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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Watchmen Better at Home Than in Theaters

Written by Kirk Baird

Given his box-office success with the graphic novel-turned film 300, Zack Snyder was a wise choice to shepherd the long-in-development Watchmen to the big screen as well. One of the most influential graphic novels of all time, Watchmen offers an alternate universe where men and women dressed as superheroes rise up to maintain order in society, and that’s not a good thing. The heroes have changed the course of our history, and by 1985 are used as offensive agents by the U.S. government, vilified by the police and the media, and feared more than respected by the general population.

It got so bad that the federal government outlawed the masked vigilantes in 1977, which effectively ended the reign of Watchmen, the best-known and most powerful group of heroes. Years later, as they have tried to return to a semblance of a normal life with varying degrees of success, an unknown, powerful assailant is tracking down the older heroes and killing them, giving the Watchmen cause to reunite – if they can stand each other long enough.

There are other problems in the world besides masked heroes being offed. Richard Nixon, now in his fifth term as U.S. president, has the United States on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, a hostility fueled in part by the government using the godlike Doctor Manhattan as a weapon of fear. The graphic novel, written by Alan Moore, is rich in subtext, scope, and depth, and when released in the mid-1980s, almost immediately helped change the possibilities of comic books to come. There’s also a lot going on within its hundreds of pages, which is why many filmmakers struggled with bringing Watchmen to the big screen, and many, many more fans hoped that they wouldn’t.

Snyder essentially places himself in the proverbial no-win situation with his adaptation, co-written by David Hayter and Alex Tse. Moore scoffed at the film even as it was in production, and the notion of successfully porting the graphic novel into anything less than a miniseries frustrated fans, who felt too much of Watchmen would be sacrificed in a film – even at two hours and 42 minutes in length. They were right. Watchmen as released to theaters in March, 2009, was incredibly ambitious and just as shallow, an attractive movie with fantastic parts that never amounted to much as a whole – certainly not when held to the high standards set by Moore’s work. The film also was nearly unintelligible to anyone who went into the theater having never read the graphic novel.

But the Collector’s Edition, with its three-hours-and-35-minutes cut, helps resolve that issue. Known now as the Ultimate Cut, this new Blu-ray set is Snyder’s director’s cut version along with Watchmen’s Tales of the Black Freighter sub-comic now incorporated into the main narrative, instead of a separate DVD as it was originally released. This should please Watchmen fans, who missed having the separate features packaged as one entity, as in the graphic novel. This Ultimate Cut release and its animated segments also effectively break up the real-world story into chapters, and provide jarring subtext and allegory to the Watchmen storyline. Warning: These animated segments are as graphic as the hyper violence in the main feature, including a raft made of the decaying bodies of dead sailors.

While the Ultimate Cut resurrects quasi-important character – and narrative – development moments originally left in the editing room, it also benefits substantially from the less-heightened expectations of seeing the film at home, rather than on the big screen, which magnifies a film’s weaknesses. In other words, Watchmen simply works better at home, which gives further credence to the fanboys who thought the graphic novel should have been a miniseries all along.

The Ultimate Cut also features two commentaries by Snyder and graphic novel co-creator and illustrator Dave Gibbons, and on separate Blu-rays 11 video journals and four featurettes, a Watchmen motion comic, featuring the entire graphic novel in 12 chapters of limited motion, voice, and sound, and the original theatrical cut on DVD. The set also features DC Comics’ first-ever hardcover edition of Watchmen, featuring the recolored pages found in Watchmen: The Absolute Edition.

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