Take away a few scenes from Watchmen, and you could have an argument about whether or not it’s actually a superhero film. In reality, it’s more of a thriller or a drama, with few action scenes and a key emphasis on its characters. If it weren’t for its conclusion and the numerous flashback scenes that occur throughout, I would argue that it’s not really a superhero film at all. It doesn’t adhere to standard tropes of these types of films, which may be off-putting to those looking for an action film with super-powered beings. As it stands, Watchmen is a drama with superhero elements, even if only one of those characters can be called “Super”.
The story is delivered to us by a masked vigilante named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Hayley). He was a member of a team called the Watchmen, who were actually the second generation of the team. In 1979, 6 years before the film begins, a bill was passed by the United States government banned maxed heroes, effectively banishing the Watchmen. Rorschach continues anyway, playing detective whenever the sun goes down. When he finds the time to sleep, I’ve yet to figure out.
He arrives at the scene of a crime, where a former member of their group has been murdered. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) was his name, although he wasn’t actually that funny, as we learn in flashbacks during his funeral. He’s actually a cold-hearted misogynist, someone who we aren’t supposed to like. Good thing he died. Rorschach decides that someone must be targeting the former group members, and heads out to warn the other members.
He first goes to Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), who is now going by the name “Daniel”. He’s adopted not being a hero, and now spends his time doing more or less nothing of interest. He doesn’t seem to believe Rorschach, but is thankful for the warning. Finally, Rorschach heads to a research facility where two former members, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and Silk Spectre (Malin Åkerman) are located. Manhattan is the only superhuman of the group, having been involved in an accident that led to him being able to manipulate matter at will, and also glow blue. He’s a god-like character, even though he denies it. There’s a bigger problem than a potential serial killer, he says, because if the Cold War situation doesn’t improve soon, the world could be annihilated by nuclear war.
There are our characters, (most of them, anyway), and there are the two things that are potentially putting their lives in peril. The rest of the film deals with how they all react to these events, and how they deal with one another as well. These are human characters, ones that have issues and personality traits that impact their decisions. Even the “perfect” Dr. Manhattan has things he has to deal with, as he’s growing tired of humanity and of his girlfriend, Silk Spectre.
While Watchmen may not dwell on its action scenes, the ones it does have are certainly exciting. The set-pieces are huge, and they look great. They are also very violent and bloody, which surprised me a little. The film is definitely darker than most films in the genre, which makes it feel even more unique than its story would alone. There are some fun fist fights, a couple of rescue attempts, and it all fits with the course of the story. (That is, except for one of the rescue missions, which serves no purpose whatsoever.) It doesn’t feel like the action scenes and story are separate, which is important in a story-driven film.
The drama, which occupies the majority of the film, is actually quite good. The characters are deep, the situations they’re put in give a lot of tension, and their actions are not determined by plot convenience, but instead by the characters that we’ve gotten to know a lot about. By the end of the film, you’ll care about the people featured throughout, and you’ll be in awe of the journey that they’ve gone through.
That is, you’ll enjoy the journey up until its conclusion, which is just silly and comes from out of nowhere. Yes, it does make sense (kind of), but it’s not as strong as the rest of the film, and it lost a lot of energy at this point. Thankfully, the finale only lasts around 20 minutes, but this part of the film, which comes at the end of an almost 3 hour marathon, was nowhere near as good as the beginning and middle. I was entertained for almost the entirety of the first two and a half hours, but this final portion wore me down.
I mentioned Watchmen‘s length, and its true that it’s a long film, (especially if you watch the Director’s Cut or the Ultimate Cut). That said, it’s entertaining for the vast majority of its time on-screen, and I think that it deserves its length. If I’m not feeling like I’m wasting my time, then its runtime is justified. That’s the case here, and by the end, I was perfectly okay with sinking 3 hours of my life into the film. (If you want my choice, watch the Director’s Cut, especially if you’re a fan of the graphic novel that Watchmen is based on.)
Watchmen is a very solid film, but don’t go into it expecting a full-blown action film. Instead, think of it more as a drama with a few large set-pieces, containing interesting, flawed and deep characters whose actions are directly influenced by their personalities. Everything, save for the ending, fits perfectly, while also being a dark and visual spectacle that will, at times, force your jaw to drop.