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Mike Ragogna

Mike Ragogna

Posted February 20, 2009 | 07:23 AM (EST)

Watchmen: Who's Watching The Watchmen?


From the moment we see The Comedian's blood streak across his seventies Happy Face button, we know that the movie version of Watchmen and its caretakers were going to be as respectful as possible to the vision of the original comic miniseries. Based on one of the most collected and memorable comic book runs in history, the movie Watchmen tries to be all things cosmic and ambiguously moral to all of us unactualized and imperfect people, and it succeeds on most fronts. But unlike the thought-provoking Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins 1986 creation that demanded one's imagination stretch beyond a page of panels, this thoroughly-engaging incarnation of Warner's DC Comics property attempts to achieve that level of examination through a more stylized, literal approach.

For instance, let's look at our team of "masks": When we see the overly-evolved Doctor Manhattan (an agent of the government since a 1959 lab accident transformed him), he is blue, shimmering, and godlike, with some of the most artistically-filmed/CGI effects (and full frontal male nudity) ever computerized. The Comedian is played by actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan as patriotic, but nihilistic and despicable with almost no redeeming qualities, documented in the opening sequence in which he is established as the JFK trigger-man (we'll get to the fun historical anomalies in the next paragraph). A twist from later in the movie (in the comics, it was issue number nine) almost puts him in the Big Lug category -- though any empathy is nuked by his rape attempt and multiple, out-of-control shooting-sprees. (Well, this isn't Stanley Kramer's Bless The Beasts & Children.) Rorschach (Walter Kovacs, played by Jackie Earle Haley) is a delightful, noir antihero whose endorsable, brutal violence has us cheering with every act of commendable vengeance. There's Nite Owl (Dan Dreiberg, played by Patrick Wilson), the lovable, retired, slightly pot-bellied hero who always is trying to do right in a world that's so wrong. The Silk Spectre (daughter Laurie of the original Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter) is as hot and bangs-layered as this film requires; actor Malin Akerman plays her as sensual and tough, her character discovering a mysterious past that we only learn about in the film's last half-hour. Her even temperament serves as a ground for Manhattan and a spark for Nite Owl. That brings us to the only real cartoonish figure in this movie, Ozymandias, the self-outted "mask"-cum-corporate multi-billionaire, Adrian Veight, whose preciousness and sanctimony are reeled-in, thankfully, by director Zack Snyder and some self-restraint by British actor, Matthew Goode.

For much of the movie, a Sin City-esque rain washes over a dystopian, mid-'80s New York City whose World Trade Center's twin towers control a skyline filled with Veight-logo'd zeppelins and his own corporate high-riser. The city hates its "heroes," mostly because of The Comedian's non-discriminating assaults on both villains and innocent citizens, and Doctor Manhattan's omnipotence. On one occasion, Nite Owl -- the movie's sanity compass -- confronts Comedian/Edward Blake on his aggression; Blake justifies what he is doing as the fulfillment of the American dream. Of course, this is a universe where Nixon was elected five times, we won The Vietnam War (thanks to Doctor Manhattan's intervention, accompanied onscreen by an Apocalypse Now nod and Wagner's "Ride Of The Valkyries"), Russia and the US threaten nuclear exchanges over Afghanistan, and Ronald Reagan (differing from the comic's other "RR" reference) runs for president in 1988. The movie exhibits about four world views, touching on pacifism, militarism, evolutionism, and interventionism.

We are given a back history of our "heroes," one that involves The Comedian's original team that evolved into its next generation, until the "Keene Act," a law barring "masks" from crime-fighting, was instituted years later. Throughout, we're treated to a few non-linear visits to the group's past, plus the main event that regroups the Watchemen -- Blake's assassination -- that triggers relationship estrangements and realignments, and a new call-to-arms for certain members of the old team. The overall violence is an eight out of ten, the explosions would make Michael Bay proud, and the occasional sex scenes are played naturally by the aging crew with just one slightly deviant scene in which two Doctor Manhattans pleasure Laurie as a third is working in the lab. That brings us back to Manhattan's full frontal nudity -- now times three. The visual probably will make some a tiny bit uncomfortable seeing that much of Billy Crudup's junk.

For the uninitiated, when creating the original Watchmen comic book's characters, Moore and company used a couple of DC's Charleton Comics heroes as archetypes. For example, Nite Owl is based loosely on The Blue Beetle, and Doctor Manhattan borrowed a bit from Captain Atom. And there is the politics of the era which gets visited and flogged by spooferies of Richard Nixon, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and Henry Kissenger, with Pat Buchanan, Eleanor Clift and John McLaughlin in a light send-up of the latter's famous Sunday morning talk show, The McLaughlin Group. Even though scenes push the envelope a little with these characters' over-pancaked make-up and wardrobe choices, the approach is not really irreverent, just kind of funny. To flesh out details, we also get quick visits from Watchmen's supporting cast, such as Laurence Schexnayder, Dr. Malcolm Long, and Big Figure.

Overall, comicdom probably will embrace this movie, but its critics are going to compare it to The Dark Knight, Iron Man and Sin City , though it would be unfair to use those familiar templates. This kind of film hasn't been done before, it has no clear "right" or "wrong," that, even in current Batman movies, still is very well-defined. Also, it's pretty refreshing to see a "superhero" movie with no superheroes -- well, there is one, the omniscient Doctor Manhattan. But he is so powerful and above human logic that the terms "hero" and "super" are inadequate to describe what he really is. Watchmen purists, whose expectations will be off the chart, shouldn't be too disappointed because whatever scenes seem to be omitted (especially the Halloween murder of the original Nite Owl, Hollis Mason) most likely will be included on a planned four hour or so special version whose DVD release is rumored to be nothing short of The Lord Of The Rings expansions.

Finally, its soundtrack was a real surprise. Instead of any predictable slammy technobeats, the film featured random, but effective, familiar songs that accented each scene perfectly. We're given Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" (sans daughter Natalie, of course), Jimi Hendrix's version of Bob Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower" (well, duh), KC & The Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogie Man," and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (with that artist's "First We Take Manhattan" sung over the end credits). But the most touching use of songs in the film were Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sounds Of Silence" over a funeral scene, and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" over an historical recap sequence. The soundtrack will be available March 3rd, the same week the movie is released, that date being March 6th. And for those still craving more, you can run out and buy the "absolute edition" of Watchmen, the graphic novel, that includes additional sketches, and the whole shebang. But focusing back on this mythic movie, on every level, it will demand your attention and intelligence as it entertains; it's sophisticated and sensationally sophomoric; and for those just watching Watchmen for the Watchmen without any expectations or knowledge of the comic's storyline or historical importance, this really will be a blast.