So I finally saw Watchmen today.
I'd like to start this review by saying that I enjoyed 300. Yes, I know it had extreme right wing tendencies and that parts of it could be construed as racist, alienist or homophobic. I know. I am also none of these things. However, it was adapted from a graphic novel with the same issues. What was successful about it though, is that you were able to watch the film without being drawn aside by selfsame issues. It was an event film and director Zack Snyder succeeded with it.
Secondly, I'd like the record to show that I first read "Watchmen" about five years ago and loved it. I've re-read it many times over the intervening years, most recently about two weeks ago. So you are reading a fan-written review.
The first point I'd like to make with regard to Watchmen is one many others have made: if you haven't read the graphic novel going in, you may be a little lost. If you are expecting a traditional superhero movie, you will be disappointed. If however, you go in expecting a love note from a fan of the original work to a visionary author and illustrator and a wonderful piece of literature, I think you'll leave well satisfied.
While you may be a little lost having not read the book, that isn't to say you won't enjoy what you're seeing. Watchmen is an amazing spectacle, both visually and storyline-wise. It starts with the brutal murder of a former costumed hero, the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a minor event that leads vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) to believe someone is killing off costumed heroes. The story borrows equally from hard-boiled crime fiction and the superhero story as along the way we're introduced to a former superhero turned billionaire industrialist Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a night-stalking avian-themed retiree whose moniker was Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), a vinyl clad young woman who was forced into the super-life by her mother, Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and the only true "super"-hero of the bunch, an out of touch "walking nuclear deterrent" Doctor Manhattan (portrayed via blue-screen by Billy Crudup). All this in a world which has outlawed costumed vigilantes and which has Richard Nixon in his third term as president.
Sound confusing? Surprisingly, through flashbacks, internal dialogue and a brilliant opening credits sequence, the story is fairly easy to follow. And the scenes that Snyder pulls directly from the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comic are beautifully recreated as is much of the original dialogue. Rorschach narrating via his journal entries is an excellent plot device that works quite well during his scenes, though I almost wanted more of his view. I wanted to get to know his character better.
And this, I think is where the film fell down a little. Snyder is not very good at character development. For me, I cared about these characters because going in, I knew their backstories. I knew why Rorschach was the way he was (played out on screen with a disappointingly different ending; Saw films, you have ruined everything), I knew about Doctor Manhattan's background, I knew about Nite Owl I and Silk Spectre I, I knew about Captain Metropolis, the Silhouette and Hooded Justice. I knew all these things, and while some of them were shown on screen, it was in truncated form.
Now, I know that you can't show the same things in a movie that you can on the printed page. And I know that we're being promised a longer directors' cut at some point down the road. But at the same time, I have to say that the average movie goer might be a little more confused as to way he has to give a damn about Janey Slater. Or Bubastis. Or Hollis Mason, who is sadly reduced to a cameo here and whose emotional impact is removed entirely. And the secondary characters, who are so important in the graphic novel, are here reduced to a final cameo, leading some audience goers to say in their minds "Why is so much of an important scene focussing on a newsvendor and a teenager?"
Overall however, these are small things I think, minor blemishes on a film that does so much right. You are shown the fear of the cold war. You are shown the disconnection of Dr. Manhattan. Rorschach and the Comedian succeed brilliantly. The changing of the ending, while a little sad, had to be done, and for what it was, it worked. And thats why, I have to say, despite so many small things that tugged at me, saying "God I wish he developed that more" or "Come on, he should have shown the psychiatrists backstory." or "How the hell is he going to tie in Tales of the Black Freighter when he doesn't spend any time at the newstand?", I really, really loved this movie.
Watchmen is in theatres and IMAX now. Tales of the Black Freighter/Under the Hood will be released on DVD on March 24th, 2009, and will be cut into some crazy, ultimate, directors' cut of the movie at some point down the line.