Last night I had the immense good fortune to attend an invitation-only sneak preview of Watchmen here in New York. The best word to describe the experience is, simply, “epic.”
It was epic. Review and possible spoilers (particularly for those who haven’t read the graphic novel) follow below the fold.
I should probably admit that I was halfway in love with this movie even before the opening credits rolled to a close. I can’t imagine a better introduction to this film than the first scene, which opens with the assault and murder of Eddie Blake, the masked vigilante and sometime-assassin better known as The Comedian. The portrayal of violence (in this scene and throughout the film) is unrelentingly ruthless and brutal—cringe-inducing without being cartoonish. Every blow seems bone-shattering; it almost hurts to watch, on a profoundly visceral level, and yet the fight scenes are so brilliantly choreographed that it’s impossible to look away. Also, in an interesting move, director Zach Snyder occasionally breaks up the action with split-second freeze frames, so that the moment visually mimics the act of looking at a single comic book panel…he’s pointing to his source material as if to show that he’s not so much adapting but faithfully translating—not re-envisioning the comic for the audience but re-reading along with them, an attitude which generally holds true for the film as a whole.
The murder then segues into an amazing montage delineating the history of the several decades worth of masked crusaders, parading a mix of iconic real-life images and figures across the screen, interwoven with the mythos of the alternate America first imagined by Alan Moore in the early 1980s, in which Richard Nixon has served five consecutive terms as president and nuclear war with Russia appears increasingly immanent. An earlier generation of masked heroes known as the Minutemen, composed of Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre, Hooded Justice, Nite Owl, Silhouette, Dollar Bill, Mothman and The Comedian, gives way to the Watchmen as the world grows darker and more chaotic. One moment, JFK is warmly greeting Dr. Manhattan on the White House lawn, the next The Comedian is slinking away from a grassy knoll in Dallas, smoking rifle in hand. The image of a burning Buddhist monk shifts to scenes from the Vietnam War, which in turn give way to Andy Warhol’s Factory and Ozymandias partying at Studio 54 with David Bowie and the Village People, while crime and poverty escalate and riots rage in the streets. By the end of the credits, we are left with an overwhelming sense of decline and decadence, a society spiraling rapidly out of control.
From there, the plot closely follows the main narrative arc of the original comics. The death of The Comedian sets off a chain of events among his former crime-fighting compatriots, all of whom have been forced into early retirement by the anti-vigilante legislation known as the Keene Act. All, that is, except for Rorschach, whose fanatical, uncompromising dedication to justice has driven him to become a renegade, operating outside of the law. His obsessive investigation into Blake’s murder brings him back into contact with his former partner, Dan Dreiberg (the second generation Nite Owl), just as Dreiberg reconnects with with Laurie Juspeczyk (the former Silk Spectre II). Laurie’s troubled relationship with godlike superhero Dr. Manhattan has reached a breaking point, but as the threat of nuclear Armageddon trembles on the horizon and a proof of an anti-mask conspiracy growing clearer by the hour, all of the former Watchmen are inexorably drawn together for a climactic confrontation at the Karnak, the Antarctic fortress of Ozymandias, a.k.a. Adrian Veidt, “The Smartest Man In The World.”
Which isn’t to say that things haven’t been changed and lost along the way. As satisfying as the opening sequence is, it’s also the last we get to see of most of the older generation of masked heroes, except for a few brief flashbacks and the occasional offhand comment. Their history has been stripped down to bare bones, leaving only what is needed to comprehend the present state of affairs: the troubled attraction between Sally Jupiter and Eddie Blake, the latter-day reformation of the group under the leadership of Ozymandias, and its gradual disintegration, ending with the passage of the aforementioned Keene Act. As much as fans of the graphic novel will miss the omitted aspects of the backstory, however, the cuts are made cleanly, throwing the major themes of the story into sharper relief. Moore’s warped, nightmarish vision of the American Dream gone horribly awry remains intact, thanks to a script which stays remarkably faithful to the source material, a sublime visual aesthetic, and a solid cast, several of whom provide truly exceptional performances.
As rumored, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s scene-stealing Comedian is pitch-perfect, bringing exactly the right blend of self-destructive charisma and pathos to one of the most complex and ambiguous roles in the film. Likewise, Jackie Earle Haley brings Rorschach to life in a subtle and surprisingly touching performance, conveying the sense of a painfully sensitive soul warped and traumatized by a brutal and pitiless world. As Ozymandias, British-born actor Matthew Goode sometimes seems to slip into an odd (but pretty decent) Marilyn Monroe impression, pouting out his lines like Little Lord Fauntleroy in a community theater production of Some Like It Hot. It’s off-putting at first, but strangely, his performance works: when the appearance of an effete, yuppie pretty-boy gives way in the madness and horror of the climactic scenes, the effect is all the more devastating.
Billy Crudup, on the other hand, turns the all-powerful Dr. Manhattan into the universe’s most detached, creepily-mellow kindergarten teacher. He looks great, certainly, but when delivering lines like, “In my opinion, the existence of life is a highly overrated phenomenon,” he seems to be channeling Jeff Bridges in Starman, with a twist of Lieutenant Commander Data. Similarly, Malin Akerman fits nicely into the tight, vinyl Silk Spectre costume and performs admirably in her extended fight scenes, but her little-girl voice is often grating and her performance lacks the depth of the rest of the cast, as she attempts to project a kind of wounded vulnerability and comes off more like a neurotic sorority girl. Her character grows less irritating through her interactions with Dreiberg (an always-solid Patrick Wilson, slightly schlub-ified for the occasion), but that might be because once they finally get together, there’s less talking and more sex, fire, and ass-kicking leather boots. And who doesn’t like that?
As I said, this is an epic movie. It doesn’t pretend otherwise. Even the soundtrack is decidedly epic; there are certain songs which are so iconic that they’ve come to border on the cliché, from overuse as well as through parody. Most films can get away with using one or two of these songs to highlight a particularly climactic or emotionally-wrought scene. Watchmen, though, uses nothing but iconic, instantly-recognizable songs from artists ranging from Nat King Cole, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, to Philip Glass and Richard Wagner. The choice makes complete sense because these songs actually fit the scale of the movie and its themes rather perfectly. There was a moment when Dreiberg and Rorschach approach Ozymandias’ fortress as the Hendrix version of “All Along The Watchtower” blasted through the theater, and I thought, “Huh. Really? Couldn’t come up with anything less obvious?” But in a matter of seconds, I was won over by the sheer scope of the scene, the forbidding, awe-inspiring setting, the anticipation of a final battle…the scene not only lives up to the song—it owns it.
Furthermore, there are plenty of intriguing, fan-pleasing details worked into the film, and many fine, subtle moments which touch upon elements from Moore’s original narrative in a brief but satisfying way. At the end of a disturbing and difficult flashback in which Hooded Justice intervenes in Eddie Blake’s brutal attempt to rape Sally Jupiter, there is a split-second silence and exchange of glances following an embittered quip from the beaten and bloodied Comedian which seems to cut to the heart of the sado-masochistic undertones of the crime-fighting lifestyle: the violence, the costumes, the repression and strangeness of their daily lives are thrown into a new light, all in one brief scene, with hardly any dialogue. The subtext, greatly reduced but not forgotten, lingers just long enough to infuse additional meaning and complexity into the plot without derailing or muddling the narrative.
For the most part, though, Watchman is a film about ideas and action on a grand scale. It questions to what degree an individual can take responsibility for the rest of humanity without separating oneself from the ebb and flow of human experience, without compromising a sense of one’s own humanity entirely. It takes the troubling, familiar axiom involving great power and great responsibility and masterfully spins it out into a bleak, complex philosophical endgame to which there are no easy answers, only insoluble moral ambiguities. It’s a tale of heroes and villains, gods and monsters, set in strange but uncannily familiar past, and it is as enthralling, unsettling, stirring and impressive as any epic needs to be. I’m sure that there will be plenty of diverse and dissenting opinions tossed about over the coming weeks, and I look forward to the discussion…but mainly I’m looking forward to seeing the movie again as soon as possible. And for those of you rushing out to theaters this weekend, please check back in and let us know what you think. Trust me, there will be plenty to talk about, once we’re all watching the Watchmen.