Senior Editor
03.11.09 53 Comments

First things first: I didn’t read the graphic novel, and though I have a vague idea what’s in it, if you’re looking an outline of all the differences between the book and the movie or how faithful the film is to the book, look elsewhere.  And anyway, it’s a movie, it’s not your boyfriend.  Queer.

Now then: the ending sucks, it’s a little too long, and by the end the story’s loose ends dangle like retarded squid tentacles (rather than being all tied up in a pretty, glitter-covered package like the strippers in my basement).  But Watchmen is a SUCCESS. It’s worth watching and re-watching despite its flaws, on the strength of the fictional universe it creates, the chances it’s willing to take, and the random people it’s willing to kill in gruesome and hilarious ways.  The film has balls.  And though it pains me to say it, Zack Snyder just might be the visionary they’ve made him out to be.

Watchmen takes place in an alternate 1985, a world in which superheroes are real and Nixon is still president (because the superheroes helped him win Vietnam, you see).  Meanwhile, these events have exacerbated the Cold War, and the world is on the brink of nuclear apocalypse.  It can’t be overstated, the setting is the star of the film.  Probably 99% of the time, what you get in movies is a cinematic universe that’s either wholly fictional, or a world that’s more or less the same as the real one.  Watchmen treads a middle line, which is different and compelling in and of itself, and for the most part it manages to get the best of worlds.  It feels familiar and the history is relevant, but it’s still an escapist fantasy in which anything can happen, and it’s okay that part of you was amused when that pregnant chick got shot (maybe? not even a little?).

The world of Watchmen is rare because it explores so many of the implications of the existence of superheroes – something most superhero movies avoid completely.  What would happen if superheroes were neither as moral as Batman and Spider-Man nor as evil as the Joker?  And what if they existed in the context of geopolitics rather than just as neighborhood crime fighters?  The questions Watchmen asks seem obvious, but at least it’s asking.  Some of the answers to those questions, by the way, are truly f-cked up and arrive covered scalding grease and blue cock, but that’s part of the fun.

I hate agreeing with studio hype, but what holds everything together (the part of the movie that works, anyway) is Snyder’s craftsmanship.  When you hear that a director’s been faithful to a graphic novel, you usually get a lot of desaturated, two-dimensional crap with the occasional detail painted red.  Frank*ly, who gives a shit.  By contrast, Snyder’s “vision” in Watchmen is vivid, but also photorealistic. All the shots have amazing depth, the camera moves are beautifully choreographed, and they’re choreographed around the action in the scene, so that it not only looks good, it’s more than just an art director circle jerk.  The Kennedy assassination during the opening credits is a perfect example.  Snyder frames it like the familiar Zapruder film, then slows down parts of the action (as is his trademark) and does the whole thing in crisp, saturated color.  As the car moves through the frame with JFK’s brains scattered matter-of-factly across the back of the limo, he slowly pans to the right where The Comedian lowers his rifle and flees from the grassy knoll with the murder weapon.  The scene looks gorgeous, it’s historically relevant, and it’s spiced with an element of the absurd.  Moreover, it’s f-ckin cool.

Oh, but what about all that bad stuff?  Oh yeah, that. It’s overlong, it’s not nearly as profound as you might expect, and if you’re hoping for an explanation at the end you’re in for a letdown.  It eventually answers the central question to the plot – who’s pickin’ off costumed heroes? – but not in an interesting or satisfying way. Malin Akerman’s acting also sucks (as opposed to Jackie Earle Haley, who is an epic badass, and most of the rest of the cast), but I forgive her because she shows her boobs a lot.  Overall you get the sense that the explanation for a lot of stuff in the book never quite made it to the screen.  The result is things like the scene near the end when some kind of zebra-striped bat-liger shows up with no explanation or reference at all.  I can see why people might hate it, but I found it sort of delightfully absurd.  “Dude, what the hell’s with that Bat Liger?”  “Oh you mean Bill?  Pff, he’s old news.”

The main reason the film’s getting mixed reviews is that a lot of people expect all the gratuitous sex and violence (and the characters’ unexplained super ass-kicking powers) to rationalize themselves through a plausible explanation, or by becoming an element of some grand, incisive social commentary.  And mehhhhh, they’re really not.  It’s best just to enjoy the flesh wounds, the severed limbs, and the dude getting his face melted off by a vat of scalding grease (God that was awesome), this isn’t going to be life affirming.  And when the climactic scene very nearly devolves into a banal fistfight a la Matrix Reloaded, you just feel like the story owes you more.  But no matter, I’m still recommending this movie because it has balls.  Big, brass balls.  Covered in blue c-ck.

Screenwriter David Hayter recently wrote an open letter, urging fans of Watchmen to keep seeing the movie, so that studios won’t be able to use disappointing box office receipts as an excuse to water-down, homogenize, and neuter future comic-book movies, and generally try to turn them into toy commercials and play dates for tweens.  Hate to say it, but I actually agree with him.

Grade: A-

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