Tell Me What You See… The Watchmen Reviewed

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Feature films based on graphic novels and comic book series have had a massive boost in numbers in the past few years. The stories of some of the highest grossing movies of all time once began as monthly printed issues. Marvel comics in particular has had great success adapting some of their more popular brands: Spiderman, X-Men, Fantastic Four, and even the Punisher, Ghost Rider and the Hulk to some degree. D.C. had great success with Superman and Batman movies in the 70s and 80s, and even more success with the recent reboots.

Full Disclosure: I read the watchmen graphic novel about 5 or 6 years ago. I went into the movie preparing to be disappointed: I wasn’t sure how well Zach Snyder would be able to pack all of the content of the 12 issue run into one feature length film. The following review takes into account how great the book was. It does tend to be a little long, so here’s my spoiler free summary: the film- albeit cheesy at times- is a great story, and contains some amazing visuals. Don’t expect an action-packed movie though, or you might be disappointed. The characters are complex and the themes are deep. At a run time of over two and a half hours, it still feels like they didn’t quiet get everything in. I enjoyed it a lot, and would probably go see it again.

 

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Comic based movies are not afraid to push the medium of film. At the time of release, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn had the highest number of CGI effects in a movie. You could assume that the medium of comics would lend itself very well to the big screen. The action, physical impossibilities, and overall bravado contained in the 2-dimensional panels would look brilliant in 3D. Movies like the Dark Knight have such wide appeal that it’s possible to be both critically and financially successful. In some cases though, this fails to be acheived. Alan Moore has infamously requested to have his name removed from any credits on the movies adapted from his works. He feels that the stories he told work specifically and exclusively in the medium of the comic book, and that they don’t transcend to film well. League of Extraordinary Gentleman- for example- was a critically panned disaster, and not very faithful to the original work. Films based on Moore’s books took a turn for the better with V for Vendetta, (staring Natalie Portman), yet Moore vows never to watch any movie based on his work. Other authors such as Frank Miller have instead embraced adaptations to their work. The recent 300 and Sin City both come to mind.

Moore is widely considered to be one of the best writers of comic books active right now, and The Watchmen is said to be the pinnacle of his work. There’s no other story in my opinion that could be better source material. Snyder attempts to stay faithful to the comic in many, integral places. The relationships between the characters stay the same; the plot generally unfolds in the same way; and, you will recognize a lot of frames in the film being taken straight out of the artwork of the comic’s illustrator Dave Gibbons.

SPOILERS AHEAD

… you’ve been warned 🙂

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The characters in The Watchmen are so unique and full of depth. The original costumed hero trailblazers- referred to as the Minute Men- are the first to be introduced, and instantly we get the feeling that this isn’t your standard super hero movie. One has gone crazy and now lives in a mental institution, and in an almost comical ironic turn, another hero’s costume is the cause of their demise as it gets caught in a revolving door leaving him defenseless. The only gay character in the movie- Silhouette- is slaughtered in a brutal murder along side her lesbian lover for living such a shameful life in the public eye (side note, Moore sure does love to knock off the lesbians in his books. See: V for Vendetta).

Some of the Middle Men make it to middle age, but few are still mentally stable. The original Night Owl “comes out of the closet” after masked heroes are deemed unlawful, and writes a tell-all book. The Comedian continues his militant journey- having been recruited by the U.S. government- and traveling to help with the war in Viet Nam. The original Silk Specter, births a child- Laurie- whom she pushes to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a crime fighter. A parent/child story told so many times it’s almost cliché. We find out later on in the film though, this relationship has a lot more layers to it.

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The more central, present-day cast of characters includes elements of the past. There’s a new incarnation of the Night Owl, and the Silk Specter. And the Comedian- back from Viet Nam- is in for round two. Add to them the emotionless, logical, matter-controlling superman, Dr. Manhattan; the “Smartest Man on the Planet” Andrew Veidt/Ozymandias; and, the gritty and oft over-emotional Rorschach. Veidt attempts to get them all together to form a second generation group, but is met with opposition, and they never really gets the cohesion he’s looking for. After the government outlaws costumed heroes, almost everyone hangs up their capes and moves on with their lives.

The movie’s plot eventually unfolds, bringing them all together once more after an unknown killer begins offing superheroes. Doomed relationships blossom into new ones, old partnerships reform. Everyone that is, except for Veidt. His character is a little under-developed. You don’t see much of him in the film, as a result, when you do finally get to see his true personality, you don’t really have much to contrast it with.

I love that they actually use real-life political and business personalities. Nixon is president, Lee Iacocca is gunned down in a meeting with Adrian Veidt, and the verbal dig that the New Frontierman editor gets in at the end of the film about America not wanting Reagan for president is a nice touch.

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There are so many themes in this movie that I just fell in love with when I read the book, and the reason I liked this movie so much (and I really did), was because it reminded me of those concepts all over again. My favourite of the story deals with the notion of creation through destruction. I was so intrigued with the idea that Ozymandias felt he had to take this corrupt incarnation of society, these dueling world super powers, and completely tear them apart before they could be built back up again.

Not everyone in the film agrees with him, and those that do are glad that they’re not the ones that have to pull the trigger. Rorschach- true to his black and white being- simply won’t stand for it. He represents the other end of the spectrum: better to fix something that’s broken from the ground up, then to tear it all apart and start from scratch. Dr. Matthattan- in all his wisdom- is basically trapped into agreeing with Ozymandias. He is shown evidence of the event’s success via a televised press release from President Nixon. He can’t intervene, or help, as the public thinks he caused the explosions. And, he can’t publicly blame Veidt, or the newly resolved political conflicts will also be destroyed. Night Owl and Silk Specter also agree to keep the truth quiet, though they appear less convinced that it was the right thing to do. Night Owl basically represents the combination of Rorschach and Veidt. He knows in his heart that the end will ultimately justify the means, but there’s no way he would be able to bring himself to consider this line of action.

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The other theme I saw in this movie- which I think was just brilliant- is very closely tied to the character and persona of Rorschach, but is prevalent throughout the course of the film. For clarity’s sake, the Rorschach test- or as it’s more commonly known as, an inkblot test- is when an observer is presented with an abstract symmetric black shape on a white background, and they are then asked to describe what they believe the shape to be. These comments are supposed to give the examiner insight into the subject’s personality and emotional functioning.

Rorschach inkblots appear a couple of times in the film. Some are very explicit, like when Harvey is in jail at his therapy sessions; some are subtler, such as the pattern the remains of Harvey leave on the snow in Antarctica after Dr. Manhattan annihilates him; and, one that is less subtle- but speaks the most depth- is as the mask and name of the character Rorschach. This mask represents so much. It’s ever changing shape mirrors our opinion of the man who wears it. What do you see when you look at him? What do you see when you find out more of his back-story? What do you think of his conviction: his self-perceived altruism through vigilantism? And, on a more macro level, What do you see in this film? Given the events that have been presented to you, do you agree with Ozymandias, or do you agree with Rorschach? Or more likely, you fall somewhere in between- like Night Owl. This whole film is basically a psychological evaluation.

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The visuals in The Watchmen are great, and are on an immensely a grand scale. The epicness of Dr. Manhattan’s home on Mars is so beautiful, I felt not unlike Laurie when she first arrives to the red planet: breathless. The explosions at the end weren’t displayed in too much detail, and yet you could tell the gravity of the situation from the massive hole left in downtown New York. The CGI effects for Dr. Manhattan were passable. It took me out of the film a little bit whenever a close up of his face was shown, as there was something a little uncanny about the way his mouth moved as he was talking. It was distractingly obviously computer generated.

What I didn’t like about this movie, was the music/soundtrack. I had heard this from a couple of people, and I after seeing it myself, I tend to agree. The songs and their lyrics are such a literal representation of the scenes they play over, it comes across as very cheesy. The worst offense being the scene in which Night Owl and Silk Specter make love in the Owl Ship while Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is playing overhead.

Overall, the reason that I liked the book so much- and the reason I liked the film- is that it has so much possibility for starting conversations with someone. I think peoples’ opinion of the film as a whole and on the events contained within can give you a bit of insight as to what sort of person they are. I haven’t even written 1/10th of what I could say about the plot and characters, and yet, I feel like I’ve already written so much. So, if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this review, I thank you, and hope that you post your own comments about the film below.

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