The drama of getting Watchmen into theaters is more compelling than the convoluted film director Zack Snyder (300) created. Based on Allan Moore’s much-loved graphic novel from the mid-’80s, Watchmen is at first gripping in the same menacing way The Dark Knight was. But then, it disintegrates into an ending that leaves you depressed at the wasted potential. I was also disturbed by elements in the film that I found unfortunate at best and homophobic at worst.
Watchmen tells the story of a group of crime-fighters who are anything but role models. In the film’s alternate reality, it is 1985 and President Nixon is enjoying his fifth term (having abolished term limits), but the country is virtually rotting away with corruption and crime. Superheroes, who live alongside regular people, have been outlawed as vigilantes, except for a glowing blue atomic creature named Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, channeling his MasterCard ad voice to great effect) who is Nixon’s secret weapon against Russia. The Watchmen, who evolved from a group of crime-fighters in the ’40s called the Minutemen, have mostly gone into hiding or gone to seed.
When a particularly poorly-named “superhero,” The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is brutally murdered, his paranoid fellow crime-fighter Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, in a brilliant performance) tries to regroup the Watchmen to solve the killing. Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), a.k.a. Niteowl II, is a schlubby nebbish with an arsenal of amazing weapons and gizmos. Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman) a.k.a. Laurie Jupiter, the daughter of the original superhero (a boozy Carla Gugino, who plays her role like Lea Thompson in Back to the Future Part II), is a knockout who hates her neglectful mom. Ozymandias, a.k.a. Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), is the world’s smartest man, and he has used his powers to become incredibly rich and successful. Dr. Manhattan is a God-like do-gooder who is gradually losing touch with his humanity, despite his love for Laurie.
The world is pitted in the kind of nuclear arms race that seems ready to explode, and even having Dr. Manhattan on our side doesn’t seem to be scaring the Russians. In this pre-apocalyptic chaos, Rorschach finds that the killer of his ill-tempered friend may be someone closer than he suspects. At this point, all of the great performances so far can no longer save the admittedly great-looking film. The climax can’t work in a post-Cold War time, not that it would have been very logical or believable in 1987 either.
The opening credits, played as a set of living tableaus that detail the rise and fall of the Minutemen and the Watchmen to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are A-Changin’”, are riveting and dazzlingly presented. It’s too bad that the rest of the film can’t match its virtuosity. Snyder fills the film with scenes of misogynistic violence and elements that, because they go unchallenged, are likely to inspire anti-gay reactions in less-intelligent audiences.
For instance, Silhouette (Apollonia Vanova) is a strong and sexy crime-fighter who is revealed as a lesbian with a girlfriend she meets at Times Square on V-E Day. Before the credits are over, they’ve both been murdered in an apparent hate crime. When Rorschach refers to her, he equates her with another Minuteman who has gone insane and is institutionalized, and as much as says she was asking for her fate because of her alternative lifestyle. It can also be argued that the killer who is unmasked is also the stereotypical gay villain.
Given the almost fetishistic attention given to the always-naked and well-endowed Dr. Manhattan, and the homoerotic exaggeration of the men’s bodies when in costume, I don’t know that the homophobia was intentional. Still, it’s totally unnecessary, as is the level of brutality shown in the violent confrontations.
Due to its dated premise, overindulgent running time, and unrelenting ugliness, Watchmen is a visually breathtaking waste of time.
UPDATE: Watchmen is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.