Saturday, March 14, 2009

Watchmen ***

*** out of ****

Let me begin with the disclaimer that I have not read the graphic novel and have no intention to in the near future. Going into the movie, I had only a vague idea of what it was about and what to expect. I was told it was a love-it or hate-it thing, depending on whether or not you had read the book. I had seen the trailers and TV spots and was not very impressed with my first impression. It seemed that Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. were attempting to make the biggest, most epic, and not to mention best, superhero movie ever. Because all of the heroes in the movie were unknown except to those who had read the book, it seemed destined to fail. But being the movie buff that I am, I had to think of another project that was a similar love-it or hate-it prospect. In the late 1980s, Robert Zemeckis attempted to make the most epic animated movie in history, by inserting animated characters into the real world in a way no one had seen before. This movie, of course, was Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It was decided that the star of that movie would be a completely unknown character, not a famous one like Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. Like that movie, Watchmen would not have worked if it was about a famous character like Superman or Batman. Although the formula is not perfect, Watchmen has certainly earned the title of most epic superhero movie ever. As for being the best, well, it falls a little short.
The characters that dot the film are all unique to the mind of the original writers and have never been seen in anything else. Some are more enjoyable to watch than others, but all are extremely well-developed. The Comedian is a big brute that likes to womanize. The smiley-face is his logo. Silk Spectre, the only girl in the group, is simply following her superheroine mother into crimefighting. Nite Owl is the peacemaker that tries to avoid a conflict at all costs, but can kick serious ass if need be. Rorschach, brilliantly played by Jackie Earle Haley, is a loner psychopath with a troubled childhood that doesn't like being part of a group. He spends most of his screen time hidden behind a mask shifting into different ink blots, a disguise he adopts as his true self, shown in that he calls his mask his 'face.' And, Dr. Manhattan is an omniscient being covered in blue light that can be in several places at once, see the future, and become as huge as he wants. Ironically, he is the only one with actual superpowers and arguably one of the most powerful superheroes ever invented in all comics.
The film takes place in an alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon has been elected to his fifth term as president and crimefighters are people in masks claiming to be superheroes. The Watchmen were a group of six superheroes that dispersed when a law was passed outlawing masked crimefighting. The movie opens with the Comedian, a former Watchman, being murdered in his apartment. Rorschach investigates and warns his fellow team members that he thinks someone is out to kill them all. The Watchmen reunite with each other, causing some old alliances to be broken and love interests to be switched. Giving away any plot points beyond this would be spoiling, but I will say that it is a very complex story with many twists and turns that lead it in interesting and unique directions.
The movie plays out like a serial from the 40's or 50's with its sometimes cliched story, but its characters and content are completely contemporary. The film has gratuitous nudity, mostly from Dr. Manhattan, who apparently is so distant from humanity that he never feels the need to wear clothes. It also has so much gruesome and bloody violence that it competes with the Saw movies in hacking up people. They were really going for the R rating on this one. Also, its use of 80's songs is cool and sets the timeframe, although some were used inappropriately.
Watchmen is flawed, of course. The best example is its structure, which feels like the serialized graphic novel it originates from, in that some scenes go on too long and it lacks the many gripping action sequences that mark all superhero movies. It also goes on too long, but a film this complex is allowed to be long. The film is epic in scale and will surely bring attention to the already-famous graphic novel. It is a good film that deserves some recognition, if not for being the best superhero movie ever, at least for bringing an unfilmable novel to the screen in a way no one could have imagined.
I would recommend this movie to fans of the graphic novel, fans of comic book movies, and dark action films. Not intended for girls who don't like violence. Absolutely not intended for children.

You can watch the trailer here:

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