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We’re not ready for Watchmen

Watchmen poster

Director Zack Snyder translates the vision of the Watchmen 1986–87 comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons into a feature film to the delight of comic book fans everywhere. And sadly, our world beset by terrorism and economic recession may just be ready for this smart and sophisticated dark tale.

“The times they are a-changin” Bob Dylan tells us in the opening sequence of Watchmen. Indeed we glimpse a parallel universe where Richard Nixon is enjoying a third presidential term and the watchmen serve as guardians of the city, ready to dispense justice, vigilante-style. However, the fickle masses quickly turn on the masked avengers, outlawing them in an official government act. Suddenly just as tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union threaten imminent nuclear holocaust, the very existence of the watchmen is threatened, as superheroes are found viciously and mysteriously murdered.

The watchmen have license to watch no more, and their presence is restricted to gloomy streets and dark corners where the light cannot be found. The physical isolation of the superheroes quickly translates to emotional alienation as these heroes struggle to embrace their humanity in the “real world” and come to terms with their own identities sans the comfort and the protection of their masks.

Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) tells us in the beginning of the film that, “Everything in this world fits together except people.” And this quote is particular apt as these fallen heroes struggle in their efforts towards assimilation.

The cast of characters includes Patrick Wilson as Dan Drieberg/Nite Owl II whose constantly smudged wire-rimmed glasses reflect an impotence to action, both in and out of the bedroom and ironically serves as a far psychologically weightier mask than his usual superhero garb. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Edward Blake/The Comedian whose anger and rage has left little room for laughs as he exerts his superhuman strength to often take what is not his to have. Jackie Earle Haley stars as Walter Kovacs/Rorschach whose ever-changing inkblot masked face veils a deeply wounded psyche and a thirst for vengeance at any cost. Matthew Goode is Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias who has parlayed his superhero status into a global empire. Carla Gugino portrays Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre whose inability to get past her glory days as a superhero have her drowning her pain in alcohol and pinning her past hopes on her daughter Laurie (Malin Ackerman). As Silk Spectre II, Laurie realizes that her legacy from her mother involves far more than latex and masks its own dark secret. Finally, Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is the former Dr. Jon Osterman that has transformed — due to a scientific experiment gone horribly awry — into America’s very own weapon of mass destruction: our own shiny, blue personal Jesus. He is a key figure in government defense poised to save the Earth and maybe the mass extinction of the superheroes as well.

As expected, the visual effects in the movie are stunning, particularly certain battle sequences and the presentation of Doctor Manhattan. However at times they threaten to overwhelm the structure of the narrative itself. It seems that the viewer is never quite able to surrender to the cinematic experience because the stopgaps between dialogue and action continually remind us that we are indeed in a movie and lack the thrill of escapism that is the hallmark of a superhero movie.

Nevertheless, the film is an enjoyable thrill ride. The eclectic soundtrack, including tracks from Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and My Chemical Romance, enhances the enjoyment and adds a certain tongue-in-cheek quality that lets the viewer in on the joke, as when Tears for Fears “Everyone Wants to Rule the World” plays distinctly in the background as Adrian Veidt plots his efforts towards global domination. Comic book fans will rest assured that it is a near faithful adaptation of the comic book series, and novice fans will still appreciate the experience.

Watchmen is a film with a ready-made fan base and a new audience ready to discover its genius. And this successful merging of comic strip and feature film commands our attention and renders it worthy of our exploration.

Watchmen is currently playing at the Beverly and Savoy cinemas.

Runtime: 2:43 — Rated R — Adventure/Action


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