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Watchmen


by Yoda
posted on 3/06/09
"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" So goes the Latin phrase written by Juvenal, a Roman poet, and not a hip-hop artist's stage name as I'd first assumed. It translates roughly to "Who watches the watchmen?" It is a phrase which encapsulates the inevitability that any leaders which humanity might have will only be human themselves, and are liable to have the same flaws and problems as the people they watch over. This one phrase is the soul of Watchmen, the famed graphic novel, and it has survived largely intact through the metamorphosis into Watchmen, the film.

The story is a truly rare creature; it is set in an alternate timeline, but not as an excuse to look into the future or construct a completely new reality. Instead, it goes back and inserts two events into history; the rise of costumed vigilantes taking the law into their own hands, and the accident which creates the deific Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). From there, the story follows every last ripple of those events to their logical conclusion; Dr. Manhattan's intervention causes the U.S. to win the Vietnam War. President Nixon's popularity skyrockets, he abolishes term limits, and by the film's start (1985), he has matched FDR's four-term mark. Eventually, society demands oversight and costumed adventuring is banned. All the while the imminent threat of nuclear war with the USSR looms large in the background.

The film is set in motion by the murder of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a particularly glib, brutal "hero." Rorscach (Jackie Earle Haley), a masked reactionary who refuses to abide by the ban, thinks that the murderer may be targeting masked heroes and takes it upon himself to investigate. His is the film's central storyline, and he is the force which moves the film to its conclusion.

The story of Watchmen, however, is less about plot and more about stark personalities reacting to one another. Most of the film's strengths come straight from the thematic depth of the graphic novel: Rorschach's ever-changing mask contrasts with his immutable principles. Dr. Manhattan's ability to do everything has made him too detached to do anything, and his sometimes nebulous ability to see the future has absolved him of any feeling of responsibility he might have to change it. Of course, he's still fascinating, and he can replicate himself into a one-person Blue Man Group, a skill which he uses for some fairly inventive multi-tasking.

The casting is largely spot-on, with Haley being the obvious standout. Of course, the fact that he gets all the best lines and plays the character bound to be every viewer's guilty pleasure probably helps. Crudup brings a cold, lifeless sense to Dr. Manhattan, and Morgan brings the Comedian's wide range of emotions to life. Patrick Wilson plays Nite Owl with a perfect dose of awkwardness, and Matthew Goode plays Adrian Veidt with a confidence bordering on boredom. Malin Ackerman's Silk Spectre is bland and lifeless, but one could argue this was true in the novel as well.

Watchmen strays from its source on a few points. There are some alterations to the film's climax that were probably inevitable, but are done quite elegantly. Others, such as the enhancement to the character's abilities, are a significant misstep. One of the many ironies inherent in the graphic novel was that, for all its focus on heroes, Dr. Manhattan is the only character with anything you would call super powers. Yet in the film they're all preternaturally swift and strong, leaping across rooms and punching foes through walls. The film is almost painfully deliberate even with these jazzed-up fight scenes, so perhaps they were deemed necessary to generate excitement. Unfortunately, by elevating the physical abilities of the heroes beyond the merely exceptional, they undermine the story's core message: that no matter how many masks and costumes the characters cover themselves in, they can't hide the fact that they're all too human underneath.

Moviegoers expecting an action film, or merely a more mature version of X-Men, will likely be disappointed when they discover that Watchmen is something altogether different. It is slow, philosophical, and methodical, and far more concerned with back story and motivation than with plot developments. For all the talk of director Zack Snyder's affection for flash over substance, he's crafted an extremely patient film here, and has taken care to paint all the way to the frame in every shot. One need look no further than the brilliant opening credit sequence to see that Snyder has genuine talent.

How remarkable that this film was ever made. Watchmen is an ensemble superhero film with only one actual superhero. It is a treatise on the nuances of morality, and therefore has an opaque moral (if it has one at all). It's a period piece, but it's set in the 80s. And though it contains not one movie star and runs 163 minutes, it commands a nine-figure budget.

That so many bold chances were taken to bring this project to fruition should please both its fans and its critics, and the mere fact that this film was allowed to exist should please fans of the source material. The film's gradual creation mirrors Dr. Manhattan's description of the improbability of any one life coming into being; its long journey to the screen was tumultuous and unlikely, yet here it is. That it exists, even in a moderately diluted form, is almost miraculous.