Warner Bros. // 2009 // 325 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 3rd, 2009
The graphic novel comes to life page by page.
First of all, let it be known that I am a fan of Alan Moore's groundbreaking graphic novel Watchmen. Though I do not necessarily subscribe to the belief that the book represents, "the greatest graphic novel of all time," I nonetheless find it a very rich and rewarding reading experience. Watchmen takes place in an alternate version of the mid-1980s. The U.S. fared considerably better in the Vietnam war, and Richard Nixon is in the middle of his fifth term as President. This "alternate history" seemingly began during the 1930s and 1940s, when the concept of "masked vigilantes" became exceptionally popular. Some people started dressing up and fighting crime, taking on names like The Comedian, The Silk Spectre, and Nite Owl.
Things changed considerably in the 1950s, when a horrible accident in a government laboratory turned scientist Jon Osterman into some sort of radioactive being with remarkable superpowers. Suddenly the notion of superheroes became very real, and Osterman's seemingly limitless powers began to change the world. After a couple of decades, the ordinary masked heroes seemed obsolete at best and dangerous at worst. A bill was passed in 1977 banning all superheroes other than Osterman (now going by the name Dr. Manhattan) and The Comedian. Modern heroes like Dan Dreiberg (the second Nite Owl) and Laurie Jupiter (the second Silk Spectre) faded quietly into retirement, but one man refused to put aside his vigilante behavior.
The man was Rorschach, a murderous and ferociously intelligent masked man intent on punishing the guilty. For years, his name struck terror throughout the criminal underworld. Rorschach continues to operate in the shadows, eluding both law enforcement and criminals. In 1985, something unexpected happens. The Comedian is murdered. The Comedian was a violent and vile man, but Rorschach idolized him. He determines to find the person responsible for the Comedian's sudden death. Rorschach quickly realizes that someone is attempting to kill all the masked heroes. Within a matter of days, several people are dead, Dr. Manhattan has fled Earth, and world leaders grow increasingly paranoid. Who is pulling the strings, and what sort of diabolical plot are they planning to unleash?
If you've read Watchmen, you're well aware that my plot description is oversimplified, failing to capture the full scope of the story. Giving you a detailed description of what the story is about would take nearly as long as simply telling you the story, due to the extraordinary density of ideas and concepts packed in Alan Moore's groundbreaking graphic novel. The thing many people remember about Watchmen is that it ponders what it would be like if superheroes existed in the real world. True, but that oft-imitated achievement (Watchmen practically defined the exasperatingly "gritty and realistic" tone of comic books throughout the 1990s) is hardly Watchmen's only significant virtue. Moore also ponders some genuinely challenging philosophical and moral questions here, and gives us complex characters that refuse to be confined to the sort of stereotypical "unique ability + basic personality type" descriptions that define far too many comic book heroes.
My purpose in this particular review is not to review Watchmen itself. I think that most of us agree that Watchmen is, at the very least, a compelling and worthwhile read. My purpose is to review Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic, which makes an attempt to quite literally place the work of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons on the screen. You may be wondering, "What on earth is a motion comic?" Permit me to explain.
The "motion comic" is a concept that has just been introduced by the folks at Warner Bros. and DC Comics. Essentially, the images from each comic book panel are placed upon the screen. These images are replicas of the original drawings, but here they are slightly animated. Characters shift, move their arms and legs, light cigarettes, and walk across a room. Rain or snow may fall in the background. However, mouths do not move, as the "word bubbles" from the comics are also kept intact. The words are read by a narrator (in this case it's professional audiobook narrator Tom Stechschulte) much in the same way that one reads an audiobook (one person doing different voices for each character). There are also sound effects and an original score to enhance the experience. It's a comic book that does all the work for you! For their first go-round, Warner and DC chose Watchmen, a sure-fire seller if ever there was one (the graphic novel remains DC's best-selling product over 20 years after it's original release).
The experiment is not a complete failure, but I must say that I found it rather disappointing. Just a couple of months prior to watching this DVD set, I pulled out my lavish "Absolute Edition" of Watchmen and gave it another read in anticipation of seeing Zack Snyder's cinematic version. While actually reading the graphic novel has always been an immensely absorbing experience, watching this motion comic was just a little bit dull. The strength of the story ensures that the viewing experience is at least mildly engaging, but the basic idea has several obstacles built in that are a little challenging to overcome.
The first (and most distracting) problem is the narration. Stechschulte is good at what he does, and if he were reading some sort of Watchmen audiobook, I would have no problem with his work here. When he's doing Rorschach or Dr. Manhattan, Stechschulte is great. However, his attempt to voice female characters seems just plain weird when juxtaposed with images of Silk Spectre. I think the whole "motion comic" idea would work slightly better if they had an actual voice cast instead of a single narrator. There are also portions of the book that don't translate very well to being read outloud...Rorschach's "hurm" noises for instance, or the dialogue scenes that are interspersed with portions of a pirate comic. Diehard fans of Watchmen may also be alarmed to discover that the text portions that appeared at the end of each chapter have been snipped completely. Also, Dave Gibbon's excellent artwork seems to veer between richly detailed and very sloppy in this translation due to the way this motion comic occasionally zooms in on tiny things that were only meant to be seen as squiggles in the background.
The transfer is mostly quite strong, with rich colors and deep blacks. I know that this motion comic has also been released on Blu-ray, but I can't imagine that it would look considerably better in hi-def. I will say that Dr. Manhattan always seems to be a bit grainy, which may or may not be an artistic choice of some sort. The audio is pretty solid, though the score and sound effects are generally very suppressed in deference to Stechschulte's narration. The only extra on the disc is a 10-minute preview of the upcoming Wonder Woman animated movie (which looks pretty cool, by the way).
If you've read Watchmen, you'll find this motion comic an intriguing but ultimately inferior way to experience the story. If you haven't read Watchmen, you may be a bit more pleased with the overall result (my wife had never read the book, and she found the whole experience very compelling). Still, I would say that if you haven't read Watchmen, you should probably just read Watchmen. Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic isn't a terrible viewing experience, but it simply fails to provide any justification for its existence.
Note: This DVD set is not rated, but it should be noted that Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic contains rather graphic violence and a considerable chunk of nudity.
Review content copyright © 2009 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 325 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated