Watchmen (2009): ****
Directed by Zack Snyder
I saw Watchmen twice before I wrote this review. Why?
Because like many people my age, I read the comics on which the
movie is based. So the first time I saw the film I automatically
found myself comparing it to the source material. They changed that
line, they cut out this part, they emphasized that a lot more, etc.
The second time I saw it I already knew what it was, so I was able
to enjoy it simply for itself and not as an adaptation. It is that
2nd viewing that I now review.
Watchmen is an experience. A densely woven, beautiful
and ugly, loud and crass, exciting and solemn, funny and dreadful.
It is not a simple movie. It is not a subtle movie. It is not an
easy movie. But it is a great movie.
Watchmen has a basic plot: a man is murdered. It turns
out he used to be a masked hero. Who killed him and why? Are his
retired compatriots at similar risk? But the plot is not really
very important as a plot; the plot serves as a way to guide the
viewers through this alternate 1985 world. And that's what this
movie really concentrates on, this world of costumed adventurers,
looming nuclear war, and a 5-term President Nixon. It opens (after
the murder) with a brilliant montage that starts in 1940 and brings
us up to the present day, showing an alternate history of how the
world is different because of the existence of superheroes.
The essential question of Watchmen is: how do you live
in this world? I was only a kid in the mid-80s, so I vaguely remember
a world in which nuclear holocaust seemed highly probable. In the
mid-80s of Watchmen, nuclear holocaust doesn't just seem
highly probable; it seems nigh inevitable. Say you're a regular
guy who dresses up in a costume and fights criminals. Is beating
up some punks in an alley going to prevent World War III? How do
you go about your normal life when the fate of the entire planet
is in the hands of a couple of irresponsible, bigoted assholes who
can kill you and everyone you love with a push of a button, and
there's nothing you can do about it?
That sense of dread, of impending doom hangs heavily over the whole
film. Characters joke that they don't worry about the consequences
of their actions because they'll probably get nuked tomorrow. The
character Dr. Manhattan, the only superhero with genuine super powers,
who can usually see into his own future, casually says that his
future visions are disrupted by a large burst of tachyons, most
likely caused by nuclear war. If everything mankind has ever striven
for is wiped out in an instant, what is the point of any of it?
Dr. Manhattan is the most intriguing of all of these superheroes.
Created (by being, ironically, destroyed), as is the norm, in a
freak scientific accident, he has the ability to do, well, just
about anything. He exists just outside of normal space/time. He
can see his past, present, and the future all at once. He has vast
telekinesis. He can create duplicates of himself, into each one
of which he can focus 100% of his concentration simultaneously.
He can grow enormously in size. He is a force of such magnitude
that he approaches godhood. As a former colleague says, "God
exists, and he's American."
He's so much of a force that he can hardly be said to be human
anymore, and indeed he seems to be drifting away from human concerns.
Eventually he exiles himself to Mars, and in one of my favorite
sequences in the film he remembers his own origin story and lets
it go. "Why would I save a world I no longer have any stake
The movie is full of Big Ideas© like that. It asks the
questions and then watches its characters squirm around, grasping
for answers. How can this world be saved? Should it? At what cost?
Almost as important as the world in which Watchmen exists
and the questions it raises is the visual impact of the film. It
is gorgeous to look at. Gorgeous. And disturbing. There are moments
of jaw-dropping beauty, like the Mars sequences. And there are moments
of unflinching, raw, brutal violence. The kind of violence that
most movies would cut away from, but this one shows with a steady,
unblinking camera. The colors are rich and saturated, except when
they shouldn't be, as when showing the filth of a run-down New York.
Specific details fill every corner of every shot. The images seem
to breathe with their own life. Nuclear forces seem to surge beneath
Dr. Manhattan's skin. The air around him seems full of forces of
Almost as good as the world, almost as good as the visuals, are
the characters and the casting. Watchmen has an almost
flawless cast. The movie is literally an ensemble, with characters
occupying the whole gamut of the philosophical and neurotic spectrum.
The closest thing the movie has to a POV character is Dan Dreiberg,
AKA Nite Owl, played with delightful awkwardness by Patrick Wilson.
Nite Owl is played as a geek who becomes a superhero not out of
a sense of justice, but because he's a huge fan of the previous
Nite Owl. As Nite Owl he's a well-meaning, straight-laced superhero,
but as Dan Dreiberg he seems almost paralyzed by social anxiety
and is impotent to do anything about his life (literally).
Jakie Earle Haley plays Walter Kovacs, AKA Rorschach, a man who
exists in a world of black-and-white, uncompromising morality and
conspiracy theories. Edward Blake, AKA the Comedian, who chose that
identity because, "Once you realize what a joke everything
is, being the Comedian is the only thing that makes sense."
Matthew Goode plays Adrian Veidt AKA Ozymandias, the smartest man
in the world who is wrapped up in antiquity and also in seeing the
big picture. Malin Akerman plays Sally Jupiter, AKA the 2nd Silk
Spectre, who only became a superhero because her mom (played by
the lovely Carla Gugino) was the original Silk Spectre back in the
40s. Akerman's voice sounds almost exactly like Drew Berrymore.
She's probably the weakest of the core actors, but then Sally isn't
exactly the strongest of characters.
The strongest performance, ironically, is the one that isn't even
really there at all: Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan. Crudup was replaced
in the film by a motion-captured, digitally-rendered CGI Dr. Manhattan.
The effect is not flawless; there are times when Manhattan moves
(especially his fingers and hands) that just do not look quite...
right. But this is one case where it actually helps. It makes Dr.
Manhattan seem less human. But the true brilliance of the performance
is in the voice. It would be too easy and too obvious to give Dr.
Manhattan a booming "superhero" voice. What a great choice,
then, to have Crudup speak with such a soft, gentle voice. It totally
works and it something I probably would never have thought of myself.
The movie is not without flaws. It sometimes tends towards the
overdramatic. It isn't at all subtle, especially in its use of music.
There's probably a little too much slow motion. And the wire-fu
fight scenes, while well-done, seemed out of place in a movie that
was trying in all other ways to be as realistic as possible, under
Quibbles, though. The film is an experience. It is fascinating
to look at. It asks intelligent questions and presents multiple
attitudes towards the answers. It shows you things you'll never
be able to see in your real life. And that, folks, is what I want
to see when I go to a movie.