By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 21, 2009)
I was a weird kid. I never went for the superhero comic books in a big way. I do vaguely recall going through a Classics Illustrated period (Journey to the Center of the Earth kicked major ass, and I think I wore out my copy of Treasure Island). Then, when I was around 9 or 10, I discovered MAD magazine…and all bets were off. I made an exception when I discovered the Adventures of Tin Tin books in my early 20s, but steered clear of the Marvel/DC stable of caped crusaders, endowed with Special Powers and clad in skin tight suits.
So, I knew going in that I was not in the target audience for Watchmen, the latest graphic novel-to-film adaptation from the DC Comics stable. For those unacquainted with graphic novels, just think Classics Illustrated with sex, ultra-violence and just enough substantive exposition to help you convince yourself you’re reading something akin to literature (sounds like a great pitch for an HBO series). Despite my misgivings about the genre, I was unexpectedly dazzled by Sin City a few years back; so I tried to keep an open mind.
Director Zack Snyder (300) had a formidable task; not only did he have to condense a 12 volume series of graphic novels into feature film length, but he had to deliver a product that would both placate detail-obsessed fan boys and entertain the rest of us without leaving us confounded (or dozing) when the auditorium lights come up.
I can’t speak for the fan boys, but I found the establishing premise of the film intriguing. The story is set in a sort of parallel universe version of mid-1980s America, where an altered course of history has radically changed the sociopolitical fabric of the country from WW 2 onward. The ‘x’ factor lays in an assortment of free-agent superheroes and heroines who have lent their talents to the U.S. armed forces since the 1940s. Actually, super-‘spooks’ might be a more accurate descriptive, as an Oliver Stone style back-story montage behind the opening credits appears to indicate.
In this version of history, thanks to these caped crusaders, America “wins” the Vietnam War. And disturbingly, President Richard M. Nixon has been elected for a fifth term (in this reality, Woodward and Bernstein have been “neutralized”). The Cold War is still in full swing, with a possible nuke-out with the Soviets looming on the horizon. In our post 9-11 world, with the economy on the brink of collapse, this actually plays like a quaint scenario, n’est-ce pas?
With one exception, these superheroes are not blessed with invulnerability; they are just as fragile and flawed as any schmuck on the street; the moral compass doesn’t always exactly point to Truth, Justice and the American Way, either. By 1985, the vigilantes have fallen out of favor with the fickle public; masked avenging has been subsequently outlawed and most have been driven into retirement, or gone underground. When one of the retirees is murdered, it’s time to get the band back together, spearheaded by Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). The mystery, as they say, is afoot.
After a promising start, the story bogs down. The screenplay (adapted by David Hayter and Alex Tse) while complex and cerebral for what is essentially an action film, is a bit too complex and cerebral for its own good. Pains are taken to flesh out the back story of each character; this is a good thing, but can be a double edged sword. On the one hand, it raises the bar on the cardboard characterizations you usually get in a superhero movie. Unfortunately, it also accounts for most of the 162 minute running time. By the time credits rolled, I had completely forgotten that there was a mystery afoot.
Still, there was a lot I liked about the film. It has a “dark city” noir atmosphere that I’m a sucker for, as well as great costume and set design. The performances are uneven, possibly attributable to the sometimes overreaching script. Jackie Earle Haley is a standout as Rorschach; I enjoyed his Chandleresque voice-over performance, which vacillates somewhere between Clint Eastwood’s menacing whisper and Lawrence Tierney’s caustic growl.
Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Carla Gugino are all quite good. I didn’t recognize Matt “Max Headroom” Frewer as “Moloch the Mystic” until the credits rolled. The film has an interesting soundtrack; although I had mixed feelings about hearing a somewhat lengthy lift from Philip Glass’ symphonic score for Koyaanasqatsi (a film I’ve seen many times).
Still, the sci-fi geek/film noir enthusiast inside of me was hooked by the Blade Runner-like mash-up of those two genres (not that I’m suggesting that this is in the same league as Ridley Scott’s cult classic). You can take that as a guarded recommendation.