Release Date: March 6
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David Hayter and Alex Tse
Cinematographer: Larry Fong
Starring: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earl Haley, Patrick Wilson
Studio/Run Time: Warner Bros. Pictures, 163 mins.
Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the Watchmen graphic novel takes place in the mid-1980s, after America won the Vietnam war and just before Richard Nixon’s fourth term. The U.S. won that war by enlisting the help of Jon Osterman, a former scientist who was involved in a nuclear accident that, naturally, turned him into a god-like blue man who lives simultaneously in the past and the future. As near deity, Jon is able to do almost anything he wants, like asking people to call him Dr. Manhattan or zapping Vietcong with a wave of his hand. New York is also populated by a second generation of costumed heroes, normal people who fight crime like their parents did in a prior post-war era. But the world is on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviets, so many of these crusaders have retired or gone underground. Modern threats have rendered masked heroes quaint.
Snyder’s previous film, 300, was about a big, strong Spartan who pummeled the effeminate Persians against the wishes of a corrupt security council. The political slant of Watchmen is only slightly less transparent. Both films lavish attention on violent individuals who deliver justice as they see fit, on men who are principled brutes, and on women who are sexy, strong and secondary. Each film’s overarching view is that war is productive and weakness is not. The interest in sheer power is as strong as the interest in human bodies, and where the two intersect, Watchmen seems to vibrate with delight. We see the flesh of a female calf ripped by a bullet, the intestines of a splattered victim dangling from a ceiling, a prisoner’s skin melted by a basketful of frying oil (can baskets be filled with oil?), and two arms sawn off because they block access to someone who needs an ass-whoopin’.
The film’s obsession with bodies in conflict has a counterpoint in Dr. Manhattan. Gently voiced (and partially faced) by Billy Crudup, he stands naked, ripped, glowing and dispassionate through most of the film. Neither the attentions of his beautiful girlfriend-heroine nor his research into unlimited energy can raise his flaccid member. He has lost interest in the whole of the earth.
The film’s id is an inky-masked character named Rorschach who metes justice with his fists and talks with a throat full of gravel, like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, who might very well be the inky one’s uncle. Rorschach, not the disengaged blue god, is clearly the film’s ideal. But Dan, a character who shifts between those two poles, is the audience surrogate, a geeky but muscled guy who can’t get it up until he re-dons his Nite Owl costume and, along with a female partner, saves a bunch of kids from an apartment fire. The two of them cap their evening with a mutual orgasm of flame.
Unlike the typical superhero movie, Watchmen is a film of big ideas, and one of them is that mass carnage can usher in an era of peace. The major characters disagree only in the particulars. Dr. Manhattan makes a point of neither condemning nor condoning the film’s most controversial, world-altering event, because his head is in the clouds. (He looks as if he’d rather be clearing brush.) Nixon and Kissinger, huddled in a war room, are only slightly more grounded; in their worst-case nuclear scenario they’ll write off New England as collateral damage and even see the loss of Harvard liberals as a silver lining. The folks behind Watchmen may have taken the wrong lesson from Dr. Strangelove.
Furthermore, this gang doesn’t seem to realize how brief a violence-born peace may be. Remember when we were all New Yorkers? The assumption of the film is that a moment similar to the post-9/11 pause, if inflicted deeply enough, could blanket the globe with peace indefinitely, and if it happens during Nixon’s reign it might preempt and best even Ronald Reagan who, as we know, single-handedly defeated the USSR in our real world.
Snyder never seems to consider the problems of macho justice. My advice to the entire naive lot—to the blue god, Rorschach, the geeky-sexy couple, the effeminate liberal (there’s always an effeminate liberal) and Snyder himself—is this: Do not overestimate the longevity of global unity or the productiveness of violence, on any scale.