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Rachel Winterbottom on a gang of superheroes who don't quite cut it

Written by . Published on March 17th 2009.


Ever needed a hero? If you ever encountered the Watchmen you’d probably find a way to deal with that burning building on your own. With great power comes great advantages and these are violent, unpredictable individuals who take joy in the visceral and pleasure in the snapping of bones. If one of these heroes decided to try and save your life, those closest to you would take a measured step back.

Alan Moore’s phenomenal twelve-book comic series, Watchmen, contained a plethora of brand new superheroes penned simply to take on the task of attempting to survive his dark masterpiece. DC Comics just couldn’t afford to put their longer running characters through the storylines; mental trauma and death are hard to come back from, even for stellar superheroes like Captain Atom.

Watchmen is set in an alternative 1985, where America has been aided politically by masked vigilantes since the forties and as a result, won the Vietnam War and re-elected Nixon. The opening montage showing the super folk’s part in historic events – the moon landing filmed by the luminous Dr Manhattan, the Kennedy Assassination carried out by the cigar chomping The Comedian – is the most affecting beginning to a film you will see in a long time. The rise and fall of the superhero is masterfully chronicled so that by the time the opening sequence is over, even those unfamiliar with Alan Moore’s unique world are welcomed into the fandom fold.

The film begins in The Comedian’s apartment, with the character Rorschach’s tortured vocal chords narrating from the pages of his journal, a device lifted loyally from the comics. A mystery intruder breaks in and kills ex-superhero The Comedian while he’s sat, like The Joker and Wolverine’s love child, in a dirty dressing gown on his sofa, his scarred and craggy face lit by late night TV. Even superheroes want to enjoy their retirement, but The Comedian’s is rudely interrupted when he’s thrown through the apartment’s window. Now, with America on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the unreadable Rorschach dons his inkblot mask, determined to protect the last dregs of superheroes from whoever would want to prey on ex-masked vigilantes.

The film is part socio-political commentary and part parody (check out the tongue-in-cheek latex suitage that would look more at home in a Tib Street window). These so-called heroes are struggling to acclimatise after being claimed by a self-righteous America for its own ends in the Vietnam War, and then discarded to avoid becoming blooded by association. Even ex-arch-enemies like Moloch the Mystic have faded back into society, reduced to being another old man in a tiny apartment, striving to pay the bills.

Much of the film is told through flashbacks, occasionally leaving you lost about what’s currently happening. There is a hoard of storylines running alongside each other and, like Moore’s original creation, it’s a lot to take in on the first viewing. The only ‘real’ superhero is the luminous blue Jon Osterman aka Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and he is gradually losing touch with humanity having gained power over matter through a nuclear accident. Doctor Manhattan’s former lover, Silk Spectre II (a voluptuous Malin Akerman) begins a budding relationship with Nite Owl’s alter ego Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), who struggles to find a place in the world for himself post-heroing and can no longer ‘perform’ unmasked. Golden boy Ozymandias (a bland Matthew Goode) has ‘come out’ to the public as a hero and is too busy trying to create a new source of energy to don his mask again. Not forgetting The Comedian’s dirty past, which starts to taint his fellow vigilantes. And these are only a few of the main narratives.

Jackie Earle Haley’s morally ambiguous Rorschach is an amazing creation. When his shock of ginger hair and freckles is revealed in a later scene, like a horrific, grown up version of the murderous doll Chucky, he appears both vulnerable and terrifyingly unpredictable. The Comedian is similarly effective, played by a weathered Jeffrey Dean Morgan, his anti-hero superhero is a disaffected psychopath whose apathy has grown from years of killing for his country and being placed on an undeserved pedestal. Close up, Crudup’s Doctor Manhattan is a visually stunning character whose opaque eyes speak volumes, but when the camera pans away, no inner torment is deep enough to distract from his luminous blue penis.

Synder’s Watchmen is a visually astounding masterpiece. These are not the sun-kissed, retouched streets of Spiderman’s New York, or the fake, self-consciously gothic architecture of Gotham City. This is somewhere in between: a dark, grimy window on an alternative world where blood is thick, red and glutinous and a hero could rape as soon as save you.

Like each window in a comic strip, each scene, character and storyline are brilliantly realised and detailed, but when put together there is often too much to take in and as a result, Watchmen fails to be greater than the sum of its parts. To be truly appreciated, this is a film to be re-watched on DVD, where you can pause it to find out exactly what happens to Doctor Manhattan’s penis when he grows to the size of a house.


Watchmen (18) is on general release now.

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