Let me make myself perfectly clear: Watchmen isn’t your ordinary comic-book superhero movie.
It’s an extraordinary comic-book superhero movie.
The long-awaited, eagerly anticipated film adaptation of Alan Moore’s genre-changing, mid-1980s comic-book series is unlike any superhero film you’ve ever witnessed, dispensing with the usual formulaic trappings found in such movies and replacing them with a story that’s original, psychologically and intellectually rich and, more frequently than not, profoundly disturbing. It’s an engrossing full embrace of the form, taking superhero archetypes we’ve become accustomed to and ridding them of their mundane, predictable trappings, turning them inside out and exposing their searing, raw inner workings. These aren’t just heroes in masks bringing villains to justice — these are heroes in masks grappling with their own varying sociopathic states.
Fans who treasure Moore’s illustrated series will put every single minute of Zack Snyder’s screen adaptation under a microscope, examining it for flaws, omissions, alterations. Will they enjoy it? Who knows, who cares? Because for the rest of us — and I count myself among those who haven’t (yet) read the source material — will be overcome with amazement. After seeing Watchmen, it’s going to be hard to ever look at a superhero movie the same way again. And woe unto any superhero film that follows Watchmen and doesn’t match its sophistication. But then, Superman is not Watchmen, and Watchmen is not intended exclusively for the acne set. It’s one for the grown-ups.
And yet, let me again be perfectly clear: Watchmen is still at its core a superhero action movie. There’s an arch villain, there’s plenty of battle-stoked action, there’s plenty of superhero soul-searching. But there is also so much more in Snyder’s adaptation. The swirling, mind-bending complexity of the plot — made crystal clear by Snyder’s exacting grasp of narrative as well as his refusal to stray from the structure of Moore’s source material — and the general atmosphere of moroseness and discontent, of doom and gloom, combine to foster an intense cinematic experience that makes Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight feel like an ant-free picnic on a sunny afternoon.
Watchmen‘s story is set in 1985, in an alternate timeline from our own. Still, it’s a timeline whose roots are in our own history. At the center stands Richard Nixon, serving his fourth term as president and grappling with an imminent global nuclear crisis. Though Tricky Dick isn’t a major component to the story, the decision to use history as a framework and then alter it ever-so-slightly is a masterstroke on Moore’s part. And to use Nixon, in particular, is just plain genius. It unsettles us from the start.
The Watchmen themselves are a second-generation offshoot of an earlier group called the Minutemen, who were, in fact, a band of police officers who donned masks to fight masked criminals on their own guerilla turf. But the paranoid — and obviously criminal himself — Nixon has outlawed masked vigilantes, so most of the Watchmen have retired their masks and retreated to quiet, unassuming lives. A few — notably the erudite Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a glowing, sky-blue fellow who can control matter and more — are working together to solve the world’s energy crisis.
The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), arguably the most morally-corrupt among the Watchmen, turns up brutally murdered, coaxing a masked avenger known as Rorschach to investigate the death and attempt to call his fellow crusaders back into service before they, too, turn up in coffins.
If you’re new to Watchmen, you can’t even begin to predict where the narrative will all wind up two and a half hours later. Let’s just say that the film’s cataclysmic final half-hour is as satisfying emotionally as it is intellectually. No cookie-cutter plot mechanics are deployed here — this is fresh territory for a comic book: philosophical and physical, intelligent and accessible, profound and potent.
The Watchmen are damaged goods, and one of the movie’s underlying themes is one of cost: What is the psychological price of donning a mask and fighting crime? Sure, Spider-Man and Batman grapple with similar issues, but not quite in the same manner as this borderline-psychotic gang of six.The least affected appear to be Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), the nerdy, pacifistic do-gooder of the troupe, and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), who has romantic issues with her beau, Dr. Manhattan, the only Watchman with authentic superhuman powers. Dr. Manhattan, it seems, is growing more and more detached from humanity as his abilities evolve (”I’m tired of Earth,” he bemoans as he takes solace on the surface of Mars). The hyper-intelligent billionaire Veidt (Matthew Goode), meanwhile, maintains a safe distance from his former gang.
Without question, the most tormented among he Watchmen is Rorschach, chillingly, compelling portrayed by the magnificent Jackie Earle Haley. Each of the gang gets a shred of a backstory, and Rorschach’s is by far the most grisly and unnerving, involving a pack of hungry dogs and a kidnapped girl. Rorschach’s brutal approach to justice is the very definition of harrowing. Let’s just say that where Rorschach goes, blood doesn’t just flow, it pours in a relentless torrent.
Which brings us to one of the most unusual aspects of Watchmen — its ”R” rating. Given the amount of bone-crunching violence, adult themes, sexually frank moments, and nudity — including Dr. Manhattan’s full-frontal CGI reveals, for which Billy Crudup should be eternally grateful — it’s astonishing the MPAA didn’t stamp Watchmen with an NC-17. Frankly, I’m relieved they didn’t — maybe those moral bloodhounds in charge of the ratings board are finally getting a clue that quality counts.