As superhero movies go, Watchmen deserves a place in the ‘must-see’ category, if only because it is so drastically different from what has come to be accepted as the norm. In recent years, audiences have become all too familiar with the superhero genre, where plodding linear structure appears to reign supreme. More often than not, new releases employ the same copy-and-paste of Protagonist discovers superpower, learns to control it, then defeats the bad guy in hand to hand battle in a heavily populated area. It can get exhausting. There are only so many innocent bystanders I can see getting saved last minute from a falling billboard before I sigh and roll my eyes.
Watchmen, by contrast, boasts a non-linear narrative that continuously unfolds in many directions simultaneously, engaging us more and more as it does so. But at the end of the day, what makes Watchmen so different is that it’s not so much a superhero story as a detective story with superheroes.
The plot occurs in an alternative 1985. Masked vigilante Rorschach investigates the suspicious murder of his former colleague The Comedian against the backdrop of impending nuclear war between the U.S and Soviets. Throughout the story, we are introduced to all the former Watchmen, who have now been disbanded. Each hero is given sufficient screen time where we learn their present troubles and glimpse their individual backstories, giving a sense of completeness, depth and complexity to the narrative. It succeeds where another ensemble superhero movie, The Avengers (2012), failed. There the objective appeared to be how many A-listers could be squeezed into each frame, and although all the Avengers were present on the celluloid, time and thought were devoted to none of them.
Watchmen also begs questions of its audience. Morality questions, political questions. Your brain is engaged as much as your eyes: something that is not done enough in modern mainstream cinema as a whole. The story’s conclusion especially comes as a welcome surprise that holds it up as an example to others. We are forced to ask ourselves, ‘What makes a hero? And what is their relevance?’
In a time when seemingly every bit-part Marvel and DC character is being brought out from long-forgotten corners and dusted off for adaptation, perhaps this is something studios need to ask themselves before setting the next cash cow into motion. Watchmen may not be to everyone’s taste, the long running time and sparsity of blockbuster action sequences may perhaps work against it in the eyes of people who enjoy more standard hero vs. villain films, but it’s definitely worth a watch for Zack Snyder’s highly stylistic approach, and to see what can be done, and what there is still left to do, in the superhero genre.
by Rory Macleod