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Watchmen

0600005030QAr1.qxd:0600005030QAr1starring Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, and Patrick Wilson
written by David Hayter and Alex Tse & directed by Zack Snyder
Rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language.
94%

In an alternate 1985, a second generation of masked heroes are forced to hang up their capes when President Nixon, currently serving his fifth term in office, makes their vigilante activities illegal. Each of the former “Watchmen” deals with the return to civilian life differently. Dan Dreiberg (Wilson), formerly “Nite Owl II,” visits the original Nite Owl to reminisce about the old days. Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), “Silk Spectre II,” struggles to understand her mother (Carla Gugino), the original Silk Spectre. Super-genius Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), formerly “Ozymandias,” and the god-like Dr. Manhattan (Crudup) work tirelessly to create a powerful new source of alternate energy in the hopes of ending the imminent threat of nuclear apocalypse. Meanwhile, “Rorschach” (Haley), takes his crime-fighting gig underground, unwilling or unable to abandon his alter-ego. It is Rorschach who first suspects trouble when Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), formerly known as “The Comedian,” is thrown from an upper-story window. Rorschach’s investigation leads him to suspect that someone may be hunting former Watchmen for reasons unknown.

Watchmen is a movie that deserves to be seen more than once, but not everyone will be able to sit all the way through a single showing. I have not read the original Watchmen graphic novel, but I can say that this film has duplicated the graphic novel/comic book experience more closely than anything I have ever seen before. Last year, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight brought the superhero genre into the realms of respectable mainstream filmmaking and nearly universal critical acclaim. Now, Zack Snyder has unapologetically created a superhero movie that refuses to make concessions to the uninitiated and is sure to sharply divide audiences and critics alike. It is both a step back and a step forward for the genre, but its significance should not be underestimated.

With a runtime of 163 minutes, Watchmen has plenty of time to thoroughly develop a diverse cast of characters and wind its way through a labyrinthine system of interlocking subplots, but it is still an incredibly dense movie. There is simply too much to observe and absorb, visually, aurally, and philosophically, for a single viewing. Watchmen blindsided me with a concentrated burst of American cultural history and troubling moral ideology that I am still struggling to process, and I admire it for that.

I love that the music of Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel is important to this vision of an alternate history. I love that Dr. Manhattan single-handedly wins the Vietnam War, striding across the flaming jungle to the strains of Wagner a la Apocalypse Now. I love that the film’s depiction of Henry Kissinger is inspired as much by Dr. Strangelove as by the actual man, and that he plots with Nixon and his gaggle of generals in Strangelove‘s war room. This is American history through the lens of cultural memory, and it is done with subtlety and style.

The performances are solid and compelling, particularly Haley’s Rorschach and Morgan’s Comedian. Dr. Manhattan joins the small pantheon of digitally-rendered characters whose screen presence rivals that of their flesh-and-blood co-stars. Most compelling of all, though, is the way these characters completely deconstruct the superhero genre. Dr. Manhattan is the only character with genuine superpowers (he exists outside of time and can manipulate all matter at will), but he no longer has a stake in humanity and he seems content to sit out the coming nuclear apocalypse on Mars.

Rorschach, on the other hand, is almost too invested, and is guided by an unswerving and disturbingly absolute vision of right and wrong; a vision which seems just a bit unstable and off-base. The Comedian exists at the other end of the spectrum. He is a repellantly amoral character who is apparently tolerated because he works with the good guys rather than against them, and is allowed to get away with murder and worse as a result.

The other three float somewhere in-between these extremes. Ozymandias, one of the only former “masks” to go public, has spun his alter-ego into a profitable franchise of books, toys, and an upcoming movie. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are heroes because dressing up and beating bad guys lets them forget about their personal issues.

I am oversimplifying a bit here, of course. I would need a few thousand more words to begin to do these characters justice. This is both a strength and a weakness of Watchmen as a film. It spends over two hours of its runtime just exploring these characters and their world in a way that is normally reserved for print or television, where time is far less important. It definitely can be felt to drag at times. There are whole scenes that grind forward at a snail’s pace, heavy with portentous meaning that doesn’t quite seem to materialize. On the other hand, Watchmen is immersive in a way that few other films can be, and I will probably try to experience it again, if only in hopes of discovering how deep the layers go and whether it holds up as well a second time.

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~ by Jared on March 6, 2009.

One Response to “Watchmen”

  1. Yes, I enjoyed the unique way the characters were developed in this movie too. I also was troubled by the philosophical questions that it dealt with after I watched it. I thought I knew where I stood on the issue, but in the end I wasn’t 100% sure…

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