How Watchable is “Watchmen”?

Silk SpectreWatchmen is not as much a movie as it is a nearly-three hour treatise on post-modernism in the superhero genre. It’s two hours of back story followed by 45 minutes of story.

I use the word ‘story’ there because the movie unfolds with barely a causal event. A writing prof taught me that story was “the king died and then the queen died”, while a plot was “the king dies, and then the queen died of grief”. Because of the movie’s dense exposition and constant flashbacks, we see Watchmen’s story unfold around the characters, instead of them making the plot happen.

This makes for a remarkably dull movie. The film’s themes–is vigilantism an effective replacement for organized justice?, is the survival of the many worth the sacrifice of the few?, how does the threat of nuclear annihilation change our behaviour?– were pretty revolutionary in 1986, when the comic book was released, but they’re utterly familiar to comic readers and movie watchers today. That’s to writer Alan Moore’s credit–the comics are kind of a Citizen Kane for the industry. Watchmen have been so influential and imitated that the originals have lost some of its effectiveness.

There’s a lot to like in the movie. It looks great, and the cast is refreshingly free of household names (save for the excellent Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, who spends most of his scenes nude and glowing blue). It’s also intensely violent–we’re talking Sin City in full colour. Some of the dialogue is clunky, but I imagine we can blame that on adherence to the original comics.

The movie also takes itself way too seriously. I’ve said it before, but (with rare exceptions) great movies always find ways to make us laugh. This ought to be doubly true when the film’s about a bunch of vigilantes running around in latex.

Metacritic gives the film a 56, which feels about right to me. There was plenty of eye candy (beginning with Malin Akerman, if she could lose the indie bangs), and some entertaining tropes, but too often I felt bored and fidgety. What did you think?

Photo by TCM Hitchhiker.


  1. Watchmen seems to be a really polarizing movie. Few opinions land in the MOR.
    I’m surprised that the gulf in opinions doesn’t seem to be divided along the lines of the Fanboys and the neophytes. Represenatives of each demographic seem to fall in each camp of ‘waste of 3 hours’ and ‘best movie in years.’

    I, like you, felt that it had lost it’s teeth having been subsumed by the culture of the intervening years between the comic’s publication and the release of the film. I’d never read the comic so it was as fresh as possible, but when the film was done it didn’t leave me feeling like I had to go and familiarize myself with the source. Good and bad implications of that both fully intended.

    But I also found that two (and more) days later I was still thinking about it, and historically for me that has always been a good sign. Not necessarily a sign of a classic, but a sign of a film that a decade or more down the road people will still mention as being one that changed something or was a quiet harbinger of a new turn in art or society. (The Truman Show was a good example in the past.)

    Two stand out thoughts of the film I had that you don’t touch upon:

    1) Thematically the core seemed to be an exploration of the notion of ‘what is a hero?’ Right down to the ‘villain’. Of COURSE these people are dysfunctional – an any number of ways. Why would it actually be ‘cool’ to be a hero? They all in fact fall somewhere on the spectrum between dysfunction and sociopathy.

    2) In three words: Jackie Earle Haley.
    In a few more: Welcome back Moocher. Not only did he steal the show, but he did it in a walk and with only a half dozen scenes where he could actually use his face. Watchmen was watchable entirely for him. Between this blockbuster and a stealth Oscar nom a year ago this is one child actor who is back with a vengeance, and I predict is going to amaze.

  2. While I agree your analysis I was engaged the entire movie, much more than many 90 – 120 minute movies that are considered better. The issues you bring up are why Watchman isn’t, for me, a great movie. I’m really curious to watch this again in a few years and see if the interest was simply the novelty factor.

    Agree with Kennedy, Jackie Earle Haley was stand-out!

  3. I think your review is pretty much spot on.

    I enjoyed it… although at times I felt like I was enduring it. I did appreciate the different spin to a superhero story, but I also would have preferred some more laughs, action, and perhaps witty dialogue.

  4. Wow, I’m amazed at how much credit you guys are giving the movie. Admittedly, I’ve never been a fan of comic-based movies and I generally think they take themselves way too seriously, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but the Watchmen was the worst movie I’ve seen in years.

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