CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: WATCHMEN (2009)
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
(As the screen slowly lightens, the first thing we hear is shouting and screaming, and then realize we’re in the middle of a riot inside a maximum security prison. Violent criminals are engaging the prison guards in a bloody battle. Onto this scene walk MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES.)
MA: We really do visit the nicest places.
LS: And the food here ain’t too bad, either (he’s holding a bowl of chocolate pudding and eating from it)
(A screaming prisoner is tossed over their heads and crashes into some prison bars with a thud. He slides to the floor, seeing cartoon stars)
MA: Today we’re reviewing the new superhero movie, WATCHMEN (2009) based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore.
LS: And Dave Gibbons. Why does everyone always forget the artist? Comic books are a collaborative medium, after all. (looks around) So we’re meeting inside a prison this time, huh? I’m assuming you enjoyed the prison sequence in this movie as much as I did.
MA: And you’d be right. It is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. But more on that in a bit.
WATCHMEN takes place in 1985 in a parallel world in which Richard Nixon is still president, having ended presidential term limits. Nixon remains popular because with the Watchmen’s help he won the Vietnam War, and then convinced the nation that the opposing political parties were Communists. It is against this backdrop, with the threat of all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union, that the tale of the WATCHMEN unfolds.
The Watchmen are masked heroes who have fought crime over the years, beginning in the 1940s right up to the 1980s. During this span, some have retired and been replaced by younger crime fighters who donned their same costumes to continue the fight against crime, and some new heroes have appeared as well.
LS: Actually, in the 40s, they weren’t called The Watchmen. They were called The Minutemen. And you forgot to mention that in the 80s, masked superheroes are illegal, no doubt because a paranoid government wants to keep them in line. The only ones still fighting crime as the film opens are Rorschach (who has gone underground for the most part) and the Comedian (who works for the government directly). Dr. Manhattan doesn’t even count, because he’s not really human anymore.
MA: I didn’t forget to mention these things. I chose not to. I prefer brief plot summaries.
So, the movie begins with one of the aging Watchmen named the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) being murdered. The dark and mysterious vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) believes the Comedian’s murder is part of a plot to wipe out the masked heroes, and he seeks the assistance of fellow Watchmen to investigate.
LS: Is it just me or did Jeffrey Dean Morgan remind you an awful lot of Robert Downey, Jr. in this role. I mean, I know director Zack Snyder was going for mostly unknown actors here, to focus our attention on the characters, but Morgan is the spitting image of Downey. And his voice reminded me a lot of J.K. Simmons (J. Jonah Jameson from the SPIDER-MAN movies).
MA (laughing): That’s so true! He looked so much like Downey, I almost thought it was Downey!
During the investigation, we learn the back stories of the various masked heroes, such as Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). Although the investigation into the Comedian’s murder is the driving force of the movie, 2/3 of the flick really is about who these people are, and why they do the things they do. Once they solve the mystery of who killed the Comedian, then the film switch gears and becomes more of a traditional good guys vs. bad guys superhero plot.
LS: First off, they don’t solve his murder until the very end, so the movie doesn’t exactly switch gears away from the murder at some point. The murder is always there in the plot.
At the same time, the mystery itself is pretty arbitrary. This movie isn’t about a murder. It’s about the characters and their humanity. And there not much that’s traditional or commonplace about this movie.
MA: No, the very end is when the credits roll. The murder is solved before then, and there is more that happens in terms of action after it is solved. And I found the last act of the film more traditional than the beginning and middle. That being said, WATCHMEN really isn’t a superhero movie, not in the way we’ve come to know them, but rather, a movie about masked heroes.
LS: It’s not a superhero movie; it’s a movie about masked heroes? What the hell are you talking about?? Do you ever actually listen to what you’re saying?
MA: I try not to. Seriously, my point is this: WATCHMEN is not a superhero movie in the traditional sense of the word. It’s a dark drama about people wearing masks who fight crime. I realize they’re supposed to be superheroes, but their story has more in common with a tale like THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) than say IRON MAN or SPIDER-MAN.
I really liked WATCHMEN, yet I think this movie will struggle to be a hit, mostly because of its unconventional narrative style.
LS: Struggle to be a hit? That’s funny, the showing I saw was sold out. So were all the other showings that night until midnight. That’s some “struggle.”
MA: We’ll see, but I think the fact that it’s marketed as a superhero flick will work against it.
For 2/3 of this film, more or less, the narrative jumps all over the place, back and forth through time, as we see these heroes in various stages of their lives. Now, I really liked this. I thought it refreshing to tell a story not in the same old traditional way. I have no problem with the narrative jumping around, especially when everything comes together by the end of the movie, and you’re left satisfied, as everything makes sense and loose ends are tied together.
But there are drawbacks to this style. It requires a patient audience, since the story isn’t explained in an easy-to-follow conventional way.
LS: I think after movies like MEMENTO and especially after TV shows like LOST, audiences are sophisticated enough to follow a plot that jumps from the past to the present to the future, like hopscotch.
MA: It also makes for slow pacing. Compared to a movie like THE DARK KNIGHT, which starts its frenetic pace immediately and honestly doesn’t let up until the end credits role, WATCHMEN moves slowly, and you really need to exercise some patience to get through the early parts.
LS: Okay, on this point, we are in complete disagreement. I think THE DARK NIGHT was one of the most overrated flicks I’ve ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it, but I didn’t think it was a masterpiece, and I don’t think it moved at a frenetic pace throughout. I thought the beginning was slow (especially the crappy plot involving a Hong Kong businessman), I thought it was over-long, and Batman was so bland that anyone could have played that role. It was Heath Ledger as the Joker (and to a lesser degree Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face) who made the movie great. Every time Ledger was onscreen, the movie crackled with energy. When he wasn’t around, the movie kinda slumped a bit for me.
WATCHMEN didn’t slow down once for me. All of the characters were fascinating, and I wanted to know more about them. The movie is based on a complex, 12-issue comic series that easily could have made for a 10-hour movie, and is condensed into less than 3 hours, so there’s certainly plenty of plot and characterization to keep us watching. In fact, there was so much going on in WATCHMEN that it didn’t drag for me once. While I looked at my watch several times during DARK KNIGHT.
MA: At times it felt like a 10-hour movie. Hey, I loved the movie, but it took its time.
What made this slow pace work for me was that I enjoyed all the characters. My favorite was Rorschach, and I could have watched an entire movie just about him. He reminded me a bit of DARKMAN, the character played by Liam Neeson back in 1990.
LS: Rorschach, and the Watchmen came out in the 80s, so they were way before DARKMAN. You never read the comics, did you? And DARKMAN is no way as developed or interesting as Rorschach is in this movie.
MA: But WATCHMEN the movie came out in 2009, 19 years after DARKMAN, and it’s the movie I’m reviewing today, not the comic. Not having read the comics is irrelevant, by the way. Movies stand on their own.
Jackie Earle Haley delivers the best performance in the movie as Rorschach. He’s riveting and intense, and his scenes in prison are among my favorite of the movie.
(The prisoners and guards momentarily cease their battle and pause long enough to erupt in a great cheer. MA & LS acknowledge them, and then they return to their fighting.)
LS: Me, too. Haley was actually one of the kids in the original BAD NEWS BEARS (1976) and we hadn’t seen him in much since. He got a lot of acclaim for the 2006 movie LITTLE CHILDREN in which he played a pedophile who just got out of jail and goes home to live with his mother. He was good in that movie, playing a very unlikable character, and he’s great here as Rorschach. These two roles show that he’s one of the best actors of the past couple of years, and someone needs to put him in more movies.
MA: I also enjoyed Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan. The image of the giant Dr. Manhattan fighting in Vietnam is one of the more memorable of the movie. It brought back memories of that old black and white classic from the 1950s THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957).
LS: I thought Crudup was really good, too. And he’s CGI-enhanced throughout the film, too, as a big, glowing blue guy. But he’s believable as someone who has been transformed into something so powerful and awe-inspiring that he has a hard time relating to his fellow humans anymore. I also thought it was interesting that he is naked most of the time (as he is in the comics), and for once, a movie gives us real nudity. No loincloth, no spandex shorts to hide his naughty bits. There is no question that Dr. Manhattan is a real man, if you get my drift. I found that kind of refreshing. And it’s no doubt one reason for the R- rating.
(DR. MANHATTAN suddenly materialized out of thin air with thousands of sparks)
DR. MANHATTAN: Where am I?
LS: Oh, you’ve come to help us stop the prison break!
DR. MANHATTAN: Nope. I meant to materialize at the drugstore. I need some Magnums. See you guys!
(He disappears again)
MA: To me, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre and Ozymandias were less successful and a little less interesting, but they weren’t bad. They certainly were better defined than some of the characters in the X- MEN movies, which always seemed to be mostly about Wolverine.
LS: I really think Patrick Wilson was terrific as Nite Owl. He’s the most human character in the movie, and the one we are meant to relate to, and he does a terrific job in the role.
If you look at it from this point of view, you’ll see that WATCHMEN gives us lots of comic book archetypes, used in interesting ways, as well as a wide spectrum of personality types. Rorschach is the psychotic hero who is so obsessed with fighting crime and punishing evil-doers that it is the focus of his entire life. He doesn’t even consider himself a real person when he’s not in costume. And he lives in squalor, just barely a step up from being homeless, because the trappings of everyday life just don’t matter to him.
Dr. Manhattan, on the other hand, is so outside of human experience, so god-like, that he’s completely lost touch with the world around him. Human concerns just don’t seem very important to him anymore, because he sees the bigger picture. He’s even able to transport himself to other worlds in the blink of an eye. So petty human politics don’t mean much to him.
Nite Owl, by comparison, is the Everyman. He’s clearly human, clearly flawed, and he’s not so sure of himself. He’s the middle ground between the gutter (Rorschach) and the stars (Dr. Manhattan).
Just another example that we’re dealing with big ideas here. Not just people running around in silly costumes.
MA: I agree with you on the “big ideas” point.
Even the Comedian, who’s killed off before the opening credits begin, is given lots of screen time through flashbacks. The Comedian is also one of my favorite characters, and like Rorschach, I could have watched an entire movie about the Comedian alone. I thought Jeffrey Dean Morgan delivered a strong scene-stealing performance throughout.
LS: Yeah, I loved that character, too. And while he does die so early on, he’s in the movie a lot. And he’s a complete bastard. But that’s what makes him so interesting. Not everyone who dons a costume is altruistic. So it’s interesting to see what his motivations are. Greed and lust, mostly.
MA: The movie is filled with neat visuals and impressive fight scenes. In addition to the aforementioned giant Dr. Manhattan in Vietnam, there’s also an amazing crystal machine created by the doctor on Mars, as well as the ice fortress sequence at the North Pole, at the end of the movie. The film looks terrific. Director Zack Snyder (the 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD, and 300, another big comic book adaptation) has made a very watchable movie that is a feast for the eyes.
LS: Yeah, it looks great.
MA: The plot as written I thought was rather silly. I didn’t particularly care for it, nor was I wowed by the parallel Richard Nixon world. The film could have worked well and these characters been just as interesting in a normal world. I thought this plot was a drawback. The threat of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union just doesn’t have the same impact any more as it did say back in the 1980s, mostly because the Soviet Union as it was doesn’t exist anymore. The story seemed dated, therefore.
LS: There was supposedly a discussion about whether to follow Moore’s original storyline here, or update it for a modern audience, and they decided to stick with the original. I don’t think it’s silly at all, though. The character of Nixon is kind of annoying and cartoony, but the idea is that he didn’t have to resort to Watergate because he has superheroes on his side to do all the dirty work (like fighting in Vietnam), is interesting.
It’s also not difficult to simply update this in your mind to our modern world, where countries like Iran and North Korea are threatening to acquire nuclear capability – and nuclear war is still a possible threat. While the plot of the film does distance us from things, it’s not difficult to see how it mirrors modern times.
MA: Plus, the movie doesn’t really explain how these heroes get their superpowers, which is a problem, since we see these guys and gals kicking butt against huge numbers of opponents. Are they just lucky? I think not. The one exception is Dr. Manhattan, who we see exposed to radiation. I guess exposed is too kind a word. He literally disintegrates. Not to worry, he comes back, bigger and better than ever!
LS: I actually think that the only person with real super powers is Dr. Manhattan. The rest are just skilled fighters whose abilities are enhanced by their costumes (a’la Batman). Although during some fight scenes it really does appear that they have super strength.
MA: WATCHMEN is not as good as last year’s THE DARK KNIGHT, but in all fairness, few films are. As I said last year, DARK KNIGHT is the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen, and IRON MAN, which also came out last year, is a close second. So, recent competition is extremely tough.
And I know I said earlier that WATCHMEN isn’t really a superhero movie, but, fairly or unfairly, it’s to these movies that it will no doubt be compared.
LS: I disagree on all counts. DARK KNIGHT is good, but flawed. WATCHMEN is easily the best comic book adaptation so far. I thought it was brilliantly written (mostly because it sticks close to Alan Moore’s original story) and visually powerful. This isn’t some kids’ movie about guys in long underwear. It’s the LAWRENCE OF ARABIA of superhero movies.
MA: Excuse me. (Leans into a barf bag and throws up.) The LAWRENCE OF ARABIA of superhero movies? Wow.
LS: I also find it odd that this movie has been getting a lot of mediocre reviews across the country by mainstream critics. What exactly aren’t they getting about the movie? Some people seem to have a problem with the fact that some of the plot points were changed (especially toward the end) from the comic. Or that it doesn’t include all of the storylines that ran through the comics. But the truth is, it was a Herculean task to take the greatest graphic novel ever written and turn it into a movie that runs just under three hours. Some things had to get clipped. Some things had to get simplified. But on the whole, it is very faithful to the source material.
MA: I think the pacing isn’t there, and I think the narrative isn’t easy to follow. I liked it, but unlike you, I think it’s flawed. It’s also a very adult tale, with dark themes and some bloody violence, and it should be viewed with this in mind. Keep the kiddies at home.
LS: It’s rated R for a reason. Between Billy Crudup’s penis, Rorschach’s ultra-violence, and some R-rated sex scenes, this is not THE SUPER FRIENDS. And rightly so.
MA: And while I thought the plot silly, the actual writing was excellent. So, in spite of the mediocre plot, writers David Hayter and Alex Tse succeed in crafting an enjoyable story, which actually works more as a series of successful character sketches than a traditional narrative plot. They’ve put together a host of interesting characters, told their stories in ways that capture the imagination, and succeed in doing so even though the driving plot these characters find themselves in doesn’t do them justice.
I for one didn’t mind the slow pace of this movie at all. The characters and their stories held my interest until the action heats up towards the end.
LS: It’s not slow! Stop saying that!
MA: Well, it’s not an action-packed vehicle either.
While it never really wows, WATCHMEN is an intriguing dark tale of masked heroes that makes its points and succeeds in entertaining. So, as long as you’re not expecting a traditional superhero movie, and if you’re in the mood for a dark adult story that does border on horror, then WATCHMEN is a movie for you. I really liked it and highly recommend it.
LS: I was a major fan of the original series by Moore and Gibbons, and I was a little concerned about how it would get adapted to film. But I’m very pleased with the result. Considering the time constraints, I think they condensed an epic story into a smart, exciting movie that works.
It wowed me, and I’m a fan. It wowed a friend of mine who saw it with me, and he had never read the comics and didn’t know what to expect. So this one should please fans and non-fans alike.
So go see it already!
(They look around to see everyone on the ground. The riot is over)
LS: We missed all the fun. We didn’t even have time to do many gags.
MA: Oh well. (Looks over his shoulder) Sorry about that guys. Maybe next time?
(Behind them stand Richard Nixon, Lawrence of Arabia, Robert Downey Jr., the animated Super Friends, several colonial Minutemen, J. Jonah Jameson, a group of samurai, Batman, Nite Owl, and the Amazing Colossal Man, all shaking their heads in frustration and complaining about wasted time.)
LS: Don’t forget to take home your complimentary chocolate pudding.
(Originally published on Ferar Zone on 3/8/2009)
© Copyright 2009 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares