Friday, 20 March 2009

Film Review: Watchmen

(L-R) Jackie Earle Haley, Matthew Goode, Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman and Jeffrey Dean Morgan in Zach Snyder's Watchmen (2009)

Before I begin, I must confess I've never read the graphic novel Watchmen, written by Comic Book geniuses Alan Moore (V for Vendetta and From Hell, also adapted into excellent films) and Dave Gibbons. I hadn't even heard of it until last year, and maybe that means I'm not really very qualified to write this review, but I have been told the film is pretty much an exact reproduction of the original in film form, so I feel adequately informed enough to at least try.

Watchmen is, essentially, excellent; but that isn't to say I had a few problems with it. In short, for a film which advertised itself as a look into the social and psychological implications of a world in which superheroes actually existed - intervening in John F Kennedy's assassination, the Vietnam war, which led to the repeal of the term limits for Presidents and allowing Tricky Dick Nixon to get elected for a third time - I didn't feel there was that much more characterisation than in most films of this type.

Normally, I wouldn't care, since I'm a big fan of ostentatiously bombastic vigilantism enacted by a messed-up individual who won't let some event in their past go (cue Batman). However, in recent years there has been a doing away with the superficial "he's a hero, he's good, he doesn't need to be psychoanalysed" thoughtlessness: most notably in the brilliant X-Men films, in which the mutants are very clearly reviled by the "ordinary" people they protect and care for; the generally dull Superman Returns, the Kryptonian who is still fighting for "truth and justice" but no longer "the American way"; everybody's favourite emo, Spiderman; and, of course, the caped crusader himself.

In this new age of postmodernist complex superhero angst, you'd think a film of Watchmen would have fit right in, being an early example of such a convention. The problem, though, may be exactly that: this film comes after the modern versions of other comic-book (or grapic novel, whatever) adaptations, and this undermines the impact of the story. Younger and less knowledgeable audience-members such as myself are already used to this treatment of the hero. In The Dark Knight, the age-old reading of the hero and villain being direct opposites and therefore two manifestations of the same personality was underscored right from the very beginning: The Joker and Batman are obssessed with each other because each is the other. The X-Men are capricious, squabbling teenagers who become capricious, squabbling adults; their own mentor having had an age-old rivalry with his former best friend bred by differences of opinion over how they should use their powers. Spiderman is haunted by his uncle Ben's mantra "with great power comes great responsibility", and cannot successfully reconcile his two lives as geeky science student and cool crime-fighter. Even Superman himself has a rough time of it: led on a wild goose chase after the remains of his home planet, returning to prove himself to a human population which feels betrayed, and almost killed outright by his arch enemy. What makes Watchmen all that different?

The real appeal of this film seems to be the history of the story within the canon of the genre: the original format, it's break-the-mould popularity reputation, and the long-drawn-out hype has preceeded the film itself. Though the film is good, better even than some of its recent counterparts, one feels unimpressed by its treatment and simply enjoys how good it is without feeling anything more. Unlike the graphic novel, the film has not shone as the ultimate example of how the sub-genre should be presented, but rather as another good example of how it should be presented. In a way, that is a good thing: maybe now we can expect superhero films to be more complex and questioning, and for that, we can still be grateful to Watchmen.

Four Stars.

The characters as originally drawn...


  1. omg i still havent seen watchmen (as of 21/3/09), i will eventually. but r u dissing x-men? i LOVE x-men, and altho i feel the films were a let-down in a few ways, i still get abit protective over them...

  2. James, can you read?

    "the brilliant X-Men films"; my later description comes in the middle of me talking about revising the audience perspective of a superhero to give the concept more complexity, and saying that is a GOOD thing.

    The point about Watchmen is that the story was one of the earliest to do do this with its characters, but the film has come AFTER other film adaptations have done this with their characters...