Film review – Watchmen (2009)

The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)
The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)

The 12 part comic book series Watchmen initially ran from 1986-1987 before being collected in trade paperback format to become one of the first books marketed as a graphic novel. Written by Alan Moore with art by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen is not only acclaimed by comic fans but it is also one of the rare comics to achieve mainstream recognition and become regarded as an important piece of 20th century literature. Its complex structure, strong symbolism, political satire and deconstruction of the role of superheros in contemporary mythology meant that it Watchmen took full advantage of the comic medium. Adapting such a text into another format was therefore going to be very tricky and fans were naturally anxious about what the results may be. Previous films based on Moore’s comics tended to gloss over his complex and challenging thematic concerns to merely focus on the action. The film version of V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005) worked this well but From Hell (Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes, 2001) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Stephen Norrington, 2003) were very disappointing. While the film adaptation of Watchmen is not the masterpiece that some may have hoped for, the good news is that it is nevertheless an excellent film.

Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley)
Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley)

The terrific opening credits sequence of Watchmen establishes that its 1985 setting is an alternate universe where costumed, masked avengers have been a reality for several decades. Society is now aggressively rightwing, America won the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon is now in his third term as President and the USA is dangerously close to nuclear war with the USSR. Having previously been popular, public opinion has turned against the costumed crime fighters and Nixon has passed a bill outlawing them. The masked avengers who have not been murdered or committed to asylums have either retired, now work for the government, become entrepreneurs or are illegally working as vigilantes. When Edward Blake (a.k.a. The Comedian) is murdered Walter Kovacs (a.k.a. Rorschach) becomes convinced that costumes heroes are being killed off so makes contacts with his former companions to investigate. They are a diverse collection of people all with their own motivations for becoming costumed heroes including a lust for power, psychotic desire for vengeance, superiority complex or, in the case of Doctor Jonathan Osterman (a.k.a. Doctor Manhattan), having actual ‘superpowers’ as a result of a nuclear experiment gone wrong.

The multi-layered story of Watchmen was never going to be fully contained in a single film but this is an excellent adaptation and fans shouldn’t be too upset about what has been left out or changed. Even the tweaked ending retains the impact of the original. However, Watchmen does have the problem that some of its dialogue is lifted straight from the comic, which does not always work on screen. Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) does a good job as Rorschach in the scenes where he is unmasked but otherwise the performances are merely adequate. Curiously the strongest actor in the cast, Billy Crudup, is given the almost emotionless and featureless role of Doctor Manhattan. The use of music in Watchmen is also frequently poor and some of the song choices are very questionable.

Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman)
Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman)

Director Zack Snyder is increasingly proving himself to be a gifted visual craftsman. His 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake was great and despite the massive flaws in 300, it at least accurately replicated the look of the comic it was adapted from. Likewise, the film version of Watchmen looks like it was storyboarded directly from the original comic. Visually Watchmen cannot be faulted for its faithfulness to the original comic and its cinematic spectacle. Although some of the nuances of the comic are toned down while the action is played up, Watchmen is still a satisfying cinematic experience. Despite its flaws Watchmen is a stunning film that contains far more substance and intrigue than most comic book screen adaptations. It may not have the same impact upon audiences that The Dark Knight did last year but it will keep the fans happy and create several new ones.

[7 October 2010 – I originally rated this film 4 stars but after viewing it a second time I’ve concluded that it’s closer to a 3½ star film. I’ve explained my reasoning in the comments.]

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. I’m very surprised by your comment “The use of music in Watchmen is also frequently poor and some of the song choices are very questionable” mainly because I thought exactly the opposite.

    From Nat King Cole in the open sequence to Dylan in the opening credits, the use of Philip Glass for Dr Manhattan’s theme to the brilliantly poignant choice of Sounds Of Silence for The Comedian’s funeral (the death of innocence). Furthermore some of the songs were specifically selected because of references in the novel, giving them additional meaning. The only duff choice for my money was Hallelujah during the sex scene, which just didn’t fit right at all.

    Which choices in particular were you not impressed by?

  2. Hi Scott and thanks for dropping by.

    Firstly I should admit that I had completely forgotten about the fact that the book makes reference to specific songs so that’s my bad.

    I actually really liked the Nat King Cole and Dylan songs and thought they were used beautifully so I agree with you there. However, I became aware of my problem with the music when “Sounds of Silence” was used as it just seemed a little overwrought. It was also the wrong time period and I was overall too aware of how much a lot of the music was so recognisably 1970s. I didn’t dislike any of the music but was just distracted by it more than I wanted to be. And yes, “Hallelujah” was the most offending song in terms of being way out of place.

    My problem with the Philip Glass music was (and I admit this is perhaps unfair) that I recognised it as having been lifted from other film soundtracks. The music itself is great but I get annoyed when music that has been used so effectively in one film then gets used in another film to try to evoke similar emotions. It seems a little lazy to me. I had the same problem with the use of Michael Nyman’s music in Man on Wire.

    Having said all that, I loved “99 Luftballons” and “First We Take Manhattan”.

    I hope I’ve shed a bit of light on why I made that comment and I really appreciate that you took the time to add your thoughts. You’re most welcome to do so again.


    By the way, congratulations on your interview with Zack Snyder and I encourage other readers to check it out if they are interested in all things Watchmen.

  3. I assume you have read the novel? Because I haven’t and sure as hell don’t understand it.

    I saw the film and got what I paid for – i.e. sex and violence – but the film didn’t really touch on any of the things I see quite a lot of people saying that the graphic novel did. I didn’t really understand a lot of the motivation behind the characters, nor did I fully comprehend them – with the exception of perhaps Dr. Manhattan and Rorschach. As you said, the song choices were extremely poor. I honestly don’t care about them being in the graphic novel – they did not work at all in the film. It took me out of the moment and I was thinking more “Why are they playing a weird cover of All Along The Watchtower?” than “Woah, Antarctica”. I also thought a lot of the acting was sub-standard, and the Silk Spectres I and II were just plain terrible. Everything was under-developed and it seemed to be made especially for fanboys who loved the novel and Snyder didn’t seem to take into consideration that people who haven’t read it could see it.

    Sure, I had fun, and it was visually epic, but looking back it had nothing memorable and I have no desire to see it again.

  4. A very interesting response. I was worried that I only enjoyed the film to the extent that I did because I have read the original comic (which is great by the way but not the Holy Grail of literature that some would have you believe it to be).

    I must confess that I usually have no time for people who evaluate a film based on its faithfulness to the source it was adapted from. It’s an adaptation – not a literal transposing. There is nothing sacred about the original work and the end product is what matters. It should be regarded as a work in its own right regardless of how you feel about the original novel, comic, film etc. On this occasion I suspect that I’ve failed to fully do that where your response, as somebody coming to the film fresh and unburdened from having read the original comic, is perhaps the more valid one.

    Having said that, I have spoken to other critics (and many of them older and more conservative in taste than me) who had no knowledge of the comic and still enjoyed this film.

    Thank you for sharing your perspective and providing a very worthy counterbalance to my review.

    By the way – I hope you don’t think I’m a fanboy!

  5. Haha, no, I don’t think you’re a fanboy. Your review, which actually pointed out some of flaws (*gasp*), proved that much.

    I can understand that some people would enjoy it having not read the novel, but I personally put things like plot and character development over just good fun. Sometimes one overrides the other, but not really in this case.

    I think that fanboys have only really impaired this film rather than made it better. A lesser known novel Atonement (that deserved the Booker Prize, but I won’t get into that) was adapted recently in such a way that it completely overrode nearly every detail of the core material and only really kept the characters and the plot, but I consider to be one of the best adaptations I have ever seen. Faithfulness to the core material should not be important in the grand scheme of things when you are adapting something to the screen. Different things work for different mediums, and that should be taken into consideration. Sadly, it was not in this particular case.

  6. Atonement is an excellent example of just how good an adaptation can be.

    You are spot on with your comments about faithfulness and different mediums.

    I briefly discussed those idea about adapting a work to suit the new medium when I reviewed A Scanner Darkly. That was a film that suffered from being too much of a literal adaptation where something like Blade Runner heavily deviates from the narrative of the source material in order to cinematically convey its concepts and ideas.

  7. Wow, I didn’t know until now that Blade Runner had been adapted. Interesting.

    But yes, being too faithful can be a major issue, and it’s a shame that so many fans of so many novels these days are so critical of the smallest of changes to the original story. It’s an adaptation, not a re-creation.

  8. I didn’t like the film and I think not having read the source material is an issue. So much would have made more sense to those who have, and I don’t think the film stands on its own.

    The sex scene was completely clumsy, the ultra-violence was too graphic and any important message or sub-text that the comics had is lost in translation to the big screen. Also, the music seemed clunky.

    I’m interested to read the graphic novel in spite of the film, because I’ve heard so many good things about the former. But the film does nothing to point me in the novel’s direction. It seems just another throwaway blockbuster.

  9. Rats. Another thumbs down from somebody who hasn’t read the original graphic novel. I am going to have to re-watch and re-evaluate this and try to view it more critically this time. I must confess that I did allow myself to be swept away by the ‘moment’ when I saw it – not that doing that is a bad thing but perhaps it clouded my ability to respond to this film as a work completely independent from the original source material.

    I do actually agree though that the sex scene and moments of ultra-violence were clumsy and detracted from the overall film. And I’ve already mentioned the poor use of music.

    Nevertheless, I know Margaret and David and Roger Ebert liked it and they were new to the material. Is there anybody else out there who hasn’t read the original graphic novel but still enjoyed the film?

  10. I still retain all my original criticisms, but upon re-watching the film (in IMAX, none the less) I actually enjoyed it a lot more. I had quite a bit of it explained to me, though, but I also noticed several things I wouldn’t have otherwise paid attention to, or were too fast for me to register the first time. Knowing what was happening just enhanced the experience so much. Though there were still a few questions, the fact that all the action and sex was still fun a second time, it just takes it to a whole new level. I often find quite a few action films fall very, very, very flat when you see them again, but this one didn’t, and I was really surprised.

    Kinda explain everything better here:

  11. Good on you moogirl22 for re-evaluating this. I maintain that while it is a flawed film there is a lot about it that is very enjoyable. Perhaps watching it a second time you are more aware of what to expect and can therefore enjoy it more for what it is. I know I often find that this is the case.

  12. I also enjoyed the movie. Before seeing it, I had not read the graphic novel, nor did I know anything about the Minutemen or the Watchmen.
    The visual aspects were very well done, with a lot of memorable scenes and images (I suppose that the credits for these go mainly to the creators of the comic novel and secondly to the director of the movie). The music seemed a little clunky at times, but apart from hogging the spotlight for a few moments, it seemed pretty much adequate, if not funny in an ironical way.
    The sex scenes were a nice touch in a super hero movie so I appreciated them as being an interesting way of showing the humanity and flaws of the heroes. I admit that the first time I saw Doctor Manhattan completely naked in a full frontal view it was weird, but as the movie progressed, IT became more and more unimportant to me. The violence seemed gratuitous at times, like the time where those gangsters are blown to pieces in a restaurant, or in the scene with the back alley fighting with those thugs, but I suppose it also served a higher purpose.
    What hit me after the movie had ended is that, even if I did understand the heroes and their actions, I didn’t like them at all. They all seemed like cold blooded killers, wearing masks (isn’t that a joke,). You see, the thing that makes a hero a super hero is that, even in the most extreme conditions, a super hero will not kill (a human being).
    The most extraordinary thing about this movie is that it makes you think about a lot of things. Things like: what exactly is good and evil, what would be the price to world peace, what would a person do if given godly powers and more. In the end, it is a story about an alternate reality (like most movies are), an amazing movie nonetheless, one that will be the subject of a lot of discussions, at least for some time.

  13. I recently re-watched Watchmen and have dropped my rating down by half a star as a result. I still like the film but the aspects that I didn’t like, and mentioned in my review, stood out a lot more on this second viewing. Maybe it didn’t help that I watched the Ultimate Cut version of the film, which is good for the first hour and then drags horribly after that. I’d recommend people wanting to see Watchmen for the first time stick to the (still long) theatrical cut. I think even hardcore fans of the graphic novel will find the longer versions difficult to sit through.

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