WATCHMEN - DVD review

...it's hard not to watch every minute of it, even if 215 such minutes is a long haul by anybody's watch.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

"Who watches the watchmen?"
--Juvenal, "Satires," VI, 347

They said it couldn't be done.
No one could film "Watchmen."
Maybe they were right.

When Warner Bros. decided to film the graphic-novel phenomenon "Watchmen," they went all-out, with three separate movies. They produced an animated version that followed the comic-book frame for frame; they produced a live-action version that differed slightly but kept the spirit intact; and they produced an animated version of the story within the story, "Tales of the Black Freighter." They released the live-action version to theaters and then to disc in a theatrical and an extended "Director's Cut" and the animated versions directly (though separately) to disc. After that, they produced a ton of bonus materials--documentaries, featurettes, commentaries, journals, and the like--to complement the various DVD and Blu-ray editions of the films. Now, the studio has put everything together, integrating "Tales of the Black Freighter" into the live-action Director's Cut, along with the complete animated version of the novel on separate discs, plus all the extras ever made in a huge, five-disc box set called "The Ultimate Cut." Whew.

Watchmen: The Live-Action Movie:
OK, I confess to knowing next to nothing about comic books, comic-book heroes, or graphic novels, yet even I had heard of "Watchmen" when I first went into the video of it. British writer Alan Moore ("From Hell," "V for Vendetta"), British cartoonist Dave Gibbons, and British writer and artist John Higgins combined talents in the mid 1980s to create a series of twelve DC Comics depicting the adventures of a group of irreverent superheroes known collectively as the "Watchmen." Shortly thereafter, the creative team incorporated the stories into a twelve-chapter graphic novel, which subsequently became even more celebrated than the individual, limited-run comic books had been. Then in 2008 Warner Bros. aired a twelve-part animated television series based on the stories, duplicating the comic books almost frame for frame. Now, we get the live-action motion-picture version of the famed comics. The result is different, to say the least; but there is no denying the movie is endlessly fascinating despite the filmmakers having to condense the sprawling, episodic, multicharacter book to a little over two-and-a-half hours in the theatrical version and to over three-and-a-half hours in the integrated Director's Cut reviewed here.

Fans and critics alike called "Watchmen" groundbreaking when it first appeared, and it certainly seems that the writers and artists intended the series as a retort to the multitude of superhero books and films that abounded in the 1980s and beyond, poking fun at them, while exposing their sometimes perplexing, labyrinthine, and unsavory underbellies. Because not all of the "Watchmen" superheroes survive the ordeals the authors put them through and because most of the superheroes are cynically twisted, the authors invented brand-new characters for the adventures, ones who just happen to resemble real comic-book heroes, at least superficially.

The best parts of the motion picture are the opening fight sequence, juxtaposed with Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable," and an opening-credits montage done to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" that explains the development and evolution of the Watchmen superheroes from the group's beginnings as an earlier team of crime busters in the Forties and Fifties to the film's present, when the government outlawed their vigilante ways as a menace to society. Government officials used as an excuse for prohibiting masked avengers the notion that superheroes were doing more harm than good, but in truth the government wanted some of them for their own nefarious purposes. If the rest of the movie had been as creative and robust as the introductory elements, it might have benefitted greatly.

The setting for the main plot is around the time of the story's creation, 1985, and the place is a sordid, fearful, crime-filled New York City, infused with ironic, ubiquitous Smiley Faces. Yet it's an alternate 1985, where a paranoid Richard Nixon is still President, his finger poised on the button of nuclear annihilation; detente, perestroika, and glasnost are meaningless words; the War Room from "Dr. Strangelove" is a reality; the Doomsday Clock continues to tick down to the final hour; anger and frustration strangle the populace; and things seldom unfold as they did in our own universe. The world faces moral decay from within, while facing the imminent threat of war from without. This is a grim, decadent, corrupt landscape, where superheroes used to do their best to keep order and provide justice by exploiting some of the same dubious practices they so decried.

At the center of the action is Walter Kovacs, "Rorschach" (Jackie Earle Haley), a sardonic, compulsive masked avenger whom some people admire and others think is nuts. He's a hardened, world-weary, ultraconservative crime fighter who believes in never compromising. Among his friends are Daniel Dreiberg, "Nite Owl" (Patrick Wilson), a nerdy fellow and an empty shell of his former self; Laurie Juspeczyk, "Silk Spectre" (Malin Ackerman), a disillusioned woman who never wanted to be a superhero in the first place; and Adrian Veidt, "Ozymandias" (Matthew Goode), the smartest man in the world, a guy so smart he figured it was better business selling action figures of himself than continuing to put himself in danger. By now the government has outlawed most vigilante superheroes for causing more trouble than they've prevented, except for a very few like Jonathan Osterman, "Dr. Manhattan" (Billy Crudup), whose superhuman powers of teleportation and precognition have made him a handy weapon against the Evil Soviet Empire. His powers have also removed him from normal society and from his own once-human soul.

While Rorschach's fellow superheroes voluntarily "retired" after the government banned them in the late Seventies, Rorschach refused and secretly continued his crusade against crime. When the stories concentrate on Rorschach's life and fortunes (which the Director's Cut does more so than the theatrical version), the movie maintains a strong interest level. When it veers off into its many tangents, it starts to bog down and fall flat, and there are too many such tangents. OK, to be fair, they aren't really tangents; they're analogies and subplots important to the story line and characters. But just as in the comics, they go on too long in the movie and feel like padding.

The primary conflict develops early on. The police find a man named Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) dead of a fall from his high-rise apartment, either a suicide or a murder. Rorschach recognizes Blake as "The Comedian," one of his old superhero teammates before the government broke them up. Rorschach sees Blake's death as murder, and he wonders if somebody isn't trying to kill off all the old masked avengers one by one. The movie chronicles Rorschach's investigation into the matter.

Rorschach's pessimism permeates his personality and the rest of the characters, the list of miserable fates for past masked avengers clearly indicating the story's intention of showing a side to superheroes hitherto unrevealed to the public. Unfortunately for Rorschach, nobody takes him seriously when he warns them of what's happening. Even his old friends think he's sick. What's more, everyone appears to have had a reason for wanting Edward Blake dead, he was such a complete jerk, so everyone is a suspect.

"Watchmen" in its Director's Cut provides a further twenty-four minutes or so of new, live-action material, most of it centering on Rorschach, which is good, plus an added death scene. The extra minutes do help to make more sense of the story, but they also make a film already too long an even longer stretch. To say nothing of the newly integrated "Tales" adding even more minutes.

Zack Snyder, who is no stranger to comic-book adaptations after doing "300," works as well as one could expect adapting the movie from the comic-book adventures. He provides his audience with plenty of engaging characters, both good and evil; intrigue galore; a nicely dark, atmospheric tone; a ton of social, philosophical, scientific, and theological discussion; a wonderfully perverse, upside-down look at superheroes; a tangled romance; and a pretty good live-action replication of the original graphic novel. In style and substance the movie should be unique enough, inventive enough, and creative enough to keep most viewers at least mildly interested, which is more than I can say about many other live-action superhero movies.

What you didn't find before but will find now is "Tales of the Black Freighter," the comic-book episodes found in the graphic adventure, integrated into the story line. This is a story-within-a-story that helps reinforce the ironic nature of life and the meaning of what we see versus what might really be happening. I'll discuss "Tales" in more detail below.

For now, it's back to the plot of "Watchmen," which gets more complicated, more elaborate, and at times more incoherent as it goes along, with multiple flashbacks to fill in the details and a conclusion that doesn't quite satisfy the lengthy buildup nor stick entirely to the source material. After the first couple of episodes, things begin to slow down and lose some of their inspiration, yet whenever Rorschach takes center stage, things liven up considerably, so, as I say, it's good that the Director's Cut adds more about him. Indeed, it is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Blake who are the real stars, their vigorous interpretations helping the picture come to life. The other actors are competent but not memorable, the actual plot getting lost in their sometimes mundane characterizations.

Partly satire, partly political declamation, partly metaphysical rambling, partly conspiracy-theory rant, partly nihilistic existentialism, partly New Age hokum, partly film noir, partly sci-fi/fantasy soap opera, and partly old-time matinee serial, "Watchmen" is surprisingly entertaining for all its fragmented diversity.

Be aware that even though the "Watchmen" movie originated as a comic book, the MPAA gave it an R rating for its bloody violence, gore, sexuality, profanity, and nudity. Some of the violence does seem more than a tad gratuitous, Snyder exaggerating a few instances not in the comics; and the nudity includes not only the younger Silk Spectre but full-frontal shots of Dr. Manhattan, something to which a few critics objected but which Snyder took directly from the comics. In any case, the movie is not meant for kids.

Tales of the Black Freighter:
The authors of the "Watchmen" originally incorporated "Tales of the Black Freighter" into the comic books, graphic novel, and animated movie in bits and pieces (a young fellow reads the story at a newsstand in chapters as each new comic book comes out). Then WB released "Tales" as a separate, animated movie. Here, we find the animated "Tales" put back into the live-action movie in seven chapters scattered about. On its own, "Tales" doesn't have quite as much meaning without the context of the main "Watchmen" story, so I suppose it is better to have it back where it belongs. On the other hand, the "Watchmen" live-action movie is already pretty long, especially in its Director's Cut, and adding another twenty-six minutes of animated goings-on may only make the whole thing more confusing for folks new to the story.

"Tales of the Black Freighter" uses a limited-motion animation, fairly minimal, for its art work, but it's nicely drawn, the story narrated and starring the voice of actor Gerard Butler ("300," "Phantom of the Opera"). Frankly, Butler is the best part of the show; well, he and the audio (more on that below). Butler invests his character with an earnest, almost solemn, credibility, creating a character at once heroic and terrified. He plays the captain of an eighteenth-century sailing ship attacked by the fiendish pirates of the "Black Freighter," a crew who murder all of the captain's men and sink his vessel. The captain alone survives, his only thought as he drifts on the waves to go back to his wife and daughters and protect them from what he fears will be an impending attack by the Black Freighter on his home town.

The captain becomes obsessed with making it back to his family in Davidstown, and the brief story recounts his return home. His adventures at sea include hallucinations, shark attacks, and impending doom, culminating in an ironic and horrifying conclusion as he transforms into an obsessive madman, bent on revenge.

One can make a case for how the tale parallels the lives of several different "Watchmen" and their compulsion to fight evil everywhere they think they find it, blinded to the consequences of their actions. "Tales of the Black Freighter" is entertaining--in a grisly and gruesome manner--and edifying at the same time. Whether it's better to watch it all at once or in bits and pieces as the original authors intended is up to the viewer.

Watchman: The Complete Motion Comic:
Here, we have the entire story done in animation. To begin, though, a word about the animation, which the original "Watchmen" creators supervised. It is not your ordinary cartoon. It is not ultrarealistic 3-D CGI, and it is not exactly traditional 2-D drawing, either. It's more like a real cartoon strip, with limited movement, dialogue bubbles, and a single voice (Tom Stechschulte) doing all of the voice-over narration and character work (men and women alike). I know, it doesn't sound like much, minimalist, in fact, but it worked well enough to have sustained a moderate degree of interest even from this previously indifferent judge.

Viewing "Watchmen: The Motion Comic" reminded me of listening to old-time radio, but with pictures. Or, even more personally, listening to my mom or dad or radio broadcaster Doug Pledger read the Sunday comics every weekend when I was a kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. As I followed the graphics on the page, my mom or dad would read the comics to me before I learned to read them for myself, or I listened to Pledger reading them. Somehow, these "Watchmen" animations made me think about that, although, of course, the "Watchmen" stories are far more violent and "adult" than anything a kid as young as I was in the late Forties and early Fifties would ever have understood.

At the center of the action is Walter Kovacs, "Rorschach," a sardonic, compulsive masked avenger whom some people admire and others think is nuts; and his friends Daniel Dreiberg, "Nite Owl," an empty shell of his former self; Laurie Juspeczyk, "Silk Spectre," a disillusioned woman who never wanted to be a superhero in the first place; and Adrian Veidt, "Ozymandias," a guy so smart he figured it was better business selling action figures of himself than continuing to put himself in danger. By now the government has outlawed most vigilante superheroes for causing more trouble than they've prevented, except for a very few like Jonathan Osterman, "Dr. Manhattan," whose superhuman powers of teleportation and precognition have made him a handy weapon against the Evil Soviet Empire. His powers have also removed him from normal society and from his own human soul.

While Rorschach's fellow superheroes voluntarily "retired" after the government banned them in 1977, Rorschach refused and continued in secret his crusade against crime. When the stories concentrate on Rorschach's life and fortunes, the series maintains a strong interest level. When it veers off into its many tangents, it starts to bog down and fall flat, and there are too many such tangents. OK, to be fair, they aren't really tangents; they're analogies and subplots important to the story line and characters. But they go on too long and feel like padding.

The primary conflict develops early on. The police find a man named Edward Blake dead of a fall from his high-rise apartment, either a suicide or a murder. Rorschach recognizes Blake as "The Comedian," one of his old teammates in the "Crimebusters," a group of superheroes who had banded together to fight more effectively before the government broke them up. Rorschach sees Blake's death as murder, and he wonders if somebody isn't trying to kill off all the old masked avengers one by one. The twelve episodes chronicle Rorschach's investigation into the matter.

The authors provide their twelve chapters with titles from literature and popular culture:

1. "At Midnight, All the Agents..."
2. "Absent Friends"
3. "The Judge of All the Earth"
4. "Watchmaker"
5. "Fearful Symmetry"
6. "The Abyss Gazes Also"
7. "A Brother to Dragons"
8. "Old Ghosts"
9. "The Darkness of Mere Being"
10. "Two Riders Were Approaching..."
11. "Look on My Works, Ye Mighty..."
12. "A Stronger Loving World"

At one point Rorschach recites a list of the miserable fates of past masked avengers, clearly indicating the story's intention of showing a side to superheroes hitherto unrevealed to the public. Unfortunately for Rorschach, nobody takes him seriously when he warns them of what's happening. Even his old friends think he's sick. What's more, everyone appears to have had a reason for wanting Edward Blake dead, he was such a complete jerk, so everyone is a suspect.

"Watchmen: The Motion Comic" provides engaging characters, both good and evil; intrigue galore; a nicely dark, atmospheric tone; plenty of social, philosophical, scientific, and theological discussion; a wonderfully perverse, upside-down look at superheroes; a tangled romance; and an authentic replication of the original graphic novel. In style and substance the movie is unique enough, inventive enough, and creative enough to keep most viewers at least mildly interested, which is more than I can say about too many other animated adventure films.

The plot gets more complicated, more elaborate, and at times more incoherent, as it goes along, with multiple flashbacks to fill in the details and a conclusion that doesn't quite satisfy the lengthy buildup. No doubt this is a natural result of the story being originally a twelve-part comic-book series. You have to keep developing one conflict after another. After the first couple of episodes, things begin to slow down and lose some of their inspiration, yet whenever Rorschach takes center stage, things liven up considerably. It's also a bit distracting to have someone reading aloud everything that's on the screen for us to read ourselves, a consequence of the movie trying to be both a comic book and a motion picture. And despite Tom Stechschulte doing a terrific job with all the narration and all the voices, male and female, I did have the feeling at times that I was listening to Stan Freberg doing his old "John & Marsha" routine.

Be aware, again, that even though the MPAA never rated this part of the film, it contains blood, rape, violence, nudity, profanity, and sexual situations. This is not your children's comic.

Video:
Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures, who jointly produced the live-action film, transferred its original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio to disc in anamorphic widescreen, enhanced for widescreen TVs. The result is fine, given that the filmmakers meant for the film often to look intentionally dark and gritty. There is a degree of softness to the image, plus a touch of glassiness, but, otherwise, the colors are solid, and facial tones appear natural. The screen seems generally clean, free of too much noise, except for trace amounts of normal film grain.

As for the inserted "Tales of the Black Freighter" scenes, the rather simplistic animation shows up fairly well. There is some minor edge enhancement one notices upon close inspection, but that's about all.

"Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic" exhibits the best picture quality of all. Colors stand out vividly, with plenty of high contrast and reasonably strong black levels. Furthermore, the screen is exceptionally clean, free of any excessive grain, noise, flecks, lines, or fades, with minimal edge enhancement.

Audio:
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks display strong impact and wide dynamics, with a decently deep bass and effective, though not overpowering, surround effects. That said, the Dolby Digital also sounds a bit hard, bright, and edgy on occasion, especially during the commercial background music. Fortunately, the music composed and recorded specifically for the film comes through more smoothly, and dialogue is always easy to hear and understand.

Extras:
Disc one of this five-disc "Ultimate Cut" of the film contains the Director's Cut, with "Tales of the Black Freighter" integrated into the story, and two all-new audio commentaries, one with director Zack Snyder and another with the novel's co-creator and illustrator Dave Gibbons. In addition, we get fifty-one scene selections, English as the only spoken language, French and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Disc two contains several hours of bonus materials. The first thing up is the featurette "The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics," twenty-nine minutes. Here we find the filmmakers and the comic's creators discussing the meaning and importance of the "Watchmen" stories, but I would caution you to take it with a grain of salt. While there is no doubt the "Watchmen" comic was groundbreaking, innovative, and a bit subversive, the people involved with it appear to think it's a Pulitzer Prizing-winning work of literature or a modern DaVinci masterpiece. Well, perhaps, yet I think they may be taking it all a little too seriously. Or they're trying very hard to sell the movie.

Next is "Real Superheroes, Real Vigilantes," twenty-six minutes. In this, the filmmakers, the Guardian Angels, and others discuss the ideas behind the vigilantes in the movie. After that is "Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World," sixteen minutes, which explores some of the science behind superhero comics. Following that is a series of eleven, brief featurettes under the title "Watchmen: Video Journals," each segment lasting from two to four minutes. Their titles are self-explanatory: "The Minutemen," "Sets & Sensibility," "Dressed for Success," "The Ship Has Eyes," "Dave Gibbons," "Burn Baby Burn," "Shoot to Thrill," "Blue Monday," "Attention to Detail," "Girls Kick Ass," and "Rorschach's Mask." I wish there were a "Play All" option, but there isn't.
Then, there's the music video "Desolation Row" by My Chemical Romance.

Still not finished, the next item is "Under the Hood," a thirty-eight-minute, live-action mock documentary on the formation and eventual dissolution of the Minutemen, the original group of superheroes from 1940 who preceded the Watchmen. It stars many of the folks from the "Watchmen" theatrical movie, and it's called "Under the Hood" because it's an interview with Hollis Mason, alias Nite Owl I (Stephen McHattie), who wrote an autobiography of that title. Mason retired from the business of being a costumed hero and opened an automobile repair shop; thus, "under the hood." More important, though, his autobiography takes us into the inner workings of the Minutemen guild, "under the hood" of the organization, so to speak. We get the inside dope on all the pioneering members, with news clips of the individuals involved.

Finally, there's the featurette "Story Within a Story: The Books of Watchmen," about twenty-five minutes on the history of the various entries in the "Watchmen" series.

Disc three contains a digital copy of the theatrical feature, compatible with iTunes and Windows Media (offer expires November 3, 2010).

Discs four and five contain the entire animated "Watchmen" graphic novel. All five discs come housed in a pair of inserts, one a double keep case, the other a Digipak case, both enclosed in a heavy cardboard slipcover-type box, nicely illustrated inside and out.

Parting Thoughts:
Given the lengthy, intricate, divergent, multilayered, often convoluted nature of the source material, it's a wonder that anybody made "Watchmen" into a live-action movie at all. Certainly, it isn't for everyone. Now, adding the animated "Tales of the Black Freighter" into the mix makes things even more complicated. Mainly, I think this new edition is for really hard-core fans of the comic books and graphic novel. There's so much going on in the movie that's so captivating, it's hard not to watch every minute of it, though, even if 215 such minutes is a long haul by anybody's watch.

"As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being."
--C.G. Jung, "Memories, Dreams, Reflections"

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
7
Extras
10
Film Value
7