Watching Watchmen

Selene Rubino

 Men in blue, girls in tight latex, and a villain. It’s comic book movie season.

The title screen of “Watchmen” flashed the same shade of Walmart yellow as the cover of the comic book it was based on. And from that moment on, it was clear that the movie had taken no small pains to be as authentic as possible. Unfortunately, by the end of the movie it was also clear that “Watchmen” only shined  when it replicated the comic book exactly.

“Watchmen” is set in an alternate reality in which masked vigilantes have been banned after helping the U.S. win the Vietnam War. The Cold War is still going strong, and Nixon has won a fifth  term as president. The movie’s mystery centers on the suspicious murders of former superheroes years after the ban.

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Watchmen opened on March 6. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers.

 
It’s a bleak world—most of the action takes place in dingy cellars, city slums, and cold corporate halls. “Watchmen” really excels at creating the tinted look of comic book art by filtering each scene with different shades of blue or gray. But that’s only to be expected from the director of “300,” another impressively visual comic book movie.

The influence of “300” was especially evident in the intensity of the fight scenes. Imitating frames in a comic book, the action sequences would slow down and zoom in to focus on details like a single drop of spit punched from someone’s mouth. “Watchmen” the comic was never about mindless violence but rather senseless violence, the type that shocks people with brutality rather than soothes with clean shots and explosions. As such, the movie is full of unexpected, down-and-dirty fights—a spray can is used as a flamethrower, toilet water is used to electrocute, and various imaginative things are done to the hands.

But when it came to human interaction, “Watchmen” failed to deliver. A lot of the acting was just OK; Malin Akerman (playing Silk Specter) seemed just annoying when she ought to have been relatable, and most of the other superheroes weren’t given enough screen time to develop their characters. However, Jackie Earle Haley (playing Rorschach) stood out with his defiant and muted expressions, even though his character wore a mask half the time.

Mainly, though, the problem was with the script rather than the acting.  The movie attempted to include all the moments from the comic books where characters have epiphanies about life. This resulted in lines like, “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference.” Some things just can’t be said with a straight face, no matter how elegant they looked in print.  

It is also hard to justify the focus on the growing relationship between the Silk Specter and Nite Owl, especially the not one but three sex scenes between the insignificant, uninteresting characters. In case you did want to know, the Silk Specter and Nite Owl are both middle-aged, former superheroes forced to retire in their prime. Though the script seemed to want us to cheer on their relationship and youthful antics, mostly they just seemed pathetic.

The inclusion of the relationship is even more confusing considering that Rorschach was left out to make time for it. Rorschach is the narrator of the story. His eventual fate closes the movie. His confrontation with a prison psychologist sets the tone of the book. Rorschach, who can be thought of as the story’s antihero, is cut out of “Watchmen” to make room for— nothing in particular.

The movie seemed to be torn between two extremities—a focus on ultra-violence and a focus on dark intellectualism. If only the characters were developed more, if only the movie soundtrack didn’t jump around so much, if only the script had allowed the movie to be funny … If only the details were handled better, “Watchmen” would be a good movie. As it is, I can only say that it is a good comic book movie. Watch “Watchmen” if you don’t have time for the book, but not otherwise.