Watchmen is the most glowing example of how the genre has surpassed its comic-book origins
The Dark Knight and Iron Man have forever raised the bar for superhero movies. No longer will audiences accept stars and stunts in lieu of storytelling. Thanks to Heath Ledger, there’d better be Oscar-worthy acting. Thanks to Christopher Nolan and Jon Favreau, there’d better be boundary-pushing direction.
Most of all, the films need to stand on their own. It’s one thing to thrill the fanboys; it’s another to get people who aren’t wrapped up in the mythology to appreciate everything that’s unfolding on screen.
On all these levels, plus a few more, Watchmen succeeds brilliantly.
I’ve never read the graphic novels upon which the movie is based, nor have I seen the series of animated shorts. I came into the theater Sunday night as close to tabula rasa as can be. Yet, by the end of the opening montage, I had a good sense of the backstory.
Watchmen is set in 1985, during Richard Nixon’s fifth term. That’s right: Nixon’s fifth term. The Cold War with the Russians persists, though the U.S. did bring a speedy and victorious end to the Vietnam War, thanks to a seemingly omnipotent hero named Dr. Manhattan. (Calling him a “superhero” would be an understatement; he makes Superman look like Hello Kitty.)
Anyway, as the movie opens, a former member of a masked-do-gooder band called the Watchmen—né Minutemen—gets tossed to his death through a condo window. He was wearing a Walmart-like happy-face pin that identifies him as The Comedian. One of his allies, Rorschach, takes to the murder mystery like a film-noir detective.
In these moments, Watchmen is a lot like Dark City and Sin City, even the beginning of The Matrix. But there’s more going on elsewhere—a lot more.
The Armageddon clock is ticking closer to midnight as Nixon considers a pre-emptive atomic attack. Dr. Manhattan is working with one of the only heroes to shed his mask, Adrian Veidt, on a new form of energy that would benefit humanity … all the while slipping away from his link to humanity: girlfriend Laurie Jupiter (aka Silk Spectre II, daughter of Silk Spectre).
So, as things move along—at a surprisingly brisk pace for a 163-minute film—director Zack Snyder dangles myriad, seemingly disparate threads. One moment, Dr. Strangelove breaks out; another, there’s a burst of A Clockwork Orange.
Yet, somehow, it all works.
The cast is brilliant, starting from top-billed Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid) as Laurie, Billy Crudup (The Good Shepherd) as her blue-skinned, messianic boyfriend, and Matthew Goode (Brideshead Revisited) as smartest-man-alive Veidt. Jackie Earle Haley, Oscar-nominated for playing a child molester in Little Children, deserves another nod as righteous enforcer Rorschach; so does Little Children co-star Patrick Wilson as subtly tormented Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II.
All their characters are complex and well-developed. The special effects are eye-popping; the action, graphic but not gratuitous.
Watchmen is clearly an ambitious undertaking. The 2-1/2 hours barely contain the plotlines and subtexts. It may be too much for viewers who prefer their comic-book heroes two-dimensional. But for those who demand depth, savor substance and don’t mind having their wheels turn, Watchmen fully satisfies.