Originally posted at slangards.multiply.com on Mar 6, '09
I hadn't heard of Watchmen until they announced that the movie was finally out of development hell. It was a comic written by the prolific writer Alan Moore, and illustrated by Dave Gibbons that was a cult hit back in the heyday of comics. It's since earned a title of being one of the best stories ever written.
Moore's idea was to take some lesser known characters that DC had the rights to and write a story that deconstructed the whole comic superhero concept. It's set in the 80's, but the Cold War has continued and forced the world to the brink of full-scale nuclear war. The US and USSR are staring at each other across the fence with their hands on the button, and fear and despair and anger are prevalent.
Though originally written in the 80's, the book is timely. I wonder if the same would be true under the direction of Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, or Paul Greengrass. If it had been made back in 1986, and Schwarzenegger had been cast as Dr. Manhattan, would it have the same weight? Intended by the authors or not, you can draw parallels with today's world of corporate greed, terrorists, anger and fear. The concerns of Moore's fictional world are our concerns. His heroes are real people with real psychoses. Superman as a concept is a great idea, sure. But what would the world do with a real Superman? What would a country do with one under it's thumb? In many ways, this is what a comic would look like if it were brought out into the real world.
The filmmaker really seems to understand that. Snyder's grasp of cinematic tools is amazing. I was rapt for the entire 2 hours and 40 minutes of the movie, mainly due to the great pacing. Though a lot of the movie is structured around flashbacks, Snyder's style sustains attention throughout. Like a comic page that uses paneling to suggest a sense of time to the reader, so do the quick cuts and slow motion employed here. It is far more successful than Ang Lee's attempt with The Hulk.
As a perfect counterpoint to the iconic visuals that Snyder gives us, the performances by the principle cast is right up there in Oscar territory. I've never heard of Jackie Earle Haley, but his portrayal of Rorschach is unforgettable. Despite having a mask on his face for about 80% of the movie, he sells the struggle within the character. During one of his flashbacks, when he faces the question all vigilante heroes face, you can see the conflict in his body, to kill or not to kill.
In fact, all of the mainstays on the Minutemen are superhero archetypes. Rorschach the vigilante, Nite Owl the tech heavy human crime-fighter, Dr. Manhattan the superman, Comedian the para-military guy's guy, Ozymandias the hyper-intelligent pacifist, and Silk Spectre the kick-ass emotional heart of the team. The analogies are obvious, but in no way boring. Though we've all seen Batman, Rorschach is far beyond Bruce Wayne. Jon Osterman is nothing like Clark Kent despite being similarly godlike. Though Ozymandias is as smart as his comic counterparts, his motivation for his choices in the story are all to human.
And there's the rub. The movie isn't about the plot. The plot is nothing. It's a McGuffin. An excuse to tell these characters stories. And that's why the casual movie-goer won't get this. You don't love this movie because these heroes are going save the world and look like bad-asses doing it. You love this movie because The Comedian is a rapist. Because Ozymandias is a mass-murderer. Because Rorschach is a complete psycho.
Or because of the pervasiveness of Manhattan's CG super dong. I counted 47 dongs. How about you?