Watchmen - Film Review

Posted on 25. Feb, 2009 by in Film/TV

by Todd Gilchrist, photos courtesy of Warner Brothers

Director Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is an easy film to admire, but a less easy one to enjoy. An adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel series, the film is thoughtful without being didactic, glossy without being slick, and ultimately, cohesive without being entirely compelling; in other words, it’s as accurate and authentic as any single-serving adaptation of the source material is likely to be. All of which is why it’s a magnificent achievement, but for a movie about superheroes trying to save humanity, much less an aspiring blockbuster hoping to bring together longtime fans and newcomers alike, it’s not quite an equal piece of entertainment.

L-R: JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN as The Comedian, MALIN AKERMAN as Silk Spectre II, BILLY CRUDUP as Dr, Manhattan, MATTHEW GOODE as Ozymandias, PATRICK WILSON as Nite Owl II and JACKIE EARLE HALEY as Rorschach

The film stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan (TV’s Grey’s Anatomy) as Edward Blake, a superhero named The Comedian whose death shakes up the lives of his former teammates, the Watchmen, in an alternate-reality, 1980s New York City. Masked vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) presumes that his murder is part of a larger scheme to kill off costumed heroes, and convinces retired crime fighter Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) to help him reach out to the rest of the Watchmen to warn them. Reconnecting with Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Rorschach and Nite Owl reopen old wounds and reveal powerful secrets as they slowly try to discover the identity of The Comedian’s killer.


MALIN AKERMAN as Silk Spectre II

“Larger than life” is a phrase frequently and justifiably associated with superhero movies, much less wannabe blockbusters in general. But in the case of Snyder’s interpretation of Watchmen, that distinction is a matter of inches even if he still wants the end result to scrape the sky. Every characterization, from its boy-scout hero Nite Owl to its third-term-President Richard Nixon, is slightly but not comically exaggerated - a tip-off that this is meant to be a parody rather than a true portrait of a real world. Even the soundtrack feels deliberately excessive, punctuating moments of sadness, liberation or reflection with such crass precision that it’s impossible to take seriously – again, however, not as a “film,” but as a film. Not unlike the way that Charlie Kaufman created a “reality” in which reality played out in Synecdoche, New York, Snyder has augmented the form of his purported design – a massive, machinelike blockbuster – and created something more interesting and substantial within its walls.


As a movie, Watchmen’s biggest problem is its dramatic momentum – as in, it has none. Though the narrative is structurally faithful to the source material’s novelistic approach, the movie feels episodic, and at time, inert, bravura sequences inspire, arouse and dazzle, but they frequently build to molehill emotional crescendos that require familiarity with the original text to appreciate, much less connect to. To be fair, Moore and Gibbons’ material was itself primarily introspective, not interactive, deconstructing comic book conventions (if not the notion of mythology itself), but the fact that Snyder recreates their postmodern pop-culture analysis with a Kubrickian coldness may leave some viewers feeling underwhelmed, or indeed, cold, by the film’s end.

Interestingly, however, it’s this emotional detachment that makes the movie such a fascinating work of art. Like Kubrick’s best films, it aspires only incidentally to make the viewer truly care about the characters and their problems, instead focusing on the execution of a world (including an emotional one) so fully realized it inspires awe without needing to provoke further response from its audience to prove successful. If Watchmen isn’t the best comic book movie of all time, it’s certainly the most subversive: In what other film featuring similar characters are audiences expected to focus more on the social and political underpinnings of the characters than their predilection for beating the stuffing out of one another?


Testament to this is the fact that of all the scenes that could have been excised from Watchmen, the worthiest candidate for the cutting-room floor is a fight scene. Admittedly it makes practical sense to retain one of the graphic novel’s few instances of super-heroism, the scene merely reiterates character and story information previously established – and again, provides an interstitial thrill between sequences of less physical energy. 

The Dark Knight, by comparison, takes equally seriously its responsibility to thrill audiences even as it looks into the Batman mythology’s tangled mass of conflicting issues; in Watchmen, those issues are the thrill simply because they exist at all. (While it may be a meaningless footnote to most viewers, it’s important to remember that Moore and Gibbons conceived this “real world superhero” conceit more than 20 years ago, quite literally creating the foundations that Christopher Nolan would build upon for his Batman movies.) 

Should the film take into account the two decades of books, TV shows, and movies that borrowed from its inspiration? Perhaps. But Watchmen’s exacting replication of tone and tactic from its source material is truly unique within the pantheon of film’s greatest adaptations, because its labyrinthine journey from the page to the screen has created a juxtaposition of the familiarity audiences have with self-reflexive material, the irony of a tome that creates myths merely so that it can tear them down, and the sincerity of an adaptation fully committed to capturing the aware and the oblivious without direct comment.

At the risk of being branded a heretic, I would argue that the film’s ending in many ways improves upon the one in the graphic novel, not only binding together the original series’ myriad narrative and thematic threads but providing a more suitable catharsis for the movie’s elephantine story and scope. As so many other adaptations have proven, it doesn’t always pay to be too faithful to one’s source material – books are books, and movies are movies – and this is a case where the need for something suitably cinematic trumped the desire for 100% accuracy, and paid off.  

Jon Osterman (BILLY CRUDUP) is transformed into Dr. Manhattan

At the same time, a few of its digressions from the source material feel not only unnecessary, but counterproductive in sealing the film’s otherwise hermetic conceptual cohesiveness and, especially, its emotional restraint. In the famous sequence in which Dr. Manhattan subjects himself to a drilling by reporters who accuse him of exposing his colleagues and friends to cancer, screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse shamelessly bring out Manhattan’s old girlfriend as a final straw to punctuate his increasing discomfort. While I recognize the challenge of finding a way to propel Manhattan towards the emotional outburst that prompts him to leave Earth (in effect pushing the film towards its final act), this moment feels manipulative and insincere to the audience, especially in a film that literally responds to another character’s theatrical indignation with a withering “grow up.”

But is it good? Unquestionably. What it does from a thrill-ride standpoint, it does thrillingly, demonstrating the same technical virtuosity that made Snyder’s 300 and Dawn of the Dead such indelible adventures. But other than those cranked-camera showdowns and standalone set pieces, it doesn’t seem like it’s really trying to be a thrill ride, which will surely disappoint those who are attending primarily for that sort of satisfaction. Snyder has effectively synthesized his own directorial impulses with the dimensions of Moore and Gibbons’ source material, and created a truly unique, truly big movie, with some truly big ideas. I can’t help but wonder how many or few of them will be lost on the majority of the folks who see the film, including many of those immersed in the lore of the graphic novels, but it’s instrumental to one’s eventual love or hate of Watchmen that you understand the point of view that the film has and the perspective from which it’s coming.

Cinematically speaking, there are few occasions these days in which you can look at a film with clear eyes, be objective about its technical merits and conceptual integrity, and not come away with a firm sense of whether or not it’s resoundingly good or bad. This, I think, is a deficiency in filmmaking as a whole, where too often the simple and spectacular replace the smart and substantive. There is something to be respected and appreciated, deeply, about the way in which Watchmen was thought through, created from the inside out, maintained and preserved en route to the silver screen. But I don’t think it’s a great movie, because it is beholden to a novelistic, episodic, deliberate, momentum-deficient style that gives it authenticity as an adaptation. 

Watchmen, overall, is for everyone. It’s for people who love the graphic novels, and for people who have never read them. It’s for people who are sick to death of cinematic self-seriousness, and for people who want their movies to be treated more seriously. It’s for people who love movies, and for people who appreciate film. Watchmen is a benchmark achievement, a high water mark for adaptations, and an imperfect entry in the canon of comic-based cinema all at the same time. In other words, it defines the difference between a movie and a film: not merely entertainment, but the articulation of real concepts and ideas, which are effective in their exploration, even if in some cases it’s to the exclusion of more immediate gratification.



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12 Responses to “Watchmen - Film Review”

  1. kaduzy

    26. Feb, 2009

    Wasn’t Dr. Manhattan’s girlfriend present for that TV interview scene in the comic book too? Or did we learn that she had cancer earlier and then the reporter brought it up at the interview . . . hurm. I guess I have to go check that.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Todd Gilchrist

    26. Feb, 2009

    It is first mentioned during that scene in the comic book, but she isn’t literally brought out, and they do trot her out sobbing in the film. It may seem like a minor distinction but it crosses the line between provocation and pure manipulation.

    Reply to this comment
  3. Will

    26. Feb, 2009

    Todd, great review.

    Are you by any chance the same Todd Gilchrist who does/did the movie reviews for IGN?

    If so, I have always been a fan of your reviews. Perhaps it’s the different audience but the writing of this review seems to differ heavily from your IGN ones (imo, more analytical and complex…or perhaps it’s due to the film itself in comparison to reviewing something like, Superhero Movie).

    Anyways, keep up the great work. I look forward to reading your other reviews.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Quibble

    26. Feb, 2009

    It’s a minor point, but you keep saying graphic novelS and you mean graphic novel.

    Reply to this comment
  5. k0natus

    26. Feb, 2009

    This is one of the better reviews I have read. Good show!

    Reply to this comment
  6. Todd Gilchrist

    26. Feb, 2009

    Thanks for the kind words, Will - I used to write for IGN, but now contribute to H and some other outlets (you can find more of my reviews on Rotten Tomatoes). This film was important to me, and I wanted to treat it seriously, which is why I went more in-depth than I often did at IGN. In any case, thanks for reading, and thanks for the comments; it’s good to know that there are folks out there who recognize and enjoy my writing.

    Reply to this comment
  7. Astral

    27. Feb, 2009

    Ive read a dozen reviews this morning and this is by far the most thoughtful and balanced.
    Great review.

    Reply to this comment
  8. MYTN

    27. Feb, 2009

    Perhaps one of the most thoughtful reviews I’ve read. But what seemed like intellectual digressions in your piece sound more like caution from any immediate overreactions for the film.

    Maybe this is one of those films that you have to see more than once to fully absorb its impact. But then again, any movie that has that requirement is often times already great.

    Reply to this comment
  9. Omenvoir

    27. Feb, 2009

    Fantastic review. Your thoughtful and intelligent analysis of the material is not lost on those of us who want more from our reviews than the standard ho-hum fare. I will be keeping an eye on future reviews by Mr. Gilchrist.

    Reply to this comment
  10. Claude

    27. Feb, 2009

    As one of the “people who appreciate film,” I agree that this is a thoughtful and engaging review.

    Reply to this comment
  11. coffee

    14. Mar, 2009

    my immediate reaction to Watchmen is to feel haunted by the intense style and storyline — haunted in a good way that is… overall i loved it

    Reply to this comment
  12. lierpreptit

    20. May, 2009

    Hi Sir.
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