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Watchmen - DVD Review

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by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published October 22nd 2019
Not all superheroes are heroic
Recently, it came to my attention that a television series (streaming series? What's the term nowadays?) has started which is a sequel to Watchmen. A friend hooked me up with the first episode and it seems to be more a sequel to the graphic novel than to the film (the squids give that away), but it still gave me an excuse to pull the film out of the library and give it a view.

Watchmen (2009)
watchmen, film, movie, dvd, poster

Directed by Zack Snyder
Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin and Deborah Snyder
Screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse
Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Starring Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Matthew Goode and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (as well as so many others)

Watchmen came out as a graphic novel when I was in high school, about 1986, 1987 or so. None of my friends were into it, but I happened to find a copy of the second one in the initial run of 12, and I flicked through it (I was a sucker for American Mad magazine and any horror comics I could get my hands on, so spent too much time at Adelaide's only decent comic book store). Wow. It was weird. But I didn't actually get a copy of it until 1988 or 1989 when they released an omnibus edition of the entire run in one book. And so, when the film came out in 2009 (20 years later!) I was intrigued to see how they would go about things. Especially the giant squids.

The film is what is called in speculative fiction circles an alternative history. In this history, not only are superheroes alive and well, but they've been with us for years and even helped America win the Vietnam War. But one of the best bits of the film, one of the very best bits of any alternate history film, is the opening montage under the credits, where we see this alternate history, plus the history of masked crime-fighters, put across so vividly, all to the soundtrack of Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changin''. It is simply a wonderful piece of story-telling without dialogue that sets the scene beautifully.

Okay, here's the storyline. The world is on the brink of a nuclear war, held in check only by a particularly powerful superhero named Dr Manhattan, but even he, it seems, cannot guarantee the safety of everyone on Earth. (Oh, and Richard Nixon is still president – the film is set in 1985 or so – thanks to a constitutional change.) Dr Manhattan, by the way, is the only superhero allowed to still be a superhero; the rest have been outlawed. One of the former superheroes, the Comedian, is killed – brutally – in the opening scenes. His death makes another – Rorschach, an interesting character and probably the best-acted character in the whole film, done remarkably well by Jackie Earle Haley – start to come up with a conspiracy theory. Over the course of the film, the conspiracy proves real, there is a betrayal, and then the end of it comes at a cost that may or not be too high a price to pay, and all of this set with a number of flashbacks giving a history of the Watchmen group.
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Dr Manhattan in full flight

It is truly a remarkably written piece. I mean, the writing is just incredible. Going back to the original graphic novel, this is an amazingly realised alternate world.

The film is set in darkness and dark colours until the very end. It really does help with the tone of the film without overpowering it, as happens in too many films. And the soundtrack of 1980s songs is subtle but superb. Some of the special effects are stunning, especially the realisation of Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup).

That is not to say that the film is perfect. Far from it. While I think the cynical tone is well suited, I have a few friends who find it too over-bearing. The love scene in Archie is cringe-worthy (with an entirely inappropriate 'Hallelujah' by Leonard Cohen playing over it), and the fire euphemism is actually pathetic. There are obvious continuity errors regarding Silk Spectre II's boots in the prison fight scene. There are also some scenes that do not make sense without context of the graphic novel. For that reason, the half an hour longer 'Director's Cut' is so much better. It adds some bits cut out of the novel that make the change in Nite Owl's attitude make sense, and just gives the characters a little more depth. It is three hours and change long, though, so it is quite the film!

There are some really good scenes, though. The opening I have already mentioned. The scene where the Comedian is killed, the prison fight scene, the creation of the clockwork device on Mars, the explosion in New York… so many. I also think Malin Akerman is a beautiful Silk Spectre II. And – know what? – not a single head-scissors in any fight scene! Plus the film is put together quite nicely, with the sort of ambiguous ending that fits the tone of it really well.
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Silk Spectre II acting all heroic

The ending with Dr Manhattan and Ozymandias and the way the human race was "corrupted" is the sort of philosophical question that, if you think about it, really makes you wonder what would you do in that situation. Peace, yes, but at what cost?

There is a huge change from the graphic novel, though. Many fans of the original work hated it, but I didn't mind it at all, because it made it all a little more "realistic" (term used advisedly in a story about superheroes). They got rid of the squids. That's all I'm saying, but, to me, that was a change that needed to be made.

This is more nuanced in writing, tone and style than what we have become used to in superhero films, and going back and watching it again, it is all the better for that. There are no black and white characters, no real good and bad guys. Everything is shades of grey. With hindsight, it looks better and better, and less cartoon-y than the superhero films we've been spoon-fed for a long time now.

Look, this is, again, not a perfect film. But in the midst of the 20-plus film story arc that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where you have to watch them all in order to get the next one (good though all of them are, and some are singularly awesome – I mean it, there is not a bad MCU film in my opinion), and the darkness of the hit and miss DC Extended Universe films, this is a decent standalone film about superheroes who are real people, with lives and facing a government that does not trust them. This is what Captain America: Civil War wanted to be, but couldn't within the chirpy MCU.

A decent superhero film, and one well worth your time. But, like I said, bite the bullet and get Watchmen: The Director's Cut. Longer, but worth it.
Watchmen, nite owl, silk psectre, rorschach, superhero, film, movie, dvd
Nite Owl, Silk Spectre II and Rorschach – our trio of heroes (term used advisedly)
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