The Watchmen
directed by Zack Snyder
(Warner Bros., 2009)

Even before the film went into production, there was audible hand-wringing from fans of Alan Moore's legendary comic-book series, The Watchmen. Would the movie be like the screen adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or would it be like From Hell/V for Vendetta? Where on the scale of cover-your-eyes bad to actually quite decent would this brilliant comic fall once it was adapted for the silver screen?

In all fairness, it's really not very easy to adapt a Moore story to the big screen. Mythological and philosophic (to put it very lightly), Alan Moore has always been the sort of writer who does not and never has churned out standard action-hero comics. Translating what many fans believe to be his best work into a movie adaptation needed not just care but reverence for the source. On that score, Zack Snyder (300) hit the target. Moore's material is safe in Snyder's hands.

The Watchmen, the original series, is a single story arc, unrelated but very similar to the DC universe. It takes place in an alternate reality where America won the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon is in his umpteenth term as president. The Cold War is at its height, with everyone on high-strung alert, fearing an attack from any quarter. Heroes -- who first made their appearance on the scene in the 1940s as citizens reacting against criminals who wore masks and costumes while committing their crimes by donning capes and masks and outlandish costumes themselves and upholding the law on the very terms in which it was being broken -- have become a source of social unrest as their status changed from heroes to antiheroes in the minds of a public who, by the '70s, had come to distrust all authority figures. By the late '80s, heroes are outlawed. The Minutemen, as they called themselves, are no more, their actions branded as vigilantism by an increasingly paranoid president. They hang up their masks, go underground and begin new lives -- until one of them commits suicide.

The suicide, as it turns out, is a cover-up for a murder, which in itself covers up for a much more sinister plot that involves a nuclear threat. The hero known as Rorschach comes out of hiding to solve the murder, finding a conspiracy linking the deaths of former costumed heroes. As the messy trail of clues leads back to an unexpected source, more heroes, sick to death of not being able to do what they do best, come out of hiding to track down whomever or whatever is plotting their deaths.

The movie is being drawn from such rich source material there might be a sort of manic rush to point out that there's no way that this movie could be as good as the book, it can only try to be as good as the book, and so credit is given for work turned in without being graded accurately. It's as if no one wants to further offend the sensibilities of Moore, who famously does not like any movie adaptation of his stories, even going so far as to declare The Watchmen to be unfilmable. Many reviewers of this film are perhaps being somewhat reactive in an attempt to protect the original story and its author from any potential abuse-by-praise. That, and the story's overall complexity, may be impacting the ability of critics to view the movie with complete objectivity.

Since the story is being told in two different mediums it is rather unfair to compare one medium to another. It's perhaps more fair to judge each method on its own merits. That said, The Watchmen movie is as good as a counterculture hero tale gets. And it's quite meticulously faithful to its source, at that. Not without flaws, the movie nonetheless delivers up a great story in a clean, elegant style that illuminates without slowing down the tale. The characters are as human as heroes get, this movie going further than any movie yet made in exploring the person behind the mask, the real people with human weaknesses and fears. Jackie Earle Hailey's performance as the emotionally tortured Rorschach is very reminiscent of Heath Ledger's quietly insane Joker. And as for flawed heroes with three-dimensional attributes, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Comedian is as real as it gets. As for the controversy surrounding the ending, I myself thought the ending in the graphic story was more than a bit silly. The movie's ending, in my opinion, is as true to Moore's ideology as the original ending. The same resolution is achieved through virtually the same means, just through a different route.

Dark, gritty and suspenseful, with a soundtrack that's a roster of the best hits of the '60s and '70s, the film churns along like a locomotive, cramming a ton of detail into two-and-a-half hours that somehow doesn't feel that long. None of the book's hefty philosophy is lost in translation. Like the original series, the movie is an epic story that draws on existentialist philosophies, nuclear-age political satire, dysfunctional personalities, and gonzo history all combined into one visually searing social commentary.

Movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight were good for a night out. But The Watchmen will continue to play through your dreams.

review by
Mary Harvey

18 April 2009

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