Fanboys will dig the Watchmen; here's a primer for the rest of you
Take it from a comic book geek who bought 11 of the 12 original issues of Alan Moore’s seminal comic book superhero series The Watchmen back in 1986: director Zack Snyder’s film adaptation is faithful to the point of fetish — reproducing the core story right down to specific lines and visuals cribbed directly from the award-winning graphic novel.
For my money, Snyder (300) has created the first real superhero epic; a grand period tale which sprawls from the 1940s to the mid '80s, with a running time of two hours, 43 minutes, worthy of any Merchant/Ivory masterpiece.
But the biggest problem with building such an elaborate and loving homage, is that those who come new to the party may not feel welcome. And this big-screen tale of twisted superhero pathos is so explicit, so relentless, so complex and so long, it will be a very tough sell for anyone who isn’t already on the Watchmen love train.
Yes, the ending is different than the comic book, but that was to be expected. In Moore’s sprawling tale, the book’s bad guy teleports a giant squid into the center of Manhattan.
Just writing that explanation feels a little silly. Putting it on a big screen would be laughable. But what remains is a sardonic series exploring what kind of twisted people might actually put on masks and capes to beat up criminals and what nightmarish lengths they might employ to keep mankind from a nuclear war.
So, to make your Watchmen experience more enjoyable, I’ve come up with this handy list of Things You Should Know Before Seeing the Watchmen — a primer of sorts from this fanboy to you, with tips on navigating the grandest — and darkest — superhero tale ever put on film.
1) This is NOT your children’s superhero story — One of Watchmen’s boldest moves was forgoing a shot at Iron Man-level box office by making this movie earn its “R” rating. Characters sling the “f” word; superpowered master of matter Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) spends chunks of the movie in the nude, naughty bits in clear view; one hero attempts to rape another; bullets are fired through limbs and heads; Dr. Manhattan makes some enemies explode into a bloody shower and much more. This isn’t Spidey or the Hulk; children should wait for Monsters vs Aliens.
2) Reading the books wouldn’t hurt — I couldn’t imagine catching all the nuances of this sprawling story without already having it burned into my brain from decades of poring over Moore’s work. Though Snyder is so faithful to the books, the screening made me feel a bit like Dr. Manhattan — a character who can see his past, present and future unfolding simultaneously.
3) Understand Moore’s enduring themes — Watchmen creator Moore is an iconoclastic Brit with a severe distaste for '80s-era conservatives Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan. That’s why Moore’s vision of a nightmare America includes a nation that wasn’t humbled by losing Vietnam and thus elected the disgraced-in-real-life President Nixon to five terms in office, manipulative Secretary of State Henry Kissinger by his side.
4) Watch for the tiny details — The music will help you stay oriented in a story that flits from the '40s to the '80s with little warning (K.C.’s I’m Your Boogie Man plays during the '70s, Nena’s 99 Luftballons signals a scene in the '80s). And check how Snyder provides an ending that subtly echoes 9/11 without breaking the period feeling.
5) Enjoy the performances — St. Petersburg native Patrick Wilson does a wonderful job as dumpy superhero retiree Dan “Nite Owl” Dreiberg, but the film’s real triumphs are Jeffrey Dean Morgan as hard-bitten, yet-sentimental psychopath the Comedian and Jackie Earle Haley furthering his comeback career with an amazing turn as relentless criminal punisher Rorschach. And Crudup should get a special Oscar just for letting Dr. Manhattan’s naughty bits show for so many scenes in a major movie.