Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Who Watches the Watchmen?

At 12:01 on Friday, March 7, it would have been easier to answer the question, “Who doesn’t watch the Watchmen?” The extra $3 didn’t discourage college students from packing the IMAX theater to watch the unfilmable comic book on film at last.

The 12 issues of Watchmen were released in the late ’80s and portrayed an alternative history where superheroes emerged a few decades earlier in history and after the war in Vietnam was considered a win, Richard Nixon is still president. However, during 1985 these superheroes are now outlawed with only Dr. Manhattan (the only one who has superpowers) and the Comedian working for the government.

We begin with the Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Grey’s Anatomy), aka the Comedian, who, despite his early demise, is the center of the films plotline. He is shown exiting his apartment via the window with a little help from a shadowed figure who just spent the first few minutes brutally beating the Comedian.

One of the most interesting Watchmen, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children), can’t fathom a regular burglar killing the Comedian and so, armed with the belief there is a mask killer on the loose, he warns the remaining Watchmen: Daniel Dreiberg (the second Nite Owl), Laurie Juspeczyk (the second Silk Spectre), Dr. Manhattan and Adrian Veidt (Ozymandius).

Each character has his or her flaws: Daniel (Patrick Wilson, Lakeview Terrace) is middle-aged and seems to have had no trouble falling into the life of a common man; Laurie (Malin Akerman, 27 Dresses) is in an empty relationship with Dr. Manhattan, (Billy Crudup, Big Fish) who she finds is more and more detached from humanity; Adrian (Matthew Goode, Brideshead Revisited) is the world’s smartest man and a ruthless businessman who revealed his identity as Ozymandius; and Rorschach is paranoid, dangerous and unshakably certain.

Rorschach narrates the movie because he is the one man interested in the Comedian’s murder, who could have done it and what was coming next. Although Dr. Manhattan has the power to make people explode, Rorschach is scary and dangerous in his own way, witnessed when he shouts in prison “I’m not locked up in here with you! You’re locked up in here with me!” He propels the plot with his untiring search to find out what happened to the Comedian.

The movie does a good job showing aging and retired superheroes who can’t quite seem to let go of the glory days, not when there’s a hint of something afoot. Director Zack Snyder filmed the movie in normal colors, unlike his previous project 300, but he kept the slow-motion fight scenes. These helped showing the superheroes as super again and showed the audience just why the Watchmen were people to be afraid of.

The actors didn’t have easy characters to play, but they managed to embody each troubled superhero. Crudup was believable as the godlike Dr. Manhattan, spewing lines about seeing time differently from humans in his soft, emotionless voice. However, the most surprising turn was Morgan. The Comedian is a very different role from Morgan’s stint on Grey’s Anatomy, and he pulls of the gun totting, trigger-happy, warmongering Comedian believably and with a dash of dark humor. However, it is Haley’s performance as Rorschach that drives the film as the central focus of the plot. He touched on the character’s insanity and ruthless drive.

Along the ride the movie hits some bumps that makes it feel like its two-hour length. The flashbacks, while helpfully giving insight into who the Comedian was to each of the remaining Watchmen, doesn’t help to move the plot forward much. They break the already slow action of the beginning and probably cause some to lose interest. It’s only in retrospect that the purpose of the flashbacks gains meaning: this isn’t just a superhero movie about good guys fighting bad guys. This movie has ambiguous good guys and ambiguous bad guys, and the comic was more about the characters and who each one was, rather than the end storyline.

One serious gripe is that the film was obviously aimed toward the fanboy out there. Case in point: the sex scene. It is corny and really only serves to gratify the fanboys who cheered when Laurie is finally shown naked and then giggled and guffawed when an inadvertently hit button activates a flamethrower, an obvious symbol of ejaculation that was eye-roll inducing in the book and even more so in a movie.

Although the story takes place during an alternative version of America’s history, the opening credits recreate the new history. As Bob Dylan sings “The Times They Are A-Changin’” we see the original Watchmen, who they were and what they were to the country, and, eventually, how they fell apart and to the wayside. This new history shows the superheroes in memorable roles in our history.

The movie is just another step away from campy superheroes toward the more human and fallible ones. Superheroes don’t come any more flawed than the Watchmen.

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