Watchmen: not your typical movie review (spoiler free zone)

It’s the biggest comic movie release of the year and has literally been discussed and anticipated for decades. The author Alan Moore intentionally designed the graphic novel from the mid 80’s to be “unfilmable”, and director Zach Snyder is attempting the near impossible in trying to bring this work to the screen in a way that fans and the public will embrace. So does the film stand up to the massive expectations of the fans? Is this a glimpse of the future of superhero movie adaptations?

The short answer is a resounding yes on both counts. While I have been an Alan Moore fan for some time, I have never gotten around to picking up Watchmen. When I heard that the last legal hurdles had been overcome and the movie was finally going to be released, I made a conscious decision to see the film before reading the graphic novel in order to avoid the preconceptions that would surely come with reading it first. Seldom do movies live up to the depth, complexity, and subtlety of the printed page after all.

One of the most surprising aspects of this film was the almost languid pacing. Unlike the typical superhero fare, this film is not an “edge of your seat nail biter” nor does it build and build to a crescendo climax. Watchmen has more of a murder mystery type of feel with Rorschach as a demented Sam Spade trolling the seedy alley ways and waterfront bars for clues to the case.

Speaking of Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley brought a stunning performance to this film and made his character leap off the screen with dripping human weakness. His gravelly vocal style was chillingly genuine and in sharp contrast to Christian Bale’s lackluster and contrived vocal performance in The Dark Knight. It also helped that Rorschach’s motivations and defining moments were clearly laid out in the film. Many of the other characters remained someone mysterious and opaque.

I would be remiss not to at least mention the Doctor Manhattan character effects and portrayal. The effects were nothing short of perfect and looked incredibly realistic. A being with incredible powers and little remaining humanity Billy Crudup performed with uncanny accuracy and so much detached aloofness that I am hard pressed to think of another performance of a godlike character that nails it so well.

Other highlights included many little period details that are usually lost in such a film. I found myself constantly saying “Oh yeah. I remember that” as I noticed one subtle 80’s detail after another. Nixie tubes, floppy discs and 8 bit graphic goodness. The staging of the Kennedy assassination from one of the flashback scenes was especially perfect. The visuals in this particular scene felt real in a way I have not experienced before in a feature film. If there was a flaw in the presentation at all, it was the constant cliche of the 80’s music. By including the top music hits of the period in almost every scene possible, it felt like the audience was getting bludgeoned by this overly obvious heavy handed editing. This stood in sharp contrast to many of the more subtle aspects of the film.

The fight scenes were fantastic, full of ferocity and high power impacts. While sometimes I was reminded of an isolated move from 300 or The Matrix, many of these scenes involved some fresh dynamic or concept that kept me interested and impressed with the Director and Fight Choreographer’s efforts in this area.

Some of the dialog seemed overly simplistic or juvenile, but after reading the graphic novel today, I see that these moments were lifted straight out of the original work (in many cases word for word), so I guess I have to complain to Alan Moore about this point. Honestly though, I think it is more a reflection of the context of the original time and medium rather than any intellectual or story telling fault.

To conclude, I believe this film will become a significant icon and will influence other films and directors for years to come. While most superhero movies are all about right and wrong, black and white, this story and this film have done away with these absolutes, washing everything and everyone in the environment in overlapping shades of gray. Rather than an adrenaline rush and moral absolutes, the audience is given almost complete moral ambiguity and plenty of time to think about things as events unfold and the story unravels. This is one of the most thought provoking films I have seen in several years.

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