Directed by Zach Snyder
Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse (based on the graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons)
Starring: Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Hayley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, Matthew Goode, and many others.
Tagline: Who Watches the Watchmen?
Trivia: Three Bob Dylan songs are featured in the film, “The Times They Are-A-Changin”, “All Along the Watchtower”, and “Desolation Row.” Lyrics from those songs are frequently referenced in the graphic novel.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Hugo Award Winning Watchmen revolutionized the comic book form during its initial run from 1986-87. Everything about Watchmen shattered comic book tropes, a brilliant satire on the public’s fascination with superheroes. Moore explored psychological terrain superhero comics rarely ventured upon such as sexuality, damaged psyches, the joy of inflicting violence – basically taking the Fascist logic of caped heroes to its logical conclusion. In spite of their character flaws they can display compassion, heroism, and love. Above all, Watchmen is a character study.
Maybe the adaptation arrived too early, just before the deluge of corporate superhero movies took over the multiplexes. Now would be the perfect time for a Watchmen adaptation because it stands against everything those movies represent. For this very reason – the film looks much better in retrospect.
The story takes place in an alternate 1985 where superheroes are real. Meanwhile, the world stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation, not a far cry from the actual 1985.
The stunning opening credit sequence tells the alternate history through a series of iconic images: American wins the Vietnam War with the help of the Watchmen (Vietnam is the 51st state), the government spearheaded a violent persecution of the counterculture, the Watchmen are celebrity/cultural heroes, and Richard Nixon is still President.
The climate of the Cold War certainly gave rise to the mass popularity of superhero comics. Stan Lee and his artists at Marvel Comics set the template for character based story telling in comics, often within the context of the Cold War. The origins of the Marvel heroes were rooted in nuclear technology: Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, the Incredible Hulk being exposed to a nuclear blast, Iron Man a military industrialist, and so forth. Stories often featured Soviet and Chinese villains.
Watchmen explored the mass psychology of comics, telling a dense story on par with a post-modern novel, asking readers to question why they wear Batman T-Shirts. Why the celebration of guys in spandex who use force to solve problems? Is there a pathetic hopelessness in the subtext of all this?
After spending decades in “development hell” Watchmen finally arrived in theaters in March of 2009. With the U.S. in economic paralysis in the early days of the Obama administration, the Cold War milieu of Watchmen felt remote and irrelevant to critics (and audiences). A cynical film about superheroes appeared out of sync with the harsh realities of 2009.
The film’s structure mimics the comic book, using a collage of flashbacks and flash forwards. A real masterwork of film editing. Snyder’s action sequences are violent and exciting, but feel heavily orchestrated and controlled. Ironically, the movie ends not with a gigantic battle, but a philosophical debate. Very true to the graphic novel.
So, who were the Watchmen?
The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) – The link between the Minutemen (an earlier WWII incarnation of the Watchmen in the story’s mythos) and the Watchmen. He’s a violent enforcer who enjoys inflicting violence. Despite his anti-hero persona Morgan brought a pathos to the character.
Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) – The product of a nuclear experiment gone awry, he is now a blue giant capable of extraordinary powers and lives in multiple dimensions, making Superman pale in comparison.
Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) – An angry, perceptive vigilante who wages total war against criminals. Rorschach’s a maniacal individualist who senses a conspiracy within the ranks of the Watchmen. Haley’s performance stands out from the rest.
Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman) – The daughter of a superhero and the lover of Dr. Manhattan. The most humane member of the group.
Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) – Another Batman clone known for his technological gadgets. Other members of the Watchmen consider him hopelessly naive.
Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) – The most mysterious member of the group. A combination of James Bond and David Bowie known as “the smartest man in the world.”
A central theme in Watchmen is whether humanity is even worth saving. We have created the technology that will destroy ourselves and then th politicians use the weapons as bargaining chips. Can there be any hope for such an irrational world? The film refuses to provide any easy answers here, much is left to the audience to sort out.
As Ozymandias states in the graphic novel, the 20th century was a race between enlightenment and extinction. The Watchmen have the power to decide the fate of humanity, much like the Greek Gods, and their “final” solution comes right out of a stark Cold War thriller.
Watchmen splices all the anxieties of the Cold War into something of a pop culture monument, a clearing house for old anxieties. Zach Snyder’s film paints on a wide canvas; an amalgam of Cecil B. DeMille, Richard Donner, and Fritz Lange. A violent, cerebral epic that will age well.