Watchmen (Special Edition) Review

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

These things I know. Women, on the whole, do not like comic books. Or, as is probably fairer to say, my wife doesn’t like comic books. And as much as she does not like comics, I do not like going to the cinema alone, regardless that, with the exception of those minutes spent chatting and eating while waiting for the film to start, one might as well do so as in the company of another. Who is to know when the lights go down and the celluloid rolls. Oh, and don’t carry batteries in the same pocket as you do your house keys, unless you welcome hair-raising electrical burns to your testicles as you might free Smarties. I speak from experience on each of these matters.

Keys and batteries aside and in spite of my arguing that the original comic book was a bit like the Bunty of her youth only with vigilantes instead of the four Marys, it was with a heavy heart that I did indeed watch Watchmen alone on its cinema release. Still, my spirits raised on finding that out of an almost-full screening room, most of those present arrived alone. Except for the one man who had convinced a woman to come with him and who was like nothing else but the first guy in school with a girlfriend. If there was anything like a party atmosphere in the room, it would have been more of a sausage party than that hosted by the British Sausage Society. But a lot of thirtysomething men coming to the cinema alone does not make for a blockbuster. And the presence of only one girl in the whole room does not make for a crossover success.

Watchmen begins with a killing. Specifically, it opens with the assault and murder of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Picking up a photograph of Blake shaking hands with President Nixon, the police sense that Blake’s death goes beyond a common-or-garden slaying. The police investigation soon falters but a figure scales the outside of the building and alights on the window ledge. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) begins his own investigation. Knowing the comedian, he scouts the apartment, the ruined furnishings, the blood splatters on the carpet and the guns, gadgets and a costume extravagantly decorated with the Stars and Stripes. Rorschach recognises these clothes as those of The Comedian, a vigilante who was once a member of a group of costumed heroes known as the Watchmen.

The Watchmen were one response to a tide of rising crime. Before the Watchmen, gangs of masked vigilantes grouped together to fight organised gangs but one of these, the Minutemen, fell apart amidst revenge killings, rape, madness and in-fighting. Years later, the Watchmen convened over Captain Metropolis’ drawing of the USA and post-its for BLACK UNREST, PROMISCUITY and DRUGS but did so as the map quickly turning to ash and to the laughing of The Comedian, they quickly fall apart. Public opinion turns against them. Riots and disturbances would have been the legacy of the Watchmen…were it not for an administration desperate for good news from a war in Vietnam that was slowly turning in favour of the guerillas from the north. Handpicked out of the Watchmen, The Comedian and Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) oversaw a turning of the war in favour of Richard Nixon’s leadership of the war in Vietnam. Overturning history, Nixon is elected for a historic third term.

Meanwhile, the Watchmen continue, with government co-operation or without. Dr Manhattan continues his research into new technologies while Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre II, Malin Akerman) puts away her mini dress to accompany Manhattan in his work. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) puts his knowledge of technology to profit, engineering of the largest successes in the new economy. The Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) retires. Rorschach does not. And now The Comedian is dead. Believing this murder to be a revenge killing of a ‘mask’, Rorschach warns those he once counted as colleagues. But the truth is more complicated than Rorschach can imagine.

Watchmen manages to be both predictable and surprising. Its opening sequence pulls Snyder’s mix of violence and slow-motion away from the Spartans of 300 and into something like the present day. To the sound of Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable, which accompanies Watchmen like a motif, a scene of domestic contentment ends with the kind of violence that earned the film its 18-certificate. Bloody, cruel and making good, if improvised, use of kitchen knives, this one scene influences what will follow, with Snyder keeping the fighting graceful in spite of the bone-crunching horror. But where the opening of the film really scores is with the montage that accompanies the opening titles, so good is it that it’s easy to miss the names and credits that fit into the action. Against the backdrop of recent history, the Watchmen are revealed as having played a bigger part in epochal events than would have been expected of vigilantes. Actions that, in Moore’s comic book, were relayed in conversation and in moments scattered throughout story.

Accompanied by Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, the montage explains away the end of the Minutemen and the arrival of the Watchmen. It quickly deals with the fallout from their actions, the laws that were quickly enforced to deal with them and what became of them. Ozymandias revealed himself as Adrian Veidt, still in costume in public during the glam rock years when no one batted an eyelid at his cape and gold crown when next to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and The Village People. The reflection of Dr Manhattan in Neil Armstrong’s helmet indicates his presence on the moon landing – his almost-naked body at odds with Armstrong wrapped up in a NASA spacesuit. The familiar Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination pans around to reveal the cigar-chomping Comedian making a quick escape away from the grassy knoll while The Nite Owl II features on a pop art portrait unveiled by Andy Warhol and Truman Capote. That this is an alternate timeline is made clear by the airships that remain in the sky while electric cars prowl the streets. The outlawing of ‘masks’ arrives with street protests and banners while only Rorschach refuses to retire with dignity. The city is a tinderbox ready to explode as people demand badges not masks. And explode it does.

That use of Dylan reveals a particular conservatism to Watchmen. The choice of music is never inspired. Hendrix’s version of All Along The Watchtower is almost a given, what with Moore and Gibbons having quoted Dylan’s lyrics in their comic book. The Sound of Silence to accompany a funeral is affecting but unsurprising while Mozart’s Lacrimosa from the Requiem is a remarkable piece of music but still seems predictable when it plays out over the wreckage of Veidt’s frozen hideaway. Would an alternate-timeline 1985 still have produced Nena’s 99 Red Balloons? And why play The Ride of the Valkyries over Dr Manhattan’s Vietnam adventure if such a success was the flip side to the failure that would inspire Apocalypse Now? Even My Chemical Romance seem to have been tacked on to the end credits to give the soundtrack some appeal to viewers old enough to watch the 18-rated film but young enough to know who they are. This older viewer needed the Internet and a younger niece to learn anything about them.

Such things are but minor criticisms of Watchmen. Its great successes are in its storytelling, its alternate history and its deft mix of vigilantism, an end-of-the-world crisis and its love affairs. Even without the book’s end-of-chapter inserts and a running time that falls well short of what Terry Gilliam had planned during the time that he was still attached to the project, the film still manages to tell the main thread of Watchmen without a hitch. If anything, it does better with the Cold War tension than did the comic book, with a giant Doomsday clock counting down to the moment that the missiles begin to fly. There may be a poor likeness between this film’s Richard Nixon and his real-life counterpart, even if it does better with Henry Kissinger, but the Dr Strangelove bunker in which world leaders debate mutually assured destruction is pleasingly cinematic.

What Snyder does well, though, is to remember that Watchmen is not a story about super heroes. The only character in Watchmen that can lay claim to super-abilities is Dr Manhattan, who, like Spiderman and The Hulk before him, has his human strength, sight and control of his surroundings (at a sub-atomic level) forever altered by radiation. The rest of the Watchmen, The Comedian, Ozymandias, Rorschach, Silk Spectre II and The Nite Owl, depend on technological know-how, guns and martial arts to right the wrongs in society. But Moore’s particular view of Dr Manhattan’s change in humanity is far removed from the comic book heyday of past decades. Superman may find his love for mankind enhanced by his forced exile on earth but more than one character highlights Dr Manhattan’s slipping away. Laurie draws attention to this on having two Ostermen fondle her in bed while another continues his research with Adrian Veidt in an adjoining room. The Comedian does so as well, this time in the past in the final days of the Vietnam War. Having watched The Comedian shoot dead a pregnant young woman who dreamt of going to America with Blake, he tells Dr Manhattan that he could have turned the gun into steam or the bullet into mercury before saying, “You’re drifting outta touch, Doc!”

This loss of humanity is not limited to Manhattan. Moore’s point is that in the act of putting on a mask or by dressing up, these characters are all inhuman. The Comedian’s psychopathic flashes of violence are but symptoms of that. Dan Dreiberg suffers from impotence until such time as he can put on his costume and taking to the skies in Archie to save lives. On his arrest, Rorschach screams not for his freedom but for his face, an ever-changing Rorschach blob that hides his identity, the origins of which were explained in the comic but not so here. The Watchmen are themselves victims. As is anyone who remains within their circle of influence. And yet while individuals may garner some sympathy from the audience, most notably Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk. Others, like The Comedian, are as much criminals as those they fought. Little wonder that when The Comedian discovers the extent of the conspiracy that will end with his death, it’s to the home of arch-criminal Moloch (Matt Frewer) that he goes.

The biggest change that Snyder makes to the Watchmen universe is to overplay the action. Probably mindful of multiplex audiences, Snyder gives his film plenty of moments that will satisfy a young and, as noted, predominantly male audience. Be it Archie lifting out of the waters around Manhattan, a bone-snapping alleyway fight, Malin Akerman descending a set of stairs in such a manner as to have teenage boys forgetting to breathe for a moment and a brutal fight between Dreiberg and Juspeczyk and a gang of prisoners, Watchmen offers plenty of action. A particular highlight is Rorshach resisting arrest, in which he improvises weapons with whatever is to hand. Even the sex scene is more funny than erotic, particularly the jet of flame. If Watchmen says anything about sex, it’s that it can be violent, manipulative or simply a means to pass the time. Dan Dreiberg has a couple of moments in which he is the exception to that but Watchmen is as coldly inhuman as many of its characters. It does, though, look great, often sounds fantastic and, for the most part, stays true to Moore’s story.

My favourite frame in the comic book is with Max and Hira onboard the Pyramid ship as it undocks and sets out to sea with its cargo of scientists and artists. Moore’s use of the simple, “Hold me!” shows a feel for the emotion in a moment that Snyder simply lacks. For reasons that will be obvious as the end credits roll, Watchmen avoids lifting that frame for the motion picture but Snyder comes up with nothing else like it. Watchmen has bombast, plenty of action and, in a time when a film really must make an effort to gain an 18, fully deserves its certificate. Perhaps for those same reasons, there is still an immaturity to it. Granted, this is not saying anything, but it’s the best Moore adaptation to date. However, it won’t do much to draw the author back to Hollywood anytime yet.

Watchmen does indeed look good on DVD. It’s rather a dark film, both in content and look. Set in a New York not dissimilar to that of Seven or the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, this is a grim and often miserable place. All the moreso with nuclear Armageddon being but hours away. The DVD does a good job of capturing this. The picture may not be pretty but it is sharp and what colour there is, most notably in the title sequence and in the Miami apartment belonging to Laurie’s mother, is bright and bold and entirely fake. Natural isn’t quite the way to describe any of it but like 300 before it, Watchmen boasts a look that could only exist in cinema or in video games. The DD5.1 soundtrack is pretty good as well. The music stands out, never more so than when hearing Hendrix as Dr Manhattan leaves Mars via the Galle Crater. With the fight scenes, the DVD offers plenty of bass as well as the snap of breaking bones while moments of silence do well to build tension. Otherwise, Watchmen gets by with a decent soundtrack. Ambient sound effects fit the film well and the dialogue is always discernable even if, and this is a minor point, I still find the soothing, HAL-like tones of Dr Manhattan unnatural. As unnatural and inhuman as the character. There are English subtitles.

As for the special features, Disc One holds but the one, Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World (16m10s), which begins with a mild-mannered physics professor admitting both his mild-mannered-ness and his interest in the science invented in the pages of comic books. Having been contacted by the producers of Watchmen, he repaid the debt by giving them a physics lecture and some Powerpoint slides. Their faces tell of the excitement that came at that moment. Said professor, James Kakalios, talks about the science in Watchmen and what influenced it, be that the Intrinsic Field, Quantum Mechanics or the Manhattan Project. Why Is That Man Blue? is another problem discussed by this feature, which, in spite of its name, actually has a scientific explanation. And I thought it was only because it looked good.

On to Disc Two and The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics (27m38s), wherein Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance stated that it was the comic book that made him want to be a comic book artist. It made me want to be a superhero but that is something I can trace back to first reading Spiderman. The pity about this feature is how often its referred to as a graphic novel, a phrase that is often used to discern between what is a mere comic book and what is a more important work. The other pity is that Alan Moore is nowhere to be seen in this. He is there in name only. Dave Gibbons is interviewed, though, going from the origins of the story, through its publication and on to the making of the film. Real Super Heroes: Real Vigilantes (25m15s) would have been a cheap true-life documentary were it not for the footage from the film. We even get Curtis Sliwa, founder of the red beret-wearing Guardian Angels. But we get neither the A-Team nor The Equalizer, both of whom are as likely to come save my ass as the Guardian Angels.

Watchmen: Video Journals are a series of short features, each of which last three minutes or four minutes or thereabouts. These cover a broad range of subjects, be it The Minutemen, the making of Archie, Dave Gibbons’ visit to the set, the filming of the bright blue Manhattan and the special effect that is Rorschach’s mask. An NBS Video Viral (3m05s) is staged footage to give a background in news footage to the film, while, finally, there is a music video for a cover of Desolation Row by My Chemical Romance (3m09s).

However, this is not the Extended Director’s Cut. Within the Video Journals, we do see the filming of those scenes between the newspaper vendor and a kid reading the Tales of the Black Freighter comic book. But we don’t actually see anything of Tales of the Black Freighter nor the documentary Under the Hood. This is all to come. Brought back into a single feature, all this is to come to DVD in December. To wait or not to wait? This viewer would imagine that they can exist apart, to sit together on the same shelf as the Theatrical and Extended Editions of The Lord Of The Rings and perhaps the solution to those who, short of time, have skipped through the comic book without paying mind to the Tales of the Black Freighter nor the end-of-chapter inserts. The story of Watchmen is sometimes good enough on its own.

Eamonn McCusker

Updated: Jul 26, 2009

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