Who watches the WATCHMEN? Not nearly enough, if you ask Warner Bros or production partner Paramount. With just over $100 million in domestic grosses (a number that stopped being impressive ever since THE GOLDEN CHILD), the studio bean counters had to pour over the less than impressive foreign grosses and home video before they could begin to claim a profit. What this means is that hardcore fans – those who could recite the story chapter and verse – all went once or twice, but the marketing (and word of mouth) failed to convince the uninitiated to turn out. The March theatrical release was greeted by wildly mixed reviews, with even the book’s loyal fanbase split on the film’s virtues; director Zack Snyder used Dave Gibbons artwork as ultra-detailed storyboards that were followed with an unfailing devotion, and even though writer Alan Moore famously had nothing to do with this – or any other – film adaptation of his work, his labyrinthine plot machinations were left 90% intact (more on that infamous 10% later.) Some fans complained that the exercise felt like Snyder was simply holding out a copy of the comic in front of the audience, simply turning pages and transposing images by rote, while others less familiar with the story were shocked by some of the violent, sexually explicit imagery and left in the dark by the cross-decade, multiple generations-spanning storyline.
When WATCHMEN worked, it often did so thrillingly; after we’re gracefully introduced to the alternate reality of the 20th Century during the opening credits (memorably set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times they are a-Changin’”) with an original-to-the-film montage, we get to know the core group of heroes that still remain in 1985, as they react to the murder of one of their own, The Comedian. Jeffrey Dean Morgan makes a note-perfect Comedian (he’s dead but we get to know him through flashbacks), and is only outdone by the truly breathtaking work of former child star Jackie Earle Haley (go Cutters!) as Rorschach.
In the comic, both characters push the concept of an anti-hero right to the shatter point; neither have qualms about killing, though The Comedian kills with cold calculation (working at one point as a hitman for the government) while Rorschach’s sense of right and wrong is purely black and white, and typically views punishment along ‘an eye for an eye’ lines. The fact that WATCHMEN was able to bring these memorable characters to the screen without softening their hardest edges is remarkable.
Billy Crudup is also quite good as Dr. Manhattan, the only “Watchman” with actual superpowers; Crudup has a few brief scenes in human form before getting caught in a particle chamber that recombines his atoms into a bright blue image of perfect masculinity. Armed with only his voice and movements generated by a motion capture suit worn during production, Crudup sells the difficult concept and brings empathy to a supernatural being who no longer feels connected to the human race.
Not all actors fared as well, however. Matthew Goode never quite summons the physicality and movie star magnetism of Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt. Goode’s fey, distracted delivery is doubtlessly meant to suggest the world weariness of a man who is stronger and smarter than anyone else on the planet, but it’s transparent as an actor’s choice. Goode (and Snyder) also have trouble bringing the requisite charisma to Veidt, something that Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise (both of whom were approached before budget considerations came into play) would have been able to do in their sleep.
Other pivotal Watchmen, like Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl and Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre (each, to make it more confusing, representing the second permutation of the character) are less interesting, partly because they’re painted with narrower brush strokes, but also because Snyder’s mind appears to be geared solely to the visual. There are a few excellent supporting performances, including Matt Frewer’s Moloch, a golden age criminal mastermind now living out his cancer-ridden final days in a tenement, and a terrific performance from always underused Carla Gugino (who fights her character’s old age prosthetics valiantly) as the aging, alcoholic Silk Spectre (mother of the current incarnation of the hero), who sadly get lost in the shuffle.
This wouldn’t have been as tragic if Snyder didn’t feel compelled to emphasize the presence of 4th-term President Nixon (featuring some poor actor under enough prosthetics to stop a bullet) in numerous scenes – including several that take place in a replica of the DR. STRANGELOVE war room, seemingly for no better reason than for Snyder to remind all of us that he’s seen it – when he should have remained in the background.
Ironically, the biggest change to the source material works extremely well: omitting the comic’s giant squid (a visual that would likely have been laughable on the screen) as the villain’s agent of destruction and replacing it with something more practical that also manages to work on an entirely different level – and so well that I’m surprised that Moore didn’t think of it first.
It may sound like we liked WATCHMEN less than we did; on the whole we really enjoyed it, but also felt as if there were quite a few missed opportunities – opportunities that another filmmaker like Paul Greengrass (whose own version was deep into pre-production several years ago before Warner Bros pulled the plug) may have been better equipped to explore.
With a 162-minute theatrical length, it was common knowledge that Snyder had filmed numerous scenes that were cut for time and pacing purposes, including the beloved “Tales of the Black Freighter,” a comic within the original Watchmen that we see being read by a teenager at a newsstand throughout the story, and a bit of between-chapter filler called “Under the Hood,” featuring excerpts from the autobiography of Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl. Many fans seemed to be crushed by their deletion, but much like Peter Jackson’s decision to cut Tom Bombadil, a peripheral character from the film version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, these missing bits have become the perfect embodiment of geek shorthand – a way of distancing oneself from mere laymen than didn’t spend their high school years learning to transcribe in perfect Elvish. In all honestly, neither “Black Freighter” nor “Under the Hood” are essential to the Watchmen story, and Snyder’s decision to film both but only make them available on separate video releases made good sense. People awaiting their inclusion will have to bide their time until Warner’s massive 5-disc set due out for Christmas – when the sequences will be (ill-advisedly, we think) edited back into the feature.
Over 20 minutes have been restored for Warner’s current director’s cut of WATCHMEN, bringing the running time up to 186min. Much of this amounts to minor scene extensions:
- We now see The Comedian get struck by a can and yelled at during the 1970s street riot sequence; there are a few extra beats in The Comedian’s apartment when Rorschach takes out the cops left to guard it (plus an extra moment during the conversation with the current and former Nite Owls where this is referred to.)
- We get another glimpse of an unmasked Rorschach walking by the Comedian’s funeral (a recurring image from the comics that was sorely missed in the theatrical cut.)
- We get more mayhem during the Vietnam section with Comedian shooting at the Vietcong from a helicopter and an extra glimpse of the guy that Comedian cooks with the flame thrower revealing that his legs had been blown off.
- We get additional cleaver hits when Rorschach kills the child murderer in flashback, along with a funny moment when he witnesses an attempted rape in an alley and is cheered at the thought of intervening.
We’re glad to have all the extensions back, as they do add some needed character beats, but have mixed feelings on the two major restored sequences. The first occurs just after Dr. Manhattan leaves the protective custody of the feds and goes to Mars, when the agents are questioning Silk Spectre about the disappearance. Like the war room, this set is a near duplicate of a room in The Man Who Fell to Earth where David Bowie’s alien is kept under surveillance by government agents. The information presented is redundant, and we certainly didn’t need another action beat just to see how Silk Spectre escapes deferral custody. We sense that its inclusion is solely to show the viewer that Snyder and co have seen the Nicolas Roeg film.
The second major sequence is another important moment from the graphic novel that fans were rightly apoplectic to see excised from the theatrical cut. In that version, we only get to meet Hollis Mason (the first Nite Owl) through his chat with Dan, while those that read the Alan Moore original knew the dark fate that awaited the kindly old man. The director’s cut restores the sequence when the Knothead gang, enraged at the re-emergence of the Watchmen, barge into Hollis’ apartment and beat him to death. As originally drawn and written, the scene was savage and cruel but necessary to the story, and we couldn’t imagine what Snyder was thinking by cutting that while dreaming up new scenes with the melting candle wax figure of Richard Nixon. Now that we’ve finally seen it, we’re even more surprised that it was deleted, as it’s one of Snyder’s best moments as a filmmaker; beautifully intercutting Mason defending himself with sepia-drenched images of fighting villains from the golden era (including gas mask-wearing Nazis, bubble-helmeted spacemen with ray guns, and gangsters out of a Dick Tracy strip.)
Fans of the film might want to wait for the deluxe edition coming out at year’s end, but based on what we’ve seen of the “Tales of the Black Freighter,” we feel that the 186min cut will be our preferred length. Warner’s Blu-Ray is predictably reference quality; even with all the filters and digital chicanery it is noticeably cleaner and sharper than its standard def cousin, and the picture-in-picture track hosted by Snyder makes up for the lack of a commentary track (though the upcoming version will have that as well).