Film review: Watchmen
(18) Director: Zack Snyder Running time: 163 minutes ***
THE Roman poet Juvenal centuries ago asked: "Who watches the watchmen?" It was his way of asking who controls those in authority, but some may find it hard to tear their eyes away from Dr Manhattan, the big naked blue guy in Watchmen, whose uncovered, perfectly cylindrical CGI phallus dangles over the Vietcong like the world's biggest tube of Smarties.
Written by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in 1986-87, Watchmen is considered a classic, perhaps even the best comic book ever made about deeply flawed caped crusaders. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the graphic novel, the film's opening montage establishes their bright origins in the Forties, and their influence on major historical events, with one character pulling the trigger the day JFK died in Dallas. Thanks to the Watchmen, America wins the Vietnam war, so that by 1985 Nixon is still president, cars are electric and zeppelins float around the sky.
Why 1985? That's when the comic book ended and development of a film bounced around for two decades. Forsaken film adaptations include versions from directors Terry Gilliam (Brazil), Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) and screenwriter David Hayter (X-Men), who applied all manner of upgrades and filters to resolve the problem of compressing a dense, sexy, remorselessly violent satirical thriller. Joaquin Phoenix and Arnold Schwarzenegger were both considered for the role of the godlike Dr Manhattan, casting choices on a par with casting either Hilary Swank or Sharon Stone in Driving Miss Daisy.
Watchmen is almost three hours of Cold War jitters, bloody murder mystery and allegorical gloom. There's a rape, children are murdered and eaten by dogs, pregnant women are shot and several amputations are performed.
To add to the atmosphere of nocturnal decline, the remaining heroes are being bumped off one by one, starting with a corrupt thuggish killing machine called The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose bloody smiley-face badge is one of Watchmen's many densely coded visual motifs. As they trace the killings to Antarctica, the film is punctuated with interludes that give the background to each character, such as "the world's smartest man" Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who heads an entertainment empire; the atomically charged Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), whose vast powers are America's chief means of national defence; paunchy, gadget-loving Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), along with the mentally unbalanced Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), who mutters, wears a strange mask with a morphing inkblot and is viewed as a nutter even by his costumed peers.
The strengths of the film are the strengths of Alan Moore: ingenious, psychologically resonant stories full of breathtaking images and set pieces. Watchmen isn't an empty husk like The Spirit or a cinderblock piece of myth-making like Dark Knight. The character flaws extend to erectile dysfunction for one superhero; when it turns out that he just needs to beat someone up beforehand, Watchmen shows him conquering his problem to the tune of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'.
Still, you can't help noticing that all this superhero revisionism doesn't appear to extend to the female crusaders, who are kitted out in form-fitting bustiers and suspenders. There's a joke about chicks in spandex in the film but it does nothing to solve the problem facing Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), who fights a bit but spends much more time fretting about her boyfriend's emotional remoteness or standing around like a babe in a nuclear Robert Palmer video.
Watchmen is pretty good, and certainly superior to many other graphic novel adaptations in scope and ambition. Even if you are not well versed in Watchmen lore (I wasn't), you will still linger over what you have seen long after you've left the cinema – especially since the violence and nudity seem even more forcefully presented than in Gibbons' artwork. This smacks of bread and circuses but you may fret more about Dr Manhattan: a man who solves the mysteries of the universe while simultaneously making love to his girlfriend in three different forms, yet can't find his underpants.
On general release from Friday
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