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:: Watchmen

Based on the most celebrated and critically acclaimed graphic novel in history, Watchmen the movie has much to deliver in film form. The comic book series, when first published and distributed by DC Comics, was seen as the voice of a generation. Based in New York City, 1985, the original comic voiced the concerns of nuclear war, embodied the tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, and captured the paranoia and sense of frustration felt by ordinary people, helpless to change their possible annihilation. Over two decades on, it is interesting, if not rather disturbing, to see that the same social discontent, the same global tensions and the same risk of nuclear war still exist, making the themes in Watchmen more translatable to audiences than ever.

Why has this graphic novel connected so much with audiences that it has even won unprecedented literary awards? One could guess it is because the creators of the graphic novel, writer Alan Moore and artist David Gibbons, imagined superheroes that are more human than super. Watchmen turned the glamour and romance of heroism on its head. These masked crusaders demonstrate personal neuroses, failings and vices just like the rest of us.

Watchmen favours plot over action, a fact proven by its length - a whopping 163 minutes. But its length is what allows director Zack Snyder to probe into the superheroes’ psyches and successfully bring them to life as individuals, rather than a group of masked fighters, each with their own unique skill. Snyder observes, “With all these characters, you feel that they are deeply loved by their creators, regardless of their flaws or how they’re viewed in a real-life context.” It is indeed these flaws and a lack of the old-world, movie star superhero mythology that is one of the driving forces of the plot. The superheroes we witness in Watchmen are hardly more super than the next citizen. Braver, perhaps, but more powerful, more together, more secure? Not really, and that’s exactly why audiences are drawn to these ordinary people trying to do extraordinary things.

A sense of powerlessness, of desperation, of shame even, is established from the opening of the movie. The credits themselves provide the viewer with a summary of world history. We move from the political figures of the 60s, to the peace protests of the 70s, until we are hurled into 1985 America, a bleak, hopeless, greedy world where the magic of crime fighting and superheroes are banished to the shadows. Their vigilante identities are wiped away to reveal ordinary, banal, conforming citizens - all except two characters that is. There still exists Dr. Manhattan, the only character who has a genuinely mighty power. Dr. Manhattan’s ability to withstand nuclear force sees him employed by the government as a safety net against Soviet hostility and bomb threats. The second, Rorschach, clings onto his mask, not just a mask anymore but an identity he refuses to let go of. These two figures are integral to the fate of the other remaining “Masks” and provide the foundation of the ever-complex battle between right and wrong, evil and just.

Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley) is partial narrator of the film, his deep, gravelly voice guiding us through in film noir style. This narration is a wonderful way for us to get to know Rorschach, as he does not often speak at length, or disclose anything personal, to those around him. His swirling mask of ink blotches is a powerful symbol of Rorschach’s view of the world. He approaches life in black and white - there is no grey area or room for compromise. His strong beliefs on what is right and what is wrong guide his actions with fearless impunity. However, it is only later in the film that we can start to build an idea of his true character, independent of an embittered, angry clich√©. Once we build a historical connection with Rorschach, we can embrace Haley’s portrayal with greater empathy and understanding.

The other characters are a mixed bag. The Comedian ( Jeffrey Dean Morgan), kicks off the movie with his murder, an action that propels Rorschach to investigate what he believes is an attempt to eradicate all the remaining “Masks”. Back tracking the history of the Watchmen, it is revealed that The Comedian is the only member of the original superheroes, the revered Minutemen of the 40s, who joined the new generation Watchmen. He is an intrinsically hateful yet woeful character, a man torn by the actions he has undertaken as both a superhero and then as a government employee. His often brutal actions - rape, murder, violence - eat him up inside, yet he is too stubborn and proud to show any weakness, remorse or morality. Morgan’s portrayal of The Comedian is one of the strongest amongst the cast. His ability to demonstrate the slide from the once chiselled, arrogant, domineering muscle man, to a jaded, empty, pathetic drunk is both engaging and intriguing.

The characters of the Night Owl II aka Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) and the Silk Spectre II aka Laurie Jupiter ( Malin Akerman) are intrinsic to the film, being the central romantic relationship. Admittedly, the normality of these two characters makes their romance quite normal also. The difficult history between them - being part of the same banished crime fighting heroes and the previous romance between Laurie and Dr Manhattan - see many moments of confusion, longing, lust and love throughout the movie. Admittedly, these make up the more tedious scenes of the movie. One can’t help but feel that the spark between them is not genuine, but out of convenience. Perhaps, in their isolated world, that is the only way a romance can exist, considering their past.

Yet Dan is a slighty chubby, plainly dressed geek, eating noodles on his own and reminiscing about his former crime-fighting life as if it was a world away and even now remains far from his reach. Compared to Dr Manhattan, he is the Chevy Chase of the film. Even once he dons his suit again and joins forces with Laurie, one can’t help but feel anxious that he is going to crash his Owl Ship or trip over and cause an endless series of comical disasters. Granted, this is coherent with the graphic novel’s original concept; that these heroes could be anyone, regardless of race, background, physique or gender, and admittedly, the characters are meant to be older, “normal”, and yes, even pudgy. But where The Comedian is still powerful, even in his paunched, drunken, sarcastic middle age, it is difficult to perceive Dan Dreiberg as having ever been anything but the meek loser kid, who the cool kids let hang out with them as long as he didn’t interfere. Laurie as the Silk Spectre II is a character thrust into the superhero world by her ageing, once-glamorous mother. Unfortunately, her character is created and centred on her mother’s life and her relationships, and it is difficult to really connect with her as an individual character.

Watchmen’s plot encapsulates the phrase “the lesser evil”. Nuclear war is on the brink, global annihilation quickly following, and it is here where Rorschach’s black and white guidelines cop a beating. The enigmatic Adrien Veidt, formerly Ozymandias, is the only Mask who has remained in the public eye, by running a multi-million dollar enterprise. When Dan and Rorschach uncover that Veidt has a plan to stage an attack by Dr. Manhattan, killing millions of Americans in order to unite the USA and the Soviet against a common enemy, the question of the lesser evil is put to the test. Veidt’s goal, although cruel and insane, is justified by the context of nuclear war. As he puts it, he may be killing millions, but he is saving billions. Rorschach however does not deal with context’s or justifications and is intent on telling the world the truth, in black and white.

The film could probably have been more succinct and shorter in length, but much like this review, it seems once you start with Watchmen, you just can’t stop.