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USA 2009
Directed by
Zack Snyder
163 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
3.5 stars


Synopsis: In 1985 a masked vigilante known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered brutally. His former superhero compatriots are drawn together to uncover the mystery behind his murder.

Watchmen is widely regarded as the greatest comic book of all time and the film adaptation of it has been in development in various forms for over twenty years. At one point, Terry Gilliam was attempting to get it off the ground. One can only wonder what that would have been like, but as it is, Zack Snyder of 300 fame has taken the story from the printed page to the silver screen. The result is ultimately a mixed bag. When it works, Watchmen is a powerful and imaginative work of cinema, but when it fails, it fails just as profoundly.

First to the good. The opening eight minutes are a tour de force of high impact visuals. The Comedian’s murder is a visceral clash of two highly trained, near-superhuman individuals. The punishment they deal to each other is brutal and sets the tone for the entire film. And then one of the highlights of the film comes. A five and a half minute opening credit sequence telling an alternate history of America, a history in which superheroes are real and won the Vietnam war. The swift way it introduces the entire setting of the film is genius.

The performances are all great, with Jackie Earle Hayley as the vigilante Rorschach a standout. He spends most of his time on screen behind a mask, only his gravelly and hardened voice to carry the hatred he feels for humanity, a loathing that disguises a deep love. After all, if he didn’t care, why would he fight so hard to punish criminals? Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the only true superman in the entire story, has an excellent sequence lifted almost exactly from the comic book in which he meditates on his life and the nature of time, his life unfolding around him as he tries to understand what he has become. Again, his detached and alienated voice is the greatest strength of what is, for the most part, a motion-captured performance. And while for a superhero film there’s little action, a setpiece involving Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman) and Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) tearing up a prison is very cool. The relationship between them and their costumed identities is particularly effective as both seem to need them in some way, Nite Owl more obviously so.

The film is lovingly constructed as a period film and there are shades of Vangelis in the score by Tyler Bates, although the use of music varies between the inspired and the cheeky. Leonard Cohen is the victim of a particularly bad pun while Wagner once again gets to ride to victory.

The downside to Watchmen is that it is trying to cram too much into too short a running time. That’s saying something given it comes in just shy of three hours but unfortunately it’s true. The main story, with its multiple layers and references, plays second fiddle to characters playing out their own personal dramas. That’s not entirely a bad thing, each character is fascinating and lovable and the deconstruction of the superhero genre is fascinating. The film asks a very good question, what kind of person dresses up in tights and beats up on people? A variety of answers are on offer, some disturbing and some funny. But as character gives way to plot late in the second half of the film as the giant conspiracy is unmasked, the simplistic way it’s handled is a letdown. The weight and moment of the thing falls in a heap and the deeply sad ethical questions that have been raised fail to seem of any substance. And that’s a near criminal waste, given the scope of the catastrophe unleashed. Some more time left to ponder on its import, not to mention its hubris and futility would have been good. This is something the comic did far better and it’s hard to understand how such an obvious point could be so carelessly wasted.

There is talk that the film was originally much longer and that a massively extended director’s cut will make its way out in six months or so. I’m interested to see what is added and how, because although as the film currently stands it is good, it falls short of the greatness it clearly aspires to.




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