5 Year Retrospective: Watchmen

Watchmen Header
Watchmen was released five years ago this month and it still stands as one of the best, and most underrated, comic book films.

Zac: Zack Snyder has always rubbed certain people the wrong way and I find it funny that his most generally accepted film, Man of Steel, is the film of his that I least appreciate. I was on board with Snyder after 300, then caught up with, and enjoyed, his Dawn of the Dead remake, but it was with Watchmen that I became enamored with him.

I wasn’t a diehard fanatic of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, but I enjoyed it thoroughly and was excited every time one of my favorite directors seemed to get attached to the project. I remember Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky being the last couple of names attached before Snyder, but this was a film I anticipated for years before it finally came out.

I remember being excited for Snyder’s visual style to be brought to the film and I was excited for the casting he was doing, but I was blown away the first time I saw that teaser in front of The Dark Knight. Being the first teaser, almost a year before the film’s release, I was anticipating a couple flashes of footage and a lot of text on screen hyping the graphic novel, but right off the bat they start showing us the birth of Dr. Manhattan! I was sold.

What was your relationship with Watchmen pre-release and what sort of anticipation did you have with the picture?

Lauren: I remember greatly anticipating a giant, glowing blue penis… Not only that, but it was Snyder bringing us a giant, glowing blue penis. Think of the slow motion, in-and-out-and-in-and-out camera work in the action sequences!
I’m just going to leave that there…

Grant: Disturbing visuals Lauren! Dr. Manhattan can create any material out of thin-air, yet he never thought to create blue underpants. Does that count as our obligatory blue penis conversation? We can move on now, right?

Lauren: Well, he wore a black banana hammock from time to time. Personally, I was more interested in his choice of sad panda eyes. Clearly this whole film was to show that China will be the world’s destruction. Or maybe the world’s savior… It’s still up for debate at the moment.

Grant: Yeahmoving on. Regarding my anticipation for the film, as someone who doesn’t read graphic novels, and who doesn’t regularly anticipate superhero-based movies, I was interested in the concept of a superhero movie that tears apart the genre. It seemed to come along just when the genre was getting a bit stale. Plus, after seeing the trailer it looked like nothing I’d seen before.

Lauren: Definitely. My joking aside, Snyder was then, and continues to be, one of my favorite directors. Even if he takes an M. Night Shamalamadingdong dive, there’s no denying that when all else is lost in connection to the film (such as the argument many made against Sucker Punch, which I think I can speak for Zac as well as myself in saying that we learned to love that one with time and discussion) his films are still going to be worth seeing for looks alone.

As for Watchmen, it is way more than just a pretty, albeit bruised up, face.

Zac: I put Watchmen right up there with the best comic book films by my count (Avengers, Sin City, The Dark Knight; American Splendor, Road to Perdition & Blue Is the Warmest Color if you branch out of the superhero genre) and it gets there by basically being able to do just about anything it wants because of its rating. Now, I don’t need my comic book fare to be dark and gritty, but it works in spades for Watchmen, which is one of the most realistic portrayals of comic book crime fighting out there; besides Dr. Manhattan, of course.

Someone who puts on a mask and attempts to fight crime isn’t going to perfectly capture all of his perps without harming them and have some strict moral code, in reality someone that does that is probably going to gain pleasure in beating the crap out of some baddies and validate it by pointing out they are the bad guys. The Comedian lives by that code and abuses it, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre certainly fit that bill, but are doing it more for themselves than other people, and Ozymandias used his crime fighting to establish his superiority over everyone else out there. These four are all fighting the “bad guys” in some way, but none of them is as ridiculously pure of heart as we are supposed to view most mainstream comic book film heroes. Rorschach is the only one of the Watchmen who purely fights for humanity, but he enforces moral judgement with such cruel, violent and devastating circumstances that he comes across as a monster. That is a lot more interesting and diverse of a moral quandary than “I can’t kill them” which is so often the moral theme of most superheroes.

Lauren: Well, when you change that moral theme people get angry… But Superman did what he had to!
I’d say that this truth was also definitely what I appreciated about Watchmen, and the brutality never felt gratuitous, so much as just a reminder of the truth of the world when you consider the context all of the violence is put in. My boyfriend always tells me that when someone is coming to do him harm you do whatever it takes to survive, there is no need to be honorable when defending yourself and others in real world situations. So he is going to kick you in the balls if that’s what will knock you down.

Watchmen takes this idea further. Where Rorschach is concerned, he writes in his journal that fighting crime with a moral compass didn’t do anything to stop the criminals; if you want to permanently stop it you have to do permanent damage. On a much larger scale, it’s hard to condone what Ozymandias did, but can you really argue with the end result of world peace? He commits a great atrocity, yet he can still be considered a hero.

As Rorschach puts it: “What do you see?” Considering how happy I was that his journal made it to that newspaper to end the film, I’d say I saw monsters.

Grant: Yes, like the Nolan Batman films the Watchmen actually takes time to rationalize what emotional factors would cause someone to fight crime and how fighting crime would affect the vigilantes. I know they touch on these themes in Spider-man and other films, but it doesn’t feel as authentic. The grittiness of the characters and the world they inhabit made it work. And a narrative like the government utilizing superheroes to win a war is a brilliant concept. Obviously much of the credit for these themes goes to Alan Moore.

Does everyone agree with me that Rorschach is the anchor of this movie? His uncompromising nature, his intensity, and his wit create a fantastic and memorable character.

Zac: I think we might be giving the Nolan Batman films a bit too much credit, no? Like Lauren brought up, you have to be able to go toe to toe with the evil that confronts you, especially if you are a crime fighter, and I think Batman’s morality comes off as feasibly unattainable. Rorschach achieves the more realistic middle ground.

I do agree with your assessment that Rorschach is the anchor of the film (and Jackie Earle Haley belongs right up there with Heath Ledger and Mickey Rourke for best performances in a comic book film), but I think just about everyone is pretty damn great here. Malin Åkerman is the weakest at first glance, but she’s grown on me over the years (watch Trophy Wife!). Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the tragic asshole The Comedian is supposed to be and Matthew Goode has all of the intellectual arrogance we expect from Ozymandias. Patrick Wilson’s revitalization as Nite Owl is also palpable and he gets the sad humor of the character as he regains sexual competence. Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan nails the indifference towards everything and he contrasts that wonderfully in his brief time pre-molecular reorganization.

Lauren: Ok, so Grant wants me to move away from the blue man bit jokes, but now you’re just leading me back to them…

Grant: While I loved the scenes showing us the creation of Dr. Manhattan, I didn’t find the character too compelling. After the Comedian confronted him in Vietnam about losing his faith in humanity, he stopped being interesting for me. Maybe there was just too much sulking? Am I the only one that felt this way?

Lauren: You try not sulking when everyone is blaming you for giving them cancer.
I wouldn’t say that Dr. Manhattan ever became uninteresting for me because I sympathized with him so much, especially considering the placement of his origin story in the film. Had it been up front this would be a different story. With that said, I hopped off his train of thought a stop or two early when he started talking about the miracle of well adjusted rape babies. I didn’t quite understand why this convinced him to come back and try to save the world, though I will believe it was enough to convince him to take the blame.
Oh, and The Comedian can suck it.

Grant: While a rapist, the Comedian still could be the most interesting character of the film. The funny ones always have a dark side, right?

Anyway, regarding the Nolan Batman films: even if there is an overplayed moral dilemma, the movies are still fantastic. So let’s not go overboard. The Dark Knight is much better than The Watchmen.

Zac: The Dark Knight is more fun and expertly paced (besides the ferry scene), but I hold Watchmen (and Avengers) just as high, if not higher, depending on the day. But moving on.
The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan are both interesting on a number of levels. The Comedian stands in for our country’s military history and our seemingly endless need to fight. The U.S. has often come across as a country that thinks it can, and should, intervene in whatever way it wants and often circumvents responsibility to the atrocities in the name of the greater good. The Comedian fits into this mold with ease, except, he actually feels bad about it in the end.

Dr. Manhattan on the other hand remains interesting to me because he makes some pretty damn good points about humanity. Why the hell do we deserve to be saved when we do nothing but tear each other down? I would get sick and tired of watching people throw away a world you are actively helping to improve everyday too, but I’m not sure I would quit on them either. Thankfully, he does come to his senses and comes back to help, only to realize leaving is the only way he can save us anyway. The religious angle you can run with him is also really interesting. Using a Christ symbol for war/military validation, said Christ figure seeming infallible, but not having all the answers in the end, Ozymandias uses the Christ figure to kill millions of people and in turn forcing them to unite around the violence that it has caused. A lot of interesting stuff with him.

Speaking of the ending, I am a big fan and actually enjoy it more than the comic book’s interdimensional monster that Ozymandias releases on the world. The film’s villain is actually trying to, and for the moment succeeds, save the world from itself and using the awesome power of Dr. Manhattan to do that was a smart and logical ending for the picture. It works for the story and also still gives Dr. Manhattan a reason to leave Earth at the end of the film so everything about the comic lines up with the comic. I’m not saying the film has to be a straight adaptation, but the symmetry is nice for the nitpickers out there (even if they complained anyway).

Grant: I think your observations on Dr. Manhattan might actually be more interesting than the character itself.

I was actually going to make the same point regarding the ending. It was a good adaptation by the filmmakers. Giant squids suck anyway! The moral compromise at the film’s finale was interesting and effective. And then the Rorschach journal payoff was the icing on the cake.

Even if it’s not The Dark Knight, it is still a great, under appreciated film.

Lauren: How about looking at it like The Dark Knight isn’t Watchmen? All these characters scoff at the pedestal Batman has been perching on, and I scoff along with them. Scoff I say!

Zac: I think we can all agree that Watchmen deserves more love than it gets.

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