Watchmen: A Brief Review That Is Not Very Brief

Posted on Sun 08 March 2009 in Dispatches • 7 min read

I went to go see Watchmen opening night, and I thought it would be worth my while to jot down some of my thoughts, now that I have had a couple to days to think about the film.

First, a disclaimer, the comics have been out for 20 years, and as such I am unclear of what would be considered a spoiler and I don’t really care. There will be spoilers in this review. If you have not seen/read Watchmen yet, either stop reading this review now or deal with any spoilers you encounter.

Let me start by saying this about Watchmen: in my opinion, it is as faithful a movie adaptation of the comic as we could reasonably expect. It has its flaws, but ultimately Zack Snyder has done a good job bringing the comic to life on the screen. He has captured the look, feel and pace of the comic, and coming in at nearly three hours in duration, Snyder has managed to squeeze in almost every essential scene into the movie, although geek purists may still complain about a few issues. The primary reason for that is that the aforementioned “geek purists” use their ability to identify inconsistencies with the source material and their associated rage as a method of demonstrating dominance in the geek pecking order. In short, that sort of behavior is mostly a pissing match.

So let’s talk about the movie.

In general, I thought the casting for the movie was excellent. Perhaps Adrian Veidt could have been a bit more charismatic, and Malin Akerman’s rendition of Laurie Jupiter was tolerable, but could have been better. However, Billy Crudrup’s Dr. Manhattan, Jeffery Dean Morgan’s Comedian, and Jackie Earl Haley’s Rorschach were all outstanding casting choices, as was Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl II. The movie would have failed had it cast the lead roles incorrectly, but it succeeded here. I think they probably could have done a better job casting with Nixon, but honestly I don’t care much about him in the movie. He’s a background character in the comic, and only takes a slightly larger role in the movie to help explain to the audience what’s going on politically in this alternate version of 1985.

As you would expect in a Snyder film, the action receives special attention. It’s brutal in the comic, and Snyder definitely brings that to the big screen. There are moments where I think Snyder goes further than the comic, but I have a hard time faulting him for it particularly when he has a modern movie-going audience that’s already seen some gritty comic book movies. I’ve read some reviews where people complain about the violence, particularly in relation to the kidnapping case Rorschach investigates. Complaints seem centered around the sadism of how the little girl was killed, although that’s in the comic too, so the issue is with the established story and not the movie. Admittedly, there is a change here in the movie that some comics fans have an issue with and that is Rorschach’s method of dispatching the kidnapper. The original story had Rorschach handcuffing the criminal to the stove with only a small saw for his wrist and setting the house on fire. I can see one obvious reason why this has been changed: because by now, this has been done in movies and television so many times already that it doesn’t have the same level of impact it once did. In fact, it’s almost passé, so I didn’t have an issue with the change.

Some fans will be disappointed that there is no time devoted in the film for “Tales of the Black Freighter”, the comic within the comic. This has been split out into a separate animated short. In this interview, Snyder says he shot all the in and out scenes at the newsstand in order to incorporate it in the movie, but that we may have to wait for a DVD before we see it integrated into the film. From the interview:

Alan C: We know that the “Black Freighter” is being produced as some sort of add on to the film for home release. What I want to know is will the “Black Freighter” parts cut back and forth to the newsstand and the comic as it does in the book? Will the DVD release have an option to include the “Black Freighter” scenes in context with the film (as they happen in the book) or will it just be a standalone extra?

Zack Snyder: It is my intent right now, and of course all this could change, to create a version of the “Black Freighter” that thread throughout the movie. As I write this, I have already shot the ins and outs of the News Vendor and Bernard… So we’ll try them in the film and then certainly we’ll at least see them on the DVD, but if it works awesome, then it works awesome, and it could end up in the film. I just want to make the best movie I can.

I’ve heard some fans complaining that not enough time was dedicated to Rorschach’s story, and in particular a sense of disappointment that the film wasn’t as character driven as the comic was. This is a valid complaint, but in order to do such a thing without cutting any of the other essential scenes would have required a minimum of another hour of screen time in order to do them properly. The cuts that would have been required in order to pull that off would have had every fan up in arms. Honestly, the only way to do that would have been to film Watchmen as a high budget miniseries, with an episode for each chapter, and even then I’m not sure that would work.

The ending of the film undergoes a slight change, but I have to say, I think it was a better choice within the context of the movie. To establish the original ending would have probably required another 30 minutes or more of build up in the course of the film and honestly, I think this works a bit better than what’s in the comic for the final strike of Veidt’s plan. I’ve always had a problem with the comic’s ending because I feel like it comes out of left field. Moore does his work establishing the design and backstory for the alien beast, but then says that Veidt cloned its brain from human psychics, without ever previously establishing that psychic phenomenon exist in the context of the story. That always felt a little sloppy to me, and especially in deference to making a movie that is not six hours long, the shift in focus to Dr. Manhattan is much better choice for the film.

I’ve heard some people complaining about the way the soundtrack of the movie was handled, it didn’t always fit what was happening on the screen. A lot of the music seemed to be selected by the lyrics that were quoted in the comic, but when the music was put up against the backdrop of the screen it didn’t work. I’ll agree that it was an awkward soundtrack for the film, it probably would have been better to ignore those quotations and just score it based off of the movie itself.

I’ve also read a lot of people complaining about how uncomfortable they were watching the love scene in Nite Owl’s ship. My girlfriend and I both left the movie with the impression it was deliberately shot to be uncomfortably awkward and we found it a little bit funny. It’s an important moment for the two characters, but in the context of the story its also a ridiculous one. I mean, in the comic and the movie, we see that it takes wearing his costume again for Dreiberg to be able to get it up, his self-confidence is so tied into his vigilantism. That being said, that probably could have been expressed with a slightly shorter scene, but in the end I think it works.

I only have one primary complaint about the movie, and it is related to the end, but not the plot change. My issue is with Dr. Manhattan’s departure. In the movie, he explains to Laurie that he is going to another galaxy, and his line “Nothing ever ends” is delivered by Laurie, quoting him. Here’s my issue with this: One of my favorite parts of the original story is that after Veidt has won the complicity of all those involved, and achieved all his goals, he has a moment of self-doubt in his final conversation with Dr. Manhattan (who reveals he is leaving for another galaxy). Veidt asks, “I did the right thing didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.” And Dr. Manhattan replies, “‘In the end’? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” Veidt calls out for an explanation, but Dr. Manhattan is already gone. It’s significant, and the way it’s shifted around in the film neuters the line and the moment. In my ideal version of the movie, Adrian Veidt would have had this moment with Dr. Manhattan and the movie would have ended as Veidt sits alone in his dark room trying to understand what Dr. Manhattan’s cryptic answer meant.

All that being said, I think Watchmen was an excellent adaptation of the comic, though not without its flaws. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and am really looking forward to getting my hands on the DVD when it comes out so that I can see the super-nerdy extended cut with everything Snyder had to remove from the film to get it down to just under three hours. I’m particularly excited at the possibility to see a version of the movie with the Black Freighter comic integrated into it. If you haven’t seen the movie yet (in which case why did you read a review filled with spoilers), I recommend you go see it, especially if you are a fan of the comic. If you haven’t read the comic, you may have to watch it more than once to understand everything that is going on, but you should really read the comic anyway.

Final Verdict: The Ministry of Intrigue approves this movie.