Main Cast: Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Director: Zack Snyder
Hello all you lovely people out there in the dark. I must give myself a dozen lashes with a wet pool noodle for not having written a column for the last several weeks but a brief time in a semi-comatose state will do that to you. But I’m afraid I’m getting ahead of myself. As you will recall, I made a triumphant return to live television with my fabulous production of the musical mashup West Side Christmas Story this past holiday season which aired on something called The Gorilla Channel. Everything was going swimmingly on set until the big first act production number, Cool, when I and the dance ensemble were doing a simply divine little mambo on the ice around the flagpole to which a hapless Riff had gotten his tongue stuck. Unfortunately, my right heel tap got caught in a flaw in the ice and down I went banging my head against the bumper of the prop firetruck and I knew nothing else until I woke up in Mount Sinai several weeks later. Apparently, I had had a minor subdural hemorrhage with a concussive injury. I am assured I will make a complete recovery, but the production did not recover. They shoved one of the chorus girls into my costumes to complete the taping, but the audience tuned out in droves when I was no longer featured. The overnight Nielsens were better for a rerun of My Mother the Car.
I have returned to Casa Maine to begin my rehabilitation. My medical progress is being overseen by a small, but athletic Greek physician who is putting me through wind sprints and the occasional Montreal Cognitive Assessment. I’m sure her methods are effective, but there are no dance moves involved so I am bringing in Lulu Pigg, my tap therapist, to consult. I’ve got to get myself back into fighting form and ready for a major new entertainment project. What that’s going to be, I’m not sure but something is bound to turn up. Normy says I should call DeWolfe, the great opera impresario and see what he has this upcoming season. I’m thinking The Queen of the Night would be suitable for my talents, but we would need to beef the role up a bit with an up-tempo number, an extended tap solo and perhaps some aerial silk work.
In the meantime, as I am supposed to get plenty of rest, I’m having a chance to catch up with some viewing in my luxurious home theater. My first stop was Zack Snyder’s 2009 film of Alan Moore’s seminal 1986 graphic novel Watchmen. In its original literary form, Watchmen proved that the graphic novel had moved far beyond the realm of the simple comic book and had artistic merit in its own right and a number of critics have called it one of the best novels of the second half of the 20th century. The film rights were sold soon after publication and the project kicked around Hollywood for a couple of decades before finally getting the green light under director Snyder, fresh off the success of 300. His film is one of the most faithful adaptations of a graphic novel ever attempted, with artist Dave Gibbon’s original panels serving as storyboards and much of the dense plot retained. The only major change was a rewrite of the ending into something that David Hayter and Alex Tse’s screenplay felt was more in keeping with the mood and tone and reality of the piece than Alan Moore’s original attack of the squid demons.
Watchmen is a neo-noir superhero film set in an alternate reality October of 1985. In this universe (which has nods to the DC universe in general), superheroes are real, but very flawed humans and federal law has been changed to rein in their caped crusading. We open with the death of one of them, known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who is attacked and defenestrated by an unknown assailant. He is an aging member of a group of New York based costumed superheroes, The Watchmen, formed in 1939 and active through the 1940s. During the credits sequence, we see how they rise to prominence, and then fall from grace in various ways. Back in the 1980s present, we meet the other retired superheroes of a later generation including Nite Owl, a gone to seed inventor type (Patrick Wilson), Dr. Manhattan, a glowing blue omniscient presence (Billy Crudup), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and her lush of a mother, also a Silk Spectre in the Watchmen’s earlier incarnation (Carla Gugino), Ozymandias a gazillionaire industrialist (Matthew Goode), and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) who hides behind a constantly changing mask and acts as narrator, guide and voice of vigilante reason. We follow these characters in their present, and in flashback, seeing how they have influenced alternate history, and how under a corrupt president for life Nixon, they work both with and against each other towards a cataclysmic ending. The plot is impossible to describe but Snyder and his screenwriters keep their storytelling clear and I never felt lost. In retrospect, the plot holes are numerous and ludicrous, but they don’t seem to matter as the film keeps rolling along.
There are three different cuts of Watchmen in circulation. The original theatrical cut of 161 minutes. The director’s cut of 186 minutes which extends certain sequences and clarifies some of the back stories. And an ultimate cut of 215 minutes which intercuts the animated ‘Tales of the Black Freighter’ into the narrative. In the original novel, where superheroes are real, comic books are about pirates and there is a minor character who reads one throughout the proceedings, acting as a sort of Greek chorus commentary. The filmmakers, realizing this was not necessary to the plot, turned this into an independent animated featurette that was originally released as a companion to the DVD. The ultimate cut puts it into the film in the same beats as the novel. Of the three, I would recommend the director’s cut which gives the fullest vision of the work, but which doesn’t drag. The half hour of the Black Freighter is completely unnecessary and only for completists.
The cinematography of Larry Fong and production design of Alex McDowell are top notch and Watchmen is a visual feast. Whether we are in the streets of alternate Manhattan, Antarctica or the surface of Mars, the frame is chock full of sharp detail. Everywhere you look there are little Easter eggs referring to the culture of the 80s, but subtly warped by the presence of our superheroes. There are recreations of famous historical moments such as the Kennedy assassination and cameos from everyone from Andy Warhol to Pat Buchanan to the Village People. Snyder keeps his large cast, convoluted plot, and various themes on the problems of power moving right along.
The performances, in a movie like this, are predominantly in service of the special effects and visual concepts but a few of the actors rise to the point where they make an indelible impression. Jackie Earle Haley, who spends much of the film in a cloth mask, still has a unique voice and physicality that make him interesting to watch. Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Carla Gugino have greatish moments as well. Less successful are Patrick Wilson, who is pretty, but a bore, and Matthew Goode who seems to sleepwalk through most of the movie. Billy Crudup is mainly a glowing blue naked man (anatomically correct). He has a lovely voice but it’s hard to tell what he really brings to the proceedings other than line readings.
In the end, I quite enjoyed Watchmen. The purists are going to find fault with the things that were changed from the novel. The fans of superhero films are going to find fault with the ambiguous morality of our superheroes and the lack of clear heroes and villains. The parents who are looking for a fantasy for their children are going to find fault with the casual violence, sex and rough language that are usually edited out of such films. It deserves its R rating. But, if you’re looking for some visually sumptuous, relatively engrossing adult fantasy, you could do work.
Symbolic happy face button. Popcorn eating. Lesbian V-J day kiss. Gratuitous Lee Iacocca. Crystal Mars machine. Blue giant – Viet Cong showdown. Bilateral hand amputation. Nostalgia perfume.