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Published:March 9th, 2009 18:00 EST
Snyder`s Watchmen Falls Just Short of The Original Novel`s Brilliance

Snyder`s Watchmen Falls Just Short of The Original Novel`s Brilliance

By Christopher HIllenbrand


Unless you`ve been on Mars meditating on the complexities of the universe, you`ve heard about the cinematic adaptation of Dave Gibbons` and Alan Moore`s seminal graphic novel: Watchmen arriving this past weekend.

Whether you`re a comic fanatic or a casual fan of superhero whiz-bang productions will ultimately help or hinder the experience you`ll receive coming out of the epic 163-minute long picture. Watchmen, directed by Zach Snyder, perpetuates the trend that Christopher Nolan`s revitalized, and darker treatment of the Batman series began, featuring a revamped portrayal of the superhero archetype. But as in the original comic serial later re-released into graphic novel form, Watchmen shuns the stereotypes that a world in jeopardy needs heroes notably when they`re neither inclined or equipped for such an undertaking.

The evils that infect the world are the same that the Watchmen unknowingly possess. These heroes are people of sexual urges (the omnipotent doctor is the exception to that rule, especially where midnight manners are concerned), impotencies, savage hypocrisies, and megalomania. And with the world`s fate in the hands of those beyond the law, who does watch the Watchmen?

According to the story, nobody, and more philosophically, nothing. Set in an alternate universe and invariably on an alternate Earth circa 1985, the film outlines an existence where heroes live in real time and have altered the course of history. From the movie`s onset, we learn Richard Nixon is currently in his fifth term as the President of the United States with the country still entrenched in fear from a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union.

In a global climate riddled with insurmountable dilemmas, the elite coterie of heroes known as the Watchmen, once sanctioned as lawful protectors of society, are now forced into retirement and lead uninteresting lives as common citizens. The story revolves around the six remaining members of the corps of vigilantes incepted after World War II ended.

The brutal murder of the aged hero The Comedian unites the others together as the circumstances of his death provokes one vigilante in particular, Rorschach, to take up the investigation himself. All the heroes, save one, are normal people with unique gifts that may be impressive but un-super-human nonetheless. Edward Blake a.k.a. The Comedian (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is the most ambivalent character as a person of assorted contradictions and a dubiously tragic symbol of how the heroes are becoming obsolete long after their glory days have passed them by.

Though none of his behavior is anything to joke about, he finds his purpose and society as one big punch line. The only female in the group, Laurie Jupiter a.k.a. Silk Spectre II (played by Malin Akerman) is the sweet, jaded vigilante coming to grips with her unrequited love with Doctor Manhattan, who continuously grows distant and detached from emotions and the human condition in general.

Like the other heroes, she is as flawed as those she protects: her relationship causes her sexual tensions and insecurities arise towards her mother, the original Silk Spectre. Laurie`s mother, Sally (played by Carla Cugino) is a spinster resigned to her bitter past she now laments as nostalgia.

Jon Osterman a.k.a. Doctor Manhattan (played by Billy Crudup) is the only super being with superhuman abilities among lesser heroes. But as an immortal, he can only look into his past as a man through an objectively cold perspective. As a being made of specific quantum particles (to know exactly what, you`ll have to read the book because the movie doesn`t go to that length), he`s beyond the limitations of time and space and in tune with universe on a nonlinear plane where his clairvoyance can glimpse into the past, present, and future all at once if he desires.

As the only other government-supported hero, besides the deceased Comedian, Dr. Manhattan and his fearsome ability to create and destroy matter at will are the U.S.`s upper hand in staving off war with the U.S.S.R. Walter Kovacs a.k.a. Rorschach (played by Jackie Earle Haley) is a rogue hero working above the government`s law banning costumed heroes since anarchy-rule engulfed America. He dishes out his own brand of black and white justice to the wicked.

As a right-wing avenger of the righteous, his psychological instability compels him to view society as a sore where only the few, including him, can save. Other than a trench coat caked in filth, Rorschach`s other calling card lies in the shroud covering his head that has a series of a static inkblots shifting to and fro across his face, thus giving birth to his namesake. Rorschach`s paranoia into the Comedian`s death reveals a deadly truth by the film`s finale.

Dan Dreiberg a.k.a. Night Owl (played by Patrick Wilson) is the hero most blatantly affected by the end of the vigilante era as he leads a quiet, solitary life as a homely middle-aged loner until he`s pulled back into crime fighting by his former vigilante partner Rorschach. Dreiberg took up the night shift after the original Night Owl retired, but after being cast aside as obsolete, he now seeks friendship in the man whose title he presumed. Adrian Veidt a.k.a. Ozymandias (played by Matthew Goode) is the former captain of the Watchmen who has settled comfortably into retirement.

In the Watchmen universe, Veidt is widely regarded as the world`s smartest man is a successful entrepreneur of merchandising his hero image as action figures and other marketable products modeled after Ozymandias. Relevant to today, Adrian`s alternate business exploits include investing money and his brilliance into discovering a more efficient and less detrimental energy resource to the Earth.

All the heroes are models based from certain hero personas that the public has become familiar with, each in their own Spandex apparel denoting their individual crime fighting alter egos. Inspired by Captain Atom, Doctor Manhattan is a stark naked blue being in a human form; and while he is fully exposed, his undercarriage is understated to a point where it shouldn`t become a distraction. Silk Spectre II wears a skintight black and yellow striped suit accentuating her feminine features as her flowing brown hair twirls about her as she beats criminals to a pulp.

The Night Owl is dressed as his name suggests in a cape and cowl with goggles. Ozymandias dons a Hellenic armor two-piece like his idol, Alexander of Macedonia. The deceased Comedian wore drab olive green and black fatigues and brandished assault weapons with the film`s iconic smiley-face button as flair on his lapel.

The film`s milieu of the United States 1985 is evocative of how paranoid we, the United States, really were over the nuclear threat the Soviet Union posed to us. And in the graphically suffused signature of Zach Snyder`s directorial style, he depicts the gloom and desolation of the state of the country and N.Y.C. at the time. With Dave Gibbons, the novel`s illustrator, advising on production, Snyder accurately encapsulates the lurid detail and stark color schemes of the original comic.

Though the comic`s author, Alan Moore, had panned Hollywood`s wishes to convert the story to the silver screen, he did commend the movie`s screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse for their adaptation and how it remained nearly completely faithful to his text. Any fan of the comic serial will clearly notice the alterations made to the novel`s plot to fit the story`s structure into the celluloid medium, but then again the original plot was merely incidental.

What Snyder and crew, via Gibbons and Moore, were concerned with were the story`s themes, character studies, and the aesthetic tone. The film radiates ideas of nihilism, deconstructing the public perception of heroes, and the real impact and necessity, or lack thereof, of heroes for society`s well being. An unmasked hero murdered; a nuclear Armageddon on the horizon: these are of no importance to the grander picture.

No one really exists. Nothing really ever exists and therefore doesn`t matter in their world. So when the planet is effaced of all life, it would redistribute the balance of lifelessness in and outside their puny insignificant orb. It`s as simple as that. Even further, the world`s heroes are mortal and subject to the laws of physics in that even they can only maintain justice in one place at one time. And since a number of the heroes originally in the Minutemen are dead or pensioners, only these five can assume so much of the world`s crises. In a real world without any tangible villains (well, besides one that may only be revealed if you should watch the movie), how can heroes grapple with the ideas of hopelessness and despair?

The characters in the film are portrayed effectively, for the most part, by some applauded screen veterans and a few unknowns. As the Comedian, Jeffrey Dean Morgan`s portrayal is sated mostly in the flashback sequences that compare and contrast the former Minutemen and the newer Watchmen. Morgan is persuasive in getting across cynicism and feeling of helplessness As Silk Spectre II, Malin Akerman renders a meager performance partially befitting the character`s matured innocence and insecurities at being a displaced lover and heroine.

Billy Crudup plays the taciturn super being Dr. Manhattan whose doubts over the validity of mankind in an uncaring universe and fleeting glimpses of tender pathos forces him to go into exile on Mars. Crudup plays the aloof demigod figure with sincerity from the character`s human origins and applies the same as the conflicted force removed from the pettiness of his former kind. Jackie Earle Haley plays the dangerously disturbed Rorschach to the t, convincingly conveying the character`s sinister outlook on the world and his propensity to remain alone in his quest to right the wrong by his own deranged moral compass.

Patrick Wilson realizes the impotent Clark Kent type of the Night Owl II the comic`s creators originally intended. Later in the movie, you`ll see how he`s able to come through in the clinch after getting hyped up after saving lives. Matthew Goode`s role is one of arrogance and grandiosity as he plays the egocentric Ozymandias who is swayed into believing he is responsible for the salvation of the human race. Watchmen is a film beset with moments of brilliant compassion and abhorred cruelty all executed under Snyder`s eye.

Sometimes even the most seasoned moviegoer will cringe at the awesome visceral imagery and cerebral connotations and subject matter of the world and how the tolls of mankind`s destructive nature have plagued it. As the film`s tagline says: justice is coming to us all. No matter what we do. 

From Watchmen`s nostalgic flashback introduction, the audience is subliminally drawn into the world inhabited by costumed crusaders from World War II on until present day 1985. In a vision captured so realistically and surrealistically (almost like a dream), the viewers can believe the events and the heroes who altered them are in fact very real with the use of mesmerizing special effects and direction. Overall, the film captures a majority of the magnificent source material`s writing, while Snyder continues his second famous hallmark of melding entertaining action choreography with the more poignant acts.

The music throughout the film, lifted from solid gold oldies and standards catalogs, admirably adorns the soundtrack to the wistful ambiance towards the past and the enlightened prophetic gravity in the middle to the end of the picture. What the film suffers from though are some directorial miscues, a couple of lackluster performances, and an unbecoming dependency on the music. As noted, the introduction set the standard for Watchmen that was equaled many times over, but in the same light, several vital aspects of the plot and the mythology behind the main and ancillary characters was conveniently vague to keep the movie within 2 hours 43 minutes which took away from the picture`s overall quality.

As the mother and daughter vigilante legacy, Carla Cugino`s and Malin Akerman`s acting didn`t quite shine through as the sole female presence in the film; though a substantial amount of screen time was devoted to them, they didn`t match the emotional and residual intensity as their counterparts on the comic panels executed. And the music, while tasteful in its usage, often overshadowed the action and made a farce of the seriousness of the scenes on which they were laid as texture. But Warner Brothers must be congratulated on translating a graphic novel, deemed by many as un-filmable into perhaps the most satisfying and entertaining adaptation possible on the most accessible medium.

With its glaring shortcomings, the film is more than redeemed by its many otherworldly qualities that make for some of the greatest moments in contemporary motion picture history. No one envisioned the film could really live up to the ingenious work of literature that inspired it, but it is a welcome supplement to the Watchmen lexicon for old and new enthusiasts alike. Warner Brothers has confirmed that an hour of extras will accompany the theatrically released version of the movie once it hits DVD and Blu-Ray, putting to bed my worries about the movie not tidying up some of the story`s loose ends. Watchmen is the finest action hero movie since The Dark Knight, even with its flaws.

Where critics overlooked the politically motivated sanctimony and relative absence of the title character in The Dark Knight, they`re quick to overly criticize Watchmen for excessive violence and the predicted discrepancies between the novel and the motion picture. In a scale 1 to 10, 5 being average, I give Watchmen an 8.9 due to the overarching strengths and holistically grim and surreal beauty of the picture. Though most of the viewing public may not understand some of the underlying intricacies of the movie, hopefully the film will spur legions to fill the gaps they missed by picking up inarguably the greatest graphic novel ever created.