The year is 1985 – but not 1985 as you or I know it. It is an alternate past where America won the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon is still the president, and masked vigilantes have been barred from their superhero activities by an act of Congress. One dark evening, a brute of a man named Edward Blake (Jeffery Dean Morgan) is attacked and thrown to his death out of the window of his apartment; but this is no ordinary murder victim. Edward Blake is actually a former masked hero called the Comedian, a trigger-happy killer who belonged to America’s two major hero collectives – the Minutemen in the 1940’s and the Watchmen in the 1960’s – and went on to work as a covert operative for the U.S. government. While the murder appears to the police like a burglary gone wrong to the police, fellow masked vigilante Rorschach/Walter Kovacs (Jackie Earle Haley) is not so convinced, believing that the murderer is out to get other former masked heroes. He sets out to warn all of his former Watchmen colleagues – Nite Owl II/Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman), and Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) – but none seem to take him seriously. But he digs into his theory anyway and soon finds himself up to his neck in government conspiracies concerning the nuclear apocalypse. It’s more than a mouthful to say all of that, and that’s just the basic story of Watchmen. In fact, the adaptation of the 1986-87 Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel is enormously complex beyond a few-hundred-word explanation and there is nearly three hours worth of it to take in. After the extolled arrival of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008, it made sense to assume that the arrival of the Watchmen in 2009 would be just as highly praised, both being similarly complex and much beloved mythologies presented in highly artistic fashion – well, it was and it wasn’t.
I’ve never come across a person who said that they didn’t in some capacity enjoy 2007 Spartan blood-fest 300, Zack Snyder’s second major motion picture. He took his inspiration, the Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name, quite literally and gave the world a lush and juicy moving comic that they have been chewing on like happy dogs ever since. Snyder’s similar treatment of Watchmen got just as many chilly receptions as it did warm ones; common words of criticism include “stiff,” “stuffed,” and “hollow.” It is personally perplexing to read comments like this that seem so willing to sweep the film under the rug because it isn’t subjectively pleasing. Granted, Watchmen has as much robotically expository dialogue but it is plainly unfair to call a movie bad because of clunky narrative motion and cheesy wording; Titanic was nominated for nearly every Oscar it was eligible for except screenplay – and for good reason, as the script and dialogue are just short of atrocious – but the critics loved that film. The problem arises in the dense nature of the source material. I personally like the film, but there is so much information to be absorbed; with everything screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse managed to pack into the movie, I think they deserve a hand, but with all the issues that manifest I fully understand why director Terry Gilliam said the novel was “un-filmable.”
As a thing to watch and experience, Watchmen is a brilliant a feast of a movie as anyone could ever want – it’s the perfect occasion to use grand words like pulchritude and bacchanalia. It’s a film about cause and effect dressed in rich colors and visuals. But Watchmen’s greatest triumph is its portrayal of violence. In 300, Snyder turned the hacking and slicing of Persians via muscle-rippling Greeks into a glorious dance gushing wounds and arterial spray and it was cheerfully cool. But Watchmen trumps ornamental flourish of its predecessor ten-fold. The action is still fast and smartly choreographed, but the look of it is filled with the spirit of tenebrism as if Ribera or Caravaggio had offered their aesthetic two-cents beyond the grave. Every time I watch it I get mad at myself for not finding the time to see it in the IMAX.