As far as I’m concerned, the triumph of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is finally delivering a mainstream blockbuster film that ends with Richard Nixon presiding over a country just through the threshold of world peace. For that vision and bold decision I will remain eternally grateful. Shot for shot, it’s a gorgeous pictures to look at, but that same obsessive focus is really Watchmen‘s critical undoing for me.
Strangely enough, nearly all of the major fears and skeptical reservations I had about this movie were proven to be for naught. Patrick Wilson, who I couldn’t envision in the nerdy Batman role of Nite Owl II, turned out to be one of my favorite actors in an otherwise mediocre landscape of performances. Among other cast members exceeding my expectations were Matt Frewer (one of my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation villains of all time) as Moloch and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach.
I also went in with trepidations about an issue pointed out in the Variety review, which said “the film seems to yield to the very superhero cliches it purports to subvert.” In preparing a superhero film for a broad audience, faithfully bringing Watchmen to the big screen for had to mean assuming a hefty cache of awareness in its audience, for whom in many cases Watchmen would be a coming out party of sorts for the post-modern superhero story that succeeded originally as a comic book miniseries because of its appropriation of a single popular genre to encapsulate a discussion on the military industrial complex, international U.S. hegemony, and the resulting ideological framework that the aftermath of World War II produced to justify everything from the use of the atomic bomb to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense system.
It’s hard for me to weigh how much credit to give the film for that surgical exploration of wrongs necessitated by rights and deaths necessitated by lives. I was worried that that would be lost in adaptation, however, much as James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta completely hijacked and cannibalized the original political message of his source material. Preserving — if summarizing and muting at times — Watchmen‘s look at the moral relativism demanded by militarism and global market capitalism in the context of a story about superheroes does earn a few points.
What ultimately settled my opinion on Watchmen, though, was a simple question: Five years from now, if I’ve got Iron Man and Watchmen sitting on the shelf next t one another, which am I probably going to watch? Watchmen was pretty, but the enjoyment I derived from it was the same as looking at someone’s notebook of Watchmen fan art. It repeated back to me a lot of things that I enjoyed about the books and that it was fun to see someone recreate on a gazillion dollar budget.
I should note that the new ending, in retrospect, was one of the few exceptions to that problem — even if events and skewed character directions after it veered off into Wacky Town. Whereas I was anticipating something totally ludicrous and Ang Lee Hulk-ish, the revamped finale actually found a way to do something sensible and interesting with Dr. Mahhattan’s character that I really appreciated. It’s just too bad the film couldn’t stop there before making Nite Owl II do his best Darth Vader “Noooooooooooooooooo!” impression and then mess with continuity and Dr. Manhattan’s ultimate fate in a way that still hasn’t made sense to me.
So I don’t know if I’d see it again or even buy it when it’s out. If I were having a night with a bunch of comic book friends, I would probably partake in the viewing just as a source of conversation about a common topic that we and Snyder obviously put a lot of thought into. It’s also worthy to mention what a triumph getting this movie into theaters at all was historically in the scheme of comic book movies. This one just felt too much like a a compressed summary of gorgeous frigid compositional homages with some mostly mediocre acting.
But at least Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and I will always have Nixon.