The Night Out: Watchmen (2009), or The Pinnacle of The Comic Book Movie

6 03 2009
What a disfigured world, what a sloppy mess...

What a disfigured world, what a sloppy mess humans have become...

Greetings, all! Today was a Night Out, but more like an Early Morning Out. At midnight last night I went to see the first screening of Watchmen, the new film by Zack Snyder. While I was there, I witnessed the next level of the comic book movie. I honestly do not know if anyone will see a movie inspired from comics quite like this ever again. This is not just a good comic book movie, this is a damn good movie period. With The Dark Knight released just a few months ago, it seems like the mold is really being broken on these types of film adaptations (except for Marvel comic adaptations; they still suck). And much like the original graphic novel, it took the master machinations of such a powerful and haunting story to break through the glass ceiling of the genre.

This is a massive and complex story, but it all starts in 1985. Nuclear war with Russia is imminent and the world is on the brink of chaos. We fall into this time to witness the death of an old man named Edward Blake. He is beaten savagely by a shadowy assailant and thrown out the window of his apartment. The police search the victim’s house and find that he was a well-respected man who posed for pictures with the President and other people of great import. But it is an open and shut case to them. As they leave, however, a man clad in a leather coat and a strange mask comes in and investigates the crime scene further. Upon closer inspection, the mysterious masked man makes a discovery; this seemingly unassuming murder victim bumped elbows with the President because he also wore a mask. It becomes very clear that this is not our 1985. This is a reality in which, during the 30’s and 40’s, where in our history comic books began depicting costumed vigilantes more and more, people actually began to dress up in masks and over-the-top outfits and fight crime beneath the identity only a heroic moniker can provide. Edward Blake was one of these original crime fighters; he called himself The Comedian, although he is far from jovial. The man searching his apartment is also a costumed crime fighter, one who came to prominence in the 60’s after Blake’s generation had past its prime. His name is Rorschach, and he was trying to pick up on crime scene clues the inept police would have missed when he came across the revelation that not only had he known Edward Blake, but had worked with him years ago to clean up the streets. This sets him on a mission to inform all the former costumed vigilantes that perhaps there is a killer on the loose, a killer with a vendetta against men and women in disguises. The movie blooms with a rich tapestry of alternate history; a surreal, heartbreaking odyssey that explores the lives of genuinely broken people whose weaknesses have the potential to both shatter and renew our world. Why was an aging, retired crime fighter murdered that night? What will Rorschach and his former costumed vigilante compatriots discover in this 1985 alien to our own? And will they discover it before the earth smolders in nuclear fire?

There is so much story to sift through that it was hard to write a synopsis. So many rich characters, so many things to discuss. It is a story about the complexities of a life spent behind a mask and the reasons people do it. It is the story about the infirmity of existence, the trembling heartbeat of man in the hands of an indifferent world. It is a story about time, the lost attribute that seeps out of us that we may never hope to reclaim. It is a story about change, how the best of us can do the worst things to each other and vice-versa. It is such a sweeping, all-encompassing work that transcends time and place to create a world so rich that despite the costumes it seems completely believable. Is it about comic book superheroes? Yes, but there we miss the point.

Director Zack Snyder has matured a bit from his flashy, if not totally condescending to ancient Persians, Greek epic 300. He has the same gusto from that project, but less shrieking masculinity. He tries to use the camera as a way to give a comic book panel motion. When it works it is breathtaking, and it works almost all the time. Sometimes the process can become cloyingly dramatic and make the shot feel over-wrought or even maudlin. But for every shot like that there are a dozen that fit perfectly. Most importantly, Snyder respects the source material, but gives just the right amount of space for the film to breathe on its own. The shots are given just enough free reign, and I feel that with this picture Snyder has become a great pop art director. I hope to see him grow even more as his career progresses.

The cast is, for the most part wonderful. Rorschach is played by Jackie Earle Haley (Kelly Leak!). I cannot say enough good things about this man. His performances are always something to watch, but this one takes the cake. He plays this paranoid, lonely masked hero to perfection. He is dangerous and vicious, but we care for him because he is so damaged by the world that created him. Patrick Wilson plays his former partner during the 70’s, Nite Owl. Now retired, he is an isolated “geek” who reeks of desperation and longing of his former glory as someone who lived a life of significance. Wilson’s performance falls flat with me. He does not seem nearly as crushed as you think someone like that would be. He is more normal and grounded than he should be after living such a life. I had hoped for more of who this character is rather than the front he puts up for the entire world. Billy Crudup plays Dr. Manhattan, the movie’s most intriguing character. He is an actual superhero, with nearly limitless powers. An everyday scientist hit with the obligatory science experiment gone wrong, Dr. Jon Osterman becomes something more like a god once he recovers from the accident. He glows bright blue, the ability to do anything, and possesses unfathomable knowledge. Crudup really brings this across, and I feel that his portrayal a former man with the qualities of a god are very striking indeed, despite his character being mostly CG.

The soundtrack, though jarring at first, I think is very appropriate. Classics from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, including Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” and Leonard Cohen’s off-kilter “Hallelujah”, punctuate the story well. And if you don’t like musty, dusty “old people” music, My Chemical Romance does a very lame cover of “Desolation Row”. Check it out if you are a soundtrack aficionado. Otherwise, go pick up the score by Tyler Bates instead. It is eerily moving. Bates and Co. touch their instruments from another plane of existence, and only their sound is heard in ours. It is wonderful, fits the movie perfectly, and is a perfect comanion to reading the graphic novel.

So I say this as a film lover and not a Watchmen fan when I say go see this movie this weekend! Even if you are not into superhero films, you’ll find something to like about this one. This is far from that. What this is is art, plain and simple. Don’t go in expecting anything but a good time and you will find that the comic book movie has so much more to offer than you ever imagined. I highly recommend it! I give Watchmen 9 1/2 costumed vigilantes out of 10.

Quick Note: The movie is meticulously paced and 2 1/2 hours long. If you belong to the General Populace of Moviegoers (the dreaded GPM) and do not like “slow” or “long” movies, do not watch this film. Oh, and GET OFF MY SITE!

See you tomorrow, where not only do I watch They Live, but I will expand my review of The Seventh Seal! I know; awesome, right?