Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, Matthew Goode
It’s probably a bad thing that my most consistent thought while watching Watchmen was “I wonder when something’s going to happen.” That doesn’t make it a bad movie – visually, it’s a stunner (although I think director Zack Snyder needs to give slow motion/fast motion a rest) – but it does keep it from becoming a great movie. By no means generic, it nevertheless fails to transcend the way that The Dark Knight did a year ago, though the two explore similar themes regarding vigilantes and their place in society. The story itself is strong, it’s the telling that doesn’t quite work.
The story takes place in an alternate version of history, where Nixon is still President well into the 1980s, the Vietnam War was an unqualified success for the U.S., and masked heroes are a part of everyday life. Most of these heroes were forced into retirement with the passing a bill outlawing them, though the government has kept two employed – Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) – and another, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), continues in his work, his adopted identity having usurped that which he was born into. When The Comedian is murdered, Rorschach believes that the rest of the former Watchmen may be at risk as well and works to discover who is behind it.
His former colleagues are less inclined to get back into crime fighting. Dr. Manhattan and Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), formerly the hero Ozymandias, are working on a project together that would deliver energy to people the world over for free; Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), formerly Nite Owl II, is out of shape and spends his days reminiscing with the first Nite Owl; and Laurie Jupiter (Malin Ackerman), formerly Silk Spectre II, never really wanted to be a masked avenger in the first place, but was pushed into it by her mother, Sally (Carla Gugino), the first Silk Spectre. The relationships between the characters are elaborated upon a great deal through flashbacks and herein lies part of the problem. While this story structure is ideal for a serialized format, it doesn’t translate easily to film. Watchmen is perhaps a little too faithful to its source material and the result is a film that doesn’t flow particularly well.
There are other problems, the most glaring of which is with the character of Laurie. I know that when the film first came out a lot of people placed the blame squarely on Ackerman, which I don’t think is really fair. Certainly she doesn’t help things but the fact is that Laurie is such a flat, non-entity of a character that even a great actress would have had difficulty breathing life into her. She’s the token girl, designed to wear a costume ridiculously unsuited to her occupation and to cause strife amongst her male colleagues. Ostensibly she should be more than that, since her existence is what convinces Dr. Manhattan that the earth is worth saving, but there’s really very little too her as a character. To be frank, the story doesn’t really take women as heroes very seriously at all*. For all her talk about how she used to be a hero, Sally’s role seems to have been largely symbolic and to consist primarily of posing for pictures. Silhouette gets to be a lesbian and then die (a common occurrence in mainstream fare), and while Laurie proves capable of kicking some ass, she ultimately doesn’t seem very necessary to the Watchmen team. Add in the fact that none of the women are masked while all the men are, which perhaps suggests that secret identities aren’t really important for women because they don’t really matter in terms of the group’s success – the team wouldn’t be noticeably weakened by their absence. The best moment of unintentional comedy comes from a nightmare Dan has where he peels off his face to reveal the Nite Owl cowl and then Laurie peels off her face to reveal… her face with slightly more eye makeup.
All that aside, however, there is more than enough good to make this a film worth seeing. Of the actors, Haley is the standout and a scene where he comes unraveled at the realization that he’s been set-up is one of the best in the entire film. Another best comes from Dr. Manhattan’s exile on Mars, as he contemplates his existence on earth and constructs a structure seemingly made of glass. Crudup’s performance as Manhattan is also very strong, creating a character who is so detached from human beings that he sees their existence as entirely unimpressive, but at the same time has flickers of human emotion which remind him of the person he used to be. The true measure of these two performances is that they're so effective despite the constraints placed on the actors, with Haley spending most of his screen time behind an ever shifting mask and Crudup playing his character through a mass of CGI. The film also boasts one of the very best opening credit sequences I've ever seen, although it did leave me thinking that I would have enjoyed seeing a movie about The Minute Men more than the Watchmen. In the end it's bits and pieces of Watchmen that I liked, rather than the film as a whole.
* I am by no means an expert on comic books or comic book characters but I’m willing to bet that none of the Super Friends ever got picked up from a Justice League meeting by their mom, which happens to Laurie somewhere around the middle of this film.