Since Zack Snyder will be delivering the newest version of Batman and Superman in the near future, I decided to look back on one of his last attempts at a superhero movie: the highly controversial Watchmen. It got a pretty bad reputation when it was first released, but is it nearly as bad as people remember?
When the movie is brought up to the most diehard of Watchmen fans, their immediate reaction is to say how bad it was and that the novel is indescribably better. I will agree that the graphic novel deserves all the credit it gets; not only is it a fantastic read with amazing artwork, but it also brings a lot to the genre with great characters and a game-changing twist ending. So I feel like the movie gets unfairly treated when it’s compared to this. To most fans it would never measure up to the novel, and if you were new to the material going in, you were most likely confused walking out, thanks to the amount of information thrown at you for the run time. In a way, you have to be familiar with the material to really understand the movie, but unfortunately the ones who were familiar with it would be very critical due to its problems. So in a way, this movie was doomed from the beginning, but on a re-watch I realized that it has a lot to offer, even if the source material is superior.
Let’s start with the director. Zack Snyder has been criticized a lot for his filmmaking techniques. Many compare him to Michael Bay, saying that what he lacks in character development he tries to make up for in extravagant action sequences. The difference is that Bay has a somewhat childish and offensive humor to a lot of his movies, while Snyder’s movies tend to be very bleak and dour. But for this movie, the serious tone works for it most of the time. What if a normal person became a superhero in real life? What personality dysfunctions would they have? How would this affect them in normal life? All of this is asked while the end of the world is at hand thanks to the Cold War.
Snyder’s signature style really lends itself to this movie. The hyper-saturated look to the film makes it beautiful and bleak, and his slow motion sequences—during the fights and especially the opening—set it above many other superhero movies as far as visuals go. And while I’m on the subject of the opening scene, I have to say that that is Snyder’s best work. The slow motion jumps to different points of the Watchmen’s history is not only visually stunning and made better by a great song, but it sets the tone perfectly for this alternate universe of America and how “superheroes” have affected it. As you watch, you learn the characters backstories, as well as how the world responds to them and how it has changed the course of history. The scene is tragic and fascinating, making it a perfect start to the movie.
The acting is a mixed bag. Some of the actors, especially Malin Åkerman, come across as wooden by not emoting enough in the scenes that really required them to bring their A game. But others , especially Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Crudup, shine in their roles. Haley had the hardest job, with Rorschach being a fan favorite and the face of Watchmen. His character is a Batman type, except for the fact that he has no problem killing bad guys and looks down on most of mankind because of their sins. Rorschach is a very troubled character, and isn’t exactly the most personable, but he’s a complete badass when it comes to finding the people he’s after and beating them down to get what he wants. Haley is incredible in this role, seeming to bring the character right off the pages of the novel, and even delivers the best line in the movie.
Crudup brings a very measured performance with Dr. Manhattan. His performance as a scientist-turned-god is very detached, with a calm, distant delivery to every line. Dr. Manhattan is my favorite character in this movie, mostly thanks to Crudup’s performance. In the novel, it seemed that every line he delivered was booming and clear, thanks to his speech bubbles being bright blue and in big caps. But Crudup plays him as soft spoken and detached, showing just how distant he’s become from humanity. I also really enjoy Patrick Wilson as Night Owl and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, they do a fine job of bringing these characters to life, and were really good choices for their roles. Wilson plays Night Owl perfectly as a self defeated man that can’t quite cope with life after giving up the cape, and he brings an “every-manish” vibe to his role that makes him relatable and easy to root for. Morgan, on the other hand, plays The Comedian as a complete psychopath with a lot of charisma. His gleeful, psychotic performance makes you question how awful the world they inhabit has to be, if he’s considered one of its heroes. Snyder is often criticized for not bringing much depth from his characters, but even though some scenes and interactions were spotty, this is the best acting in any of his movies so far and brings an effective emotional punch during key scenes.
So let’s address some of the problems in this movie. The soundtrack has always been a topic of discussion. While I think that “The Times They Are A-Changing” by Bob Dylan playing during the beginning is a great fit to the alternate history shown on screen, some of these music choices are incredibly distracting. They’re way too poppy during scenes that need to be serious, like during The Comedian’s funeral scene when they play “The Sound of Silence”. Personally my least favorite choice was a cover of “Hallelujah” during a sex scene. Not only is it really uncomfortable and goes on way too long, the addition of that horrible cover puts it over the edge. I’m a 22-year-old male and they somehow made me hate a sex scene—that’s a pretty tough thing to do. The scene mixed with the song feels so out of place and brings me out of the movie every time.
Also, when it came out, the brutal violence threw people off, as with people’s bones cracking out of their skin and guts shooting out when vaporized by Dr. Manhattan. After seeing this movie a few times, the violence doesn’t really present a problem to me, but they could have toned it down a little bit and made it more realistic and not as eye-rollingly gory.
Many people also had a problem with the way the film ended, and while I love the ending to the graphic novel, I think the movie version works better for the movie. The “aliens attacked” ending fits in with the novel really well due to it being very “comic booky”, but the “Dr. Manhattan did it” ending fits the movie better with its darker tone. While both endings serve the same purpose of bringing the world together to face a common threat, the fact that Dr. Manhattan is blamed for the deaths of millions of people gives the movie a much darker edge. The bad-guy-winning twist is as amazing today as it was when the novel was released and I’m very happy that they kept it in. After seeing movie after movie of the bad guy revealing his plan just before the hero stops him, it is very refreshing to see a villain smart enough to carry out his master plan, and winning the conflict. And the fact that the villain ultimately saves the world, despite having to do a terrible thing to achieve it, leaves the viewer feeling torn as the movie ends.
Due to its dense amount of information, and its almost 3-hour-long running time, this movie would have been a lot better split up into different episodes. If they would have released this on HBO as a miniseries, they would have been able to fit more material into it and given that audience some time to ingest all the information with a few breaks in between.
But even though it has its problems, I still really enjoy this movie, with the good stuff outweighing the bad. If a person said they hated the movie due to its missteps, I’d completely understand. But Watchmen still has enough to offer to make it a worthy entry into the superhero genre and is worth the watch, even if the source material is better.