March 17, 2009
Between the years of 1986 and 1987, DC Comics published a twelve-issue comic book limited series that would change the history of the medium for ever: "Watchmen". Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, "Watchmen" was revolutionary in the way it deconstructed the superhero concept, in an elegy of sorts in which the superhero was seen not as the epitome of perfection, but as humans with their own problems and traumas. Based on the idea of how the existence of superheroes would affect the real world; themes such as vigilantism, power politics and nuclear war are touched in a dense, complex story that proved that comic books could be an art form too. As expected, a respected and influential work like "Watchmen" would attract filmmakers almost since it was published, but the difficulties of the adaptation had the project in development hell, despite having directors like Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Peter Greengrass attached to it at times. 22 years after its publishing, director Zack Snyder decided to film the project many considered "unfilmable".
The story in "Watchmen" is set in 1985, in a world where masked vigilantes have been around since the 40s. The existence of costumed adventurers changed history, proving decisive for everything from politics to pop culture, specially since the appearance of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the world's first real superhuman. However, by the 80s, superheroes (except Dr. Manhattan) are outlawed and the Cold War's tension is on the rise. One night, government agent Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered, and the only masked vigilante who remained active outside the law, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), discovers that Blake was actually another vigilante, The Comedian. Assuming that someone is killing former "costumed adventurers", Rorschach decides to warn his former partners: Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). Nobody takes him seriously, but as Blake's past gets uncovered and nuclear war becomes closer, the most important question is "who watches the watchmen?"
Writer Alex Tse was the man signed for the monumental challenge of transforming Moore's heavily detailed and complex graphic novel into a realizable screenplay; and considering the difficulty of the task, it can be said that Tse did a more than satisfying job. As faithful to the comic book as possible, Tse keeps the 80s setting and remains true to the characters' identities and the story's themes. While certain aspects were done in a more realistic way, the plot's essence remains intact, with the mystery about the Comedian's death and the ominous threat of nuclear war being the core of the plot. The way the characters are fleshed out in the movie is excellent, as Tse allows them to grow the way they do in the comic, with their origins and motivations explored with great care and detail (to the point of having dialog copied verbatim). "Watchmen" was always more a drama about superheroes than a typical superhero tale, and Tse keeps true to that line by making an intelligent, powerful story that captures that revisionism of the superhero theme.
The most noticeable thing about director Zack Snyder's work in "Watchmen" is definitely his passion about the project, as the meticulous care in reproducing the look and atmosphere of the celebrated comic book is certainly worthy of respect. Just like he did in his adaptation of Frank Miller's "300", Snyder takes the pages of "Watchmen" and brings them to life as faithfully as possible, covering as much detail from Gibbons' art as possible. With a gritty visual look by cinematographer Larry Fong, Snyder creates an appropriate atmosphere of impending doom and urban decadence that suits the story perfectly, and surprisingly, his "realistic" take on the visual look of the characters is for the most part appropriate. Unfortunately, in his passionate focus on translating faithfully the novel to film, Snyder seems to have sacrificed a bit the storytelling of the movie, as while it's clearly what Moore and Gibbons left on paper, sometimes it just doesn't work that good, perhaps proving right when author Alan Moore said that "Watchmen" was just not cinematic.
As the outlaw vigilante Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley delivers a truly amazing performance bringing to life the borderline psychotic personality of a man obsessed with an extreme form of moral absolutism. Haley's work is truly worthy of praise. Equally remarkable is Billy Crudup's turn as the superhuman Dr. Manhattan, a man with godlike powers but who feels more and more detached from humanity as time goes by. Patrick Wilson plays Dan Dreiberg, alias the second Nite Owl, a technological wizard who followed the steps of his childhood hero, but who feels hard live a life without the aid of his costume. Wilson is very good in his role, but he's certainly overshadowed by Haley and Crudup. The same applies to Malin Åkerman, who plays the second Silk Spectre. While her work is not bad, she's nowhere near the quality of some of her cast mates. Finally, Matthew Goode is Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias, the world's smartest man and an extremely wealthy industrialist. His work in the role is good, but he is certainly the weakest link in an overall good cast.
As written above, Alex Tse's screenplay for "Watchmen" is certainly a masterpiece of scriptwriting, and definitely a lot better than what everyone was expecting. While there were some changes done, as an adaptation, everything of importance is there, and probably more. Unfortunately, while Tse's screenplay is miraculously a tremendous work of art, Snyder's directing fails to truly deliver the full power the story has. Don't get me wrong, against all odds, director Zack Snyder has pulled off a fantastic movie that dares to go where few blockbusters would (An R-rating for starters); but still, his desire to translate every panel in the comic result in an uneven pace that makes the film suffer a bit. While some bits flow nicely, others move with a vertiginous speed, with lines of dialog being said without caring about timing or rhythm, as if Snyder had felt the need to rush the work to get as much of the novel on screen as possible. Still, it's not a problem as big as it may sound, as it's only really noticeable in a couple of scenes (although those are a couple of important scenes).
I guess nobody was really expecting "Watchmen" to finally hit the big screen, but at last it did. And while Zack Snyder's adaptation of Moore and Gibbons' novel may not be perfect, it's probably as close as we'll get to have a proper version of "Watchmen" on film. Fortunately, the core of what made "Watchmen" so revolutionary in print is still there: the dramatic deconstruction of the superhero myth, stripping it from all its values to find the human inside every superhero. A brutal and unmerciful deconstruction that surprisingly, in the end it's also a celebration of everything that superheroes mean. The position of hero, of a society's watchmen, is always a difficult one, full of morality issues and complex dilemmas. Like the novel did, this movie invites us to ask one more time: "who watches the watchmen?".