“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

The familiar yellow smiley face with a single drop of splattered blood on it is enough to quicken the pulse of any geek because we know it can only signify one thing: Watchmen. In 1986, Alan Moore’s Watchmen along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns were the two seminal works that promised a new era of comics, that they weren’t just for kids anymore. Of course, these were unique, downright transcendent works for a reason: they haven’t been duplicated, nor comics taken to their heights since. So the idea of translating one of these beloved books to film puts a lot of expectation on the project (think Lord of the Rings level fanboy anticipation).

“Failing to prevent Earth’s salvation is your only triumph.” –Ozymandias (Matthew Goode)

Watchmen
, for all of its superhero/spandex trappings, is a murder mystery. It takes place on an alternate Earth where America won the Vietnam war, Richard Nixon (after getting rid of term limits) is still president, and occasionally people put on masks to fight crime. As Watchmen opens, Congress had just passed a bill (the Keen Act) that outlawed masked heroes except for The Comedian (Jeffrey dean Morgan) and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup)—both of whom work exclusively for the government, the latter being a walking tactical nuke. Most of the heroes were forcibly retired, except for the just the other side of psychotic Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley). After The Comedian’s murder, who wore the yellow smiley as a badge, Rorschach believes there is a plot to kill “masks” and sets out to warn his former compatriots.

“What happened to us?” –Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson)

The movie is a great telling of the story … unfortunately, the story isn’t what made the comic great. It was the way the story was told. The source material is essentially a novel with depth, in writing, storytelling and characterization. It’s a story that’s more about characters talking than their super heroics. It’s like giving Mystic River to … the guy who directed 300. And Zack Snyder didn’t let you forget that he directed 300 (including flashing 300 across the screen several times). Subtle story-telling isn’t exactly in his skillset.

Keeping the structure of the comic’s story was part of the problem. It led to the movie doing a lot of exposition as it crammed in a lot of information since it didn’t have the room (or script) to do so organically. However, even some of the performances were telegraphed. Especially brutal was a scene between The Comedian and his arch-nemesis, Moloch (Matt Frewer, only marginally more emotive than Max Headroom).

“We were meant to exact justice.” –Rorschach

Justice is “an eye for an eye”, the punishment fitting the crime. As vigilantes, the Watchmen could “finish what the law couldn’t”, placing themselves above and beyond the law. As Romans 4:14-15a says, “For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath.” The language of wrath is the appropriate language when faced with the realities of the evils around us. God’s anger is righteous, and is expressed against sin, injustice, and evil. However, while we are quick to anthropomorphize God, we have to remember that He doesn’t have our qualities perfectly, we have divine qualities imperfectly.

“You haven’t idealized humanity. You’ve deformed it.” –Nite Owl II

Sin, especially pride and trust in ourselves, distorts us. Left to our own devices, our ideas of good, justice, and wrath become twisted. How often do we have to learn the lesson that “the ends do not justify the means”? In the name of such ideals as the “greater good”, we can end up perpetrating acts of great evil.

“I can change almost everything, but I can’t change human nature.” –Dr. Manhattan

The law isn’t merely a matter of calculating goods and evils, it’s to point us to a better way of life. The law points us the the Lawmaker. Jesus takes us beyond justice to the “greater righteousness” (Matthew 5:20), a way of life in accord with God’s love. Love goes beyond the law, love cannot be legislated, and love cannot be contained by any expression of the law, no matter how righteous. The love of God is the love echoed between the connection between two people (Dan and Laurie), the love that binds parent and child (the two Silk Spectres), and the tether that keeps one human (Dr. Manhattan). Love is the highest calling and the best way of life.

“Who Watches the Watchmen?”

Watchmen
was mildly disappointment, but that was mostly due to the battle of expectation. Part of what made Watchmen great was that it was about striving to see how much it could do with the medium, making it difficult to translate to another medium. For the film to match the impact of the book, it had to take the essence of the story and be as revolutionary to its medium. So in some ways, the movie was too faithful to its source material. [As a minor quibble, the music was often distracting and broke the mood of the movie (come on, even in an alternate earth history, we couldn’t get rid of 99 Luft Balloons?)]

The spectacle side of things was handled well as Snyder put all of his 300 fanboy preening tendencies to good use … and, don’t get me wrong, I love me some preening. The eye candy was appreciated (though, we get it: Dr. Manhattan has a big blue wang), but it is the substance of Watchmen that sets it apart. Much like The Dark Knight and Iron Man, Watchman is an adult movie. It’s difficult to translate depth to the screen: even stripped down to its core story, it still needed to be a spandex version of L.A. Confidential. Perhaps it was a big mistake to re-read the comic before watching the movie. After all, Alan Moore removed his name removed from the production.

Truth be told, I will probably see this movie again without the lens of fanboy bias.

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