Directed by Zack Snyder
I stand in awe of Zack Snyder and his writers for having taken the graphic novel, actually the whole series called “Watchmen,” and turned it into a coherent and exciting film; and I particularly like the fact that they have given each of their characters a personality and a separation so that we know who we’re looking at. Frankly I could never tell one superhero from another in films like “X-Men,:” so in “Watchmen” at least I knew who was doing what to whom. The other thing I liked is that only one Watchman – Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan – actually has superpowers. He’s also a naked blue man (full-frontal nudity, by the way, I think a first for a non-porno film) who was given his powers by accident some years before (you’ll find out how).
The story is set in the middle 1980s (as the comic book was) and is an inventive kind of hodge-podge of an alternate reality at the time of Richard Nixon’s supposed third term. We won the Vietnam War, it turns out, and the film gives us a parody of “Dr. Strangelove” as the United States and the Soviet Union come close to atomic war. The Watchmen are trying to stop the war, but along the way they also have to stop for everything from blighted romance (Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre II) to evil Ozymandias in his castle in Antarctica, to Dr. Manhattan’s clockwork lair in Mars, to a prison where the Watchman Rohrshach – wonderfully played by Jackie Earl Haley, whom you’ll remember from his Oscar-nominated performance in “Little Children” – is sent by mistake. And though there are innumerable special CGI effects, the film seems to take them in stride as a part of this alternate reality, so they never get in the way.
Can I give you the plot of this two-hour-and-forty-minute film? I don’t think so, other than to tell you that since only one Watchman has superpowers, we’re treated to a lot of punchouts and the use of hand-tools in ways they weren’t designed for. What triggers the plot, if we can call it that, is the murder of one of them, the Comedian – flashbacks bring him back into the film at various times preceding the murder. And although Dr. Manhattan looks gorgeous in his blue-light and radiance, he doesn’t really use his powers except to move from one place to another, since he appparently exists out of temporal life and time. Is that a problem? Yes, because Silk Spectre II is still in love with him, even though she goes to bed with Patrick Wilson, aka Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl II – to the music of Leonard Cohen singing “Hallelujah,” about the least sexy song to make love by, but it was a brilliant choice by Zack Snyder, to show the contradictory forces at work. The film also features Bob Dylan singing “The Times They Are A’Changin” over the title credits. This is a film that shows a director at work, making choices – always good choices – and “Watchmen” reflects that – the sense of a country stuck in a miasma of hopelessness and terror.
What the film doesn’t have is a believable villain – the kind of menacing personality that Heath Ledger gave to the Joker. In “Watchmen” the villain is Ozymandias, just another superhero who lives in his castle in Antarctica and wants to control the world. Played by Matthew Goode with a strange voice that swallows up his vowels and spits them out as though English was not his native language, he’s more laughable than menacing. But don’t let that stop you; “Watchmen” is even, dare I say it, worth seeing twice.