Written by Alan Moore and published in 1986, Watchmen set apart from the rest of the comic book medium by focusing not on the exploits of super powered costumed avengers, but rather using the superhero genre as a method of exploring society and morality.
Beyond tackling themes traditionally reserved for literature, Watchmen further broke from the comic book mold by introducing a gritty realism and eschewing the concept of “good guys vs. bad guys.” Borrowing the superhero metaphor, it was a social and political commentary wearing the mask of a comic book. With that said, it comes as no shock is long awaited theatrical adaptation is by no means another comic book movie.
Snyder was tasked with creating a film faithful to the source material while remaining approachable to the general public. Wait, there’s more – the film also must also be a commercial success in order to justify the approximately $100 million price tag.
On the surface, “Watchmen” is a murder / mystery centered on a group of crime-fighters forced into retirement by the government. While investigating the death of former hero The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), outlaw vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) uncovers what he believes is a plot to eliminate the retired superheroes. The plot unfolds through a series of flashbacks as Rorschach informs his former teammates of The Comedian’s death. Each flashback is a paint stroke, slowly revealing a frightening world on the brink of chaos.
Beneath the surface, “Watchmen” is a film fraught with all of the moral ambiguity and nihilism contained in the original graphic novel. As previously mentioned, this is not merely another comic book movie. Moviegoers expecting the light-hearted spirit found in “Spider-Man” or “Iron Man” will likely be disappointed. Instead, the audience will find something vastly different than conventional, rollercoaster inspired action films. Instead of strapping the audience in and taking them from point A to B, “Watchmen” challenges the audience by asking questions without providing answers. “What is Good?” “What is Evil?” “What is Justice?”
Visually, the film is stunning. The action scenes contain Snyder’s signature flair and style, while the cinematography and sound track perfectly capture the world’s brutality and despair. The film’s pacing and character development is equally solid. The use of flashbacks not only provides a clever means to progress the story, but also gives us a glimpse into the lives of each hero. As a result the audience sees the world through multiple sets of eyes, allowing us to feel connected to the costumed heroes.
The biggest question will be how the film is received by those unfamiliar with the original book. Like the comic book, “Watchmen” contains multiple layers and subtext. However, unlike a graphic novel, where the story can be picked up and put down at leisure, the film requires a substantial investment. At 163 minutes the film can feel dense at points – and while the long run-time was necessary in order to remain faithful to the comic, it may seem too heavy for the average moviegoer. Also worth noting, “Watchmen” earns every bit of its ‘R’ rating – with graphic violence and pervasive nudity (male and female).
While the film will not appeal to everyone, the successes far outweigh its shortcomings. The story is faithful to the original (almost to a fault), and tackles all of the complicated themes addressed by Moore’s thought provoking masterpiece. Zack Snyder’s vision and style is balanced nicely by solid performances by the ensemble cast. “Watchmen” is a welcome departure from the traditional comic book inspired superhero film – one which will stick with you long after leaving the theater.