Entry for March 17, 2009: Watchmen review

Friends, I hope you had a good weekend. On Saturday, 14 March 2009, Janice and I met Beruk A. and Thomas K.Y. at the Comcast IMAX theater at Jordan's Furniture near where I work in Framingham, Massachusetts. We screened the live-action adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. Janice and I both read the landmark graphic novel last week, and note that some of the links below may lead to "spoilers" for those unfamiliar with it.

The superhero movie closely follows the source material, in which costumed vigilantes first appeared in the 1940s but mostly disbanded by the 1970s. In that alternate reality, the metahuman Doctor Manhattan helped the U.S. win the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon is still president. The murder of some of their colleagues brings a few would-be heroes out of retirement.

Director Zach Snyder, who previously adapted Frank Miller's ahistorical but entertainingly macho 300, is not only faithful to the look of the mid-1980s 12-issue DC Comics miniseries, but he also manages to keep the adult sensibilities and complexities that made the original so influential. Snyder does focus on violent scenes, preserving Gibbons' gritty New York setting and retelling the origins of the main characters through copious flashbacks.

The acting performances are also strong, led by Jackie Earle Haley as the masked, tormented Walter Kovacs/Rorschach, who serves as narrator amid Manhattan's seedy streets, which aren't that different from how I remember them from my own childhood. Rorschach, who is loosely based on characters such as Batman or The Question, is like Bernie Goetz as played by Clint Eastwood.

Jeffery Dean Morgan is also compelling as Edward Blake/the Comedian, a ruthless soldier of fortune, as is Patrick Wilson, who plays Dan Drieberg/Nite Owl, a gadgeteer gone soft and the most conventionally heroic member of the former team.

Thanks to motion-capture technology, Billy Crudup is both godlike and touching as the blue-skinned Dr. Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan in a world on the brink of Cold War self-destruction. Some people have made fun of the fact that Dr. Manhattan, the only true metahuman in the story, is naked much of the time, but that doesn't detract from his role.

Carla Gugino and Malin Ackerman provide a much-needed female presence as the ambivalent mother/daughter team of Sally and Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre I and II, respectively. If there is a weaker link among the actors, it's Matthew Goode as the genius Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias. He's a bit young for the role of the cool calculator who profits from action-figure licensing, but that's a small quibble.

Snyder does an excellent job of recapping the fictional timeline before the opening credits, paralleling both real-world events and the development of comic books. Viewers familiar with Forrest Gump, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button will be familiar with the technique of placing characters into historical events.

Watchmen does earn its "R "rating with adult language, sexuality, and graphic violence. While we may take these things for granted in movies and graphic novels today, back in 1985, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns marked the turning point from the youthful idealism of the Silver Age to the darker Iron Age.

Postmodern comics such as Marvels, V for Vendetta (another Moore work faithfully adapted), and Powers have continued the rumination on the nature of identity, power (both personal and governmental), and morality. Recent movies such as X-Men and The Dark Knight are also indebted to the psychological realism of Iron Age storytelling. After such films, Watchmen may seem like a period piece, even if it's a progenitor.

In fact, some recent superhero comics and cartoons, such as Justice by Alex Ross or Spectacular Spider-Man, have been a reaction to what some call overly angsty depictions of costumed icons and hearken back to a more heroic attitude.

Watchmen's soundtrack, which includes popular music from the 1960s and 1980s, is good if a bit overwhelming at times. Snyder uses his trademark slow motion for the fight scenes, leading some viewers to mistake martial arts for superhuman feats.

Fans of the original graphic novel might find the so-called motion comic or eventual DVD with th
e "Tales of the Black Freighter" pirate subplot to be more faithful, but I think the film was long enough at nearly three hours! Aspects of the plot's end have been changed (spoilers), but mostly for the better, I thought.

I'd give Watchmen a 9 out of 10 or an A for its faithfulness to the source material, even if the movie slipped in box-office receipts after a wave of negative criticism. I found that many mainstream media reviews missed the point of both the original graphic novel and the film adaptation, which continues the trend toward more adult superhero stories.

Before the movie, I took Janice to Big Fresh for the first time, and after it, we joined Beruk and Thomas for dinner at Minerva. I've been busy with gaming and work since then, but I hope to review more games, comic books, and genre television in the coming weeks!