- 2009 Film Review - Watchmen
- April 1,
- By Eric M. Scharf
- I have been a comic book fan for
years, particularly of those books that successfully marry quality
visuals and robust story-telling, filled with one gut-wrenching
irony after another, where vulnerability and humanity are always
right on the heals of the impossible and the unimaginable.
I have been waiting for just as many years to see the film industry
finally develop the nerve, or be convinced of the financial
incentive, to begin bringing many of those grittier, more mature,
comic book-derived themes to the silver screen.
The transformation I speak of began the moment the Green Goblin cut
Peter Parker’s forearm in “Spider-Man” in 2002 . . . showing fans
everywhere that superheroes are human and affected like everyone
“Batman Begins” arrived in 2005, reintroducing Bruce Wayne to
society, both new and familiar. We see him struggle to come to grips
with his own mortal limitations in being unable to protect those
closest to him, even with all of his inherited financial might. He
discovers his ultimate solution, however, on his way down a
destructive and terminal path, which allows him to combine his
formidable fighting skills and material resources while requiring
only one small thing of him: become more than human without becoming
inhuman. Can he maintain enough clarity to remember where to draw
the line between being a vigilante hero for the people and becoming
the very villain(s) he has sworn to stop? How dark will he become?
The “Dark Knight,” indeed.
“300” bludgeoned its way into our lives in 2006, taking grit to an
entirely new level and creating a potential new wave of history
teachers, even if the history portrayed in this film was admittedly
enhanced for our pleasure. The mere existence of this film alone,
with all of its bare feet and bloody battles, has me convinced that
I will be none-the-poorer if I never see another bogus horror film
And the term “graphic novel” will never again simply be defined as a
double-sized, higher-priced extension of good ole’ fashioned comic
books. Everything about a graphic novel, from size to price to
quality of paper, illustration, shading, and ink colors to depth of
visual and story content, is and will continue to be different and
Other comic book-based films, such as Iron Man in 2007, have taken a
milder, more sterile approach in adding to the film industry’s
“personal growth” experience. And, to be clear, not all comic
book-to-film adaptations need to be or should be battle royals. The
more variety there is in film adaptations, to match the variety of
their comic book source material, the better. I simply wish to watch
one of these adaptations and leave the theater believing that these
stories, events, and characters are possible and even real,
especially in the case of a human dressed as a costumed crime fighter. And who
among the millions of comic book fans would not wish for the same
No such film, however, has gone for the gusto in the same way as has
been achieved by Watchmen. There was plenty of incentive to see this
film, and considering the same director who helmed 300, Zack Snyder,
was steering this ship, there was additional intrigue to see if Mr.
Snyder would, again, push the envelope or be asked to back down by
film execs, fearful of an always-possible public backlash for
another R-rated graphic novel adaptation.
- After all, there is always
someone “out there” who will be screaming “Is it not enough that we
know good ole’ Dagwood likes big sandwiches? Do we really want to
know the kind of mammoth meat contained in his sandwiches, too?”
Why, yes, we do.
- I had never more than skimmed the 12 comic book 1986-1987 Watchmen
mini-series, for all of my professed comic book devotion, and this
deviation from my routine served a purpose, allowing me to view the
film with a clear and open mind, devoid of pre-existing standards
that haunt everyone who decided to turn its many pages.
Before I delve into the film’s story (or, in the case of Watchmen,
group psychological evaluation), I will state that the visual
quality is top notch, delivering a satisfyingly immersive
experience, with characters you can reach out and grab, grimy
surfaces you can touch, blood, sweat, and tears you can feel, jet
fuel and bad breath you can smell, and gritty, emotionally-charged
voices you can hear.
I also appreciate the mix of slick-modern superhero costumes and
trench-level “get it done” outfits. Some heroes need to look the
part while others just look at you and say, “Bring it on.” I also
enjoyed the brief appearance of Ozymandias’s genetically-engineered pet lynx, Bubastis (and,
if it was a Ferengi from Star Trek, someone would have said “Nice
- My only visual reservation is with how Dr. Manhattan is “rendered”
in 3d. While I can genuinely appreciate how hard it is to generate a
photo-realistic 3d character that is illuminated like a blue
fluorescent light bulb, the approach being utilized actually
diminishes some of the natural depth-creating shadows and contours
that make a 3d character believable within an environment. An effect
as subtle as this one can be the missing link between a 3d character
completely fitting in with other real actors, and standing out like
a sore thumb.
- While it appears a real actor is being used in a few close
shots, the intense blue glow effect has literally been turned off,
thus, working in reverse to disconnect a well-embedded character from everything else in the scene
due to the missing effect. My comments may be ticky-tacky, but whether you are standing
in a room next to a pink elephant or a glowing blue man, in this day
and age with such powerful visual technology and big film budgets, you want to believe it is real,
and you expect to see rather convincing proof. Now,
let the story profiling begin.
- The story takes place in an alternate universe, in 1985, where the
United States is still embroiled in the Cold War with U.S.S.R.,
Nixon is still President of the U.S., and, with term limits
abolished in part due to his success in Vietnam, he is on his fifth
term in office. Tensions are as high as most Americans can remember,
the doomsday clock is set at five minutes to midnight . . . and
nowhere in sight is the statement “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this
- Vigilante superheroes, in the flashback lead-up to 1985, happened on
the scene and grew in prominence from 1940 through 1960, culminating
in their much-needed participation in the U.S. winning the Vietnam
War. Soon after, the superheroes learn that, unless they are willing
to work for the U.S. government, they will effectively be legislated
into retirement through the Keene Act. War-time appreciation, when
it exists, certainly has its limits.
The core plot is established in the midst of this retirement, when
an established super hero-turned-U.S.-government-mercenary, called
the Comedian, is brutally murdered. He puts up a valiant fight, but
he is overmatched and tossed through the plate-glass window of his
own high rise apartment, leaving a mess on the street below . . .
along with one of his patented smiley face pins, stained with his
own blood, tormenting his colleagues one final time.
- The Comedian, as we come to understand him, is far less a literal
comedian (with whom his colleagues can laugh at the expense of a
common enemy) and far more a complete jackass who, with his
Punisher-like combat skills, always seems to go two steps further
than his government-issued orders, and who mercilessly hee-haw’s at
the misery his actions cause. He has no hero complex, he goes
to work with a smile on his face, and he does not take kindly to anyone
expecting him to take responsibility for his actions.
- Nonetheless, torment turns to paranoia as the entire team of former
Watchmen are now worried about their own safety, even hidden away in
retirement, with the most incorruptible and relentless of them all,
Rorschach, leading the search for truth and justice. And it is
only fitting for the most strong-willed of "The Bad News Bears" to make his
triumphant return to the silver screen as the equally-willful and
- The film adaptation of one of the most celebrated graphic novels of
all time, at this point, is already drowning in grit, keeping the
pedal to the metal for the duration, with the not so subtle reminder
that time waits for no one and no good or bad deed goes unpunished.
Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop
and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
The further Rorschach digs, the clearer the murderous trail becomes,
the faster each event unfolds, and the more on-edge the vigilante
heroes and film-goers alike become. The sad irony is that, while
they are determined to find the answer for their fallen comrade and
obligated to protect themselves from the very same fate, the closer
the heroes get towards the source of their troubles, the closer they
get towards questioning and even condemning themselves and their own
Further complicating the need for closure by the remaining Watchmen
is that each of them is struggling with their place in society and
humanity. Being superhuman makes you more human than human but only
with the burden of responsibility that comes with extraordinary
skills and amazing powers, which indirectly expose you to more human
These frailties force the Watchmen to lead their lives in near
complete isolation, either through intolerance of lesser human
beings, or their inability to properly manager their own special
gifts, or their fear of losing those close to them due to their long
list of enemies. The Watchmen have only each other to relate to and
rely on in a world evidently not so richly endowed with super
heroes. Each of them is desperate, in their own way, to grab onto
something that is more than just their now-fragmented team, to
belong to something that represents more than just an association of
oddballs, and hold on for dear life (which is the common thread that
weaves together most superhero stories).
And their government-enforced retirement has, essentially, displaced
all of them, creating an internalized powder keg that grows by the
The Comedian, being a government-sponsored hero, is not restricted
by the retirement rule, but he contributes to his teammates’
difficulties early and often, far in advance of his death. He
follows his orders with such single-minded yet reckless focus that,
by the time he finally came to grips with what he has “accomplished”
on his missions, it is too much for him to digest all at once,
causing him to crack and causing his government handlers to
mercilessly “recall” him in the same way he heckled his targets and
teammates alike so many times before. Live hard and die hard.
Rorschach, on the other hand, has never been empowered by
opportunities to fight crime, whether as a government-approved
superhero or as a vigilante. Rather, he has been energized by his
all-consuming view of humanity as moral or immoral, black or white,
with no interest in acknowledging the circumstantial gray space that
exists in-between. And, it appears the life event that pushes
Rorschach completely over the edge is the one where he proves unable
to reach the kidnapped little girl from being dismembered by her
captor, though you could argue that his quality upbringing was first
in line for that honor.
It is ironic that Rorschach’s unique view of humanity is the single
greatest obstacle to his mission of cleansing the world of
immorality. The perfection, purity, and complete innocence he
insists on seeing from people, does not exist in a form that would
satisfy his definition (especially in our reality). If Rorschach
allowed himself to see that his cleansing mission would take him
well beyond his daily quota of “one street corner at a time,” he
would beg to be put out of his misery at that very moment. I refer
to such a moment a little later.
Rorschach’s perspective on humanity makes for an odd-if-intriguing
pairing with Nite Owl. They both prefer to, first, investigate the
scene, but that is where the similarities end. They appear to accept
each other without much precondition, and, without verbal
acknowledgement, they agree to disagree on how to best approach the
very people they have vowed to protect from evil. Sledge hammer and
hunting knife. Rorschach and Nite Owl.
- Nite Owl’s situation, for all of his complex technology, is the
simplest but no-less frustrating. Outside of his technological nest
(whether tinkering under his two-flat or in taking to the night sky
in his aircraft), he is the capable but reluctant warrior who is
completely uncomfortable in his own feathers-and-beak. It is as if
his superior hand-to-hand combat skills count for nothing if he
cannot involve the tech as well. And he has a defensive mentality,
which explains why Nite Owl seems content to allow Rorschach to be
the work horse, while he is more of the diagnose-and-react hero.
- Nonetheless, even with Rorschach breathing down his neck to help
solve the Comedian murder for the greater good of the team, it took
his jump-started relationship with Silk Specter to give him the
confidence and the urge to finally break out of his rather impotent
daily routine, succumb to his burning desire to resume the role of Nite Owl, and attempt to make a difference alongside his fellow
- Silk Specter is the one hero who reminds me of a child who is quite
literally shoved down a specific career path by their parents even
though that child may never have been interested or had any desire
to pursue it. Silk Specter’s mother was determined to see her
daughter follow in her crime-fighting footsteps. She certainly has
the same refined-and-deadly fighting skills to put the bad guys in
their place, and she looks good doing it, too.
- Silk Specter's mother, however,
operated as a crime fighter during a time period when liberal women
were still not a welcomed part of society. Her mother, in her own
way, empowered women everywhere to believe in the possibility that
they could stand up for themselves, accomplishing more than just the
status quo of the time.
- Laurie Juspeczyk, the second Silk Specter, may be
related to Sally by blood, but she does not share the same
historical crime fighting connection or the same representative
weight of women’s lib. Consider that, when the Keene Act forced
retirement on all costumed vigilantes, if it is not for the fact
that she is Dr. Manhattan’s love interest, then, without any spark
with Nite Owl, and with no true relationship with her estranged
mother, she is potentially out on the street. She is quite literally
the Watchmen’s mutt.
Add to this her perception that Dr. Manhattan, the love of her life,
is quickly losing his humanity and, in turn, any desire to spend the
rest of it with Silk Specter, and she really is alone in the world.
Until Silk Specter hooks up with Nite Owl, even just to commiserate,
there is an element of “all dressed up and nowhere to go” to her
Never to be confused with Dr. Detroit, what does the most
brilliant-and-powerful entity known to humankind do to remain
interested in Earth and its inhabitants? Does it matter that Dr.
Manhattan spends half of the film transporting around town without a
loin cloth? If you ask him which he prefers – boxers or briefs – you
might discover that, when you wield as much infinite power as he
does, the material needs of humanity (clothing, shelter, and
transportation) no longer have any meaning.
- The end of his relationship with humanity begins the very moment
scientist Jon Osterman is transformed into Dr. Manhattan, by way of
being trapped within an “Intrinsic Field Subtractor,” within the
army base where he and his colleagues perform their nuclear physics
work. The film depicts his body being disintegrated on the spot,
without a trace. Time passes, people grieve, and, then, suddenly,
various elements of his body begin reappearing as if lighting strike
hallucinations, and with each strike, more elements compose
themselves and come together, until, finally, he is whole once more.
A “traditional” comic book story would have the audience believe all
is well after such a mind-bending experience; that our subject has
transformed from a slow-moving caterpillar into a wind-swept
butterfly without so much as cough or a sneeze. The experience of
being a human being is still very fresh in Osterman’s mind.
- The idea
that Osterman does not run off, insanely, into the wild fluorescent
blue yonder is both impressive and unexplainable (Snyder was wise to
avoid such a potential scene). Osterman’s assumed and understandable
confusion also speaks volumes as to how utterly distracting it must
be to suddenly be able to see both his future and his past, as well
as view the universe and its ingredients on any level he can
imagine, all at once.
- Osterman succumbs to the “welcoming arms” of the Department of
Defense, assuming his desire to blunt his own confusion and receive
guidance on how to handle his new-and-terrifying abilities. All the
DOD asks for in return is his willingness to help his countrymen in
times of war, to further their weapons development efforts, and to
give them his “naming rights,” and he is thusly named Dr. Manhattan.
It is clear, however, that Dr. Manhattan does not take long to grasp
the full range of his incredible powers, and the achieved control
that follows this knowledge invokes the ultimate responsibility of
which I spoke earlier. He can be oblivious or of determined purpose
to humanity, he can be good or evil to a race of beings that now
reside on a completely different plane of existence.
- This concept
conjures memories of Galactus, the Beyonder, Thanos, Darkseid, and
the Watcher: all incredibly powerful comic book entities, on an
intergalactic scale, and each with a different approach to using and
maintaining their special powers . . . whether or not that involves
synthesizing planetoids for consumption, toying with the lives of
simple beings, wreaking impossible havoc, causing merciless death,
or being a docile observer of the universe sworn against
- And like his cosmic counterparts, Dr. Manhattan, too,
ultimately needs to be isolated from humanity in order to truly
live. Who would have thought that when you get too big for your own
britches, you end up having to leave your home world behind . . .
rather than just purchasing a larger pair of pants?
Long before Dr. Manhattan determines, however, that he no longer has
a place among the human race, he has a number of opportunities to
halt questionable or even horrific actions by both his teammates and
his government, and, yet, he chooses not to involve himself. This is
simultaneously unconscionable and understandable.
- And for all
of his immense power, how can anyone accuse Dr. Manhattan of being
cold, selfish, or irresponsible in the face of an inhuman act when
he, himself, is enduring an ever-increasing struggle to maintain
what is left of his humanity? He knows right from wrong, and he
knows he can make the biggest difference in a safer future for
humankind. He knows the U.S. and Russia are on the bleeding edge,
and, yet, as Ozymandias says, “Not even Dr. Manhattan can be
everywhere at once.”
- Ozymandias is the one Watchman who has no need to close-off his life
or hide his true identity, as Adrian Veidt, from the public.
Ozymandias has made an incredible business and financial empire for
himself, generating exponential insulation from almost anyone on the
planet, public or private. Ozymandias has absolutely nothing to
loose, while his colleagues continue to watch their backs even in
There is still one thing that vexes the great Ozymandias, even with
his freedom from the anti-vigilante rat race. What does the most
brilliant human mind on Earth do to scratch an incredibly irritating
itch? He provides two national super powers with an “unbelievably
convincing incentive” to establish world peace . . . by using
devastation seen only in a nuclear holocaust.
He used Dr. Manhattan’s inner-struggle to belong, and his very
existence, as the perfect alibi to do the unthinkable in destroying
the east coast of the U.S., because, in the end Dr. Manhattan proved
to be three very important things: impervious to any of modern man’s
weaponry, unfeeling in the face of any unbridled fury aimed at him
by humanity, and, by film’s end, completely disinterested in
- Ozymandias’s choice, however, leaves those few who would have
followed his lead, those few who now know the truth, in a position
where they can never trust him again. Ozymandias has degenerated
himself from being the most brilliant human on Earth to a person
terminally desperate to find the ultimate peace-brokering solution.
He determines there is no better choice than to ruin the good name
of the most brilliant, powerful, and docile being known to humanity
in the galaxy, encouraging the world to believe that Dr. Manhattan
has murdered millions of his own countrymen in a fit of rage (as a
cover for another blast from the “Intrinsic Field Subtractor”), just
so that the threat of nuclear war could potentially be stopped
It is truly sad that such a brilliant mind succumbed to the very
brutal ironies I mention at the top of this review. Ozymandias wants
to save humanity from the potential of total annihilation, taking
measures that would only exist within the nuclear holocaust he seeks
to prevent, and, yet, he is performing this act for a society he
Consider that Ozymandias has also come to this deadly conclusion to
excuse himself for failing to find a peaceful solution to bringing
humanity together. He must feel as limited and helpless as his
normal human counterparts he despises. Then, again, with Dr.
Manhattan’s exit, Ozymandias ensures that he will never be
challenged by a superior intellect or higher authority again . . .
even though it never appears to be his intention.
Through the irony of all ironies, Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias
deserve each other. Ozymandias uses tachyon radiation to block Dr.
Manhattan’s visions of the future (his only weakness), and, yet, we
have no way of knowing whether or not Dr. Manhattan had already seen
the future before his visions were blocked. Thus, Dr. Manhattan
could have, should have, but only might have stopped Ozymandias from
making his devastating decision.
- Dr. Manhattan could have also
directly or indirectly prevented the Comedian’s death, and, by doing
so, Dr. Manhattan could have also prevented his own final act on
Earth from being the mercy killing of Rorschach . . . who felt
totally betrayed when the brightest, most responsible human he knew,
in Ozymandias, could no
longer maintain his righteous separation from the abysmal humanity
both of them loathed, and in which Dr. Manhattan no longer had any
Superheroes, regardless of how powerful, always seem to be faced
with the challenge of being more human than human without becoming
inhuman. The Watchmen are doomed to self-destruction from the
beginning, leading to inhumanity in the end, but this is not because
they did not try mightily to avoid such a result.
Some filmgoers were anticipating “a superhero film for the sake of
superheroes,” and Watchmen is not that kind of film. Other filmgoers
wanted to see a film that properly honored the material on display
in Alan Moore’s 12-book mini-series, and I say to you, “Good luck
with that in a near 3-hour time span.” Still others were looking for
a healthy mix of both as firmly planted in reality as possible. Just
like viewing a Rorschach, everyone sees something different, and, in
the case of Watchmen, everyone wanted to see something different.
Right or wrong, good or bad, fair or unfair, filmgoers should steel
themselves for even more comic book adaptations that involve a
marriage of two former foes: superhero wonderment and a real life