Movie Review: Watchmen (2009)
It’s the day after I’ve seen Watchmen. I’ve waited just over 10 years to see this movie. Ever since I first picked up the book, I’ve wanted to see what it would look like on the screen. Like many, I was fearful that it was impossible. That anyone who tried would be doomed to failure. The trailers for Zack Snyder’s epic brought new hope. Here was a man who appeared to get it. The expectations began to rise. If this was good, then there would be much rejoicing. If it was a tragedy? There would be blood. Oh yes, there would be blood.
So it’s the next day. Am I ecstatic or are my hands stained with human bean juice? Well, actually neither.
The world of Watchmen is a world where men and women donned masks in the 40’s to fight crime and a science accident in the 50’s turned one man into a superman. These changes have had a significant impact on politics, culture and science. It’s 1985 and the world is on the brink of nuclear war. People are uneasy and unsure of the future. Amongst this backdrop, a masked vigilante is killed.
Watchmen begins as a murder mystery involving costumed heroes. But by the end of the movie it is so much more. It explores the nature of heroism. It pulls apart the psyche of the “superhero”. And it asks the question “What would you do to save the world?” There are many layers to Watchmen.If you’re going in expecting a straight up beat-’em-up involving guys in costumes, you’re either going to be very disappointed, or you are about to have your brain exploded. This is not your typical block buster action movie. While it has the visual trappings of an expensive superhero movie, at times it feels like an art-house film with intricate character moments and inner monologues. The very subdued colour palettecontributes to this. The use of colour produces a tone that is somber and serious. The filmakers want us to focus on the characters and the plot, not to be bedazzled by bright lights.
This movie is rated MA. In Australia, that means you can’t go see it unless you are over 15 or you have a parent watching it with you. The thing that gets me is that it doesn’t need to be MA. It could easily be M. There are some scenes of over the top violence, with very gory imagery. There are some sex scenes. And there is full frontal male nudity. All of these could be down played or removed without ruining the story. And the argument that these scenes are there to honour the original are nonsense. For example: one of the most brutal fight scenes involves Dan (aka Nite Owl) and Laurie (aka Silk Spectre) beating up some would be muggers. Bones are broken, heads are snapped, necks are stabbed. It is very much an MA rated fight scene. However, none of these over the top moments are in the book. They were added and amplified.
A similar case is found with the nudity. In the book, Jon (Doctor Manhattan) is mostly seen sans clothes. It is an important part of his character. But it is meaningless unless you get the gradual removal of clothing seen in the book. Jon starts out fully clothed at the start of his hero career. As he becomes more and more detached from humanity, he wears gradually less and less until, in 1985, he is mostly naked. We don’t get this progression in the movie. In the past he’s wearing speedos and in the present he’s naked. Without the thematic stripping away of his humanity, what we are left with is gratuitous blue penis. I can name many more examples, but I think you get the point. This movie has earned its MA rating. Which is a shame because it didn’t need to be that way.
The biggest issue about the movie, which has left me feeling ambivalent about Watchmen, is that the ending didn’t work for me. And I’m not talking about the changes they made to the master-mind’s plan. For me, when the catastrophic events occurred, I found myself feeling nothing. It just happened. It didn’t mean anything to me. ***Potential spoilers*** When millions of lives are lost, it had no significance. We see New York destroyed and it didn’t mean a thing. After the first half hour or so in the movie, we spend so much time with the main characters, that we don’t even see much of New York. If we had only got to know the city as a character, met the civilians that lived there, patrolled its streets, got to know the place, the ending would have a much greater impact. At the start of the movie, we get a montage of how this world was different. We saw Silk Spectre replacing Betty Page on WWII planes. We saw Doctor Manhattan shaking hands with JFK. We saw Andy Warhol painting Nite Owl. We saw Ozymandias out the front of Studio 54. We got the feeling that this was a real world. That these heroes had made an impact. I just wish that the filmmakers had not dropped this ball and made me care as much about this world at the end of the movie as I did at the start.
There are two main themes of this movie that I feel are worth exploring. The first is that of heroism. What makes a hero? Does putting on a mask and fighting criminals make you a hero? Or does it make you one of the bad guys. The more I think about Watchmenthe more I believe that none of the men and women who put on costumes in this movie are heroes. They break the law to fight criminals. It is illegal to be a vigilante. Either they don’t submit to those in authority over them, or if they do, they commit great acts of violence. Those who say they are acting for the greater good turn out to be monsters inside (this applies to more than one of the characters). These are not men and women to be looking up to. As Christians, who are we to look up to? Who are we to emulate? Who are the real heroes in this world? For me, the great heroes are those who lead by example. Who show us how to live a life worthy of God, even if it means great difficulty or persecution. Those who preach God’s word and who do not compromise when it comes to worldliness. The “heroes” of Watchmen don’t even come close.
The second theme is that of truth. What is the price that needs to be paid for saving the world? Ultimately, there are many prices to be paid. And one of them is truth. At the end of the day truth is slaughtered for “the greater good”. Pragmatism is more important than truth. Which is not surprising when you consider that the movie is about people who conceal their true identities. On the other hand, as Christians, we believe that we are to be people of truth. Our actions are to be godly and open. The ends never justifies the means, as the means is every bit as important as the ends.
More explicit than other superhero movies is the idea that the world is never permanently saved. As Laurie says “Nothing ends. Nothing ever ends.” The day may be saved, but it will need saving again tomorrow. There is a corruption in the heart of mankind that leads towards disaster. You can fix the symptoms, but at the end of the day, what needs fixing is the human heart. What we need is a real saviour. Rorschach can’t save you. Doctor Manhattan can’t save you. Only Jesus can save you. His death and resurrection have saved us from sin. Jesus is the only “hero” worth following.
So, after all that, what did I think about the movie? I think I liked it. I’m not sure if that’s because I love the book or because its a good film. But it is a visually stunning film. It does make you think. And I never once looked at my watch to see how long I had til the end. If you’re under 15 or you think the violence, nudity and sex will be too much, then don’t watch this movie. If you want an intelligent, visually different, action movie, then give Watchmen a shot. I will definitely be getting the extended director’s cut on DVD when it comes out. And I’m thinking this is one of those movies that I will come to love more and more each time I watch it.