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Snyder captures the spirit of ‘Watchmen’

Maija Gustin | Tuesday, March 17, 2009

“Watchmen” is based on a revolutionary 80s comic book many have never heard of, but “Watchmen” isn’t a tale of a superhuman man from Krypton or a noble-hearted billionaire-vigilante. The subjects are all-too-human costumed superheroes, often with more flaws than the criminals they fight. It is set in a dystopic America, with Nixon in his third term as president and nuclear war hovering over its head. The heroes of “Watchmen” were once society’s greatest protection and powerful tools of the government in the Vietnam War, but they have since been outlawed. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), however, still remains the government’s greatest asset. Once a nuclear scientist, Jon Osterman became Dr. Manhattan after a terrible lab accident. He can change matter at his will and seems the only thing protecting America from a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. After the death of one of these costumed vigilantes, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), fellow hero Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley) begins to suspect a plot against his comrades. What he uncovers is actually a scheme much greater than even the audience can imagine. Many have called “Watchmen” unfilmable. Its plot is thick with detail, its themes are as dense as a piece of classic literature, it requires amazing special effects and it has a loyal fan base with high expectations. Director Zack Snyder is clearly a fan of the comic book and he struggles to keep his film as close as possible to the original material. Some necessary changes were made, including a major twist in the ending, but the film stays mostly true to the comic. Snyder even keeps the original setting of Cold War-era America when many thought he would choose a modern context involving terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The special effects are truly spectacular. Each scene is vivid and intense. Snyder never shies away from the graphic violence of the comic. “Watchmen” isn’t just violent, though – it is gruesome and gory. The film is not for the queasy or the faint of heart. The violence is necessary. Unlike traditional comics, “Watchmen” strives to be brutally realistic. The costumed heroes don’t disarm their opponents and turn them in to the police. They kill them with bloody brutality. The violence, while gruesome, is necessary to the integrity of the film. Snyder also succeeds in beautifully transitioning his film between the present story and important flashbacks. Many of the nuances of the plot are told through flashbacks, and they are necessary for character development. Snyder makes the scenes flow naturally, adding to the beauty of “Watchmen.” Rorschach, an unabashedly violent but somehow moral costumed vigilante, narrates and drives the film. Jackie Earl Haley gives an outstanding performance, even though he spends most of his screen time behind a mask. He dives into his character and never resurfaces. Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan is also excellent. He may be blue, but his quiet voice and subdued demeanor perfectly fit the used-to-be-human who has lost all compassion for the human race. Jeffrey Dean Morgan receives more screen time than you’d expect. He features mostly in flashbacks, but he is unforgettable. He is violent, selfish, a sexual deviant and altogether amoral. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t show as much humanity in The Comedian as the comic did, but Morgan plays him as a multifaceted character that needs a bit more back-story. The rest of the cast, however, doesn’t fare as well. Patrick Wilson as Night Owl II is a lonely and pathetic wreck after years of retirement from fighting crime, as he should be. However, he is almost too pathetic to believe that he could zip up his suit again and save the world. Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II does her job of wearing a yellow spandex suit and heels, but fails at anything else. Her acting is decent and mostly awkward. She rests in the mold of a one-dimensional female that her character is supposed to break. Matthew Goode is fine as Ozymandias, but not great. He does well as the supposed smartest man in the world, but he is easily the most forgettable character. “Watchmen” is a very cool movie. It’s visually stunning and a better adaptation of the comic than many expected. While it succeeds with its overall intentions, it fails at developing some of its deeper themes. It can also feel a bit slow at times. But, regardless, it’s an enjoyable flick worth seeing.