the escapism of most action or blockbuster films.
The picture has only a few chinks in the armor. (And theyre not significant enough to make me doubt my A+ letter grade for a moment.) A sex scene between Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre set to Leonard Cohens Hallelujah doesnt work quite as well as one would like. Also while most of the acting is top notch, particularly Haleys Rorschach, Akerman as the Silk Spectre is only acceptable, not quite up to the standards of the rest of the characters in the film.
Purists whining about the change to the graphic novels ending need to shut their mouths. On Friday a co-worker who had seen the midnight show informed me of his displeasure at the changes that the filmmakers made. He claimed that the alterations to the ending had ruined it for him. This observation initially worried me. Then when I discovered just what these changes entailed I was puzzled. This is what bothered him so much? The substance of the films conclusion isnt changed, theres just an interesting new twist that leads to further intellectual complexity. Not to sound too blasphemous but the new ending might actually be an improvement on Moores original.
For those who enjoyed Watchmen theres still a whole lot more to the story. For the cut currently in theatres Snyder had to excise plenty of back story and one of the books most consequential subplots. His careful pruning of the tree for this adaptation is to be applauded. I just cant wait for the release of the directors cut and the Tales of the Black Freighter animated DVD.
With The Dark Knight and now Watchmen the superhero genre has been defined. The standard for how all future films will be judged has been set. Can a better film in the genre be made? It certainly can, I just cant imagine what itll be.