Watch the Watchmen

After a 23-year wait, I experienced a fanboy’s dream-come-true last night watching–at last! at last!–the adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen on the big screen. And what a spectacular movie it is! All the kudos in the world are due to Zack Snyder for his (mostly) faithful adaptation of the novel–even improving on the ending, in my opinion.

When I read the graphic novel back in 1986, it stunned me in its portrayal of iconic superheroes as flawed, broken human beings. Sadistic, impotent, pathetic, abusive, out of touch, addicted, fascistic. They’re tasked with watching over us, but who, the story asks, watches the Watchmen? The Watchmen graphic novel went on to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel and was recently named one of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th century by Time magazine.

The plot is dense and demands the viewer’s attention. It’s set in the mid-1980’s in an alternate timeline where superheroes are commonplace and President Nixon is still in office following the U.S.’s victory in Vietnam due to the intervention of Dr. Manhattan, a godlike, 10-foot tall, nude, blue-skinned super-being. Ultimately, after some abuses, Nixon outlaws superheroes, some of whom are forced into retirement, like the schlubby Nite Owl (played convincingly by Patrick Wilson). Others are relegated to operating underground, like the demented Rorschach, a psychopathic killing machine (brilliantly portrayed by Jackie Earle Haley). Meanwhile, the Cold War with the Soviet Union continues to escalate and the world teeters on the precipice of nuclear armageddon. All of this is summarized brilliantly–just in the film’s rousing opening credits–set to the sound of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” (One of the movie’s few flaws are some of the obvious and intrusive song selections, though this one really worked.)

When one of their colleagues, the sadistic, cigar-chomping Comedian, is brutally murdered, Rorshach becomes convinced that there is a serial killer on the loose targeting retired superheroes. He seeks out his former colleagues, including the Nite Owl (an impotent/loser nice guy), Dr. Manhattan (an omnipotent being who sees his past, present and future simultaneously), Silk Spectre (a heroine trying to live up to the image of her mother, the former Silk Spectre), and Ozymandias (corporate bigwig and the smartest man on Earth). Who is behind the killings and what is his/her agenda? Therein lies the mystery. And it’s a winding, breathtaking road to the shocking answers.

Some viewers may have issues with the nonlinear plot. Its through-line, a noir whodunit/whydunit, takes many side-trips along the way, revealing the origins of several characters in flashback, and following the enigmatic Dr. Manhattan–who is no longer even interested in mankind–all the way to Mars where he philosophizes eloquently about the significance of humanity in the cosmic scheme of things. While some critics may complain about these detours, for me, they provide the heart and soul of the story, plumbing the depths of these flawed characters.

Despite the massive media blitz, Watchmen is as noncommercial a movie as you will see. Deep, ambitious, thought-provoking and utterly beautiful, the movie, like the graphic novel, raises the superhero genre to a new level.

After decades of different scripts (I remember reading a pretty decent one in the early 1990’s that sits somewhere in my attic) and endless litigation over the distribution rights, Zack Snyder has done what was previously thought impossible. At last –at last!–he’s brought Alan Moore’s masterpiece to life.

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