In Theatres: 
Mar 06, 2009
Running Time: 
2 Hours, 43 Minutes

Where do you begin with something as massive, legendary and cultish as Watchmen?

I guess I’ll follow Julie Andrews’ advice and start at the very beginning. I’m a relatively new fan of Watchmen. I didn’t read it until I got to college (99-03), so I’m not one of the OG fans who were lucky enough to read it as it was released, issue-by-issue, in the late 80’s.

So I got to the party a little late, but thanks to the efforts of Eric Moore (one of my college roommates), I finally showed up. I still remember him recommending the graphic novel to me, with lofty proclamations about how amazingly profound it was, how it changed the comic landscape forever, etc. He also introduced me to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and other “new classics.” Basically I owe Eric a huge thanks for transitioning me from the comics of my youth to the recent epics that have been created by Miller, Alan Moore, Mark Millar, Doug TenNapel, Brian Bendis and many, many others.

But I digress…back to Watchmen. I remember sitting down with his copy and wondering what I was getting myself into. Here was a world, an alternate 1980’s, where Nixon was into his third term as president and the atomic clock was slowly marching towards midnight, thanks to heightened tensions between America and Russia. This is a world where heroes exist, but none of them (at least at first) have superpowers. They’re just a bunch of vigilantes, running around in masks and costumes. But this isn’t Peter Parker juggling teenage issues with the joys of being able to swing and jump like a spider or even Captain America struggling to come to terms with a country that has moved on from what he remembered in World War II.

No, the masked crusaders of Watchmen are broken, messed-up people. They’re barely holding it together and calling them “heroes” is generously stretching the definition of the word. They’re part of an America that’s crumbling and breaking, a shell of what it used to be. It’s a dark vision, an incredibly in-depth one. Along with the basic comic panels, Watchmen also features supplemental material, behind-the-scenes “publications” that help flesh out the reader’s experience. The first time through, it can be almost overwhelming. But the depth and breadth of it is also what gives Watchmen its fanatical following and appeal. Moore succeeded in creating an all-encompassing universe and then some.

So when word of a film adaptation first emerged, the air of trepidation and anticipation from fans was palpable. How in the world do you do justice to something (at least in a single film) that is so revered in geek/comic circles? There’s no way that it could possibly run the five-six hours that most people estimated that it would take to delve into all the details. I’m sure there will be fans on both sides who take me to task for making this comparison, but in some ways, Watchmen is like the graphic novel equivalent of Lord of the Rings. In the same way that fans of that series questioned the wisdom of adapting it for the silver screen, Watchmen watchers have been debating the merits of a movie version ever since Terry Gilliam’s name was first attached as director.

Oh yes. Terry Gilliam. It’s been a long, strange journey for the Watchmen movie. Gilliam’s name was only the first…then came David Hayter, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass, and finally, Zack Snyder.

Now, having finally seen the film that I’ve anticipated for so long, I can say that Snyder and his crew did an absolutely fantastic job. Is it trimmed down? Of course. Are certain characters and back-stories shelved or truncated for the sake of flow and run time? Yes they are. Yet the essence of what Watchmen is remains, living and breathing in a new format. You still have an examination of hero tropes and themes. There’s still the deconstruction of the superhero/superhuman ideal. Ironically, even though this was written in the mid-80s (the timeframe of the story itself), the issues and questions raised seem timelier that ever.

What do good people do in the face of evil? What do the rest of us do when our heroes go bad? Is anything in this life worth fighting for and protecting? How do we react to a nation that might be going down the tubes, to a world that is struggling to make sense of crumbling foundations and systems?

None of this would be possible, or believable, without the incredible skill displayed by the entire cast. Major kudos to the filmmakers for going with actors and actresses who fully embody the characters they’re depicting, rather than opting for “big names.” The work of Ackerman, Crudup, Goode, Gugino, Haley, Morgan, and Wilson helps give weight to the rather fantastical events of the story. They each depict their respective characters at different time periods throughout the film, easily moving from the golden days of glory to the darker times of the “present” 1985 when the main plot occurs.

I have to give special attention and credit to Haley for his portrayal of Rorschach. Talk about the perfect casting call. He simply is Rorschach, all the way to his black and white core. He is a tightly wound ball of vengeance and righteous anger. Yes he’s a dangerous, frightening character. But Haley succeeds in making you almost supportive of his unwavering and brutal crusade for justice.

The same could really be said for all of the main characters. These actors and actresses manage to convey the deep flaws within each, while simultaneously imbuing them with sympathetic qualities. They are messed up human beings (yes, even Dr. Manhattan), trying to make sense of a world gone mad.

Beyond the acting, the set designs and costuming demand recognition. The color palate used in the film is so stylized and well done. The playground of the Watchmen feels fully formed here and completely inhabited. There is a hyperrealism to the settings that also somehow manages to be connected to our own grounded existence. Little details pull everything together, whether it’s all the newspaper clippings, the Gunga Diner blimps or the meticulously recreated logos and companies.

In the end, Watchmen is a fantastic and moving film. It manages to juggle and convey a ton of information in what feels like a short amount of time: the two hour, forty-one minute runtime flew by for me. As a fan of the comic, I loved what Snyder did with the source material and how he brought it life on the big screen. I am curious to see what the general public will think of it. Hopefully they’ll love it as much as I did.

Jeremy Hunt
Review by Jeremy Hunt
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