Perhaps the greatest testament to how much of a pop culture phenomenon 300 was upon its initial 2007 release was that director Zack Snyder somehow got Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures to pony up $130 million for him to film an R-rated adaptation of one of the most beloved graphic novels of all time, Watchmen. This adaptation would have no A-list stars, tons of blue penis, graphic violence and would contain numerous monologues centered on weighty themes and concepts. Total crowd-pleaser right?
Watchmen, as a movie, feels like everyone involved tossed in every single idea they could think of into one movie, regardless of whether or not it would all add up to a cohesive whole. Taken as a whole, it doesn’t rise to “greatness”, but Watchmen is a film that’s very easy to get wrapped up in and the best Zack Snyder film I’ve seen by a country mile. In case you’re unfamiliar with the graphic novel or this feature film itself, Watchmen centers around a small group of heroes, including Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley), Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), in the 1980’s living in a world gone to hell, overridden by crime and paranoia. The Cold War looms over the nation and now a new threat has reared its head….someone is picking off costumed heroes, starting with the murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
Who exactly is behind this murder and why is a mystery, one that’s in the background for the majority of the film. It doesn’t play out as a detective story (Rorschach goes looking for answers but that only winds him up in deeper trouble), with Watchmen instead centering much of its plot over fleshing out the personalities behind the costumed heroes that inhabit its world. Believe it or not, such character based examination actually works quite well, with the frequent dovetails into flashbacks working wonders at lacing tragedy into individuals who could have come across as stock characters in a lesser film. The best of these is God-like being Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) reminiscing about his life in a non-linear fashion. Here, the combination of Crudup’s never fluctuating vocals (they’re always in a calm manner no matter what situation he’s describing) and the varying moods conveyed by his numerous memories give off a unique dissonance that sheds light on not only the characters past but also effectively depicts just how far he’s moved on from the world of humanity.
Put simply, this is a motion picture (much like the graphic novel it’s based on) that is very much enamored with examining the consequences that would ensue from having superheroes really existing in our world. This lends Watchmen an appropriately solemn tone that usually works well….emphasis on usually. Anytime the movie tries to sneak in lines of dialogue or pieces of action that feel more stylized (and that happens way more often than it should), it falls ridiculously flat. Having Nite Owl II ask The Comedian “What happened to the American dream?” and then cutting to The Comedian standing in front of a vandalized painting of an American flag is the sort of unintentionally humorous on-the-nose content that gels with the more methodical elements of Watchmen about as well as cats being paired up with water.
On the actors side of things, there’s a similar dissonance in terms of quality, in that the good casting choices are exemplary while the more miscast individuals are simply jarring. Matthew Goode doesn’t really work at all as Ozymandias, giving the character a pompous air that, coupled with flimsy writing, makes him a one-note persona. Malin Akerman, meanwhile, seems lost in a script that treats about as well as most women fare in Zack Snyder movies (read: horrible), with a large portion of her wardrobe consisting of her either wearing nothing at all or prancing around in a skimpy superhero costume. On the other hand, Patrick Wilson excels at selling the “let-himself-go” middle-aged identity of Nite Owl II while Jackie Earl Haley is simply phenomenal as Rorschach. Even when under the character’s trademark mask, Haley conveys a world of menace with just his raspy vocals and he sells the hell out of his final confrontation with Dr. Manhattan at the conclusion of the picture.
Examining Watchmen as a whole film is a fascinating exercise. For every positive attribute that the film has (the casting of Nite Owl II and Rorschach, the sets & costumes, the awesome retro music infused soundtrack) there’s a number of elements that just don’t work and almost capsize the more successful aspects of the production. That’s partly why it’s such a fascinating film though, even a number of the flaws of Watchmen are marked by the same sort of ambition that fuel its most successful moments. Zack Snyder and co. are swinging for the fences here, and even if they don’t always hit a home run I’m still glad they went up to bat for this movie.