In a gritty and alternate 1985 the glory days of costumed vigilantes have been brought to a close by a government crackdown, but after one of the masked veterans is brutally murdered an investigation into the killer is initiated. The reunited heroes set out to prevent their own destruction, but in doing so discover a deeper and far more diabolical plot.
Superheroes are cool again, and they’ve become cool in a dark, grown-up, existential, psychologically screwed-up way. The growling moodiness of a man-in-cape vs. the murderous rampages of a man-in-make-up touched a global movie-going nerve and now we want our heroes to be deep and twisted. Like the graphic novels upon which they were based. Like the best graphic novel of all time – Watchmen.
But things didn’t bode well for the filmed version of the only graphic novel that has made a list called The 100 Best Novels Written Since 1923. Author Alan Moore has not only asked his name be removed from the film, but has stated he wrote the novel in such a way that it could not and should not be filmed in the first place. It was a celebration of the essence of the comic-book genre, bending and twisting the form to create a fully-functional socio-political setting of precisely-realised themes and characters.
Well, that's what I’ve heard; I’ve never read it. And now the film is coming to theatres in the wake of The Dark Knight and Iron Man, glowing redefinitions of the superhero-vigilante genre that have reset the standard by which these types of movies could (and should, from here on in) aspire to be.
The first element that provided hope was the casting news – critically-acclaimed actors, none of whom seemed like the kind of thespian who would sell out for a cheesy blockbuster and a cut of the merchandising. Of course, none of them struck me as superhero-types either. Patrick Wilson has made smart film choices that don't rely on (or intentionally subvert) his good looks (as in Hard Candy, where he was castrated); Jackie Earle Haley didn’t exactly exude superhero charm as the thoroughly-icky paedophile in Little Children (in which he self-castrated); Malin Akerman is cute but 28 Dresses and The Heartbreak Kid do not a superhero make (though both films left male moviegoers feeling...well, you know); Jeffery Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode – ???
Director Zack Snyder did cool things with zombies in Dawn Of The Dead and made a wild and wacky movie in 300, which totally indicated his third film was probably going to be worth a look, but given the task of creating an alternate-1985 reality, Snyder was going to have really excel. This was a world that needed to be built from the street up – the product of decades of superhero-society in which, thanks to the Watchmen of yore, Vietnam was a glorious U.S.-led victory, Nixon is the current Commander-In-Chief and the Doomsday clock, a timepiece that counts down to the moment of nuclear annihilation, is poised to tick over into oblivion.
If the adaptation was to remain faithful to Moore’s text (and comic-book geeks would pursue all involved with murderous zeal if it didn’t), screenwriters Alex Tse and David Hayter needed to deftly handle the back-and-forth central narrative – the murder of an ex-Watchmen – and spend a big chunk of the blockbuster-tentpole’s 161-minute running time fine-tuning the character nuances of the costumed crime-fighters, all but two of whom are now living life in anonymity.
That Watchmen has turned out to be the most complex, exhilarating and deeply-moving fantasy film since Terry Gilliam's Brazil is a testament to the reverence with which Snyder, Tse, Hayter and the handful of producers hold Alan Moore’s source novel. Yes, Mr Moore, it’s different and no doubt not quite the vision you created, but Snyder’s film is a breath-taking epic, a compelling thriller and an ensemble character piece, far beyond our expectations of the genre.
As an inspired vision of an alternate world that echoes but redefines our own existence, Watchmen is a subversive yet bracingly humanistic exploration of the role of the superhero in modern literature. A supremely adult take on the fetishistic pull the heightened existence that life as a saviour of society creates, the film takes as its core a wildly-exciting adventure story and examines what coaxes people who have chosen a normal life into choosing to become victims of their own creation and then back into mere humans.
The casting proved to be inspired. Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan, a shape-shifting energised human form with no discernible connection to emotion and empathy (or clothes – he walks around nude, his blue-glow appendage front-and-centre for all to ogle) and Jackie Earle Haley as the masked Rorschach, the angriest, most dangerous Watchman and most determined to solve the murder of The Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan) both create characters every bit as captivating (and deserving of Oscar recognition) as Heath Ledger's Joker; Malin Akerman, her black-and-yellow leather-garter outfit the ultimate gift-wrapping for Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl in one of the films searingly adult moments, makes an entrance to the world of superhero timelessness that will be the fantasy of every teenage boy, aged 15 to 50.
From Francois Auduoy’s flawless art direction, Michael Wilkinson’s costume design (beyond the hero garb, his civilian's clothes must span five decades), Peter Bonduras’ set design and special effects from the Intelligent Creatures and Quantum Creations FX teams, Watchmen is a film that revels in the perfection of minor details.
In the wake of The Dark Knight and now Watchmen I don’t think adult audiences will tolerate Spiderman-like teen-angst or Fantastic Four-like silliness anymore – those now seem like juvenile takes on their heroes psychological origins. Snyder’s film is an extraordinarily mature, risky project for Hollywood to role the dice on, especially given similarly-complex explorations of social collapse and vigilantism (such as the 2005 adaptation of Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta) have failed to do blockbuster numbers.
But Watchmen is something special and deserving of analysis and discussion. As bold an attempt at commercial film-making as I can remember, it is an undeniably unique movie experience – rich, perverse, violent and resonant.
SBS VICELAND, Wednesday 4 July, 8.35pm
Available at SBS On Demand after broadcast