Has the dust settled yet? Watchmen was 2009’s first blockbuster, released back in March, greeted with gnashing of critical teeth, squirting of geek-squee juices or, well, apathy. Since then, we’ve had Wolverine, Star Trek, Transformers 2, Angels & Demons, Harry Potter – films that have enjoyed internet-controversy, fan-adulation and record-breaking box office performances among them. In relation, Watchmen, a film that towered over public consciousness before its release, grossed just under $183 million worldwide, only scraping into the top 15 films at the 2009 box office so far.
So now, four months later, we’ve got the DVD/Blu-Ray release of the film’s theatrical cut. How has the film aged in the last 1/3 of a year? How does it translate to a medium sized TV, with crappy sound-system in a South London flat? Quite well, really. At the time, dazzled with spectacle and giddy from the pressure, I wrote possibly the most modestly gushing 4-star review you could find on the internet.
Now, Watchmen makes a great case for being the least likely event movie ever peddled by a major studio – aesthetically, structurally and thematically. It joins both Batman Returns and Superman Returns in the quirky pantheon of films about super-heroes, but not involving much action, or scenes that incite the shovelling of popcorn into one’s mouth. The moments of (quite strikingly violent) action in Watchmen are made complex, as opposed to simply triumphant – in some cases fetishistic, in others oppressive or psychotic.
It is still a twisted, talky, characters-and-ideas-driven film, with often wonderful effects, but little in the way of momentum-building pace. Watchmen tells of a society where costumed heroes exist, yet nuclear war still threatens an alternate 1985. Bray all you want about the (inevitable) loss of depth between page and screen, but Watchmen, in all its faithful monstrosity, is every bit as much a meditation on heroism, morals and the individual in society. Zack Snyder, who displayed such knuckleheaded stylistic flair in 300, manages to nail the fundamentals of the Moore-Gibbons classic, helped in no small part by impeccable production design and an able cast.
Jackie Earle Haley is fascinating as Rorschach, working both as a damaged, raging psychopath and a tidy pastiche on Frank Miller-style gruff grittiness. Likewise, Jeffrey Dean Morgan brings the right amounts of cynicism, hostility and vulnerability to The Comedian, Patrick Wilson is dopey and cerebral as the ornithology-nut-turned-Batman Nite Owl, and Billy Crudup manages to exude both the ethereal and emotional confusion at the heart of Doctor Manhattan, with little more than blank stares, open posturing and tender murmuring.
If Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias and Malin Akerman’s Laurie Jupiter are less impressive, that is down to their characters’ relatively under-developed natures, a problem apparent in the source material; the former is sometimes campy, always stylish – only acquiring depth in retrospect – while the latter is almost one-dimensional, in a cast of multifaceted deconstructions. Laurie’s estrangement from her mother (the gorgeous, scene-stealing Carla Gugino), and her search for a father, is the closest the film has to a traditional plotline – but in action it is heavy-handed and a little corny.
Watchmen, like the comic before it, is so interested in this central ensemble, that others are ciphers, which either works positively (Matt Frewer’s burnt-out ex-villain Moloch; Steve McHattie’s retired old coot of a hero Nite Owl), or negatively (the incongruous, digitally-nosed Nixon caricature).
Watchmen is not an easy viewing; the script’s reliance on the source text – which, integrally, is divided up into 12 chapters – creates a lop-sided, radical, unconventional narrative drive for the film, with peaks, troughs, payoffs, flashbacks and conclusions happening all over the place. It breaks the accepted Hollywood rules of structure, and doesn’t tailor its flow for the constantly-progressing medium of cinema.
In comics, you can pause, reflect and re-read – in cinema, you have a couple of seconds to breathe, before another scene begins. It doesn’t help that the central plot, a complicated end-of-the-world conspiracy, is buried underneath all of its debates, character studies and world-building side-glances.
Watchmen’s central qualities are here. The Doctor Manhattan interlude, scored by Phillip Glass’ monumental cues from Koyanisqaatsi, is deeply effective, crystalline cinema in its own right. A capsule film-within-a-film, taking the viewer from the alternate 1985, to the past, from Earth, to Mars. Colouring in not only Manhattan’s story, but the world’s. Those expecting to be guided and mollycoddled can easily get lost.
But it’s not all slavish translation. Snyder and company have enough tricks up their sleeves to make Watchmen feel fresh. The opening credits sequence is an elegiac, Dylan-quoting introduction to the characters and context through hyper-real pseudo-photography. It evokes nostalgia through cultural allusion, and immaculate detail – using visual, musical and photographic cues in the way that Moore used literary and textual in the original comics.
Likewise, the soundtrack is a tapestry of familiar tunes, a gamble that doesn’t always pay off. ’99 Red Balloons’ encapsulates the kitschy 80s humour of the Dan Dreiberg/Laurie Jupiter relationship, like an unmade Richard Gere rom-com, and ‘I’m Your Boogie Man’ and ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ are both used in provocative, against-the-grain ways to great effect.
But the use of ‘Hallelujah’, in a softly-focused sex scene, is less successful – although, this is more signalling general fatigue over this song, even if the use in Watchmen manages to dig past its recent torch-bearing, funeral-song austerity, and rediscover Leonard Cohen’s inherent dry wit.
That’s just a case of bad timing – an affliction that, one could say, affects the whole film. Watchmen just isn’t the kind of film destined to grab audiences and make shedloads of money. Likewise, it is not the kind of property that could easily be made into a comic-derived blockbuster. At its darkest, moodiest extreme, The Dark Knight still had its moral centre, and Iron Man was never for one minute going to end with anything other than the loud clanging of metal on metal.
Comic films, it seems, especially those with inflated budgets and expectations, just aren’t able to get beyond action and thematic clarity. Watchmen’s central characters are fucked-up and complicated; obsolete and rudderless. It is a messy, flawed, and at times difficult film – not of this world or time. Maybe it will grow over the years, and one day find its audience.
Extras:There’s an abundance of special features, almost 2 hours in total – but nothing here is definitive or incredibly insightful. Leading the charge is promotional material released during the run up to the film, such as 11 behind-the-scenes video journals from the film’s production, viral videos made to look like broadcasts from Watchmen’s alternate timeline, and the music video for the badly-conceived My Chemical Romance cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’.
However, the real meat is represented by three longer-form featurettes, which are intriguing, bizarre and frustratingly shallow in equal measure. Most conventionally, there’s ‘The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics’ (28 mins), a Moore-less documentary on the comic featuring plentiful interviews with the likes of Dave Gibbons, (colourist) John Higgins, (ex-DC president) Jenette Kahn, (comics editor and writer) Len Wein, and (Time book critic) Lev Grossman, as well as the usual parade of actors and production representatives.
The ‘Real Super Heroes: Real Vigilantes’ (26 mins) segment is a strange beast. Taking only tenuous thematic points from the Watchmen story, it recounts key points in the history of American vigilantism, from post-Civil War lawlessness, to more recent examples, like the Guardian Angels in New York – with input from experts and vigilantes alike.
Best of all is ‘Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World’ (17 mins), which features University of Minnesota Physics Professor (and comic geek) James Kakalios discussing the scientific basis of Watchmen’s flights of fancy. Like the physics teacher we all wish we’d had, Kakalios gives concise histories of Nuclear Fission, the Manhattan Project and Quantum Physics, and how, apart from one or two accepted miracles, the science of Watchmen is physically accurate.
Some footage used throughout the segments come from deleted scenes (in one case, the interviews directly discuss such a scene), tantalising those with keen eyes, reminding the viewer that, well, the Director’s Cut is round the corner – not to mention the inevitable super-duper special edition, with the additional Tales From Black Freighter and Under the Hood short films slipped in. Think of this release like the relatively-vanilla initial Lord of the Rings DVDs – happy with just the film you saw in the cinema? Fair enough. Are you itching for that promised extra content? Best to wait.
Watchmen 2 Disc Limited Edition is released on 27th July