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Bob Garver reviews "Watchmen"

March 13, 2009|By BOB GARVER / Special to The Herald-Mail

One of the best things about "Watchmen" is its setting. This is no surprise. The film is based on a graphic novel, and lots of graphic novels and comic books are defined by their setting. Can you picture Batman fighting crime anywhere other than Gotham City? Or Spider-Man not (assumedly) swinging from New York's skyscrapers? One of my favorites is "Sin City" and that one's actually named after its setting.

"Watchmen" is also defined by its setting, but the twist is that the setting in question isn't a place, it's a time.

Actually, it's more of a history than a time. The year is 1985. Richard Nixon has just begun his fifth term as president. He's popular because he enlisted superheroes to win the Vietnam War. Yes, we won Vietnam. Right-wing domination has turned liberals violent, and there are many riots. The United States and Russia are close to nuclear war. And there are plenty of other time-period goodies.

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In "Watchmen," superheroes began appearing in the '40s and have shaped the world ever since. They have since been outlawed, but a few are still around to work for the government. Masked weirdo Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is the only one still doing illegal vigilante work. One of the government-sanctioned superheroes called the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is assassinated. The Comedian couldn't have been defeated easily, and Rorschach thinks there's a superhero killer on the loose.

Other members of the Watchmen are gadget-whiz Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg (played by Patrick Wilson), who is shlumping around in retired life. Lightning-quick genius Ozymandais/Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) owns a huge corporation and is making millions selling superhero-related merchandise. Genetically-altered superhuman Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) is helping Ozymandais build weapons for the government. Silk Spectre/Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) lives with boyfriend Dr. Manhattan in his research facility. She craves a relationship with someone who isn't emotionally detached from all humanity.

The death of the Comedian leads to all the Watchman examining the decisions they've made since their glory days. Only violent psychopath Rorschach has no regrets, which is ironic because everyone thinks that he should.

Rorschach comes to uncover a conspiracy with motives far different than what he imagined. Rorschach is used to seeing the world in black and white (possibly because his mask is black and white and covers his entire head) but the diabolical plot that makes for the film's climax is enough to give anyone pause. Or at least it should.

Unfortunately, even at 162 minutes, a lot of what happens in "Watchmen" is too abbreviated. Motives and relationships aren't given the time to be explained as thoroughly as they should be. Entire sections of the story from the graphic novel are missing from the film. Certain characters are given too much screen time (Dr. Manhattan gets several lengthy interludes even though the character is a special effects creation and his scenes must have been very expensive to film) while others (like the villain) get far too little. The pacing is a real throw-off, especially as the film rushes to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

"Watchmen" has had one of the most problematic releases in recent memory. Graphic novel creator Alan Moore has publicly declared that he wants nothing to do with the film. There was a huge battle over the rights that nearly cancelled the film's release. Fans of the graphic novel have been crying foul that it is untouchable and unfilmable. To his credit, director Zack Snyder makes his best effort to date. He succeeds in translating the Watchmen's world, but falls short of telling their story.

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