Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Movie Review: The Watchmen (No Spoilers)

The Watchmen was a comic book series that was published from 1986 through 1987. I first encountered it in the late '80s in the collected and bound form of a "graphic novel," that is, a really thick comic book. The book was a gift to me, and though I cannot for the life of me recall the circumstances, I'd be pretty surprised if it wasn't Rythter who was the giver. He has been the source of all of my most favorite popular literature. And that is where this story is firmly entrenched -- in my list of very favorites.

Let me be clear: I have no great affinity for comic books. In my childhood, comic books were little more than a tease because, even if I did go down to the local newstand and buy one, it was a physical impossibility that the next month the newstand would have the subsequent issue in the storyline. Thus, my memory of comic books is one of perpetual cliffhangers in which the heroes are forever hung in mid-adventure limbo.

What little involvement I have had in comic books has been more recent. Three summers ago, I found a comic book store going out of business and I bought up all of their back issues of Fantastic Four, my personal favorite superheroes. More recently, Rutger took up a personal quest to keep me supplied with the new, revised series of Fantastic Four adventures. After a year or so of that, however, the writing and artwork deteriorated and I gratefully thanked him for his kindness and told him to discontinue my "subscription."

But the Watchmen, oh, the Watchmen were something different. Neatly bound in a nice concise package, this story came complete with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. An astonishing ending. An ending I could not possibly have predicted. An ending I won't spoil for you if you've not read the comic nor seen the movie.

Except to say this: This was one of only two times I can recall a movie changing the ending of a book and actually making it better. Yes, I know, many of you die-hard, purist Watchmen fans may take exception to this, but consider, not only was the movie ending more believable (to wit, within the bounds of a comic book), but it also tightened the story quite a bit, all the while keeping very true to the writer's intention of why the original story ended the way it did. In essence, the ending was, in fact, the same; but the manner in which it ended was improved.

Now then, if you've neither read nor seen this story, I'm sure you found all of that was sufficiently vague and pointless. Let's get to the stuff that you might care to hear about.

At its core, the Watchmen is a "whodunnit" mystery that just so happens to be wrapped in the casing of the comic book genre. There is an unknown "bad guy" for whom the "good guys" are searching. This aspect of the story is both well delivered and exceedingly complex. It is this complexity that I find so delightfully enjoyable. If it is formulaic from a Hollywood sense, it's a formula that is not easily backwards engineered. There are twists and turns enough to keep you wondering, to keep you engaged, but not so much as to leave you bewildered. If you're the cerebral type who doesn't want his entertainment spoon fed to him, you'll quickly find yourself mentally invested in what goes on.

The other strong point of this story, whether it be in print or on screen, is the character development. Nothing draws me into a story like good, solid, believable character development. Personally, as I've said, I care little for the superhero genre and this is primarily because it's so stained by deus ex machina. But Watchmen avoids pressing the "God Mode" button entirely. Only one character can be said to have super powers at all, and his involvement with the story is limited by his own ennui with mankind. The array of heros that we are introduced to are all normal human beings who have chosen the costumed life for their own reasons, be they desire for adventure, disgust with societal injustice, or a simple desire to do good deeds. What's more, the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are seldom so easily defined. They are real. Real people with real flaws.

And so, we have a complex and compelling plot, and an intruiging and broad cast of characters. These are then placed carefully into an alternate universe in which Richard Nixon is riding unprecedented popular support into his fourth term as president. However, the Cold War is at its highest temperature ever. Detente is abandoned. The Soviet Union and the United States are in a staring contest that is one blink from Armageddon. Yet, in a paradoxical twist, the heros are focused on finding the murderer of one of their own comrades while the world itself is only hours away from nuclear holocost.

Lastly, and I think most importantly, this movie is a deep and intellectual treatise on humanity, on our psychology as a species, how we are governed, and how we relate to one another. We see the sickness of sin and depravity and it's effect on society. We see the cynicism through which so many view the world. We see the folly of our leaders and the mindless way in which we are led. In it, we find love. If you're a student of society, if you enjoy people-watching, see this movie.

I've heard many criticism levied against this movie. One said that it was too long. While that may be true, it's too long in the same sort of way that your favorite amusement park ride might be "too long". If you're enjoying it, you're grateful that the builders thereof haven't abbreviated their work.

Someone said it was boring. Boring? I'm sorry, but that's an absolute absurdity. The screen is awash with imagery, photography, and effects that will are akin to a visual feast. It is filled with action that has been perfectly built up by preceding events. I'm sorry, but if this movie bored you, go rent Saving Private Ryan and put the first ten minutes on auto-repeat while listening to a speed metal album.

Will it be your favorite movie of all time? No, I highly doubt it. Will it reach you the way it did me? Unless you grew up with this comic, probably not. But I really believe that if you watch the movie -- and I don't mean see it, I mean truly watch it and listen closely and think about everything that is happening, you'll find the deeper meanings of our world that are reflected through this "comic book."


Anonymous said...

Well, for the past two weeks I've been trying to find our copy(s) of The Watchmen, to no avail. Which rather pisses me off since we have two first edition copies of all the comics (we were collecting back then, regularly, and it probably was Rythter who gave you the graphic novel) and at least one copy of the graphic novel. And on the theory that if you buy it, it will re-appear, we bought another copy of the GN.

Honestly, I dont even recall exactly how the comic ends. I have an idea, but the why and where hows escape me. I thought the ending that was in the movie was more than reasonable.

I've never understood the complaint about a "long" movie. Unless you have problems sitting still for a long time, or unless the movie is BORING, then who cares how long it is? Lord of the Rings was pretty long, so was Dances With Wolves. But I enjoyed them, so why would I want to rush it by? Is it that this generation has the attention span of a gnat that they cant sit through more than 90 minutes, or for that matter they cant enjoy a film with a PLOT! With character development? Sorry, my age is showing. When I was a kid, special effects were stop action transformations of Lon Chaney Jr. becoming the Wolf Man, or Godzilla stomping through yet another hapless Japanese hamlet. I guess I don't need not stop whiplash to enjoy a movie.

And you are right, this is not a movie that will go down in history as one of the greats. The comic has already done that in a far more complex and better way. This is no Lord of the Rings, no Star Wars. But it is an enjoyable film. At least in my well read opinion. And as the guy in Sci Fi magazine said, even if it turns out just to be a giant add for the comic, it will be worth it.
In other words, read the comic.

Anonymous said...

I have to ask, who is the guy on the left of Night Owl 2? I can't place him.