Rarely has a numeric rating felt so insufficient in capturing the totality of my opinion towards a film. My valuation of the movie on a scene-by-scene and component-by-component basis resembles a sine wave — busted, brilliant; stupid, smart; gorgeous, ghastly; etc.
In an age of superhero overload, Watchmen’s core thesis feels more urgent than ever. Alan Moore’s source text and the resulting screenplay follow vigilantism to its natural conclusion: On the one hand, fascist, arbitrary justice adjudicated by a few powerful people. On the other, inevitable merging with the police and military complexes that benefit the power-hungry institutions, not the people superheroes supposedly serve.
We see philosophical extremes in many of its characters: Rorschach, a no-compromise psychopath more violent than the criminals he takes down; Ozymandias, an ends-justify-the-means extremist willing to nuke a few metropolises for a chance at world peace; and Dr. Manhattan, a being so omniscient and omnipotent that the rise and fall of humanity is a statistic in a ledger. It’s fascinating stuff that challenges viewers to think more critically about comic book fantasies.
Zack Snyder, though, seems only partially aware of the story he’s trying to tell. By stylizing the violence as intensely as he does, he makes it feel like the cool carnage is the point, as if this is 300 in another setting. The worst moment is a prison riot in which Nite Owl and Silk Spectre gleefully tear through rioters, as if the thought never occurred to Snyder that maybe this kind of cruelty is not strictly a good thing.
The movie, like the comic, revels in the depravity of humankind: We see people at their worst and filthiest, forcing characters like Rorschach to ponder if humanity is even worth saving. Thematically, this stuff kind of works, but in practice a lot of it feels like trashy exploitation and gratuitous violence.
Overall, though, the movie has a compelling look. Glossy and shiny like the page of a comic book, the aggressive blues and yellows striking and meaningful, not just tedious. Even as Snyder leans into his own tics, a lot of the action is pretty excellent and well-staged.
The acting is a bit of a disappointment, with only Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach a true embodiment of the character on the page. Akerman and Goode in particular feel like they’re just reading lines.
And then there’s the needle drops. No review of Watchmen should ignore just how tacky the music selection is. Snyder may have grounded it by pulling songs quoted by the original comic, but the piped in music seems wrong on nearly every occasion. Like, it would have been tough to make a more discordant music selection than “Hallelujah,” straining an already awkward sex scene beyond its breaking point. (The one selection I really like is “All Along the Watchtower,” whose echoing drums and strums portend destiny even if it’s a cliche.)
So yeah. Watchmen a great story wrapped in a gnarly film wrapped in a polished production in a over-stylized aesthetic. A riddle wrapped in an enigma. It leads to something I ultimately admire even if it gives me whiplash and headaches every few minutes.
(Note: I viewed the Director’s Cut for this review.)
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.