The year is 1985 as Nixon settles into his 3rd term, still riding his wave of popularity after America's quick and decisive victory in Vietnam. The occupation of Afghanistan is a major point of contention with our #1 threat, Russia and the masked superheros that once kept guard of the American dream have been forced into retirement by a corrupt administration that employs only the most powerful of the supers (the only one that actually has powers), Dr. Manhattan, as a constant reminder to Russia that they can be annihilated with a single thought if needed.
Dr. Manhattan in the shit.
But when Rorschach, the only masked avenger that refused to fade away or seek out a normal life begins investigating the death of a man named Edward Blake, or The Comedian for those in the super club, he uncovers a conspiracy to kill the few remaining supers and then manages to get the band back together. See, not so complicated right? Oh, and did I mentioned that Dr. M is totally naked and blue and can grow to Cloverfield monster size whenever wants?
Watchmen is without a doubt the most anticipated comic book flick in a very long while. Adapted from the holy grail of grown up comics (12 issues, later published as one graphic novel) written by Alan Moore and David Gibbons, Watchmen attempts the impossible - make a good movie that can appeal to the masses therefore justifying its $125M+ budget but stay true enough to the source material so the fan boys don't literally storm the WB lot in protest. Watchmen has a complex, multi-layered plot filled with back stories and flashbacks, each shot as saturated with details and queues as the innovative panels of the comic but set to the tunes of Dylan, Hendrix, even Tears for Fears. Watchmen somehow manages to be funny, mysterious and gruesomely melodramatic (but often just plain gruesome) all while not taking itself, or its budget, too seriously. This violent, moody world filled with real human emotion and the utterly ridiculous makes for a surprisingly poetic, even "art housy" film that gets a chance to deliver the expected comic book hero-esque scenes but also goes far beyond, expanding and deconstructing the genre. And it looks really good while staying smart and faithful to the comic.
This is a really nice prison riot date we're having, isn't it?
Motivated by sex, revenge, power and just plain psychosis, these heroes are not your childhood comic friends. They make Batman look like a Teen Titan, or worse still, like Superman. And it's rated R for a good many reasons. Director, Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300) had the seemingly impossible and ill advised task of educating a laymen audience while giving fans what they've been waiting for and he achieves this through a delicate dance of cleverly crafted exposition, flashbacks, stunning visuals and harsh moments of reality in a fantastic world, not to mentioned meticulously choreographed industry standard karate fights and slasher gore. And I do mean gore. There are no clean bloodless dispatches of enemies here, the blood stains and is prolific. There are real consequences when folks get into exaggerated elaborately choreographed karate battles.
It's actually the opening credits that serve as a history lesson in super-lore as we get the story behind the Watchmen's predecessors, The Minutemen. And what's great about Alan Moore's characters is that they are all so familiar. Without reading the Watchmen comics it's easy to assume that you can't appreciate the movie, but we already know theses folks. These characters are archetype heroes but they all have a twist as we quickly become aware that this alternate Earth is quite different and these heroes are just as flawed as regular folk as they doll out justice fueled by questionable motives. The movie is also filled with cameos of sorts - dozens of famous folk impersonated: Nixon is there, of course, along with JFK, Kissinger, Ted Koppel, John McLaughlin, that girl that sticks the flower in the soldier's rifle barrel (except she then gets shot), Studio 54 regulars, Pat Buchanan, Andy Warhol and even Annie Lebovitz.
Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan is an eerily engaging digital performance despite an oddly animated mouth. But Crudup's exceptional voice and motion capture performance more than makes up for it. Snyder's treatment of the human form, as we saw from 300, is not a subtle approach. But this time he forgoes the make-up and opts for real boobs, average physiques, a few man asses and a digital Adonis with a surprisingly detailed wang. I have to admit it was nice to see more male nudity than female for a change and nothing feels gratuitous either (except for maybe one sex scene, but it's set to Leonard Cohen so you can't really complain). The bleak quietness (and blue glowy naked bits) of Dr. Manhattan is countered by the pure destructive nature of The Comedian and Rorschach, but this does not make him any more "good" than them. The Comedian, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, is known to us at first as a fat old man about to die in the first shot and in flashback form, but the largeness of the character has no trouble reaching out through flashbacks to both intrigue and repel with some unspeakable actions. Former child actor now character actor Jackie Earle Haley, is amazing as the journal keeping Rorschach obsessed with exacting justice by any means since he crossed that line normal heroes do not dare cross many years ago. The only Watchmen that are remotely normal are Ozymandias, Silk Spectre and Night Owl, the latter getting blatant Batman treatment except he just really likes birds and thankfully doesn't do the weird growly voice thing when in costume. Out of costume Night Owl or Dan Dreiberg, played by Patrick Wilson is the "Clark Kent" of the film, except nerdier. No really. Malin Ackerman as Silk Spectre was fine, but as usual she wasn't anything special and her characters age makes her hard to take seriously, well that and her ample crotch cleavage. And the lovely Matthew Goode as Ozymandias and his unmasked version Adrian Veidt(the richest, smartest man in the world) is perfect in all his 80's business tycoon glory, even if a bit bland.
If this is a good guy, what do the bad ones look like?
The hero in the end may be an unlikely one for the uninitiated, but those who know what's coming will appreciate how beautifully the character is portrayed. But, don't ask Alan Moore what he thinks about Watchmen the movie as he's publicly refused to play any part in its production and has said that he will never view it. Guess he's just not a movie guy. While there is a gross lack of original scripts getting the movie treatment, it is still gratifying to see this vastly different take on the masked hero myth in such an unpredictable and thought provoking form, which makes Watchmen way more satisfying that the last Superman or X-Men installments. There are a few haunting shots: two strangers embrace in the face of death, the eyes of a tortured soul really revealed for the first time, the movements of the faceless and digital, not to mention insane explosions and some alone time on Mars. But, be warned, this movie is long - like 10mins longer than Dark Knight long, its violent - like arm chopping, face biting, dismemberment and rivers of blood violent, and some may not got for its Evil Dead meets Goodfellas vibe. But, if you're up for something new, have $10, a good sense of humor and 3 hrs to kill, head out this weekend to watch Watchmen just leave your squeamish friends and children under 17 at home.