Two common criticisms of films are their deviation from the source material from which they are adapted, or prioritizing style over substance. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is apparently very true to the graphic novel that it’s based on (with few differences), and has the substance to balance out the style. However, these are flaws with the movie, and not praises – the movie is strangled by its devotion to the comic, and consequently fails to engross you in the substance, while possibly repulsing you with the style.
In 1938 a group of masked vigilantes were formed, known as the ‘Minutemen’, and years later a new group is formed in a similar fashion called the ‘Watchmen’. Due to their aid, the United States easily wins the Vietnam War, Nixon is continuously reelected, and the Soviets are threatened by their power, making the Cold War slowly begin to heat up. However, due to protests from the people, masked heroism is ultimately banned, with a couple members operating as government-sanctioned agents: Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a near god-like being with reality warping powers who struggles with the loss of his humanity; and the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a vigilante who constantly pushes how far he can go while still being called a hero. Meanwhile, Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley), an enigmatic character, never ceases his crime-fighting, soon becoming a wanted man.
When the Comedian is killed in his home by an unknown assailant, Rorschach begins his own investigation, attempting to warn the other retired Watchmen, and possibly reunite them to take down this new threat. Rorschach is easily one of the more memorable characters due to how seriously he takes his life as a hero. Narrating the film like some kind of noir-ish protagonist, while providing less than complimentary commentary on the world around him, he truly sticks out like a relic of a past world. All of the heroes of this story have some kind of flaw that grounds them, making for some interesting flashback scenes that explain how they became who they are, and how they adopted their worldviews.
The movie is heavily stylistic with its desaturated and vibrant color juxtaposition and heavy usage of slow-motion (a trademark of Snyder’s). While the former, plus other cool shots, make for interesting visuals, the slow-motion is overused, draining energy from action scenes, and is, in my opinion, a telling sign of a director who is attempting to compensate for their own lack of distinctiveness. This is not aided by what I felt to be a somewhat unsuitable soundtrack. The film is full of hit songs that complement the periods in time portrayed by the movie, but it feels like it’s constantly trying to remind us what time we’re in, and not always at the best of times. Certain scenes are sapped of their impact due to poor music usage.
The biggest error of the movie, as previously mentioned, is its dedication to the original comic. I’ve been told that little is left out of the movie, but I feel as if there should have been. Due to the insistence on cramming everything into a little over two and a half hours, the movie feels somewhat bloated, never permitting the audience much time to breath, recollect, or feel the full impact of an event. The results are feeling tired, rushed, lost, and forgetful, as nothing leaves the mark that it should. The characters and their arcs are interesting, brilliant even; as are the messages the film has, but they aren’t explored enough, and so we never get to immerse ourselves as much as we’d want to.