After 20 years of waiting, Watchmen is finally here. I first read Alan Moore’s brilliant comic in the early 90s and again a couple of months ago. It is a truly superb and multi-layered masterpiece about a group of fucked up masked heroes and vigilantes. It postulates numerous questions: What is the true nature of humanity? (We’re not very nice.) What sort of person is likely to become a masked hero and are they all a bit mental? (They’re all a bit mental.) Given that humanity isn’t very nice, how do you bring about world peace? (I’m not telling.) Why do female crime-fighters have to wear such sexy and revealing little outfits? (They just do, alright? Deal with it.) There are lots more and I’ll admit I’m being a bit flippant – it really is worth reading.
The film is set in the alternate history of 1985 where, due to the intervention of the masked heroes – in particular the god-like Dr Manhattan – America won the Vietnam war and the Cold War is still ongoing. Nixon is still in power for his third term (the rules were changed) and the second generation of masked vigilantes have been outlawed. Only a couple remain active.
The film begins with an awesome bit of violence as a masked superhero called the Comedian is beaten shitless and thrown to his death out of a window. This is followed by an opening credit sequence that is truly a wondrous thing to behold and is even enjoyed by people who hated the film. It is the best opening sequence since the remake of Dawn of the Dead – also directed by Zack Snyder. The man’s a genius at starting a movie. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars (a new hope) and Barbarella (basically Jane Fonda stripping in zero G) have great openers but not quite as good as this. I’m not including porn here.
The story then follows a sociopath called Rorschach – who has a cool moving Rorschach print covering his face – as he unearths a conspiracy that is getting rid of all the remaining masked heroes. At the same time the world’s Doomsday clock is at five to midnight, tensions mount in the ongoing cold war, and ‘Tricky Dicky’ Nixon is on the verge of pressing the big red button. The tensions increase still further when Dr Manhattan gets pissed off with journalists and mankind generally and buggers off to Mars. Dr Manhattan is the only hero to have superpowers and can do pretty much anything. He could whip Superman while working, having sex, and making his dinner – you’ll have to watch it to know what I mean. This causes him to slowly lose touch with his own humanity and all those around him – leaving him increasingly isolated, condescending and patronising as the movie progresses. When he talks to people he comes across as a mix of Yoda and Gandalf but without the charm. He also insists on being naked for most of the film so you are subjected to enormous blue glowing genitalia for large chunks of the film. This is cunningly balanced by the lovely Silk Spectre getting naked so it’s ok, there’s something for everyone.
So that’s the plot. Well some of it. There’s a lot of plot as it was a long comic novel.
When the film came out there was a tedious predictability about the divisions it would cause. Some hard-core fans of the graphic novel disliked it because too much was changed. I should hesitantly point out that they are idiots and are wrong. Short of actually going frame by frame in line with the comic (like Sin City), Snyder could not have done a better job of bringing it to the screen. If he had copied the comic too closely the only people who would have enjoyed it would have been the hard-core fans and Manhattan’s schlong would have been wasted on the almost all-male crowd as they sat there for the 10-hours trying to find fault.
The details were there (even down to moles on faces) and the sets and events and critical conversations were included. Conversely, a large chunk of the criticism was that it too slavishly copied it’s source material. Critics boringly banged on about Snyder’s loyalty to every detail of the comic and that it proved detrimental to the movie. There was no way he could please both groups of people but fortunately Snyder managed to please the vast majority of people in the middle camp. The ‘norms’.
There are two big changes however that partially substantiate this dislike. One is the deletion of a ‘comic within the comic’ – a tale of piracy and survival and bloated corpses and murder. Which really is a great as it sounds. There is going to be an extended version of the film which includes this comic as an animated insert. It is also now available on DVD. So people can stop blubbing about that. The other big change is the ending. A fairly substantial thing to alter. The graphic novel had a fairly bleak and dark ending which was just superb. I love films that end like this, and this possibly explains my devotion to zombies but I digress. The film keeps this ending but just uses slightly different means. Given the current climate in the real world, I think the ending was actually better in the movie. So there.
Will you like this film? It depends what you want from it. If you are a devoted fan of the comic and love every aspect of it and worship Alan Moore (like myself but just more so), then the ending might piss you off too much. If you are looking for something up there with Dark Knight, this is close but not quite there. It is brilliant but it is flawed. Until now, the comic has been deemed unfilmable. Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofski have both tried – the fact that they tried though, should say something about the material. The great and godlike Alan Moore said it was written as a comic and would not translate well to the screen. I can see why, as the pacing, layering and characterisation works differently but it still does work. He probably still just has the hump about what happened to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and who can blame him?
It might help you decide by looking at who liked the film and who didn’t. Nearly all the top critics I respect – Roger Ebert, Jonathan Ross, Time Out, the Guardian and Empire thought it was brilliant. On the other hand, the critics for the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, and the Independent hated it. This pleased me immensely as I don’t want to agree with the Mail on anything. (The brilliant Charlie Brooker once described the Mail as an idiots guide to life released in easy-to-read daily chunks.) The latter group were so obviously going to hate it I’m be surprised they even bothered going. Personally, I fucking loved it. For the record – so did my better half and she hadn’t read the comic. I have read complaints that it is hard to follow if you don’t know the source material but am pleased to say that a lot of my friends hadn’t read the comic and followed it just fine. The film is an astounding spectacle, has some superb action sequences, great characterisation and plot, and the cast of relative unknowns are outstanding. If you are looking for a ‘Crank’ level of action you will be disappointed although the action that is on offer is brilliant. The characters are fleshed out nicely and the complexity of the human condition is examined to a satisfying level. In particular, Rorschach and the Comedian – neither very nice people – come across vividly and you understand where they are coming from. Just like the graphic novel. No mean feat for two people who are essentially psychopaths.
Snyder was given a task that was never going to please everyone. It was a guarantee from the outset that some groups were going to be alienated. If he had just made a movie that was loosely based on the comic I’m sure some elements could have been improved. But that would have been disappointing to anyone who had even a passing like for the comic and we could have ended up with another Batman 4 or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. No one wants that. Snyder did his best to please as many of the camps as possible while remaining loyal to the graphic novel and I could not have been happier or more impressed with the result.
(Note: this is my first review and the ones that follow won’t be as long. I am used to having an editor and you can now see why.)