In Zack Snyder’s brilliant film version of Watchmen, it isn’t business as usual for a group of rag-tag costumed do-gooders living, working, and laying low in the alternate world of a Nixon-era 1985, a time when masked crime fighters have been outlawed. In much the same way as Chris Nolan did for Batman in the The Dark Knight, Snyder (who also directed 300) moves the crime fighters away from the cartoon landscape – the natural habitat of super heroes – and puts them into a neo-noirish, angst ridden world poised at the breaking point.
No comic book action film, however lofty, would be complete without all the requisite accouterments. Fans of Watchmen and similar work will be happy to know that Synder serves up pulse-pounding, intricately choreographed action sequences and astonishing visual and special effects. His set design is that of a world in trouble, deep in the shadows — part 80’s corporate greed, part 40’s film noir; a Bladerunner world reinvented.
Yet at the heart of the movie are such philosophical concerns as, is humanity worth saving? Is the price for peace too high if to achieve it, one must kill millions to save billions? Saving the world and watching over humanity is the job of the Watchmen — as Adrien Veidt says, “We can do so much more. We can save this world . . . with the right leadership.” But in the tradition of great drama/tragedy, there’s always a “rub”:
The Comedian: . . . It’s like you always say, we’re society’s only protection.
Night Owl II: From what?
The Comedian: You kidding me? From themselves.
It’s the ultimate irony. The big joke.
News anchors report that the United States and the Soviet Union are dancing perilously close to the edge of the abyss (nuclear war), which is represented symbolically by The Doomsday Clock, now set at 5 minutes to midnight. That same night, an intruder bursts into the home of former crime fighter The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and kills him. Does one thing have anything to do with the other? Investigating his death is the vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) who concludes that someone is out to discredit and kill off costumed superheroes. But why? Rorschach seeks out his old comrades to help him unravel the mystery surrounding the The Comedian’s murder — Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Night Owl II (Patrick Wilson), and Adrien Veidt (Matthew Goode). What they discover together turns out to be a profound betrayal of all their beliefs.
Snyder establishes a tone that is appropriately dark, somber and brooding, though one could wish for a little light — and humor — to penetrate the veil and relieve some of the darkness as the has-been heroes dig for answers. Watchmen isn’t light comic action entertainment. It is heavy all the way around, from its tone, to the visuals, and through the thematic content.
Watchmen also presents a different take on super heroes — here we get to see them functioning in the real world. These are not squeaky clean individuals or other-worldly beings — they are ordinary people with extraordinary powers. They are susceptible to the gamut of human failings — alcoholism, abuse, insanity — and that vulnerability is what makes them so fascinating.
This immersion also helps the 162 minute running time pass effortlessly. Scenes may at first seem a little disjointed or confusing, but Synder’s technique to expand on the narrative through flashbacks to create the back story not only answer the questions that inevitably arise (and in a way is consistent with detective work) but also fleshes out the characters into complex, individuals rather than one-dimensional cartoon cut-outs. In particular, I applaud Synder’s imaginatively conceived expository title sequence which provides history as well as context.
The cast is undeniably attractive, but merely competent in the acting department with the exception of Jackie Earle Haley who shines in his role as the cynical, tortured, yet strangely likeable Rorschach. He’s a bit grubby without the mellifluous ink-blot mask, but he breathes life into a character who comes off as creepy and nihilistic, but in truth possesses great character and compassion for a society he claims he despises.
Watchmen is an exceptional achievement for Snyder who pushes beyond the boundaries of established comic book action films, surprising us with a film both real and thought-provoking, energetic yet measured, edgy yet profound — the thinking person’s comic action film.