Review: 'Watchmen' to divide fanboy, mainstream audiences

By DAVID DIZON/ abs-cbnNEWS.com

Posted at Mar 06 2009 05:00 PM | Updated as of Mar 10 2009 08:39 AM

Before I got to watch Zack Snyder's adaptation of the comicbook "Watchmen", I talked to fellow fanboy and published author Vin Simbulan about our expectations of the new movie.

Simbulan, whose family owns the comic and hobby shop "Comic Quest", says the Watchmen graphic novel, which collects the entire 12-issue miniseries, has sold hundreds of copies in his store since its release more than 20 years ago.

"Watchmen is the kind of comic that comicbook lovers like to share with others. It has a long shelf life compared to collections of the X-men and Spider-man comic books. Demand has been consistent although there's a renewed interest to it because of the movie," he said.

He adds that he is curious about how the story changed in its transition from comic page to the screen. After all, he says Watchmen is not like the Spider-man or Batman movies that made very few changes in the characters' comicbook origins. 

"One good example is the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, which first came out as a comic written by Alan Moore. I won't say that it was a terrible movie because you have to judge it as its own entity and not as an attempt to adapt the comic. It fails as an adaptation of the LOEG comic," he said.

In the online forum Pinoyexchange, some comicbook fans have complained that the local censors board has made cuts in the movie before it could be shown in local cinemas. (Yup, there are cuts.) And of course, the biggest concern is the ending, which has been changed from the original graphic novel.

Pinoy comic fans need not worry. Zack Snyder, whose testorene-filled adaptation of Frank Miller's "300" made people stand up and take notice, perfectly captures the look and feel of an alternate comicbook world heading to nuclear disaster. Strangely enough, Snyder's decision to adapt the comic almost to the letter may please some fans while alienating viewers who may not care as much for this violent tale of morally ambiguous superheroes.

In a nutshell, Watchmen starts with the murder of the masked crusader known as the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The murder sparks an investigation by the vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) who believes that there is a conspiracy to kill fellow Watchmen Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). Ultimately, the story shows how superheroes, if they were real, could affect world events and change the course of history.

Warning: From this point on, the review will contain major spoilers.

Snyder's fanboy leanings are evident from the very start of the movie. The title montage, which is set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing", shows the founding of the Minutemen and is chockfull of details and "easter eggs" that are mentioned only in passing in the comic book. These include the murder of Silhouette, Mothman's incarceration and the Comedian's role in the assassination of JFK. There are also little touches in the movie that showed how Snyder did his homework. One scene showed Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl, who now owns a used car park for obsolete models after Dr. Manhattan made electric cars all the rage.

The first 30-45 minutes of the movie is almost a slavish adaptation of the first two comicbooks in the series right down to Rorschach's monologue at the Comedian's grave. What's fascinating about this movie is that, similar to the book, Rorschach is treated as the gateway character for viewers to move the plot forward. With his mask of shifting inkblots, Rorschach is the living, breathing heart of this story and Haley delivers a performance that should earn at least a nod from the Academy.

Outstanding performances

Every actor in the cast, with the exception of Goode and Akerman, brought their A-Game. Morgan, as the amoral Comedian, is a mass of contradictions who is sadistic and yet prone to bouts of self-loathing. His death actually begins the narrative and his story forms the framing sequence for a major part of the movie.

Wilson plays a sympathetic Nite Owl who misses the superhero life but can't seem to break the law after superheroes are outlawed. Every scene where he suits up gives off a definite Batman vibe especially with all his high-tech toys and gadgets.

As the CGI Dr. Manhattan, Billy Crudup has one of the hardest roles in the movie - how to play an emotionless superhero with almost godlike powers without wearing any pants. The sequence that tells his origin are almost intact from the comic and is given much more screen time than Rorschach's origin. After his star turn in Cameron Crowe's "Amost Famous", it's about time people were reminded why Crudup just oozes cool.

On the other hand, Goode's decision to play a German, slightly effete Ozymandias is puzzling. While the comic clearly portrays Ozymandias as aloof, sophisticated and athletic, Goode's portrayal is a cypher that borders on boring.

Finally, Akerman as the second Silk Spectre feels lost. Yes, she's playing a kickboxing superhero who dishes out justice in skintight yellow leather. She also has a boyfriend who can create duplicates of himself in bed while he's off working. Silk Spectre has two linchpin character moments in the story that propel the narrative to its conclusion. Sadly, Akerman's less than stellar acting pales in comparison to the performances of her more charismatic co-stars.

Dark and depressing

Watchmen is probably one of the first comicbooks that deemed to show superheroes in a less than flattering light. After all, the Comedian is a rapist and murderer, Rorschach is a borderline sociopath and Silk Spectre is a substance abuser -- traits that you don't normally see in your regular Marvel or DC comic. Watchmen author Alan Moore once said that he hoped to inspire other comicbook authors to make more complex and multilayered comic stories. Instead, Watchmen, along with Frank Miller's equally brilliant The Dark Knight Returns, is credited for inspiring a slew of "dark" superheroes ranging from the gun-toting Punisher to a black-clad Spider-man.

It is this darkness that may be the biggest stumbling block for mainstream audiences whose first exposure to "Watchmen" is the movie. In some parts, the film is actually more violent than the comic book. While some sequences come straight from the comic book (i.e. the near rape of Silk Spectre I and the murder of a pregnant woman), other violent sequences feel gratuitious such as the fight scene involving Silk Spectre II, Nite Owl II and a group of thugs. In the prison riot scene with Rorschach, Zack Snyder deviates from the comic book and delivers a scene that comes straight from the Saw movies. Finally, even Rorschach's origin gets a needless change that makes him even more bloodthirsty and psychopathic than he ever was on the printed page.

The movie also suffers from some painfully jarring song choices. Snyder slightly overdid some of the slow-mo sequences to emphasize the action and the first hour of the movie feels too loose and badly in need of editing. Finally, the ending is a downer that is slightly tweaked for the movie but has almost the same effect as the ending in the comic book.

Yet, amid the darkness, there are occasional flashes of brilliance. The title montage and Dr. Manhattan's origin are perfectly executed. The first appearance of Nite Owl's airship "Archimedes" is thrilling and you'll feel like cheering when it comes flying out of that abandoned railroad track in Nite Owl's home. There's also a fight scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II during the prison riot sequence that feels ripped from the Korean movie "Oldboy." Even Matt "Max Headroom" Frewer gets a short but sweet cameo as the retired villain Molech.

These sequences are too few and far between, however. Only time will tell if the movie will be regarded in the same way as the comic book -- as a classic in its own right, whether among comic book fans or in the mainstream.