The year is 1985 in an alternate universe where President Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as President of the United States and tensions between the nuclear superpowers, the U. S. and the Soviet Union, cause the Doomsday Clock to inch closer to midnight, which, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “conveys how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction.” With the passage of The Keene Act banning costumed heroes, the question becomes: Is anyone left to turn back the hands of the clock or is mankind doomed left to its own devices?
Based on the classic graphic novel by writer Alan Moore, who goes uncredited per his request, and illustrator Dave Gibbons, the story is set in motion by the death of Edward Blake a.k.a. the superhero known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), although “hero” is a stretch of the word’s definition considering his actions, especially his treatment of women. Blake is attacked at his home, thrown out his apartment window, and plummets to his death.
Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is concerned that Blake’s death signals someone is out to kill his former allies and associates so he goes to warn them. Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), the second man to wear the Nite Owl costume, and Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who used to be Jonathan Osterman before an accident turned him into a superhuman being no longer constrained by time with power over matter, ignore Rorschach until an assassination attempt on wealthy industrialist Adrian Viedt (Matthew Goode), known as Ozymandias before he revealed his identity.
However, Manhattan learns that over the years he has caused the cancerous deaths of a number of associates and secludes himself on Mars. This causes both superpowers to rethink their positions and postures moving forward. It also contributes to his girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), who followed in her mother’s (Carla Gugino) footsteps as Silk Spectre, finding comfort in Dreiberg.
As the plot unfolds and the mystery is solved, the film also reveals itself to be a wide-ranging character study. As the different heroes pass under the microscope, the viewer learns their stories: who these individuals are, what drove them, and the toll it has taken on them and the people in their lives. It’s an intriguing examination of the superhero ideal and poses questions about what we want from heroes, not just in comic books, and how realistic those expectations are.
Watchmen is very well rendered from its bleak Blade Runner nighttime exteriors to the soft blue glow of Doctor Manhattan. Like they did on 300, director Zack Snyder and his director of photography Ray Fong use time-manipulation in the fight scenes. They also recreate many of Gibbon’s iconic visuals. The film worked for me at 163 minutes and I will be curious to see the extended version, yet there could have had some cuts and changes, such as some scenes that repeat information, like Rorschach’s violent encounters in prison with unhappy inmates, the length of the sex scenes between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, and Manhattan’s full-frontal nudity. Although filled with superheroes, this is a very adult film, and not for kids.
There are changes to the story that may disappoint fans who can’t let go of the novel or accept the limitations imposed by transferring to another medium. The biggest is the climax, and while I don’t understand the need for the alteration, it works as presented. Unless it was just the theatre I was in (Pacific Theatres at the Grove), the sound was way too loud at times. From the fight scenes filled with thunderous blows to Nite Owl’s ship roaring across the screen, I found myself distracted by the volume and wondering what the sound team was thinking by taking me out of the moment.
I enjoyed the Watchman graphic novel when I read it 10 years ago, but was under the impression that a single movie could not do the story justice and a television miniseries would be the better format. I was also concerned when I learned that the “Tales of the Black Freighter” and “Under the Hood” segments didn’t make the cut, yet were filmed and not only were soon to be released to the home video market, but were eventually going to be incorporated into an ultimate edition on DVD/Blu-ray. This made it sound like the theatrical release was going to be incomplete. While I still think a miniseries would have better served the graphic novel in its entirety, Snyder, writers David Hayter and Alex Tse, and the entire team do a much better job than I expected bringing Watchmen to life. While the film won’t be talked about with the same high esteem as the graphic novel, they set a high bar to clear for other action films this year.