Good flick. Let the nerditude begin.

By Steve Burgess 6 Mar 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess, having mastered the art of being in two places at once, will continue to share dispatches from Asia next week after reviewing this film in Vancouver.

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Malin Akerman as the Silk Spectre.

Director Zack Snyder's film version of Watchmen is one of those two-audience jobs Hollywood sometimes gets stuck with. Like the Harry Potter franchise, this movie version of Alan Moore's 1986 graphic novel must attempt to please the fanboy culture to ensure a solid base, yet still reach those who just want to see superheroes and taste popcorn. Based on a quick opinion sampling from the hard-core crowd at Wednesday's advance screening at the Granville Empire 7, Snyder has done an admirable job of pleasing a very difficult bunch. Still, opinions will fly at the speed of blog. As one fan put it Wednesday, "Let the nerditude begin."

And the wider box office reaction? Tough call. Watchmen the movie is by turns fascinating and frustrating, admirably complex and annoyingly cartoonish.

Watchmen takes place in 1985, but not exactly the one we remember. This alternate version contains among other things Nena's hit song "99 Luftballons," the movie Road Warrior, and the 1984 Macintosh ad, but is just different enough that America won the Vietnam War and President Richard Nixon got reelected five times (it is implied that at least one of the movie's protagonists did a number on Woodward and Bernstein). There's also an alternate Ted Koppel, Pat Buchanan, Henry Kissinger, and right on down through Lee Iacocca and Truman Capote. They're all talking about an impending nuclear war with the alternate Soviet Union.

Back story bonanza

Meanwhile someone is bumping off costumed crime fighters, notably one Edward Blake, a.k.a. the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). You'll soon be glad he's dead. Eddie was a super S.O.B., a would-be rapist who earned a living doing the U.S. government's dirty work. Another troubled masked man named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) thinks it's a conspiracy and attempts to rally his former vigilante companions. But they've retired and gone underground since being made illegal years earlier -- all except the godlike Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the only truly super-powered being extant. He's a master of time, matter and space, a bright blue stud muffin who can, among other things, split in two and pleasure his girlfriend Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) with four hands. Pity poor Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Spectre's rebound hero -- once you've had blue, nothing else will do.

There's more -- lots more. Watchmen has a lot of back-stories to tell. Even though it is one of the few superhero movies that will not have a sequel, Watchmen suffers from the same back-story glut that bogs down so many first-of-a-franchise flicks. With all those biographical side trips, forward momentum sags.

Making a comic book movie is an invitation to go over the top, but they work best when grounded in a believable reality. Watchmen would be a better film if it paid more respect to the intriguing universe it created. The Nixon portrayal is emblematic of the movie at its worst -- Robert Wisden doing a banana-nosed caricature that periodically turns the movie into a bad skit. Similarly, Rorschach is all film-noir rasp and hard-boiled dialogue, a walking parody of Sam Spade with a dirty bag on his head.

There are some very clunky sequences. In a Vietnamese bar, the Comedian -- charming fellow that he is -- shoots dead the mother of his unborn child. A mere moment later he is lecturing Dr. Manhattan for being emotionally distant. It's true, a piece of exposition straight from the screenwriters. But why on this or any other Earth would the audience accept character analysis from a guy who just murdered his girlfriend and their unborn son?

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Watchmen also seems a bit confused about the true nature of its heroes and anti-heroes. The film (like the graphic novel) suggests that only Dr. Manhattan truly possesses super powers. But here a big-brained vigilante-turned mogul named Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) seems to be capable of Flash-like speed. How? The novel says he's just smart enough to anticipate. Here, no explanation. The movie also tries to have it both ways with its damaged crime fighters, suggesting that they are often little better than psychopaths and yet showing cartoonish villains richly deserving of vigilante justice. Sic 'em, psychos!

Nonetheless, there is much to admire about Watchmen, more so as the plot finally starts to get some traction. Moore wanted to upend the superhero tradition and he does so effectively, sometimes hinting that a crime fighter in a costume is like a drunk on a bender. Watchmen becomes more compelling as the focus shifts to Dr. Manhattan. With nuclear war approaching, you've got to hand it to Moore for fully exploring the possibilities of an alternate universe and exploiting the moral dilemmas that can be raised in the comic book medium. By the end of the film, my misgivings had largely given way to admiration. Watchmen provides an uneven experience but its goals are worthy and its aim ultimately true.

It's also something of a spot-the-local fest, with Vancouver-based actors ranging from Jay Brazeau to Rob LaBelle to Jerry Wasserman. Foreign audiences may even recognize that newscaster from X-Men and Snakes on a Plane. Hey, it's Mi-Jung Lee! Start an imdb fan page now!

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