Stripping away the gloss and varnish of superheroes, Watchmen explores the darkness of the human soul even when embodied within the fuselage of a powerful protector.
Based on the acclaimed graphic novel by Alan Moore, Watchmen takes place in an alternate reality to our modern world where superheroes emerged in the Cold War era and helped bring a successful end to Vietnam and eventually permitting Richard Nixon to earn a fifth term in office in 1984. The 12-issue comic series focused on a number of themes including the threat of nuclear annihilation, the depth of the human soul, the mundanity of superheroes’ lives and an examination of how fear can be used to manipulate human beings.
There may be some eerie resemblance to the administration of George Bush and his focus on the “War on Terror”, but ostensibly the story is about the cold war era and the potential lessons it could teach to future generations.
There are a number of interesting characters in the story, all stuck in a world where masked vigilantes have been outlawed (unless employed by the government). They must contend with staying in hiding for fear of retribution, some attempting to escape and lead normal lives and others embracing their powers and continuing to work behind the scenes.
The story begins with the murder of one of their own, a government-sponsored super soldier who calls himself The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). He was a member of a group of superheroes who acted as a team to protect the city from dangerous criminals who found themselves hunted and persecuted by a public that grew increasingly more disgruntled with their intrusions. The opening scene, a fight between The Comedian and an unknown masked assailant leads into one of the most clever and innovative title sequences ever committed to film. It brings the audience from the glory days of superheroes to the hunted persecution of the 1980s, including an explanation of why some of the members of the original team were no longer around.
From there, the film descends into a more traditional narrative told with such little style and an absence of solid substance that it resembles so many other rote noir thrillers with only the super powers as an original element. Getting so energized over a five-minute opening credits montage leads the audience to question why it’s sitting through a film that’s nearly three hours long, when every single one of those hours is easily felt.
The problem with the film is that it is based on a long-form written work, not on a group of characters pulled directly into an original story like many of the other hero films in recent years. The X-Men series did a far better job of explaining the back stories of its characters than Watchmen does. We have some snippets of these characters’ pasts, but there are interesting questions begging to be explored that are entirely absent. It may be a slavish devotion to the comic that creates that effect, but it’s a detriment to the product, not a bonus.
Who are these characters beyond their presented stories? We don’t really know and there are tales that could easily have been brought forward that weren’t. In directly adapting a comic or any other piece of literature directly to the screen requires devotion to the story, but a willingness to step beyond that and present information to the audience that can be inferred more easily in the written word and expunge material that the audience doesn’t need to assimilate. David Hayter’s screenplay lacks in many of these areas and although The Lord of the Rings trilogy was not slavishly adapted to the screen, Hayter could have learned a lot from Peter Jackson on that score.
Just like the source material from which they are pulled, there is a non-dimensionality to the performances in the film, relying mainly on caricatures and stereotypes to get their personalities across. The most egregious performance comes from Patrick Wilson, not because he was the worst offender, but because Wilson is one of the better thespians in the lineup. His performance as the second Nite Owl isn’t nearly as interesting as it could be. Designed to be the everyman who became every man by putting on the standard middle age weight and meandering through the world like every other low-paid cog in the city. Wilson disappoints, as he has been prone to do lately. Gone are the days of Angels in America and Little Children.
Other uninteresting performances include Morgan as The Comedian, Carla Gugino as the first Silk Spectre and Malin Akerman as her daughter, the second Silk Spectre. Adding a touch of class that is hidden behind waves of CGI, Billy Crudup’s an always-interesting actor that brings more to this role than perhaps we are to expect. Voicing Dr. Manhattan, we almost understand the character’s pains with accepting human emotion now that he has none and in his few face-time scenes, he displays competence, but the CGI effects belie some of his more interesting vocal inflections. Even Matthew Goode, whose greatest trait is changing styles from that of the vicious bank robber in The Lookout, to the more stoic, vane corporate head Ozymandias here. Although the character succumbs eventually to the same stereotyping that plagues the rest of the story, it’s remarkable just to watch Goode transform into another role so easily, which could mean great things for him in the future.
Then, there’s the lone Oscar nominee in the cast. Jackie Earle Haley. Opposite co-star Patrick Wilson, Haley was a strong contender for Best Supporting Actor in Little Children. Perhaps his loss is what pushed him towards this role, having to earn a living as an actor instead of just pursuing his art. It’s odd to see this former child actor taking on such dark roles, but like Crudup, it’s his voice and not is unmasked scenes where he displays his talent. Haley is a bit strange without the mask on, though no less interesting. But with the mask on, it’s nearly impossible to recognize the husky voice, which suggests he has a career in animated media if all else fails.
Like director Zack Snyder’s previous big budget blockbuster 300, he relies more on comic-book styles to tell his story than good old-fashioned storytelling techniques. While he certainly couldn’t be compared with Steven Spielberg, he’s not even in the same league as his other comic-book directors. Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer each have the knack for pulling the audience in to their films and not making them sit by as bystanders. Even great directors like Ang Lee have suffered dramatically from an over-reliance on visual style (Hulk) when placed into a story that needs a more experienced and less flashy hand And it’s this lack of connection that may contribute the biggest part to Watchmen’s failure.
The film focuses too intently on visual flair when it needs to hone in on the intricacies of character development and audience compassion. While the viewer’s emotions are constantly toyed with through visceral experiences, the passions and feelings most in need of fulfillment are almost entirely ignored. A more tenured director might have done better, but the true quality achievement could have been better initiated on cable in the form of a miniseries, which would have allowed a greater exploration of the flaws of the characters and the themes of this woefully overproduced, under-explored story.
-Wesley Lovell (March 13, 2009)