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Our reviews of Watchmen (Blu-ray) Ultimate Collector's Edition (published November 26th, 2012), Watchmen: Director's Cut (Blu-Ray) (published July 21st, 2009), and Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (published November 10th, 2009) are also available.
Who watches The Watchmen?
It took several decades, multiple false starts and more than one A-list director (including Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass) to bring the groundbreaking comic book classic Watchmen to the big screen. Ultimately, the job of realizing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' "unfilmable" book fell to 300 director Zack Snyder, a director better known for stylish visuals and visceral thrills than for nuanced storytelling.
When Watchmen finally arrived in theaters in March of 2009 after years and years of development, the reactions from both the critical and fan communities were, to put it lightly, split. Some hailed it as an audacious masterpiece, while others accused it of being a lumbering, ultra-violent and occasionally silly mess.
Now, Zack Snyder's Watchmen comes to DVD in a three-hour-plus "Director's Cut." Will it help rescue the film's reputation, or simply be seen as more of a bad thing by the haters?
Facts of the Case
It is an alternate 1985 in America. We have won the war in Vietnam and Richard Nixon has just be successfully re-elected to a fourth term in office, all thanks to the super-powered being known as Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, Big Fish), an indestructible blue man (once a scientist, changed after a freak accident) able to manipulate time and space. Dr. Manhattan is just one of The Watchmen, a team of superheroes who once fought crime in the 1970s until The Keene Act outlawed masked crime fighters, effectively retiring the team's members or sending the underground.
One night, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, P.S. I Love You) is murdered, and the costumed vigilante known as Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children) is determined to find out why and who is behind it. As he investigates the identity of the costumed-hero murderer—eventually enlisting his fellow former Watchmen Dan Dreiberg, a.k.a. The Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson, Hard Candy), The Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman, The Heartbreak Kid) and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode, Chasing Liberty)—he begins to uncover secrets about the heroes and the possible fate of the planet.
If Alan Moore's seminal work Watchmen—perhaps the most important comic book ever written—was about deconstructing the super hero comic, than director Zack Snyder's film interpretation of Watchmen is about deconstructing the super hero movie. It's there in Adrian Veidt's—a.k.a. Ozymandias—costume, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Joel Schumacher-era Batman getups. It's there in the frequent bursts of violence, more visceral and graphic than we're used to in Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four films. It's also why we get the film's most heavily-criticized sequence, a stylized love scene accompanied by Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." The scene is entirely about seeing superheroes have sex—about getting further into the personal lives of costumed heroes than any movie ever has. I defy anyone to watch the lingering shot of the second Silk Spectre's boot and tell me otherwise.
Superhero films aren't the only ones Snyder wants us to consider while taking in Watchmen. Every music cue is a needle drop from a popular song ("The Sounds of Silence," "99 Luftballons"). There are cross-textual visual references to other films as well; that's why President Nixon's war room comes directly out of Dr. Strangelove or why "Ride of the Valkyries" (straight out of Coppola's Apocalypse Now) blasts during the sequence in Vietnam. Watchmen is Zack Snyder's brilliant pop art mash-up. You're either on board with it or you're not.
It's choices like these—and they're big, brassy choices—that may make audiences question whether or not Snyder was the right director to bring Watchmen to the screen. Yes, other filmmakers may have emphasized psychology or darkness more than Snyder. They may have also not been as faithful to the source as Snyder is; many sequences in his film directly lift images from the comic. But Snyder's movie is not just a slavish adaptation (as many have accused it of being). It is its own entity, and it is alive. Yes, there are changes from the book—the action and violence have been ramped up and some of the more complex motivations have been simplified or streamlined. But such are the necessities of making a movie and, all things considered, we should be grateful and a little awed at just how much Snyder was able to keep in. Besides, the book still exists. Anyone who wants it can pick it up and read it. The film is something else, and though it retains much of what made the original comic great it has its own energy. It's a truly adult work: filled with ideas, juggling multiple characters and story lines and never condescending to its audience. For the uninitiated, it's a movie that demands to be seen more than once. Those of us familiar with the book will want to see it twice, too: once to see how it compares, and again to experience it as its own work of art.
Yes, Watchmen is art. It's sprawling and a little messy, but what it lacks in perfection it more than makes up for with balls and ambition. Under the auspices of a major studio, Zack Snyder has created a three-hour (in its director's cut form presented here), visually stunning and thematically uncompromising superhero movie for grown-ups. He and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have adapted an "unfilmable" book and retained nearly all of what matters while still making a movie that is challenging and entertaining. Though it's already divided audiences and will surely continue to divide them more on DVD, Watchmen is an important movie—simultaneously sophisticated in narrative and prone to bouts of fanboy worship. Like it or hate it, it's something special.
Much has been said about Watchmen's performances, with most of the praise going to Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach. Yes, he is that good, but he's got the showiest, most colorful character—plus, he's in really good company. Credit to Snyder for casting off the beaten path; his ensemble brings unexpected weight and depth without any movie star baggage. Billy Crudup is just about perfect as serene and unfathomably brilliant Dr. Manhattan; Patrick Wilson brings just the right notes of melancholy and longing as a has-been longing for his glory days. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, one of the only casting decisions I was against when I first heard about it, is one of the film's biggest and best surprises. His Comedian has real pathos and sadness despite being a real bastard, and Morgan makes a huge impression with a small amount of screen time (in some ways, the movie has difficulty recovering from his absence; luckily, his specter remains throughout).
The two most controversial choices, Malin Ackerman and Matthew Goode, are somewhat more problematic. I think Ackerman draws an unfair amount of heat for her performance as the second Silk Spectre; yes, she's a bit whiny and petulant, but that's her character—a woman living in the shadow of her mother, resigned to a fate she never chose. I'll agree that she gets off to a rough start, but after one or two scenes I thought she settled into the role rather well. Goode's performance as Ozymandias, the "world's smartest man," is less successful. Between the odd decision to infuse his character with some vague European accent (which in some ways works, as it sets him up as something "other," much like Dr. Manhattan) and his propensity for telegraphing too much, Goode's performance is the film's weakest. Ozymandias is probably the only role in Watchmen that might have benefitted from some movie star casting (Tom Cruise was once rumored to be circling the part, and that casting would have been inspired), and Goode just doesn't possess the weight he needs to. Thankfully, the film is able to survive. It's the rest of the Watchmen that carry the film, anyway.
This new cut of Watchmen isn't a drastically different movie, but it is a better movie. Most of the new 24 minutes are small beats—extra lines of dialogue (many directly from the comic) here and there, character moments and tags to familiar scenes. Motivations make more sense, and relationships are better explored; even a single line of dialogue, where Rorschach tells Dan Dreiberg not to kill a criminal "in front of civilians," speaks volumes about their relationship and about Rorschach's personal code. I know I'll be watching Watchmen at least once a year for a very long time, and this is the version I'll come back to. It lives and breathes more fully.
There are only two really significant additions to the "director's cut" in terms of extended pieces of new footage: the first involves Laurie being held and eventually escaping from police custody after Dr. Manhattan's exodus to Mars, and the second—and best—(SPOILER WARNING) is the murder of the original Nite Owl Hollis Mason at the hands of the Knot Tops gang. That scene, in which Hollis imagines his attackers as super-villains from his glory days of crime busting, not only finally pays off the character (who had little more than a cameo in the theatrical cut), but also gives a better sense of the chaos and doom that the city is hurtling towards. That's where Snyder's Watchmen (both the theatrical and the director's cuts) falls short; you never quite feel the burning threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the characters the same way you did in Moore's book. Without saying too much, it makes some characters' motivations muddier and the film's endgame make less sense.
Though this title alone is reason enough for me to consider upgrading to Blu-ray, Warner Bros. has does a fine job with the Watchmen director's cut DVD. The film is presented in a handsome 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer; though the image is sometimes a tad too dark and the colors aren't quite as vivid as I remember them (I'm thinking mostly of the Blue One, Dr. Manhattan), detail is generally sharp and the movie looks good. The 5.1 audio track is lively and involving, with several neat separation effects and some powerful low-end rumble when called for.
The extras on the standard definition DVD also don't quite measure up to the Blu-ray disc; overall, they're pretty spare. The film is presented alone one the first disc, leaving the supplemental material and a digital copy of the film to a second disc. The digital copy is the theatrical cut, which I guess is nice in that you'll have both versions to choose from. The main bonus feature is a 30-minute featurette called "The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics," focused entirely on the creation and release of the Watchmen books. While it's unusual how little Alan Moore's name is actually mentioned (he refused to have his name affiliated with the film), the piece is generally interesting as various cast and crew and members of the comics industry ruminate on the impact of the book.
Also included is a series of behind-the-scenes "webisodes" on the making of the movie, each running 3-4 minutes and covering a different aspect of production. The final inclusion is the music video for My Chemical Romance's cover of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row." It's a fantastic song, and its use in the movie is indicative of the overall tone Snyder is able to achieve, but the video consists of little more than the band trying to be The Sex Pistols and coming up short, as any band is destined to do.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Die-hard fans of Zack Snyder's Watchmen may want to take pause before racing out and picking up the Watchmen director's cut DVD (you should absolutely still rent it), if only because it's already been announced that the "Ultimate Edition" will be out in time for the holidays this December. The exact specs aren't official, but it will include new bonus features (like a commentary by Zack Snyder and illustrator Dave Gibbons), plus the Watchmen: Complete Motion Comic DVD and an even longer cut of the movie with the Tales of the Black Freighter cartoon (available now on a separate DVD) incorporated into it. However, if you can't wait until December, at least know that the Watchmen director's cut DVD comes with a coupon for $10 off the "Ultimate Edition."
Watchmen may be an easy film to dislike for many people, but it shouldn't be so easily dismissed; I suspect people will be revisiting the film in the future and revising their opinions on it. I won't say I believe it will ever be seen as influential—it's too ambitious, dense and sprawling to have much impact on most Hollywood films—but I do think history will be kinder to the movie than its initial reception proved. Zack Snyder and company have gotten away with something here, and in the process have achieved a kind of greatness. That shouldn't be ignored. Watchmen is one of the best films of 2009.
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