It's not often I see just one movie in a weekend.
Mostly it's two or three.
Writing a column about two or three films is a helluva lot easier than writing about one film. It's especially difficult when the film isn't any good. While trashing a film in print is fun, there's really only so much damage I can do, only so many words I can sling.
So on those weekends where I have just one film to discuss, I pray to the movie gods it's something with substance.
Fortunately, Watchmen has some substance to it.
Let's get this part out of the way. Watchmen is another comic book movie. It features superheroes in costumes. But that's about as much as it had in common with the other comic books of the mid '80s.
Watchmen is typically lauded as the greatest comic book of all time. It's generally not referred to as a "comic book" at all, and is instead called a "graphic novel." It's a comic that has been granted a place on several lists of great works of fiction and novels from the 20th century, and in most cases is the only "comic book" on the lists. It's a creative work taught in college. Dissertations are written about it. It is regarded as the pinnacle of the genre.
So, of course, someone had to go and make a film out of it, something that, for the last 20 plus years, has been regarded as impossible. As such, Watchmen zealots were convinced there was no way a film could do the book justice.
Thing about adaptations ... they are almost never as good as the source material. How could they be? Setting the mise en scene in a novel is cheap by comparison, and there's yet to be a computer rendition that could stand up to the emotional reaction of the mind to carefully sculpted prose and the power of one's imagination.
Though it's nearly impossible to do, you shouldn't watch a film adaptation and compare it to its source material. They are separate things.
I read an interview with Steven Gould, the guy who wrote the novel Jumper, upon which the movie of the same name was based.
After 15 minutes, about the only thing the movie retains of the book are the characters. It didn't bother Gould in the least.
I almost couldn't believe he'd said that, but then he qualified it, saying that the existence of the film does not mean his book no longer exists. It's still the same good book it was before the film came out. Your enjoyment or lack thereof of one should not detract from your enjoyment of the other.
Man has a point.
Don't expect them to be the same. Enjoy that each can be good for its medium.
Such as it is with Watchmen. Is it the graphic novel? No, not quite, but it's damn close, and it's a good movie on its own.
Writing about the plot of this film is as difficult as writing about the plot of the comic. It's not something easily summed into one sentence, though it begins simply enough.
Imagine a world where superheroes are real and came into existence in the 1940s. The presence of these individuals changed the power structure of the world, much like the impact of the nuclear bomb.
In the world of the Watchmen, the heroes enabled the United States to "win" the Vietnam War and to keep the Soviet Union in check.
After a brief history lesson via the opening credits wherein we learn about the Watchmen's predecessors, the Minutemen, we catch up to the Watchmen in 1985. The Watchmen, however, are no more. They were disbanded by the government, their freelance crime-fighting activities made illegal. Furthermore, the public didn't want them any longer. People were tired of their heroes.
We're just in time to witness the murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). A member of the now defunct Watchmen, The Comedian has spent the time since the group's breakup working for the government.
Another of the Watchmen, the enigmatic vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) takes it upon himself to investigate the Comedian's untimely demise. Before long, he comes up with the idea that someone is trying to take out the members of the Watchmen. He takes it upon himself to warn the other members of the group.
Another member of the Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), has been defamed in public. It would seem being in his presence for prolonged periods of time causes cancer in those around him.
Dr. Manhattan acquired powers in an accident. As a result, he's become a being of energy and though he retains the form, he's no longer human. He does not perceive space or time as normal people do, and as such, he's losing touch with mankind.
But it is his presence that deters Russia from attacking the United States. After he learns of his effect on those around him, Dr. Manhattan leaves Earth for Mars.
In the meantime, the world is on the brink of nuclear war. The "Doomsday Clock" is nearing midnight. Everyone assumes either the United States or Russia will strike first and destroy the world.
Unlike other superhero movies, this one's not about the Watchmen saving the world from nuclear holocaust. Well, not only about that.
There are a lot of interesting differences about this "superhero" movie. One, for most the characters, you have no idea what their super power is. Rorschach? No idea. Sure, his mask seems alive, but past that... the Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) is pretty much a Batman clone. The Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) looks good in latex and kicks ass, but again, what's her superpower? Even in the flashbacks of The Comedian, you're unsure what his superpower is, or if he even has one. Ozymandius (Matthew Goode) is the world's smartest man, sure, but his powers are only alluded to, never explained.
This is to say, the focus here is not on what these characters can do, it's on who they are and why they choose to do what they do. It's a refreshing change.
They do seem to have powers -- perhaps super strength and endurance and the like -- but these are almost treated as unimportant, just as they were in the graphic novel.
What's important is why they choose to do what they do, and why we, as a society, need them. In a way, much like the graphic novel did, the film deconstructs the superhero and comes back with something infinitely more complicated.
What it doesn't do, ever, is insult your intelligence. It has a complicated plot with a lot going on. It dwells upon the relationships, personalities and motivations of the characters as much as it does their actions.
To be sure, there's action in Watchmen, though I'd never call it an action film. I've heard it called that, but that's not really what it is. Don't come in here looking for the giant fight set pieces. Sure, there's plenty of fighting. There's violence. There's gore. But all of it serves the story; all of it moves events forward or illustrates a point. There doesn't seem to be action for action's sake.
Much like the original graphic novel was to comic books, so is the film to other superhero films, except The Dark Knight. Were it not for The Dark Knight, it would be easy to argue for Watchmen being the best "comic book" movie ever made. It's a comic book film for adults and, possibly, intellectuals.
Sure, it's a beautiful, stylish film. It's exceptionally shot and well edited. The FX are stunning. The writing and acting are good. The standout here is Haley. Because of his acting, and because it's a great part, Rorschach is the one character you can't wait to get more screen time. Every scene during his prison stay is exceptional, as is his last scene with Dr. Manhattan. In fact, my favorite scene in the film happens during Rorschach's stint in the Joint. If Haley is going to continue to turn in performances like this, he's going to be one of my favorite actors.
How much did they leave out? I suspect a lot, but as I said before, that's really irrelevant. The filmmakers have stayed true to the spirit of the graphic novel. Hell, with regard to the end, I'd say they improved it. There's no giant space squid in the movie.
When I left the theater, I felt much like I did when I walked out of The Fellowship of the Ring the first time, as though I'd just taken a lot in and wasn't quite sure of my opinion. Fellowship ended up being one of my favorite films. I suspect that with repeated viewings, so will Watchmen. Now excuse me while I try to find another three hours to see it again.
See you next week.
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