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Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Watchmen

The first time I read Alan Moore’s 1986 comic series “The Watchmen” was in 1993. It was the summer before I turned thirteen and my sister’s college boyfriend lent it to me to read, telling me “if you like the Phoenix Saga, you’ll love this.” I read it all in a day, and then I read it again. I did not entirely appreciate it until later, but my initial exposure to the work changed the way I saw comics and, in a way, it changed the way I viewed U.S. history. Now, fifteen years later, I finally got to see the amazing story brought to the screen. I entered the theatre with both excitement and dread, fearing that my favorite graphic novel of all time would become another League of Extraordinary Gentleman. I am happy to write that Watchmen stands unique as the best and most faithful Alan Moore screen adaptation to date.

The story is set in an alternate universe in which superheroes are a real and controversial part of America’s social landscape. It introduces us to two generations of crime-fighting superheroes: the Minutemen of the 1940s and later wave known as the Watchmen. None of these superheroes have superpowers, save Dr. Manhattan who can manipulate time and matter. In the alternate present, Nixon was never impeached and has brought the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war. Superheroes, once accepted and sanctioned by the government, have been outlawed as vigilantes. One of the old guard, The Comedian (the perfectly cast Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is assassinated under mysterious circumstances. This brings the Watchmen back together as they attempt to figure out who is knocking off old superheroes and why.

Director Zach Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300) creates a lush visual tableau peppered with perfect period details. He also casts the film amazingly well. Patrick Wilson makes a first rate Nite Owl. As Rorshach, Jackie Earl Haley manages to steal most scenes despite spending 90% of the film with his face fully covered. Dr. Manhattan is mostly CGI yet still human thanks to the competence of Billy Crudup. Malin Akerman and Carla Gugino are the only disappointing additions, turning in rather stilted performances. The real strength of Watchmen is that it doesn’t dumb itself down. Rather, it trusts that audience members, both long-time fans and newcomers alike, will be able to follow the considerably complex narrative without extraneous exposition or oversimplification. At two and a half hours, I expected to get a stiff neck and bleary eyes by the film's finale, but I found myself entranced until the very end. Some die-hard fans may be disappointed by the parts of the book that are missing, such as the “Tales of the Black Freighter” comic book within the comic book, or the side story of Rorshach’s psychiatrist. You fans will be pleased to know, however, that these nuggets were in the original film and will be released on the DVD as extras.

The amount of money I would pay to see this: $10 all the way. And I’ll see it again.


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