Last summer, viewers of The Dark Knight were treated to one of the slickest and most seductive trailers ever. The music of the Smashing Pumpkins helped to sell Watchmen, adapted from the beloved graphic novel and helmed by 300 director Zac Snyder. By the time Watchmen finally arrived this weekend, it was easily the most anticipated movie so far this year. It posted 2009's strongest opening-weekend take so far (over $56 million), in spite of showings being limited by an almost three-hour running time.
The story takes place in an alternate version of the 1980's. President Richard Nixon is in his fifth term, and masked vigilantes are real, but have been outlawed. A retired superhero—The Comedian—is murdered, and the far less retiring Rorschach proceeds to investigate. He believes that “masks” are being targeted, and struggles to convince his surviving colleagues
I went in not having read the graphic novel. One of my friends who was with me summed it up best: “Whatever I was expecting, that wasn't it.”
Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: this movie is bloody. For this reason alone, it's not for everyone. There are broken bones, limbs removed with chainsaws, and multiple people reduced to gory splatters. The camera is unflinching for a lot of this. I have a pretty high threshold for such things, and it was exceeded. Any time I feel like I might as well be watching Sin City, I get kind of pissed off, just on principal.
On the other hand, there is much to enjoy. Rorschach is just a fun character, mostly because he's so ornery and so crazy. Dan Drieberg, whose alter ego is Nite Owl, is irresistably geeky. The very concept of Dr. Manhattan is fascinating. The least well-rounded character is probably Matthew Goode's Ozymandias, and he is still captivating every time he's onscreen.
I should probably not give Watchmen as much of a pass on gender stuff as I do. It fails the Bechdel test. All of the female characters end up in a sexual clinch at some point—including, by implication, a murdered child. There is a brutal almost-rape scene, where the victim fights back but still has to be saved by a man. At the same time, I have to give the movie credit for an unprecedented amount of male nudity (including frontal) in a mainstream blockbuster. I give it credit for showing that sex doesn't always work out, even when both parties want it. I also appreciate the fact that heroine, Laurie Jupiter, moves from one partner to a new one without being considered cheap or traitorous.
The story ends with one character playing the scapegoat a la The Dark Knight...only on a much grander scale. I left the theater asking myself, when did we start insisting that our superhero movies be all deep and stuff? Did Christopher Nolan start it? What happened to lighthearted fun? Remember Batman and Robin? Oh, wait—we all hated that.
It's possible that the public's taste for meaning with its masks will move in cycles, like so many other things. At all times, however, there are movies which capture the spirit of their age. Lately, they seem to have become impossibly timely. We are in the midst of a recession, with record unemployment, sub-prime mortgages defaulting, and no Dr. Manhattan to secure the Afghan border. “What happened to the American Dream?” Nite Owl asks at one point. “It came true,” replies the Comedian. If other movies—most notably Iron Man—were literally or figuratively about the Bush years, then Watchmen is a movie for this moment.