Word on the street is Watchmen is one of the greatest comic books of all-time. I can’t say if that is true, but I will say Watchmen is one of the greatest movies of all-time. Director Zack Snyder (300) took the work of Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins and gave Hollywood its first truley complete and epic experiences in years.
Watchmen takes place in a 1985 where Nixon is still president, the United States won vietnam and crime rules the streets and alley-ways. A group of superheroes, the Watchmen, exist, but their deeds haven’t created a better world. In the Watchmen universe humanity is slime. The dark face of human nature is not balanced out with good. Even those who don masks to fight crime are murderous bastards without conviction. Only Dan Dreiberg, the second Night Owl (Patrick Wilson, no not Weezer’s drummer), and to some extent Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), the second Silk Spectre have any virtuousness, which only lets them be taken advantage of.
Watchmen is a very 20th century movie. The cold war, the Soviets, nuclear destruction seem like relics to us and characters like Nixon, Kissenger, Kennedy and Iacocca might seem fictional to the Millenial crowd. Its not just the setting, structurally, this is an older movie. Technically, it couldn’t have been made in 1985 but seems like it was. It flows without the use of jump-cuts. The camera stays out of the way and lets the characters and action tell the story. This is no Michael Bay flick. The universe is developed through a montage benieth the opening sequences and four or five flashback vignettes that take their sweet time extolling the exposition. This way, the audience is allowed into the story, and we don’t care that the film is nearly three hours. Despite its length, we’re left wanting more.
The action starts immediately as Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is thrown out a 30th floor window. We find out that Blake was the Watchman known as the Comedian. A masked vigilante known as Rorschach (Kelley Leak himself, Jackie Earle Haley) who’s mask is a constantly morphing ink-blot, warns the forcibly retired Watchmen they could be next. For the next three hours we are treated to a smorgasbord of alternate realities where incorrigible assholes don latex suits trying to save a humanity made up of even bigger assholes. Eventually sentiments turn against the “heroes.” They’re banned from doing good.
Things get so bad for Dr. Manhattan that he leaves earth, and Rorschach gets framed for murder and thrown in the slammer. Night Owl and Silk Spectre have had enough and decide to don their uniforms and dust off the old owl-mobile.
The ending is left open, without a clear good-guy-defeats-bad-guy ending. The viewer is left to decide if the ends justified the means, and to decide if the heroes were on the right side. A new world is created, but we are left to figure out if it is an actuality, or a bastardization? Are humans united in peace, or simply fearful of more retribution. It didn’t work with Sodom, Gomorrah and the great flood. Will it last here? Maybe the sequel will say.
I can’t help but compare this film to last year’s The Dark Knight. Watchmen is darker in tone than Dark Knight, but it does what that film couldn’t do; fill the theatre with the grandiose glory of superhero goodness. Like Batman, these heroes are not supernatural, except Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) they fight with fists, guns and sheer will. The difference is they are larger than life. They talk in quips, like action stars. Christopher Nolan’s Batman is just a rogue cop with fun toys. The one thing The Dark Knight has over Watchmen is a fantastic villain, Heath Ledger’s Joker. Watchmen is missing a strong adversary. The soviets are a mostly faceless threat, Comedian is an evil good guy, but he’s dead from the beginning, and one of the Watchmen carries a secret. This movie lacks a strong bad guy. I guess the good guys are bad enough.