May 27, 2020
Watchmen (2009) is Zack Snyder’s only good film
Released after the massive success of 300, 2009’s Watchmen is director Zack Snyder’s take on Alan Moore’s cult classic comic book miniseries. The comic deals with superheroes in a serious, realistic, and often spiritual manner, yet the film benefits most from the series’ intense and striking visuals. The movie stars a cast with more indie cred than you’ll typically find in superhero films, and its eclectic pop soundtrack lends to the film’s gritty feel.
The film begins with a montage of the Watchmen’s history set to a Bob Dylan song. A Justice Society-like super-team that began as the Minutemen in 1939 soon lays the foundation for the Watchmen: a group of masked heroes used to advance the interests of the United States in domestic and international conflicts.
While the majority of the group are normal humans, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) has advanced psychic and telekinetic powers that allow him to greatly influence world events. He helps the US win in Vietnam, leading to Nixon’s reelection, and his existence gives the US an enormous strategic advantage over the Soviet Union that inadvertently leads to the escalation of nuclear tensions between the superpowers.
At the end of the opening credits, it’s 1985, and in this alternate history, Nixon has been elected for a third term and the world is now in violent disarray. Protestors take to the streets, and the Watchmen and superheroes are no longer revered. The government has passed legislation banning all masked crime-fighting activity as well.
Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a rogue Watchman, investigates the murder of a government agent before finding out that he was the Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan), a retired Watchman. Rorschach believes that someone is out to kill all the Watchmen, and he attempts to find his former teammates and warn them before it’s too late. He quickly contacts Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who’s revealed his secret identity as Adrian Veidt and become a successful billionaire.
Dr. Manhattan is soon led to believe his powers have caused several people in his life to get cancer, and he exiles himself to Mars. His disappearance causes political turmoil and the Soviet Union takes advantage of his absence to invade Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Veidt is almost assassinated, while Rorschach is framed for the murder of one of his former arch-enemies. This prompts Nite Owl and Silk Spectre to come out of retirement and break Rorschach out of prison.
As they investigate who’s behind the conspiracy, they start to believe that Veidt is behind it all. Eventually, he reveals his plan to destroy several major cities, pinning it all on Dr. Manhattan, thus uniting the US and Soviet Union together against a common enemy and bringing about peace.
Watchmen delivers as a visual and aural extravaganza, although it does falter with the more interesting aspects from its source material. Even with its three-hour running time, it’s difficult to get all of the nuances of the original miniseries on screen. Snyder compensates by upping the visual flow to make it nearly poetic at times. The colors pop, the hits are brutal, and the kinetic energy of the film rarely lets up.
I generally dislike Snyder’s films, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but I find Watchmen to be the sole good film on his résumé. 300 didn’t haven’t enough variety to make it worth a second watch, and Sucker Punch is abysmal. However, he manages to find somewhat of a balance between visuals and storytelling in Watchmen that he never achieves in his other films.
Fans of the comic may enjoy watching the pages come to life on screen, but I think the film’s biggest fans will be those who never read the series. It’s difficult for a short film to pack all of the emotional punch of a sprawling series, and Watchmen is no exception. However, viewers unfamiliar with the comic will find a film that’s high on visuals along with subversive thoughts.
Since film is a medium of its own, it’s difficult to compare a film to its source material. In the case of Watchmen, however, that task is almost impossible. The film often plays like a highlight reel or SparkNotes of something vastly more interesting, and what we’re left with are mere glimpses of big ideas. Ulterior motives for historical events are sprinkled throughout the film and so are hints at warped timelines. However, they never amount to much more than flashes of something more. Some things needed to be expanded upon, but it seems the film hit limits, both in terms of its running time and possibly in the skills of the filmmakers themselves.
While I’m often critical of Snyder’s style, he’s quite ballsy with this film. Watchmen won’t be enjoyable for the younger crowd that flocks to the Marvel films, and it really won’t be enjoyable for most casual filmgoers. It’s not a complicated film, but it has a grim style that will likely turn off most viewers. The visuals are striking, but often grimy and dirty and extremely bloody and gory.
The major drawback of Watchmen is that it’s essentially a frame by frame reproduction of the original miniseries. Many of the scenes are nearly identical to their comic book counterpart, and this makes the film feel like a bit of a museum piece as a result. The story feels confined and frozen by slavish adherence to the source material. It never really amounts to a great cinematic experience, which it easily could have been, and it never replicates the spirit of the comic book because, well, it’s not a comic book.
The miniseries had time to breathe and explore multiple storylines, and the film doesn’t handle these omissions with grace. You can feel the editors working hard to trim it all down. The film wants to show everything it can, but it has no confidence in itself to be an adaptation, or make necessary changes in translating the source. It simply exists as a film version of some scenes from the miniseries, and in the end, that’s the biggest shame.
There’s a lot here that works, from the visuals to the alternate history elements. It’s an entertaining film, but it feels like it could have been so much more. Unfortunately, it’s not, but in the end, it’s worth a watch and will likely provide thrills for those bored with typical Hollywood superhero fare.