(Insert obligatory “`Who Watches The Watchmen?` `We do`” joke here)
The Watchmen is, for those who haven’t read it, one of the definitive graphic novels. Following the exploits of masked vigilantes in a world where such exploits are outlawed, it’s a surprisingly dark, deep and cliché free adventure that digs deep into the psyche of those who would undertake such a lifestyle. So, who better than Zach “gloss coat” Snyder to bring it to the big screen? Well...
As a fan of the novel, I really enjoyed the film. It was a great chance to see all of the characters brought to life on screen, all performed well, with high end special effects. But there was something missing, something I couldn’t put my finger on until I recommended it to a friend who hadn’t read the book. Simply, it’s missing coherency.
The book (/comic series, however you want to look at it) is a fairly gargantuan affair, not only in terms of panels, but also with dense written sections that explain the histories of the characters, and give a twisted insight into the creation of what are essentially Superhero archetypes. Sure, we still get the flashbacks that make up the majority of the first half of the story, but in a film it doesn’t feel like it flows correctly, as Snyder has tried to keep the plot a little too similar to the book. The pacing worked for a ten part graphic novel, but just feels a little jarring here. Snyder has tried to make a perfect adaptation, but without the adaptation. With character development and world building sitting on the back burner (the history of the Minutemen and Watchmen cobbled together well as a two minute re-cap for those already in the know, but not hugely useful beyond that).
Another issue is that the core element of it following “masked heroes” rather than super-powered ones is that here they all seem to have at least super strength, if not stamina and speed as well. This essentially undermines one of the most basic concepts and issues raised by the story, which separates it from other comic book adapted detritus.
None of this, of course is a problem if you have read the book, but I feel it’s worth noting. If you are already a fan, the omissions of character development aren’t a huge issue. There’s still a lot there to remind you of who everyone is, but in the way one of those Sparknotes revision guides would. Not enough to tell you the story, but enough to remind you of it, allowing the geek membranes and cortex’s of the brain to come together and say “Yes, Rorschach’s mask IS made of a space material made by Doctor Manhattan”. If that last sentence made no sense, I would highly advise steering well clear of the movie.
Not a huge amount has been changed from the book, only lost. As with the aforementioned character development and world building, also gone are the back story “Behind the Mask” novel excerpts, and the side story comic “Tales of the Black Freighter.” The latter is being released as a DVD to coincide with the film itself, and is apparently going to be edited back in to the movie in an extended cut. I’m quite glad it’s gone, it was always my least favourite part of the book, and never really felt necessary even with the best will in the world. I was informed that it was supposed to reflect the events of the novel to provide a sense of dread, but my view was simply that the actual narrative was doing that anyway, why read the same sentiment as an echo from a pirate’s mouth?
The majority of the cast play the parts exceptionally well, and fit perfectly to their now iconic roles. Billy Crudup gives a fantastic performance as Jon Osterman/ Dr Manhattan (the big blue guy), combining the sense of frailty, power, loss and alienation core to the essence of the character: a Nietchzian Super-man with no sense of purpose. During his origin sequence, the film gives him a personal chance to shine, seeing as the rest of the time he is bathed in a sea of (admittedly very impressive) computer generated imagery. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (not Robert Downey Jr) does a splendid job as The Comedian, bringing heart and empathy to a character that could easily be portrayed to be devoid of either. Malin Ackerman impresses as the Silk Spectre, and Patrick Wilson does a great job as the Nite Owl- a sort of hybrid of Batman and Egon Spengler from Ghostbusters. Matthew Goode isn’t as impressive as the other cast members, but then Ozymandias “The World’s Smartest Man” never had the depth of the other characters.
But, the character Watchmen is best known for is Rorschach – the crazy, mask wearing vigilante, known for his clear cut morality and corpse based note paper. Played here by Jackie Earle Haley, he is... adequate. He looks perfect for the part, and has the right movement, but there’s a combination of issues that just drag him flat down onto his ever changing face. Firstly, the script just doesn’t work for him on screen- it feels too comic book esque, and rarely carries the menace of the character in the same way it was in the book. Secondly, his voice. Remember the complaints about Christian Bale in “The Dark Knight” using the “Bat Voice”? Well imagine that, but for the whole film. It sounds ridiculous. It sits alongside Daniel Day Lewis in “There Will Be Blood” for my personal award for services to ridiculous voices and speaking in a fashion that no one would ever speak like. Ever. He’s so gravelly, I thought I could hear the blood gargling in his torn larynx. He (like Day Lewis) isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but the ridiculous voices are a little too distracting in both circumstances.
There’s a lot to talk about with Watchmen, but I’m sure you’re probably getting bored at this point. The ending is new (but thematically identical, so quit yer whinin’) and the sex scene is laughable at best etc. Overall, however, it’s a an enjoyable and worthwhile watch as a visual companion piece to one of the finest graphic novels of all time. Unfortunately, without the book as reference material, I’m reliably assured that it’s little more than a display of flashing colours and eighties music. Which might be your thing.