‘Watchmen’ dark and brutal masterpiece

Joe Cramer

At the close of “Watchmen,” viewers are treated to a remake of Bob Dylan’s classic folk song “Desolation Row” by My Chemical Romance. One would not need to be a music critic to imagine that this chaotic and violent punk-rock rendition is not what Bob Dylan intended when he wrote his quiet version so many years ago.

It is especially appropriate that this song concludes “Watchmen,” the latest blockbuster superhero epic, since this dark, savage and psychologically complex interpretation of superheroes is, in all likelihood, very far from what Stan Lee had in mind when he created Spider-Man.

“Watchmen,” directed by auteur Zack Snyder (“300”) and adapted from the highly regarded graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, tells the story of retired superheroes who must overcome their many social and psychological faults to solve the mystery behind the murder of one of their own.

Presenting superheroes in jarringly and unflinchingly realistic ways, “Watchmen” offers a refreshingly dark take on the tired superhero genre while managing to maintain the sense of spectacle and awe that set them apart.

Despite “Watchmen” being considered unfilmable, due to the graphic novel’s complexity and historically epic scope, Snyder and writers Alex Tse and David Hayter do a remarkably admirable job of capturing its essential meaning, even if they sacrificed some of the subtleties that strengthened its themes in print. In cinematic form, however, the treatment is more than adequate.

The film succeeds in grounding the superhero concept in real-world terms, portraying the “heroes” as psychologically flawed people, from borderline psychotic to socially dysfunctional.

These are not the stoic heroes of typical comic-book fare, but rather damaged human beings who are haunted and consumed by the darkness they see in society.

To this end, brutal and shocking acts of violence are present at every turn, far from the idealized portrait of superhero violence to which many are accustomed.

Snyder spoke to The Villanovan about the use of violence in his film, saying, “I wanted the idea of a superhero movie to be broken down at every level. The idea of the violence in ‘Watchmen’ is to smash that concept as hard as I can, that when superheroes run in with bad guys, it’s a pain-free exercise.”

The richly-woven ensemble is brought to life by some fine performers in the film’s relatively unknown cast. Jackie Earle Haley deserves the highest praise for his fiercely determined portrayal of the sociopathic vigilante Rorschach, arguably the heart of the film. Like Bruce Wayne reduced to his basest instincts and motivations, Rorschach prowls the grimy streets of New York with disdain and hatred for human nature.

Also worthy of praise is Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance as the Comedian, whose death at the start of the film drives the multi-layered storyline.

Challenged with the darkest and most fascinating character in the film, Morgan portrays a bitter and nihilistic mockery of the American dream. He brings to life this complex and darkly charismatic character with ease, delivering each line with tortured pathos.

The rest of the cast plays their parts very well, if not as exceptionally as the previous two.

Patrick Wilson is almost unrecognizable as the aged and socially clumsy Dan Dreiberg, previously the costumed Batman-analogue, Nite-Owl.

Malin Akerman may not be much of an actress, but she certainly looks the part of the Silk Spectre.

Billy Crudup and Matthew Goode are necessarily detached as the god-like Dr. Manhattan and effeminate industrialist Adrian Veidt, two characters driven to desperation by the perceived failings of the human race. Snyder described Dr. Manhattan as “a dark and sad god,” calling him the hardest character to bring to screen because he “renders pure philosophy at every turn” and “emotionally exists outside the rest of the characters.”

As one would expect from the director of “300,” “Watchmen” is a visual and technical triumph.

Every shot is well choreographed and executed, doing justice to the visual nature of the source material, while making it distinctly cinematic as well. Snyder is often criticized for his excessive use of highly choreographed slow-motion techniques, but here they are exceedingly appropriate, for they convey the brutal fight sequences in a jarringly pleasant manner.

The Vietnam flashback featuring Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian is a perfect example of this darkly satirical cinematic style.

The soundtrack enhances the film as well and assists in bringing this historically-minded tale to life. For example, Bob Dylan’s famous ode to cultural upheaval, “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” is used in one of the most powerful and effective credit sequences in film history, serving as the backdrop to a crash course in the alternate reality in which the film takes place.

Additionally, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” was an inspired choice for the Comedian’s funeral, and, after seeing the brutal manner in which The Comedian breaks up a riot during a flashback sequence, you will never hear KC and the Sunshine Band in the same way ever again.

“Watchmen,” an epic saga in every sense of the word, succeeds brilliantly in turning the superhero concept on its head.

Taking his cues from one of the greatest examples of graphic literature, Snyder has crafted one of the most intense and thought-provoking action films in recent memory.

Speaking about the typical cultural perception of superheroes in film and literature, Snyder wants people to see that “there is nothing non-intellectual about superheroes.” Upon experiencing this dark, disturbing, and challenging masterpiece, it becomes very difficult to disagree with him.