It wasn’t until about 75% of the way through the original Watchmen graphic novel (written by Alan Moore, with art by Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins) that I started to really understand what was going on. Once I could see where they were going, however, I was hooked and ultimately found it to be a terrific story about the ambiguity of morality and the difficulty of being gifted with unusual abilities and the concomitant expectation that you’ll use them for good. Whose good? Why?
When the film came out, directed by Zack Snyder, I knew I had to see it, but I wasn’t sure I’d like it. After all, graphic novels are generally characterized by graphic violence and aggressive imagery: did I want to see blood splatters and dismemberment in living color? Turns out that while there were a few minutes where the violence was unquestionably extreme, I really did like the movie quite a bit, including Snyder bringing out much more of the ambiguity of the costumed crimefighters and whether they masochistically enjoyed hurting criminals.
At over two hours, the theatrical release of Watchmen was long, but full of visually astonishing sequences in a film that provoked much thought and led to a complex and satisfying conclusion. It was, however, startlingly violent in scenes, something that constrained it to a fairly narrow audience.
When the movie was released for the home audience, Snyder recut it, splicing into the film an additional 25 minutes of footage. That’s a lot of additional scenes, giving the film a really long 3:05 running time. Is the director’s cut worth watching? Read on…
The story is set in an alternative universe where masked criminals in 1940s America has given rise to masked police officers as crime fighters. Along the way, a physicist at the Manhattan project (where they’re inventing the atomic bomb) gets into an accident and is vaporized, later reappearing as a powerful superman who can teleport, disassemble and reassemble objects without touching them, and see his future. He’s branded “Dr. Manhattan” and with his distinctive muscular, glowing blue body, he’s a critical element of the story.
In this alternative universe, the Cold War is still very much on everyone’s mind and the backdrop to the story is nuclear war: the “doomsday clock” is at five-minutes-to-midnight (e.g., predicting a high likelihood of nuclear armageddon) and President Nixon, in his third term of office, has passed the Keene Law, which outlaws masked vigilantes, and fumes about the “damn Russkies”.
Formerly a loose brotherhood, the superheroes in Watchmen are all retired, with the exception of The Comedian (Jeffrey Morgan) and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who work for the military, and the unstable Rorschach (Jackie Haley) who continues to operate outside the law enforcing what he believes is justice to a city that’s “rotting from the inside”. The three retired superheroes who are the main characters in the film are Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode).
The film opens with a startlingly violent fistfight between an aging but still tough Comedian and a masked attacker who ultimately picks up The Comedian and hurls him through a plate glass window and out into the night. Already paranoid, Rorschach believes it’s the beginning of a series of attacks on masked superheroes, retired or otherwise, and as the film progresses, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre come to see that he’s right. That’s behind the Who Watches the Watchmen? slogan that appears as graffiti throughout the film.
The director’s cut sheds light on many of the critical sequences and help explain the main storyline, including additional footage where two cops enter The Comedian’s apartment after the murder and encounter Rorschach, who attacks them, and in a particularly grisly scene, Rorschach’s encounter with a girl’s murderer includes more dialog and a more graphic murder scene.
Another added scene is when the original Hollis Mason / Nite Owl (Stephen McHattie) is on a telephone call with the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) just to have gang members knock on his door and attack him: in the original that’s a puzzling scene, but in the director’s cut, there’s sufficient additional footage that we can understand why the gang attacks and the irony of their choice of weapon.
There are also some fascinating recurring themes in the graphic novel and, by extension, the film. In particular, I was struck by the visual metaphor of the circle, as represented by the blood-stained smiley face icon of The Comedian, the Presidential seal, and much more. The visual metaphors in Watchmen, however, are the subject of another essay at another time.
There’s no way around it, this is a long film at over three hours. It’s also breathtakingly violent and aggressive in scenes, and while it’s generally beautifully assembled and shot, there are a couple of scenes on the Blu-Ray edition that suffer from visibly poorer CGI.
Nonetheless, it’s a great film and the director’s cut improves upon the film. If you can handle the violence, there’s a very compelling story and some very provocative themes that run throughout Watchmen and even more so in the director’s cut.