Watching the Watchmen

It’s very strange for me, to come to something that’s a cult phenomenon for over two decades – and which has nonetheless completely passed me by. But finally, with the “unfilmable” graphic novel finally in cinemas, it seemed time that I caught up with the legendary comic book.

Cover of the Watchmen graphic novelDespite usually getting tagged as a geek by my friends and family, I have fallen down badly on the gold standard of geekdom until now: “Watchmen” came out in 1986 just when I was a bit too old and too involved in other things to be continuing my love of comic books. And so I walked into the screening of the film knowing only what the film reviews and trailers had revealed to me, but absolutely no idea of who the Watchmen were or what Doctor Manhattan was.

The first rule of the Watchmen seems to be that it’s a story that is categorically unfilmable. (I’m reminded of “Dune”, another unfilmable story which defeated David Lynch’s attempt in 1984 – which I really liked, by the way.) Well, the good news is that Zack Snyder has shown that this is not the case here. He’s filmed it, made a pretty decent job of it AND managed to stay close to the original. Coming to the film as an innocent bystander with no personal investment in the Watchmen, I’m happy that it makes for a complete, well structured film that entirely works on its own merits. Some (like Mark Kermode) have argued that Snyder has stayed too slavishly close to the source material, but it didn’t feel forced or stilted to me. It worked really well.

The strongest aspect of the film (thanks to the original structure of the graphic novel, I suspect) is that it manages to build a completely new world and introduce a large array of new characters (not just one generation of heroes, but two) – and that it does so coherently. I never felt confused about who anyone was or what was going on, and in a story as complex as this one with so few familiar touchpoints that’s quite a feat.

I loved the first two thirds of the film where we got to know this world and explored the individual characters backgrounds and originals. They were sketched in remarkably well so that each Watchman had his own origin story and we knew what had made them what they now were: usually it takes a whole film to tell a superhero origin story, but this achieved it many times over with remarkable economy. Visually it did it in great style too: a sort of heightened reality (I kept thinking of LA Confidential) rather than the complete comic book unreality of “Sin City” or “300” which worked very well.

And then, about two thirds of the way through, the film rather derailed for me. It came almost the moment when Rorschach (arguably the film’s greatest character, albeit a nasty sociopath) and Nite Owl find out who is behind the dastardly plan. At which point, it becomes impossible to coherently talk about the film without giving away the plot so pardon me while we pause for a …

Spoiler Alert

In other words – don’t read on if you want to avoid spoilers. Okay?

Okay. Well, it comes when they find out that the evil mastermind behind the plot is fellow Watchman Ozymandias. It’s not exactly a huge shock, actually, and the clues had been there throughout (never trust a film character who professes admiration for Alexander the Great.) It’s also obvious because Ozymandias is the one character whose background was never properly filled in. I suspect there are also chunks of graphic novel missed out that explain the arrival of a strange genetic hybrid pet at his side that’s never explained.

This is unfortunate because that leaves him as a cypher no more substantial than a typical Bond Bad Guy – complete with evil headquarters in Antarctica. Okay, so his motives turn out to be altruistic (he’s saving the world, with the exception of a few million sacrifices) but even so, he’s the bad guy little different from Bond villains like Stromberg and Drax who also thought, in a perverse way, that they were saving humanity.

We’re meant to be shocked that his argument for mass murder is, ultimately, proved “right”. And in the mid 80s (when the story was written and where the film is still set) this probably was indeed shocking and original. But we’ve come a long way since then, and seen a lot more – not least of which have been hundreds of films, books and graphic novels get their inspiration from this ground breaking work by Alan Moore and David Gibbons. “Watchmen” loses its effect because of its success, and now comes over like a dated, slightly naïve and rather charmingly innocent story with very lightweight politics – which is of course the very opposite of how it must have appeared in 1986 when this would have been the deepest and most profound “comic book” of its time.

So for me the final act became somewhat clichéd and – yes – even a little tiresome. I’m willing to concede that the lengthy running time might just have worn me out by this point and that this is another reason why I didn’t engage with it – but that, too, has to be judged a problem with the film. After raising expectations with so many top-flight ideas, it crashes to comic book mediocrity just when it needed to deliver the big finish.

There are other problems I have with it: the Nixon scenes are bizarre, played almost as a lampoon which jar with the psychological depth of the rest of the film and not helped by casting an actor with little resemblance to the disgraced ex-President – and then saddling him with an ludicrous nose prosthetic that really doesn’t look like the original in any way. And ultimately the main characters – as fascinating and compelling as they are as psychological studies – lack the kind of appeal that make you want to relate to them. There are two complete sociopaths (Rorschach and Comedian), two who believe themselves removed from humanity and almost godlike in different ways (Dr Manhattan and Ozymandias) and the depressed, Clark Kent-ish Nite Owl. Only Laurie (Silk Spectre II) really delivers a warm, approachable and human character that we can use as a point of identification.

So in the end, something of a mixed verdict: a better film than I expected it to be, but one that I oddly liked less than I’d hoped I would. I can only give this film a 3 out of 5. Maybe three and a half if pushed, but no more. But I’ll give it credit for being one of the few films of recent years that’s kept me thinking and evaluating it for hours afterwards, still unable to answer the basic question of “Well, did you like it?” in simple yes or no terms. Hopefully this blog post at least gets around to answering the question albeit in a thousand words instead of one.

But now perhaps the best compliment that I can pay the film: I’m going to do what I should have done 23 years ago, get the graphic novel and read the original.

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