March 12, 2009

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Watchmen (R)
A band of angst-filled superheroes watches as their own number is imperiled and the world stands at the brink of nuclear war in Watchmen, a movie so darkly lovely and so fun to listen to that you can forgive it its flaws and its length.

As you can imagine, there’s a lot of plot packed into the movie’s nearly three hours running time, so allow me to summarize as best I can: It’s 1985, Nixon is still in office (and still advised by a gravel-voiced Kissinger) and the U.S. is in a rapidly warming Cold War with the U.S.S.R. Every time you look up, the Doomsday clock has been pushed another minute closer to a world-ending midnight.

Meanwhile, the costumed crime-fighters who have been protecting our American way of life since the 1940s (as so brilliantly shown in an early sequence that shows the heroes taking part in history, with increasingly menacing consequences) have been outlawed, asked to hang up their masks and let the police do their jobs. Not all have complied — Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) lives in a government facility and is the ultimate assurance of mutual destruction in the U.S.’s fight with the Soviets. He is the only true “super man” among the heroes; he was once a scientist and gained nearly godlike powers — and blue skin — after a lab accident. (He also apparently lost any sense of bashfulness; we see Manhattan’s island and boroughs regularly during the movie.) The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an amoral violence addict, serves the U.S. government as a one-man black ops team. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) has refused to give up his hard-boiled (and summary-judgment) style of justice and he continues to prowl the streets looking for the scum of the city. It’s Rorschach who is first to investigate when The Comedian is found dead, having been thrown through the window of his umpteen-story apartment. Rorschach tries to draw in the second Night Owl (Patrick Wilson), who as a schlubby-seeming Dan Dreiberg sad sacks around, mooning after Dr. Manhattan’s girlfriend Silk Spectre II/ Laurie (Malin Akerman) and sharing memories of the glory days with the first Night Owl, now an aging mechanic named Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie).

Unlike the all-for-one-ness usually at work in super teams of superheroes, these former Crimebusters (as the group was known before it split up) have all sorts of rivalries and dislikes for each other, with squabbles between the older generation of heroes and the younger generation and squabbles within the generations. They are dark, they are all kind of messed up — it’s possible that the rudderless, restless, identity-seeking Silk Spectre II is the most normal among them, even after you learn her convoluted family history. But they are protectors who are believable products of their dark, messed-up times. The movie does an excellent job of linking the general sense of doom over the impending nuclear war with the doom felt by the heroes, who are both worried about annihilation and equally worried about the battles going on within them.

As you’d expect from such a movie, it has a dark and violent sense of humor (never more so than when Rorschach is on the screen and never more so than when he is sans mask — Harley does an excellent job making him consistently terrifying). Maybe all this nihilism is over the top, but I think it works, works for the same reason that a kind of infectious corruption made the landscape of The Dark Knight so awful and appealing. It is even more cynical about heroes and heroism than that movie but it’s not a mopey woe-is-us pose. The movie earns its darkness.

If the heroes are too much for you — too angry or too selfish — there’s always the nifty visual styles and the clever angry-American mix tape that makes up the soundtrack. While lushly recreated comic stills mesh with noir-y plays with light and shadow, a silly but fun mix of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Wagner makes a kind of meta commentary on the action.

I can’t tell you if the movie will disappoint all those who have well-worn copies of the graphic novel on their shelves; I’ve only started to dive in (very eagerly) since seeing the movie. But as a piece of entertainment and art in its own right, the movie does just fine. It is a welcome entry into the genre of thinky-superhero movies, movies that examine who people become when they are able to live beyond the law. B+

Rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language. Directed by Zack Snyder and written by David Hayter and Alex Tse (from a graphic novel illustrated by Dave Gibbons and written by Alan Moore, who wants no part of this stuff right here), Watchmen is two hours and 43 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.