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Film Review: Don’t Spit Venom on Watchmen

March 25, 2009

WATCHMEN by Dane Rot black

Watchmen isn’t bad considering it’s based on a graphic novel whose author, Alan Moore, said to the Los Angeles Times, “I will be spitting venom all over it.”

Originally published in 1986, the Watchmen graphic novel was released in 12 monthly installments and has become a classic of the genre.  Moore, who also wrote the comic book series V for Vendetta, claims he never wants to see Watchmen the movie and, in fact, refuses to be paid for it.  While the $100 million movie is far from perfect, Moore should give the work of director Zack Snyder a chance, especially since Watchmen starts strong.

It’s the details and subtlety in Watchmen – or sometimes, the lack thereof – that guide this movie.  When two characters are having dinner in a restaurant, the sound of a nearby table’s dinner conversation is clearly audible: “I’m so glad I ordered the four-legged chicken.”  This quote is actually a reference to the novel, but onscreen, the chicken is distracting.  More helpful is the Muzak-style version of Tears for Fears’ 1985 hit: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”; keep your eye on the main character shown when this song starts playing.

The Comedian

In the first scene we meet the Comedian, a 67-year-old retired vigilante who wears a yellow happy face pin.  He’s interrupted at home by a mysterious intruder trying to kill him.  Snyder juxtaposes the nicely choreographed fighting with Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable,” a combination that works surprisingly well.  Now known as Eddie Blake, the Comedian puts up a good fight but ultimately is no match for whoever he’s fighting.  As the Comedian flies through a glass window, reality slows down so we can appreciate the full range of emotions he feels as he falls to his death on the street.  For the rest of the movie, remaining members of the now-disbanded superhero league attempt to discover who killed their fallen friend.

Part of the movie’s attraction is its seriously flawed superheroes.  The Comedian is a dislikable character who shows a propensity for aggression.  After a satisfying montage sequence set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin’” fast-forwarding the Watchmen’s fall from public grace, the Comedian shows his true colors in a disturbing encounter with the superheroine Silk Spectre. Nevertheless, his death is unexpected and forces the other Watchmen to dust off their weapons and get to work finding his killer.

Dr Manhattan

Before that happens, Watchmen flashes back to Vietnam in 1971 after the superheroes are commissioned by Nixon to help fight the war.  It’s one of many flashbacks, but they never leave the audience confused.  Thanks to the Watchmen’s superpowers, the war ends within a week with some Vietnamese preferring to surrender personally to Dr. Manhattan, a blue, pupil-less laboratory mistake who is naked most of the movie.

Dr. Manhattan can transport himself and others to any location he desires, supersize himself, and even make copies of himself so he can have sex and work at the same time.  He is one of the more powerful superheroes and stands out onscreen.  During filming, Dr. Manhattan actor Billy Crudup wore a white bodysuit covered with hundreds of LEDs to monitor his every move and help the special effects team maintain a glow with every step.

Dr. Manhattan may glow, but the Watchman called Rorschach steals the show.  Rorschach’s face, an ever-evolving Rorschach inkblot, is a captivating example of what’s possible with a motion picture but not a comic book.  The flashback sequence giving insight into his past is presented effectively and, as a result, his character is worthy of more sympathy even than Dr. Manhattan, who has trouble showing emotion.  Like the Comedian, Rorschach has a violence problem, something we witness a few times when he’s sent to prison.

Rorschach

“None of you seem to understand,” Rorschach says after he burns the face of one inmate with very hot liquid, “I’m not locked in here with you, you’re locked in here with me.”

This proves physically true for one fat, bald inmate who tries (unsuccessfully) to intimidate Rorschach.  The manner in which the large inmate meets his death makes this scene one of the funniest throughout Watchmen.  Unfortunately, though, the gratuitous violence continues, forcing us to occasionally question whether these vigilantes-in-costume (plus Dr. Manhattan, the only one with superpowers) are truly out for the good of their fellow citizens or just using their powers recklessly.

For example, how much violence is necessary to ward off a bunch of thugs who try to rob you in an alley?

This question is answered, but many more are left unanswered by the final, message-heavy scene in which the villain has a conversation with a few of the superheroes who have tracked him down.  The effect of this final scene is not inspiring, but then again, it’s not worth spitting over either.

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