Who watches the Watchmen? We do. (film review: Watchmen)

Watchmen is set in an alternate universe where Nixon won Vietnam and secured a third term as President, and where Americans are so perturbed by the prospect of nuclear warfare that they have constructed the Doomsday Clock - a symbolic clock that ‘measures’ the number of minutes left to midnight; midnight signifying nuclear fallout. The idea was inspired by one of Bob Dylan’s great songs, Desolation Row, which was sampled by writer Alan Moore in the graphic novel upon which Snyder’s spectacular movie is based. Moore quoted only five words - “at midnight all the agents…” - but the song lasts 11 and a half minutes - a long, hallucinogenic ride through a nightmarish landscape of mythology and popular culture. The next words are: “and the super-human crew, come and round up everyone who knows more than they do.” There is infinite scope for interpretation of the lyrics and how they fit into the construction of Watchmen. Dylan fans may notice something familiar about the head-bangin’ track Snyder plays over the movie's end credits: it sounds like the only contemporary song on the soundtrack, which consists of cherry-picked retro tunes from artists like Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Jimi Hendrix, but it is in fact a cover of Desolation Row - another nod to the songs ponderable influence on Watchmen.

By coincidence, perhaps, it is another of Dylan’s songs that overlays the best scene in this big, ballsy, bombastic adaptation of Moore’s hitherto ‘un-filmable’ source. We watch a zippy montage of superheroes – members of the ‘Minutemen’ and later ‘Watchmen’ – entwined with footage of historical events; we observe who killed JFK, we watch the blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) on the moon filming Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind; we see glimpses of Andy Warhol, Fidel Castro and Richard Nixon, all the while Dylan’s Times They Are a-Changin' poeticises the soundtrack. It’s an inspired stretch of film. Bad news is, the scene occurs at the beginning of the movie – it is in fact the opening credits reel. Good news is, there are plenty of other compelling moments in Watchmen, an audacious, visionary experience, speckled with greatness and sharing Moore’s gutty aspiration to tell the superhero story to end all superhero stories. Actually, we’ve seen the same basic plot rehashed in recent years in a box office hit with a decidedly different target audience: Pixar’s The Incredibles, also about superheroes coming out of retirement to fight in an ever-changing world.

When assessing Moore’s novel, which I read a few years ago around the same time I gorged on Frank Miller and a fab post apocalyptic series called Y Last Man, it’s hard not to think of words like “epic,” “post-modern” and, in lieu of its most strikingly visual character, “blue genitalia.” When you put it down, the book’s mighty scope and wearying impact makes it nigh-on impossible to entertain the thought of immediately picking up another comic. Similarly, after watching Snyder’s faithful and structurally dense movie version, which refuses point-blank to dumb the material down or fundamentally rework its many-pronged narrative, it is also hard to imagine sauntering out a session of Watchmen then cruising into the latest Spiderman or X-Men movie.

Fans are likely to be greatly satisfied and anybody who digs the book will almost certainly dig the film. A common grumble from the critical community is an obvious one: the script’s histrionic, hammy dialogue (i.e. “what happened to us? What happened to the American dream?” and “we were supposed to make the world a better place”) but this criticism will fly right over the heads of comic book enthusiasts, who view the lines as par for the course and even a key element of their beloved medium’s appeal. There’s not much room in comic book speech bubbles for elegant dialogue, and certainly not wordy dialogue, so writers need to get to the point quickly and colourfully. It’s surprising how seemingly easy Watchmen gets away with po-faced delivery of such lines. It’s interesting too that Rorschach’s voice, which narrates the story, is just as guttural and 20-a-day, maybe 25-a-day as Christian Bale’s Batman but, unlike Bale’s, not at all infuriating. Fans and detractors should agree on one point: Watchmen the movie captures the tone of the book, and this is no simple feat.

The ending waffles on a little long, retreating to the conventional comic book grounds of evil lairs and world destruction and KA-POW! fisticuffs, all too familiar predicaments that feel shamefully redundant in lieu of the largesse surrounding them. Performances from the cast are pretty good: Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan steal the show as Rorschach and The Comedian, the two most hard-nosed, ferociously violent and
masochistic heroes, the later tipping almost completing into ‘villain’ status. Haley looks like an adult Ginger Meggs, grown up and gone wrong. Malin Akerman, playing Spectre II, flexes the kind of figure bound to make Catholic choir boys garble hysteric confessions to their priests for decades, and hot damn she looks good in that yellow and black jumpsuit. Akerman stars in Watchmen’s centrepiece sex scene (yes there is more than one), set on a spacey flying craft with Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), and for Nite Owl II or anyone fantasying about being in his place, Snyder’s choice of music couldn’t be more appropriate: it’s Leonard Cohen’s Halleluiah.

Watchmen geeks who have been nervously anticipating this movie for years – watching it pass through the hands of capable directors like Terry Gilliam, who confirmed one by one that mounting this movie was the comic book equivalent of adapting the Bible – are likely to reiterate that same triumphant H word as they line up to see it again. For the average punter, 163 minutes of jaded superheroes will be more than enough. Me, I’m already looking forward to seeing this sensationally sprawling movie again. If I'm in a hurry, just the opening credits will do.


  1. The more I think on this, the more I'm unconvinced the theatrical cut works as a standalone piece of film storytelling. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed every slavishly faithful minute of it (well, almost...), but the incredible fidelity to the source material of the film's first half only makes the gaping omissions in the latter all the more glaring. Bring on the director's cut, I say. I'll still be catching it again this long weekend (and recording a podcast devoted entirely to discussing it on Monday...), but I'm not certain I'd have kept pace were it not for my tremendous love of the comics.

  2. Good to hear there are actors out there who can pull off 'husky' without making me want to chop my ears off. If crazy 'ol 'YOU'RE IN MY LINE OF SIGHT' Bale had been let anywhere near this project this review would no doubt have a little less glow to it.

  3. I saw it again tonight - enjoyed it a lot more the second time around. I probably shouldn't have reread the book for the umpteenth time so recently...

  4. i'm really starting to warm up to Zack Snyder's "artsy" style