I have to say I was poised for disappointment. Alan Moore’s Watchmen is an icon in the graphic medium for good reason, and there are many aspects that present problems in translating it to the screen. First off, there’s just so much of it. It’s a dense piece of work that twists and winds and flashes back. There’s heaps of supplemental material to help you to better understand the (sometimes very) flawed characters, and an internal pirate comic that parallels the graphic novel you’ve got in your hands. I really didn’t think they could pull it off.
I was wrong.
The movie begins when the aging Comedian is mysteriously killed, years after a law in Congress is passed outlawing masked vigilantes. Despite being a generally horrible human being, his old Watchmen teammates from the good old days slowly begin looking into his murder, spurred on by the paranoid and clinically unbalanced Rorschach. Set against an alternate 1985 that is poised on the brink of WWIII, they find themselves pulled into a master plot that will either save or condemn the planet.
One of the things that makes the story work so well — on film and on paper — is the characters. It’s plausible. Only one of the five main characters has genuine “super” powers, and all are flawed to the extreme. At the time of the Comedien’s murder, they are aged heroes, complete with receding hairlines and spare tires. Old habits die hard, however, and they find comfort and life in their old personas, especially in light of the global situation that is quickly crumbling around them.
They could have updated the movie to be set in the present day, but I liked that they didn’t; I felt the Vietnam War was an important part of the story line, and do not believe another conflict would have sufficed as satisfactorily. The use of pop music in the soundtrack could have been corny or jarring, but it wasn’t, and is another nod to its original form.
The casting was wonderfully solid: there were no big names to create over-inflated expectations, and the actors were absolutely true to the characters. Rorschach and Nite Owl were my personal favorites.
They stayed very close to the comic, almost to a fault. Almost. I loved the respect that was apparent for the original form, and the novel was strong enough that it didn’t need much editing — what they trimmed was just perfect. The updates they did make were excellent — the costumes were great: real enough, practical enough. The special effects were good: I don’t recall any points when my brain cried “not real!” at any CGI.
It wasn’t without flaws, of course. Some of the make-up was not convincing — the first Silk Spectre’s aging and Nixon in particular were not good; and I guarantee there were some eyerolls at the “Hallelujah” love scene (I liked it, but I’m a sucker for some sexy sexin’). It is a solid R rating, which is refreshing and uncompromising. Also, there is some blue wang, so brace yourself if you’re squeamish about a man’s dangly bits, but let’s be realistic: if you’re an embodiment of unimaginable cosmic power, you really don’t concern yourself with pants. Some dialogue felt wooden or cliche, but as Justin Kownacki accurately points out, it wasn’t really meant to be spoken out loud.
Watchmen was a win as far as I’m concerned, but I can only speak as someone who also appreciated the original work. I will say Josh liked it quite a bit, however, and he’s never read the novel. The figures I saw Monday night gave $56 million for the opening weekend; I hope it recoups its initial cost and then plenty more once the public realizes it’s not supposed to be Batman or Spiderman.