It begins with Bob Dylan and it ends with My Chemical Romance, and somewhere in the middle lies the universe of WATCHMEN, a hyper-violent and ultra-stylized adaptation of the seminal graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. For those not in the know about the importance of WATCHMEN in the pantheon of comic books (it's, like, a big deal) the ads for the movie might lead one to think this is just another superhero movie. Actually, without "Watchmen" the graphic novel, there might not actually be any of the superhero movies we're enjoying today.
Darker than THE DARK KNIGHT, cooler than IRON MAN, and way more fantastic than any of the FANTASTIC FOUR movies, the movie takes place in 1985, around the time the graphic novel was published. The world of WATCHMEN is an alternate-reality version of the United States during the tail end of the Cold War, except Richard Nixon is still President (he is serving a fourth term after ending the Vietnam War) and the U.S. and not the Soviet Union is on the verge of invading Afghanistan. Like that would ever happen.
Amidst all of this Superman Bizarro World-esque political intrigue is the main storyline that has the comic geeks salivating - the plight of the Watchmen, the last remaining members of an elite group of superheroes. Once heralded as society's heroes (they, not Nixon, actually ended the conflict in Vietnam) the Watchmen have now disbanded as the chaos and cynicism of 1985 has caused many a citizen to wonder "Who is watching the Watchmen?"
One of these fallen heroes is Edward Blake aka The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan from "Grey's Anatomy," a show I've never seen) and he is to superheroes what Billy Bob Thornton was to Santa Clauses. Overweight, jaded, and just an all-around s.o.b., The Comedian meets a grisly demise when he is pummeled within an inch of his life and thrown out the window of a skyscraper in a city very much like New York City. Who killed him and are the other Watchmen next? That's what the intrepid but disturbed Walter Kovacs aka Rorschach (Jackie Earl Hailey from "Little Children" in the movie's best performance, bar none) is determined to find out. He's no superhero (and actually, neither is anyone else, really) but he does considers himself a fellow "mask," as he is almost always cloaked beneath a cloth mask that continually forms creepy Rorshach Test-like shapes. As Scott Marks pointed out out in his review on emulsioncompulsion.com, if these characters aren't superheroes, then what's up with that otherworldly mask of his? Good point.
Rorshach sets out to warn the other Watchmen who include Dan Dreiberg aka Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson, also from "Little Children" - where was Kate Winslet during casting?) Laurie Jupiter aka Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman from "The Heartbreak Kid," like Nite Owl II, she comes from a superhero family) Adrien Veidt aka Ozymandias (Matthew Goode from "Match Point") and Jon Osterman aka Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, the voice from all those "priceless" MasterCard ads.) Could one of the Watchmen actually be the culprit? Well, I've never been a spoiler kind of reviewer, but even if you have read the graphic novel, the mystery element was never the story's strongest suit.
What works best in the movie is it's ability to emulate the look and feel of the graphic novel without feeling restrained in any way. Director Zack Snyder, who previously adapted Frank Miller's graphic novel "300" to the big screen in a similarly stylized fashion, amps up the violence (perhaps he could have turned the dial to 9 instead of 11) as well as the hypnotic imagery, creating a world that is reminiscent of the Off World colonies of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" but is no less eye-popping.
Besides Rorschach, the other memorable character in the film is Crudup's Dr. Manhattan. Once a handsome, idealistic, scientist, now a glowing-blue, cerebral, superhuman (with matching genitalia on full display, ladies) with the ability to destroy and reassemble matter, Doc Blue is a bit like the HAL-9000 in human form - he views the world in logical, not emotional, terms. The fact that both he and Nite Owl II are both involved with Silk Spectre II makes for a very odd love triangle, but when one boyfriend teleports himself to Mars, what's a girl to do on a Saturday night?
A lot has been made about the movie's 2 hour and forty minute running time - to wit, the a-hole in the movie theater I saw it in who yelled "Boring!" during one of the best scenes of the film (to those who have seen the movie, it's the flashback of Rorschach searching for the missing girl.) To paraphrase Roger Ebert," No good movie can be long enough, no bad movie can be short enough." There's so much of WATCHMEN that is good, that the stuff that is just okay (some of the dialogue and the oft-repeated chop-socky fight scenes) never quite brings the proceedings to a screeching halt.
WATCHMEN traverses similar territory to last year's bar-raising superhero movie THE DARK KNIGHT in that the superheroes are conflicted (some might even say cuckoo) individuals who are oddly compelled to don outlandish costumes (with the exception of Rorschach, the costumes in WATCHMEN are pretty ridiculous, but one can assume Alan Moore was making a point) and ultimately do the right thing even if the world's leaders are opting for more convenient options, such as dropping the nuclear bomb. Sadly, WATCHMEN doesn't have a villain as enthralling as The Joker to balance out the nutjobs who we are actually rooting for, but one can argue that the true enemies of the Watchmen are, in fact, themselves.
I've been asked whether or not people should read the graphic novel before seeing the movie. I would say, emphatically, YES. It is a such a ground-breaking and defining work that it really should be enjoyed first, as there is so much in it that a movie just could not ever do successfully. I do, however, think WATCHMEN the movie stands on it's own as a dark, dazzling, and exciting action movie that is, like it's end credit song suggests, a jolt of punk rock in an era of mainstream moviemaking that is just so much Muzak.