This is what it might have been...
Thirty years of comic book evolution in one year of superhero films. Unbelievable.
In the 1960s, Stan Lee decided to take the ridiculous idea of superheroes and try to give them a little more veracity by having them live in real places, like New York, and deal with real problems, like having to pay rent or getting the flu. Last spring IRON MAN was perhaps the perfect cinema translation of that idea. It was fun and funny and had just enough veracity to keep you from being reminded every minute that it was patently impossible.
In the 1970s, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams upped the ante on realism by making superheroes deal with the limitations of the actual world. They turned Batman from a campy joke into a criminologist, gymnast, and marshal artist. They had two second tier heroes, Green Lantern and Green Arrow, deal with problems like race relations, Native American angst, Appalachian poverty, women's issues, and overpopulation. Believable politics and social situations entered the world of superheroes for the first time. Last summer THE DARK KNIGHT showed us that a man might dress up in a costume and fight for justice and it was so layered with psychology, sociology, politics, and terrorism that it never occurred to you that this man wasn’t affected by the world around him.
In the 1980s, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons finally wrote an actual novel in comic book form that centered around superheroes. Not only did they interact realistically with a realistic world, they had all the complexity of characters in a novel- moral ambiguity, self-deception, motivations such as lust, hunger for power, greed, cynicism, obsession. These superheroes were anything but paragons of virtue. They were the kind of people who were screwed up and egomaniacal enough to think that they should change the world to suit themselves. Or they were just sadists. Or they were just crazy. And the world they populated was just as complex, with societal decay, threats of nuclear war, government interference, and popular opinion all affecting their self endowed missions. In addition to these important pieces of verisimilitude, the novel had complex structure, layered narratives, allegory and metaphor, and not a small amount of science fiction. It was widely considered the best superhero comic book ever made. It’s still widely considered the best superhero comic ever made over twenty years later.
And in the late winter of 2009 the cinematic adaptation of WATCHMEN hit theaters. Unlike IRON MAN and THE DARK KNIGHT, this movie is a straight adaptation. And considering the place the source material holds in the history of the genre it is perhaps one of the most literal adaptations of a book into a film ever made by Hollywood.
And it may be the best superhero movie ever made.
Zach Snyder has followed his last comic book movie, the literal adaptation of Frank Miller’s superficial and stylized 300, with a film noir with superheroes in it. The movie is complex, sexy, exciting, cynical, and incredibly violent at times. The movie is almost three hours long and never slows down for a minute. I can only imagine how overwhelmed any viewer must feel if they expected Superman or Iron Man, or even the Dark Knight. Many of the best scenes are lifted directly from panels of the comic. Much of the best dialog is verbatim from Alan Moore’s original work.
Of course, there are going to be detractors. Some will be like this critic for The Hollywood Reporter who seems to think the movie’s financial prospects have something to do with it’s artistic accomplishment (to be sure, it seems to be The Hollywood Reporter’s editorial policy to equate artistic success with profitability). The real irony in the review is that at one point he says, “It's all very complicated but not impenetrable” apparently unaware that his review has at least a dozen mistakes in it relating to either the movie or source material. He doesn’t even get the name of the group right. This isn’t completely unexpected. Many a comic fan has given a copy of Watchmen to someone as an example of the best of the format, only to have them be completely unable to understand the complexity of the story.
The other side of the coin is the fatuous fanboys who will pick the movie apart because it isn’t their biblical interpretation of the source material. There is a legitimate complaint that the ending of the story has been changed, but even the author has said that the original ending was weak and, while I won’t give anything away, the new conclusion is logical and flows from the story. In fact, for fans of the original story it may be the only point of suspense in the whole film. Needless to say, while I loved the original graphic novel, my opinion is that anyone who thinks this isn’t a reverent and excellent adaptation is missing a real opportunity to love something that has turned a fan favorite that almost everyone agreed was unfilmable into an enjoyable and exciting cinema experience.
In addition to Snyder’s obvious reverence for the original story and art, there are several other aspects of the movie that rise to the level of excellence that even rabid fans should be able to find no fault with. Casting comes immediately to mind. There simply isn’t a discordant piece of casting or a bad performance in the bunch. In fact, the performances are amazingly spot on. I was going to wax poetic about each actor and how much they were dead ringers for their comic counterparts, but every single one is so outstanding that it would just be a laundry list. If you could cast Rock Hudson as Superman or Clint Eastwood as Batman from the Dark Knight Returns then you might approach the bulls-eye that this movie hits with every single role. The special effects are just as seamless. I can’t remember a single scene where my (admittedly obsessive-compulsively cynical) willing suspension of disbelief was challenged.
Even the music is impressive. Dylan, Hendrix, and the inspired use of an abridged version of Phillip Glass’ score for Koyaanisqatsi during the section that covers my favorite of the original twelve comic series (a look into Dr. Manhattan’s Einsteinian POV) makes the movie one of the best to use popular music since American Graffiti.
Yes, even at close to three hours there is a whole lot left out. But to call that a fault of the movie is almost on the same level of criticism as saying the movie is flawed because the characters don't have heavy black ink lines around them and that you can't see the color dots from the original printing if you look closely.
There’s nothing left to say. Comic book fans have been gifted with a remarkable adaptation of the most exceptional and complex work ever done in the genre. We should all go to our graves knowing that nothing we’ve ever done in our lives is worthy of the last year in comic cinema.
Go see this movie. Take everyone you can drag to the theater. Give it a standing ovation when the credits roll. Thank God that you were lucky enough to live to see it. Nobody thought it could be done.
UPDATE: The line from the Hollywood Reporter review that originally read " The opening murder happens to a character called the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who was once a member of a now-banished team of superheroes called the Masks." now had been corrected to " The opening murder happens to a character called the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who was once a member of a now-banished team of superheroes called the Watchmen." And the chocolate ration has been increased too!