Released: 3 November 2009
Originally Released: 6 March 2009
Director: Zack Snyder
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures/Paramount Pictures
Budget: $130 to 138 million
Stars: Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Åkerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan
In an alternative version of the 1980s, the world is constantly on the brink of nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Russia and masked vigilantes, once popular in the 1960s, have been outlawed for some time. However, when Edward Blake/The Comedian (Morgan) is found dead, Walter Kovacs/Rorschach (Haley) uncovers what appears to be a plot to kill off former masked crimefighters and, in his efforts to warn his fellow Watchmen, becomes embroiled in a diabolical plot to force the world into unity and peace.
Published between September 1986 and October 1987, Watchmen (Moore, et al) was the brainchild of noted comic book writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, who revised their initial concept of a murder mystery involving Charlton Comics characters using entirely new, unique characters. Watchmen’s sophisticated adult narrative subverted the usual expectations of comic book heroes, grounding them in something resembling reality and tackling the genre with a serious, contemplative direction. Filled with dense imagery and complex themes, Watchmen was an influential mainstream success. For the longest time, the text was largely considered to be unfilmable, though a live-action adaptation was in the works as far back as the late-eighties. In 2005, though, the project finally entered production with Zack Snyder at the helm. Featuring a number of alterations to the source material, and Moore’s characteristic disinterest, Watchmen didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, earning just over $185 million worldwide against a $130 to 138 million budget. Though the film also received mixed-to-average reviews, I actually prefer the movie to the graphic novel, if I’m being honest. An extended director’s cut and this “Ultimate Cut” of the film were also later released, restoring many excised aspects from the source material and providing, perhaps, the most complete live-action version of Watchmen we’re ever likely to get.
Though not the first scene of the film, Watchmen features perhaps one of the most striking and effective introductions to its fictional world in all of cinema; set to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, Snyder masterfully condenses some of the denser, more subtle, arguably inconsequential, complex, and intricate side plots and world-building moments of the comic book into one impressive montage which takes us through the early days of the colourful Minutemen and through to the intricacies of this decidedly alternative version of the world, where wars and monumental moments in human history were noticeably different thanks to the presence and influences of costumed heroes, all the way up to the debut of the Watchmen and the later outlawing of costumed adventurers following President Richard Nixon’s (Robert Wisden) unprecedented third term.
Of course, the catalyst for the entire film’s events is the murder of Edward Blake, the Comedian. When we first meet Blake, he’s an aged shell of his former self; living alone in an apartment filled with mementos of a life-time of war and conflict, he is both taken off-guard and bitterly unsurprised when he is suddenly and violently attacked in his own home. Unlike in the comic, where this was a decidedly simple and one-sided affair, this first action scene best showcases the dramatic license Snyder takes with the source material by delivering a bloody, violent, elaborately stylised beatdown in which the combatants are almost superhuman and capable of delivering (and taking) incredible punishment and smashing through objects (and even human bones) with their bare hands. “Stylistic” is a great word to describe Snyder’s Watchmen, which dials up the subdued presentation of the comic book to eleven, both paying homage to Gibbons’ artwork and updating the static panels into incredibly elaborate and visceral.
As the sole remaining unlicensed costumed vigilante, Rorschach investigates out of a sense of duty and obligation; while many characters are aesthetically or motivationally altered in some way, big or small, for better and for worse, Rorschach remains extremely faithful to his depiction in the comic. His gravely, monotone voice accompanies many of his scenes, and others, and forms a loose, distorted narration of events and he is, essentially, the closest thing we have to a main character and is our main source of exposition into this vastly different world. Gritty, uncompromising, and paranoid, Rorschach is as crazy as he is dedicated to staying active, even though no one, even former allies of his, really like him all that much.
Speaking of which, the first person Rorschach goes to when he discovers the Comedian has been killed is his former partner and the closest thing he has to a friend, Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl II (Wilson); in the comics, Dreiberg was an awkward, unassertive, meek fellow who, for all his former glory, pretty much allowed anyone and everyone to walk over him and take advantage of him. Here, he’s still a shell of his former self and full of both regrets and doubt, but he’s far more assertive; while sympathetic to Rorschach’s condition and respectful of their former crimefighting days to give him the time of day where others wouldn’t, he’s far less patient of Rorschach’s accusations and attitude and far more willing to stand up for himself. In the end, his humility comes from his pining for Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Åkerman) and a deep-rooted longing for the thrill of his days as a costumed adventurer.
Rorschach remarks that Dreiberg is “hiding in plain sight” and this is a recurring theme throughout Watchmen; every character wears a mask, whether literal (like Rorschach’s beautifully realised, ever shifting covering) or metaphorical and they’re all hiding something, whether it be their true intentions or their true feelings. Laurie is one of the most complex characters in that regard; aggressive, repressed, and out-spoken, Laurie has no time for Rorschach’s accusations and hostile nature and is emotionally and mentally strained thanks to her tumultuous relationship with her mother, Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), and Doctor Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan (Crudup). Most of her issues stem from unresolved and half-remembered memories of her childhood; forced into super heroics by her mother, Laurie was obligated to live a life she didn’t necessarily want and constantly struggled with both her mother’s expectations and the reprehensible actions of Blake, who attempted to rape her mother back in the day.
Of course, another character who is hiding in plain sight (and behind a multitude of metaphorical masks) is Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Goode), a man whom Rorschach both respects for his intellect and physical ability but is also somewhat disgusted by since Veidt was one of the first to not only quit his adventuring ways but also shamelessly profit from it. Goode, despite perhaps looking maybe too young for the role, portrays Veidt as a smooth, confident, and wealthy businessman and aristocrat who openly speaks of both his past and his desire to steer the world towards a greater purpose other than warfare and conflict. Veidt plays this public role perfectly, appearing to be just as much of a victim as any of the other Watchmen, and concerned only with the welfare of humanity through his business and critical work with Dr. Manhattan.
Speaking of Dr. Manhattan, Osterman is primarily regarded as the sole thing keeping the United States and Russia from engaging in all-out nuclear conflict; an ethereal, God-like character, Dr. Manhattan is the only character in the film to exhibit actual, tangible superpowers and, as if to compensate for this, has been gifted with a vast and seemingly limitless array of abilities, from teleportation, to nigh-immortality, to the ability to manipulate atoms in any way he desires, and a skewed perspective of time. Dr. Manhattan’s unique ability to perceive past, present, and future simultaneously and his extensive abilities have made him more and more detached from humanity, specifically Laurie; despite him assisting Veidt in conceiving of a clean, renewable energy source to unite the world, Dr. Manhattan has little care for the intricacies of mortals and his increasing detachment is a pivotal plot point of the film. Dr. Manhattan is superbly realised in the film thanks to CGI emphasising his otherworldly magnetism; in a film where costume design and aesthetics are impressive from start to finish, Dr. Manhattan naturally stands out and not just because his wang is out half the time; he’s literally a God among men and is portrayed as such throughout.
Watchmen is, at its core, a murder mystery story that is as much about commenting on society, humanity, and our various failings as it is about exploring the nature of superheroes; as in the comic, every character in the film is flawed, broken even, and is detached from reality in some way. Veidt sees himself as above it all on an intellectual level; Blake believed he was above it since he chose to cynically mock the state of society; Dreiberg chooses to hide from the conflict, and his true self; Laurie is in constant denial about her past and feels suffocated by it; Rorschach has completely abandoned all pretense of his life outside of his mask; and Dr. Manhattan has become completely disinterested and disillusioned in the petty squabbles of humanity. Though Snyder expands upon this narrative with an abundance of gore, expletives, and dramatic visual excess, it still forms the central backbone of the narrative and is just as interesting to follow, if not more so thanks to Snyder’s flair for style.
I mentioned earlier that there are numerous alterations to the source material; when I first saw the movie, I applauded this as I found the comic to be quite dense and slow and not the most visually interesting tale. Though I have grown to appreciate the influence and nuance of the comic book, I still prefer the film as Snyder’s attention to detail, stylistic choices, and the epic quality of the film make it far more interesting and engaging for me. Of course, one of the major changes Snyder made was to dramatically elaborate upon the few fight scenes of the comic book; fights are now heavily choreographed, greatly stylised sequences featuring an abundance of slow motion, blood, and violence. Characters exhibit near-superhuman levels of strength and durability, which goes against the purposely grounded nature of the source material, but I can forgive this as it lends a level of spectacle and gratuity to the film that not only appeals to me and my baser instincts but also, I would argue, makes the film and the story more accessible to a wider audience.
Plus, it’s not as if the base themes of Moore’s original story aren’t still present; if anything, they’re more explicit than ever thanks to Snyder’s decidedly unsubtle style of filmmaking and, yet, the film still replicates many of the slower, more subtle and nuanced character moments from the source material. Snyder’s attention to detail is absolutely flawless; every scene is crammed full of faithful recreations of the comic book and the lengths he went to replicate the costumes and aesthetics of Gibbons’ artwork is impressive. At the same time, Snyder uses the film as an opportunity to comment on and reference the many years of superhero cinema just as Moore paid homage to a bygone era of comics books; as a result, Nite Owl’s costume is a heavily armoured homage to the various Batsuits, Silk Spectre is literally poured into a super sexy leather number (as was the style of the early 2000s), and Ozymandias is purposely decked out in rubber armour reminiscent of Joel Schumacher’s Batsuits (it even has the much-maligned nipples). While I can understand people getting a bit upset about some of these changes as they seem superfluous in some ways, I honestly thought it really worked and helped emphasise the film’s extravagant aesthetic style.
Continuing on the theme of attention to detail, Snyder includes, or straight-up adapts, entire sub-plots and story beats from the source material that, one could argue, others might have cut for time; as a result, we get a startlingly brutal recreation of Rorschach’s time in prison, therapy sessions, and character-defining moments as well as a great deal of time spent exploring Dr. Manhattan’s time on Mars, his origin, and his subsequent heart-to-heart with Laurie. This means that, rather than only paying lip service to what makes these characters tick or briefly touching upon it (or removing it entirely), Snyder is able to properly delve into the psychology of his versions of these characters through his distinct visual style. Even in the Ultimate Cut, which is unquestioningly the most definitive version of the film you’ll ever watch, some concessions had to be made, though; the most obvious of these is that Snyder is completely focused on the current story of the Watchmen rather than exploring the intricacies of their predecessors, the Minutemen, but, even then, this extended version goes to the trouble of including the tragic fate of Hollis Mason/Nite Owl (Stephen McHattie).
Watching the Ultimate Cut of the film also means that the main story is interlaced with an allegorical side story, Tales of the Black Freighter (DelPurgatorio, 2009), at key moments; originally excised from the main film and released as a separate feature on home media, Tales of the Black Freighter has been largely restored to serve much the same purpose as in the comic book. The side story, which is told in startling gory animated sequences, follows a shipwrecked sea captain (Gerard Butler) who is driven to madness and obsession following a disastrous encounter with the demonic Black Freighter. Desperate to get back home to his wife and children and to warn his hometown of the freighter’s threat, he ultimately becomes the very monster he is trying to fight against when he unwittingly bludgeons his family in a fit of madness. As in the original comic book, Tales of the Black Freighter acts as an allegory for Veidt’s despicable actions and the story of Watchmen in general, with its themes of obsession and performing unspeakable acts in the name of good though, while I enjoy the animated version far more than its comic book counterpart, I can see why it was omitted from the original film as these themes are, by the very nature of Watchmen’s narrative, largely explicit regardless.
Of course, the big twist is that Veidt is actually behind everything, literally “hiding in plain sight”; though the execution of his plan to save humanity significantly differs from the source material, his motivations remain largely the same (having predicted the downfall of society, the inevitability of war, and the limitations of fossil fuels, Veidt engineers an elaborate and complex plan to fool the world into unifying against a common enemy). A big source of contention was Snyder’s decision to omit the iconic giant squid that Veidt genetically engineered to fool humanity into believing in an impending and ominous alien threat. While I really admired how the Watchmen television series (2019) managed to pull this grotesque creation off, I never really minded all that much that the squid was missing from the film. Not only is there a cheeky reference to it (Veidt’s machine is called a “Sub Quantum Unified Intrinsic field Device”) but the idea of Veidt replicating Dr. Manhattan’s powers and then attacking multiple cities across the world, rather than just New York City, and pinning it all on Jon actually makes far more sense and keeps the film from wasting time in explaining and setting up the squid. Could they have done that? Sure, and probably pretty easily, but, while it’s disappointing to not have the image of the squid’s bloodied and gruesome corpse draped throughout Times Square, I can live without it if it makes sense in the context of the narrative and, thanks to how prevalent Jon’s fragile grip on humanity is to Watchmen’s story, I would argue that it does.
It’s probably sacrilegious to say it but I still prefer the movie version of Watchmen over the comic book; while my appreciation for the source material has grown, especially after re-reading it recently, it was only after watching the movie that I actually became interested in the concept. Sure, it might be very different from the source material in a lot of ways but I’m okay with that because everything looks so slick and stylish and has a real cinematic grandeur to it. While Snyder’s unique cinematic style may not be for everyone, and it’s probably still seen as somewhat blasphemous that he stripped most of the subtlety and nuance from Watchmen, it really works for me and results in a bold, striking, and aesthetically pleasing superhero film that is truly unique among the genre. I feel what really makes Watchmen work is how accessible Snyder makes the source material; I can definitely say that it’s probably best to watch the film first and then explore the graphic novel and see if it’s just as appealing to you. Die-hard fans of the comic may have been annoyed and insulted by Snyder’s creative license but I wanted to see a gory, thought-provoking, and visually entertaining film and that’s exactly what Watchmen delivers. Watchmen delves into a completely different side of the superhero genre while paying homage to it through fantastic costume design, brutal action sequences, and an engaging narrative and the Ultimate Cut goes one step even further to deliver extended scenes that further expand this unique world and incorporating an allegorical tale to the main plot to provide the definitive Watchmen experience.
So, what do you think about Watchmen? Were you a fan of the graphic novel before seeing the film or did you, like me, gain a deeper appreciation for the source material after watching the film? Which version of the film do you prefer, the theatrical, director, or ultimate cut and why? How do you feel about Snyder’s visual and filmic style and the alterations he made to the text? Which of the titular Watchmen is your favourite and why and how do you feel about their costumes and characterisations in the film? Did you enjoy the animated Black Freighter segments, or do you feel they distracted from the already bloated narrative? Would you like to see a new adaptation of Watchmen, one perhaps even closer to the source material, and, if so, who would you cast in the various roles? No matter what you think about Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, feel free to leave a comment below and check back in next Wednesday for more Watchmen content!