Monday, May 26, 2014

Overlooked Film of the Week- "Watchmen" (2009)

Overlooked Film of the Week- #58

The superhero genre has become second-nature to both film fans and the general audience alike. Back in the 1970’s, the 1980’s and even the 1990’s, seeing a superhero movie was an event. It was something that felt special, simply because we barely saw them. The only place to really see superheroes was in the pages of comic books. I certainly understand why, the visual effects needed to pull off some of the powers were not up to par with what we have today, plus they had to be really expensive. Since the 2000’s though, the genre has really took off and now not one year goes by without at least three superhero movies being released. Some say that is awesome, others say it is an over-saturation. My feelings toward the genre fall somewhere in the middle, these characters are our new fable figures, real icons of American pop culture. Since Westerns have gone down in popularity, a different genre had to take the charge of reminding us why our country and culture are so great, and it seems that the superhero genre has filled that void. Also since the 2000’s, Hollywood has decided to sellout on everything that sparks popularity. I don’t think it’s just superheroes that are over-saturated, but fantasy, fairy tales and the need to reboot everything that had a hint of cultural relevance gets tiresome. No matter how you look at it, superheroes on film are not going anywhere anytime soon, so let’s enjoy what we can for right now.

Watchmen by Alan Moore is the best graphic novel ever written. Lots of comic readers and comic lovers would tell you the exact same thing, because it is true. I do not usually through the big “B-word” out like that often, but I find it hard-pressed to find anything else as monumental as that story. I wrote a paper back in college about why I believe that graphic novels can and should be taught in English classes, and Watchmen was a story I drew lots of inspiration and example from for that paper. It is a story that changed the comic’s landscape forever, changed how we look at superheroes and their manners, their identities, their personalities and what it means to be a hero. Comic book stories have never looked the same since Alan Moore’s defining story and I think that really means something. Watchmen is utterly transcendent, dense with storyline, rich with imagination and detail. This is a story that not only comic lovers can appreciate; it’s a story that the average person could read and enjoy.

My personal feelings toward the story made me believe that Watchmen was “unfilmable” (Yep, I made up a word strictly for this review.) and Alan Moore himself thought so too. Moore also wrote V For Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, both of which got adapted into films. No matter how hard to read through the credits of those movies, you won’t find Moore’s name anywhere. He doesn’t believe in his stories being adapted into films, he has always believed that some stories just do not transfer well to another medium and he has always been critical of his books and their film adaptations. Funny, since Warner Brothers had been trying to make a Watchmen movie since 1991. For the longest time, I thought Watchmen would not transfer to film very well. I also didn’t think that director Zak Snyder (director of “300,” “Sucker Punch,” “Man of Steel” and “Dawn of the Dead”) was the man for the job. I thought his need to over-stylized everything would be the film’s undoing. No matter how critical I was about the choices Warner Brothers made in order to get this movie on its feet by 2009, I was ready and willing to see the movie that year.

In 2014, I think “Watchmen” the movie is an interesting one. It’s full of great energy and captures wonderful atmosphere. I would not call it a great movie though, and that is mainly due to my feelings about the book. I am still not convinced that Watchmen can be successfully adapted into a movie. The story is just so dense with detail and those details are important, simply paving over them doesn’t quite work. Still, I think “Watchmen” the movie is worth seeing. In the superhero movie climate we are living in right now, it’s a fine example of going outside the box. The comic book version of this story did not follow the superhero norms established in the 1930’s and the movie certainly doesn’t either. I think Zak’s style works in some parts of the movie, but not in others. Because “Watchmen” doesn’t feature Spiderman or Iron Man or Superman or Batman or any of the other big guns, it can be easy for the movie to slip from memory. I think it is an important building block toward where the genre has been heading since 2009; I think it is important example of how a superhero movie can be different from the rest of the herd. For these reasons, I think it is worth checking out.

The story-line is simple. “Watchmen” takes place in an alternate universe where the existence of masked vigilantes has been known since the 1930’s. Also, some changes to our actual history are intact here, i.e. The USA winning the Vietnam War and President Nixon granting unlimited terms for presidents. Around the 1960’s, an act came into power outlawing masked vigilantes, some agreed and others did not. The movie picks up in 1986, and the USA is edging toward a third world war with the Soviet Union. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an ex-vigilante has been mysteriously murdered, and one of his old colleagues, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) plans to find out who killed him and why. The Comedian was never your average hero though, and he garnered many enemies over his time as a hero. Regardless, Rorschach finds all of his old hero buddies to help solve the mystery. This includes The Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Cudrup) the only person with actual superpowers. The group soon finds out that something possibly more sinister is happening as more ex-vigilantes disappear, and they plan to find out what.

I love how Zak Snyder chose to cast this movie. It seems that he really went after the “right” actors instead of just filling the film full of A-listers. Going the popular route could have probably meant more money at the box office, but I think something would be missing that Snyder desperately needed for his movie. In fact, in both 1991 and 2005, the cast was supposed to be full of A-listers. Check out the picture below on how different the casts would have been:

See what I mean? I think Morgan, Haley, Ackerman, Goode, Wilson and Cudrup all do stellar work in their roles. These are not your average superheroes, they have specific human issues that are just never highlighted in standard comic books, I like how serious this cast took their characters. The actors who stick out are Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Cudrup. Rorschach is a Batman without morality or conscience, so you can probably understand why Haley was so perfect for the role. I love how Haley gleefully relishes the role and makes Rorschach a true presence like he was in the comic book. Billy Cudrup had a tough role to play as Dr. Manhattan. If you can imagine Superman with no kryptonite, that’s Dr. Manhattan, he is a nuclear God pretty much. Billy Cudrup showcases relenting power as Dr. Manhattan and really creates an awesome character. I can’t talk about the cast without mentioning Carla Gugino, who plays Sally Jupiter, Silk Spectre’s mom. She is deeply affected by The Comedian’s death (for reasons I won’t spoil) and Gugino sells every bit of her character. Gugino is an actress I have found underrated for years, and I hoped that this would be a big break for her. She is a rare talent, who really creates memorable characters and such is the case here.

I also liked how Zak used music in the movie. We span several decades in Watchmen and that means that there was a lot going on in those decades, including music. I think the songs Zak chooses and how he matches them to a scene is nearly-perfect. Take the opening credits scene for example; it’s one of the best opening credit sequences ever. We get a quick history of the world of Watchmen in the sequences, all the while Bob Dylan’s “The Times Are A-Changin’” plays in the background, there is a lot of information thrown at the audience in the scene and the song compliments it well. I also loved how Zak used “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix or “99 Balloons” by Nena or the haunting scores by Philip Glass (the Philip Glass music used during the "history of Dr. Manhattan" scene still gives me chills). I like how Zak was able to capture entire decades through music and how much it elevated the scenes.

Like I envisioned, I think Zak’s over-stylized nature was a dud for the action scenes. If you pick up a copy of Watchmen and read it, there seems to be no style intended for the fight scenes. They are supposed to be realistic; they are supposed to be gritty and pulpy. They are not supposed to be exciting or stylized, which is what Zak did with them. We have to remember that the world of Watchmen is a world where all but one of the superheroes has superpowers. So to treat the fighting scenes as if they do is an odd creative choice. I also felt that, due to time restrictions, key information and key emotional beats were excluded. (The Comedian does not cast the shadow over the whole story like he does in the book, and that was disappointing.) Even in a three-hour movie, this film never felt like “Watchmen.” Had Zak Snyder taken this cast and made a mini-series out of it that could have probably been to remember. I feel Zak understands “Watchmen” but it never completely showed with his movie and I think he could have done better with a mini-series. There is probably a good reason why “Game of Thrones” is a television series and not a movie franchise, sometimes stories are so dense with story and detail that a three-hour movie doesn’t do them justice. I firmly believe that is the case with “Watchmen.”

Still, I believe “Watchmen” is still worth a look. I may warn how Zak could not fully translate this story to movie-form, but there is still so much he got right. The story is still vastly different from the average superhero movie and how the drama and performances affect you will be surprising. I still think the movie is an important milestone to how the superhero genre ended up where it is today, so for that, give this movie a look if you like the superhero genre at all. I think you’ll at least appreciate what Zak Snyder and company did with the classic comic book.

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