This long-read review of Watchmen will be primarily focused on the ‘Ultimate Cut’, the most recent edition of the graphic novel adaptation. Naturally, there will be spoilers ahead.
Next year, Watchmen turns 10. Not the original source material, masterfully and insightfully created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, a graphic novel of such high calibre it demands to be read by even the tightest of comic literature snobs, a work so brilliantly intertwined with complex themes of insecurity, perversion and the almighty ‘American Dream’ the world knows about. No, we’re referring to the feature film adaptation, helmed by the slo-mo crazed, problematic filmmaker Zack Snyder.
He’s one of the most polarising players in the game. He batted well in the beginning, with the kickass, blood-soaked and bonkers 300, a historical fable of the titular number of Spartans who famously gave thousands of Persians a run for their money, and then some. There were babies being thrown off cliff sides, grossly deformed ‘monsters’ indulging in sickly carnal desires, and best of all, a burly, bearded Gerard Butler booting fools into the never-ending pit, declaring “This is Sparta!”. His competency for comic-like carnage was shown off in 300, with his previous work, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, being a much more feverish, trashy piece of filmmaking. Not that 300 isn’t trashy, but it’s bolstered by a visual flair that makes every frame feel like a piece of concept art.
Despite how competent you are at ostentatious visuals, the leap from what is, a relatively simple tale of old-fashioned war to a politically minded superhero epic, famed for its byzantine proportion and depth of storytelling, is a bloody big one. Watchmen had a bumpy road to the screen, with directors such as Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky formerly being in line to sit in the director’s chair. All passed, however, and the project fell to Synder. The end result was a 163-minute behemoth of a movie (this was at a time when superhero films weren’t all that long, unlike they are more commonly made now), and boy did it separate the world of filmgoers. Critics were torn; some fell-in-love with it, some were befuddled, some were just plain bored. This article comes from the camp of being utterly enamoured by the original theatrical cut, but Snyder didn’t stop there. He got his director’s cut released alongside physical distribution, which ran the film to a meatier 182 minutes, squeezing in those juicier bits of dialogue and some more long-winded versions of scenes in the original release. Then came the Ultimate Cut. Originally released as part of a four-disc collector’s set, with some even including a hardback copy of the graphic novel itself, this cut extended the film to an intimidating 215 minutes. In this version, there’s all the extra stuff of the director’s cut, plus some other scenes that didn’t even make that version, but most importantly of all, the entire inclusion of an animated short film called Tales of the Black Freighter (voiced by Snyder alumni Gerard Butler), as seen in the novel. With three versions on offer, impassioned voices around both the films and the book, and a deeper-than-it-seems story, Watchmen is an anxious pill to swallow if you’re a first timer.
The eye-shattering yellow screen opening is a bright, tactful decision, a clear reference to the iconic colour palette of its source. We’re then thrown into a boardroom-like setting, chaired by – apparently – President Nixon. It’s with regards to the ‘Doomsday Clock’, a metaphorical time-keeping device that signifies how close the country, America, is to full-on nuclear war. Imagine if the Horrible Histories team was hired to introduce the feature, that’s how it feels. Unintentionally funny, I’m sure, but the prosthetics are really weak and the Nixon actor is one furious head shake away from the famed Call of Duty: Black Ops bit (“The zombies are breaking in!”). There’s a cold feeling to the scenes though, a distinct use of pale blue, like the gentle light of the moon is the only reassurance that the world hasn’t gone completely kaput. This is carried on to the next scene, which happens to be one of the film’s best. As a grizzled, older Jeffrey Dean Morgan sits down to enjoy some TV, you know his real-life clock is ticking. A foot launches itself through his door, he stands up with a fatal foresight, saying, “Matter of time, I suppose”. This kickstarts a raw and fantastical fistfight between the unknown intruder and Morgan, with the former increasingly breaking the latter. The ordeal isn’t strengthened by the rather zealous sound design, which may as well have been illustrated by “WHAM!”, “WALLOP!”, “POW!” on screen. Ignoring that is made easier by the wonderful music choice of Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’, which contrasts the almost operatic, vintage sound with the post-modern style, reaching its crescendo as Morgan is flung, crashing through his window in a flurry of swish smugness, ripped straight from the novel itself.
As he falls to the ground, and the iconic, blood-dripped smiley face comes into view before it hits the ground in a much gentler fashion than its now crumpled owner, you’ll be sold. And it has to be said, it’s a rollicking way to open a movie. Then begins the title sequence, continuing the excellent music streak with Bob Dylan’s hit, ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’. It could be argued as a bit on the nose, as it is a fast-forward summary of the rise and fall of superhero culture – so we watch as the times are literally a-changin’. But, on the opposing end, there’s really no better song for the occasion. Dylan’s famous tune is timeless, therefore what better choice to bring us through several generations to a time closer to the present than a melody that’s still sung fondly today. Synder paints a portrait of camaraderie and confidence in the do-good vigilantes through the music but uses its undying melodrama to hint that the good times are numbered. This is a world where superheroes inspire change, but where activists clad in floral wear are shot. There’s a moment when a protestor walks up to an armed group and places a daisy onto a gun. The camera pans in on the gun as it suddenly fires with a jolt, immediately telling you the rules are uneven – why should people in costumes be able to fight crime if a someone can’t hold up a sign? This is a Republican land of the brave, a theme that’s easy to recognise from a ham-fisted Kennedy assassination sequence. But overall the opening montage is enchanting and beautiful, a mini-history lesson of the weird, horrible world we’re about to enter for the rest of the movie.
Soon we’re introduced to Jackie Earle Haley’s endless monologuing as the mysterious Rorschach, a former Watchmen-turned-vigilante dressed in a no-frills costume of a trench coat, hat and an inkblot, constantly moving mask that immediately strikes a look. He strolls through the rain (in a city which seems to be pouring around 80% of the time), spouting his grand criticisms of society and their treatment of him, his friends and each other (“The night reeks of fornication and bad consciences.”). Haley’s performance has often been praised, and with good reason too. He demonstrates an admirable commitment to the little ticks and vocal tendencies, from the croaky, course speech to the crazed obsession with his “face”. You’re never in any doubt that he is someone who would happily throw you down an elevator shaft if you bug him, someone who will launch a butcher’s cleaver into your head if you murder a little girl, someone who kill a hulk of a man by smashing their face into a toilet (all of these things happen, by the way). He also takes one of the best scenes in the film all for himself: as he lines up in a queue for food in prison, a fellow inmate – clearly put in there by Rorschach – squares up to him with a shiv. And so begins a tussle, right? Not quite. Rorschach smacks him in the face with his food tray, punches through glass to grab the deep-fat fryer and soaks his naive foe with the scalding oil, and we can only watch on as he sizzles and screams. As guards swarm round our hero, he warns the prison: “None of you seem to understand, I’m not locked in here with you… you’re locked in here with me!” His character arc is a little muddled toward the end, but never is his sense of honour in question.
Before the plot escalates, Rorschach goes to meet his old super-compadre, Dan aka Nite Owl (god how the spelling will always annoy me). Patrick Wilson is the man in the role, an actor shot into popularity in recent years with The Conjuring and Insidious franchises (although one of his best performances is in the hideously murky Hard Candy). We first see him spending some quality with the former N.O, Hollis Mason (a bit role with Stephen McHattie in the theatrical cut). There’s a strange woodenness to Wilson’s take on the character for the first portion of the movie, and although some scenes call for it, others demand more of a big personality. For example, when he finds Rorschach in his home, after breaking in pretty carelessly, eating numerous tins of cold beans, his reaction is spot on to that of an old friend, the kind of pal who does weird shit and you’re used to going with the flow (“You want me to warm those up for ya?”). But as they start talking, its as if Wilson isn’t exactly sure what’s happening. Rorschach may be telling him some sad news about The Comedian (Morgan), but Wilson can’t seem to find a way to respond to this in a way that is bluntly nonchalant or largely emotional. He then directs them to talk downstairs for absolutely no reason at all other than to show off the Watchmen ship, which is pretty much immediately followed by Rorschach walking away down a subway tunnel. It’s these moments, which may have flowed better in the book, that aren’t given much emotive life through the actors’ chemistry. Thankfully, the pair improve as the bulky running time continues – more on Wilson shortly.
The key defining characteristic of the Ultimate Cut isn’t the extra scenes which fit more organically with the movie’s structure; it’s the full splicing of the animated, short feature, Tales of the Black Freighter. Alan Moore has said in the past that you can interpret it as a sort of broad analogy for the actions of many of the characters, particularly Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias (more soon). Stylistically it’s a little reminiscent of The Prince of Egypt, but with a more rugged, comic style. Synder cuts to the animation at random points throughout the movie, totalling at around 30 minutes of screen time. The tale revolves around Gerard Butler’s disastrously placed pirate, who is thrown from his ship and left stranded in the sea after an attack from the near-demonic Black Freighter. It’s a little story devoid of much happiness, full of ponderous, philosophical dialogue and some sad voice work from Butler. The imagery is often striking and sometimes hard to watch, but its relevance isn’t clear nor interesting enough to really justify its inclusion for any other reason than being entirely faithful to the source material. On one hand, it breaks up the pretty complex narrative nicely, on the other hand, it’s inconsequential and ultimately, pointless.
Eventually, we meet Ozymandias, a role in which Veidt performs each line like he’s trying to seduce you to surrender to his every whim. He’s a former Watchmen too, but owns his persona, publicly disclosing and “prostituting” his superhero fame. Unlike some of his former teammates, who seem to just be really good at fighting, Ozymandias is incredibly quick. Not like, Flash quick, but damn fast, enough to catch a bullet. For those who don’t know, his name originates in a poem allegedly based on Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. The main gist of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s work is that human power is fragile and passes over time, no matter what illusions of grandeur the holder of said power may have. That makes the character’s name all the more fitting, as he wants to balance the war-facing world with a horrific form of destruction utilising the might he currently has in his possession. However, Snyder’s storytelling doesn’t blend this motive as efficiently and comprehensively as the graphic novel, and when you’re dealing with a 3.5hr running time, you can’t blame someone for getting themselves lost if their hand isn’t held a little along the way. This isn’t an indictment of audiences’ capabilities, I should add; it’s the fault of the filmmaker.
Before we reach the film’s peak, we’re treated to Dan and Laurie Jupiter’s (aka Silk Spectre II aka Malin Akerman) first meeting. They’re old friends, and of course, former Watchmen. Played to the slightly obnoxious cue of 99 Luftballoons (great song, mind), Laurie walks into a restaurant with Dan sitting at the table, smiling at the sight of a woman whom he clearly likes. They chatter and reminisce, laugh over fairly morbid memories, scoff at their past latex costumes. Their relationship is so foreshadowed and inevitable that you won’t be surprised by any of it, but that doesn’t mean there’s no enjoyment to be had, although that may not always be entirely intentional. One exception is an earth-shattering dream sequence in which the pair kiss while facing a ginormous atomic explosion – kudos to Larry Fong for such wonderful cinematography. But their ‘intimacy’ beholds true, hilarious greatness. The first time they get down to business, Dan is hit with the ol’ erectile dysfunction – awkward. The second time though, after finding his mojo after saving a bunch of kids from a burning building (hmm, actually quite a weird way to refuel your libido), the heroes are afforded the mind-blowing pleasure of a very lengthy sex scene, all while Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ plays over the top. While a moment such as this should leave you feeling hot under the collar, in Watchmen you kind of want to look away. Snyder’s direction is firm and the framing is fine, but the whole thing feels so engineered and cheesy, and that’s without the heart shaped cloud that’s sent out the ship as Laurie pushes a button right at the point of climax. Funny, not arousing – at least its something.
But that is a problem with the film generally, even without the extra scenes and such; not all of the, hopefully, intended tones land. There’s a horrid attempted rape sequence; not just because of what’s happening, but because of the almost slapstick, heightened punch and slap sounds that punctuate it. The only solace is in Morgan’s acting as The Comedian, a wickedly imagined character brought dangerously and allusively charmingly to life by its actor. Morgan plays the role with a really engaging gusto but he’s nothing without his great lines, “I haven’t had this much fun since Woodward and Bernstein,” for example. One of his finest moments though comes after he beats down a crowd of protestors with a typically wide grin, and Dan asks him in despair: “What happened to the American Dream?” The Comedian replies: “It came true, you’re looking at it.” This tortured bit of dialogue is an indictment of both their culture and ours.
Ozymandias’ world-changing/ending plan involves one key player; Dr Manhattan. At first glance, he’s a giant blue guy with a disdain for wearing much clothing and a carefree tendency to swing his neon-glowing dick in the wind. But then he begins to speak, and outcome Billy Crudup’s silky tones. They don’t necessarily match the build at first glance, but that’s why he works so well. He manages to balance out the strangeness of his design (you’ll never not look at his penis, let’s face it) with a mesmerising kind of presence only made possible by Crudup’s wonderful acting. He is far and away the highlight of the picture, and I think he’s only been kept from the sort of permanent fame awarded to other comic-book characters brought to life due to the fact he is quite funny to look at. But his plight is one of the most tragic you’ll see. In the film’s standout scene, Dr Manhattan is being interviewed for national TV, facing questions about past lovers and friends who have all died from cancer. The implication is that he’s responsible – I mean, one look at him pretty much clarifies he’d be a hotbed for radiation. They bring out his ex-girlfriend, Janie Slater, who pulls off her wig, revealing her balding head due to the cancer. “I gave you everything after the accident,” she says. “Is this how you repay me? Damn you, John, damn you.” John (his name before the accident) looks on in utter anguish, his eyes a portrait of powerless agony, only braving the effort to plea, “Janie I’m sorry, I wasn’t told”. Reporters swarm him on stage, invading any space he has, shoving microphones and notepads in his face. You can see his discomfort rising quickly, nervously muttering, “Please, if everyone could just go away, and leave me alone,” before standing firm and furious, shouting with a god-like rage, “I said, leave me alone!”. He wipes them all out in a single blue flash, before retreating to Mars to gather his thoughts. The sequence is gloriously shot and framed (by Larry Fong, who leads the camera exceptionally in crucial moments such as this), keeping the very, very subtly expressive face of Dr Manhattan in shot for much of the sequence.
One of the more powerful scenes from Watchmen is Dr Manhattan’s appearance on TV, which soon turns into a media feeding frenzy. Hair-raising. pic.twitter.com/ptRpRFkBYL
— Cameron Frew (@FrewFilm) September 22, 2018
After some fairly boring filler, we’re back on Mars and strapped in for a stroke of real artistic beauty. We learn about Dr Manhattan’s history, from his time as a scientist with his girlfriend Janie. That is until he is transformed into his soon-to-be omnipotent figure by an experiment gone wrong. The music that plays in this flashback sequence is a combination of Philip Glass’ sublime ‘Prophecies’ and ‘Pruitt Igoe’, a love-sick melody with a synth-organ heart. Glass moves with the evolution of Dr Manhattan like he’s uncovering a new wonder of the world, and it makes for one of the most staggeringly powerful origins put to film. It has to be said though, Tyler Bates’ score is nothing to write home about. There are some deep, industrial tech-riffs in set-pieces such as the prison escape, and the afore-mentioned TV interview is a tremendous scene in all filmmaking regards, but Bates mostly costs along, supplementing the visuals with a soundtrack that feels adequate and not much more.
We do return to Mars eventually, but at this point, one wouldn’t be blamed for feeling worn out, particularly so during the bulging Ultimate Cut. There’s a lot of movie to pad the picture out, and much of it only helps it lose its flow. For example, there’s an added scene in which Rorschach visits the grave of The Comedian that’s really just an unnecessary retreat of scenes we’ve actually just seen. There’s a certain character’s death, which is totally absent from the theatrical cut, that feels a little contrived despite its welcome inclusion within the bones of the story. But after all that, the closing segment is a thrilling unravelling, a part of the story which goes darker than other superhero films. Ozymandias says himself, “I’m not a comic-book villain”. Snyder goes all in on the last act, managing to fit in more than a handful of crowd-pleasing, popcorn-in-the-air moments, as well as a gut-punching end that is if anything, incredibly bittersweet.
The Ultimate Cut of Watchmen is recommended for fans of the original release. It really does feel like Snyder at full capacity, building an intensely layered slice of graphic fiction that truly seems like a gargantuan undertaking. He definitely bit off more than he could chew though; the animated movie’s integration is a little jarring and not all that effective, much of the added stuff only serves to muddle an already tangled narrative, and yes, it is just too long. If you’re about to take the leap with Watchmen for the first time, just stick to the theatrical cut for the most fulfilling, and easier-going experience.
But with all the cuts, Snyder clearly wanted his audiences to enjoy a tribute to a novel he adored. There’s a real sense of huge ambition in Watchmen, no matter which version you choose. Constantly stylish, frequently evocative and irrefutably audacious, it’s Snyder’s criminally underrated magnum opus. At least we’ll never have to listen to anyone cry out for the ‘Snyder Cut’ for this film.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm