At what cost, peace? War is often seen as a means to achieve peace. A bizarre dichotomy of opposites where one will somehow equal another. I’ve never read “War & Peace,” but I’m sure this strange relationship between the two is examined at length. People and countries go to war with each other for a variety of reasons, including enforcing one’s will on the other. That will is just a varying viewpoint of how one achieves peace and tranquility in this world. Watchmen wonders what the true cost of peace is and how one should go about achieving that state. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I’ve never read “the most celebrated graphic novel of all time,” the movie is based on, and can only reveal my thoughts on how it fares as a film, instead of a comparison to its source material, which I understand it adheres to greatly.
1985. A slightly skewed alternate reality in which Richard Nixon has been elected to an unprecedented third term as president of the United States. Reaganomics has yet to make its mark. Nuclear war with the Russians is on the brink, as the doomsday clock moves ever closer to the stroke of midnight. A costumed hero, the Comedian, is brutally murdered in his apartment after an epic struggle between two demigods. Through flashbacks, we learn the Comedian is ironically not known for his humorous disposition on life. Unlike the Batman villains, the Joker or the Riddler in another comic book reality, the Comedian’s point of view reminds me of Daniel Craig’s character in Road to Perdition, when he says, “it’s all so f’ing hysterical.” Indeed, the Comedian is shown to be quite the jerk. The mask he wears literally and figuratively goes to his head. When discovered, his murder spreads fear throughout the former costumed hero community, as revealed by another comrade in arms, Rorschach.
Although all his contemporaries have moved on as a result of the Keane Act, requiring all masked vigilantes to put away their alter egos forever, so the country can remain in peace and live free of a constant state of fear, Rorschach is consumed by his masked persona. His human form is long extinct. He clings to his mask, not to cease his identity from being revealed, but to him, it enables him to breathe freely and be who he is. His mask consists of inkblots that twist and contort at a constant pace, always shifting into something new, never to be fully grasped by anyone who bears witness. He disseminates the news of the Comedian’s death to his former partners in arms, warning them of an extermination which may be at hand for all who picked up the lifestyle.
He visits the Nite Owl, now Dan Dreiberg, who lives in almost complete isolation. He keeps his caped-costume hanging in the basement of his home, in what appears to be an abandoned subway tunnel. Their crime-fighting machine is stored there, too, preserved as a historical relic. He has fond memories of the past, but has since regretfully let them go. Together, he and Rorschach warn the rest of the old gang. Dreiberg goes to Adrian Veidt, formerly known as Ozymandias, the only former hero to have outwardly revealed his identity, who now runs a major corporation as “the smartest man in the world.” Rorschach gives notice to the Silk Spectre II and Dr. Manhattan, the only superpower-blessed of them all, after a lab experiment gone awry. Together, they must band together to help save themselves from themselves, the serial killer with a penchant for former costumed heroes and humanity from total destruction. Weighty stuff. Not your grandfather’s Saturday morning serials.
What made an immediate impression on me was the use of music in the film. A bravura opening credits sequence, much of it shot like a living photograph, depicts the rise and fall of the superhero in America, from the quaint, idealized 1940′s, to the corruption and scandal as the torch is passed on to the current place in the film’s timeline, all set to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It was beautiful imagery married to glorious sound and worked as a great few minute passing-of-time sequence, telling a story in an imaginative way, both visually and aurally. Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” hasn’t been used this perfectly since it was written for The Graduate, as it accompanies the Comedian’s somber funeral procession. Lastly, due to our film experience knowledge, we are again treated to Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyrie’s” during the film’s Vietnam sequence, showing how our costumed heroes fared in winning the unwinnable war. The last two pieces I mentioned play on your familiarity with film history as fused to new images and they work well, because of that inherent association.
Director, Zack Snyder, earned a proper reputation as a visual stylist after 300 and he doesn’t do anything to dismantle that notion with Watchmen. As noted above, I’ve been told the film visually adheres to the source graphic novel, almost verbatim. Whereas that might restrict his style and where he wants to go with it, I don’t think this strict adherence to the original material marred the visual experience in any way. Snyder also manages to make punches and kicks more lethal and brutally visceral than I’ve experienced before as a member of an audience. It does give the sense that these former masked vigilantes are a step above mere mortals, dishing out and absorbing bone-crackling punishment. The combination makes for a unique movie-going experience that’s best recreated by a non-timid and meek theater. Although I didn’t experience it in IMAX, that may be preferable.
“Watchmen” has been referred to as the Citizen Kane of graphic novels. It unfolds as such in its storytelling technique, after the death of an important figure. An investigation takes place, trying to uncover the reason for his death to protect the others for the future. Watchmen, however, is not centered on the Comedian. It branches out to cover multiple characters and unique possibilities. There isn’t much origin revealed for many of these characters, showing exactly how they came to be, aside from Dr. Manhattan. The origin story is part of the superhero mystique I enjoy most and was sad to miss it here. I realize, though, that this isn’t like any superhero story I’ve encountered before. It has big themes and thoughts behind it. I can picture why the graphic novel is so hailed, but I don’t believe it fully transferred to the screen in all its apparent glory. At times, the film felt a bit disjointed and it hinders it from achieving the acclaim bestowed upon its originator, whether it was a shot-by-shot labor of love or not.
Watchmen will no doubt rake in huge box office numbers and although I don’t feel it was everything it was hailed to be, its success is a good thing. It reaches beyond what we’ve grown accustomed to in the current dearth of comic book heroes brought to screen. It builds upon The Dark Knight‘s depiction of fantastic characters in realistic situations. It’s certainly the anti-Daredevil, and all those expecting action at every turn be forewarned. Watchmen carries powerful thought behind it and is a revelation in concept. Hopefully, the genre continues to mature as a result, and maybe that in itself can bring peace on Earth.