In the latter half of the 1980s, three illustrated novels challenged the mainstream perception of comic books. While the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Maus' by Art Spiegelman introduced emotionally complex subject matter and established the genre as a viable literary format, Frank Miller's 'Batman: The Dark Knight Returns' scaled national bestseller lists and demonstrated that superheroes struggle with the conditions of the world they feel destined to protect. When the 12-issue limited series of 'Watchmen' by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was published as a novel-length comic, it stunned audiences with its commercial success and its innovative structure layout. The book's narrative also took a radical approach, scrutinizing the concept of superheros and offering a sort of "deconstruction" of their being, one which has pervaded the comic book world, including film adaptations, ever since. Over twenty years later, director Zack Snyder finally brings to the screen what so many once thought could never be filmed.
Taking place in an alternate reality of America, where Richard Nixon is serving his fourth term as president after winning the Vietnam War. The Keene Act of 1977 has outlawed all acts of masked vigilantism, forcing many into retirement. One October night, the murder of Edward Blake interests Rorschach, a masked avenger seen by the public as more a psychotic criminal than a hero. His investigation leads him to discover that Blake was the man behind The Comedian, a fellow crime fighter turned government operative. Fearing a conspiracy against costumed adventurers, he sets out to warn his former comrades: the Batman-esque Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl, the successful businessman Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, an angst-ridden Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre, and the only true superhero of the bunch Dr. Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan. As the investigation progresses, the band of superhero outcasts uncovers a plot more sinister and gruesome than they initially expected, revealing an enemy no one would've anticipated.
At the time of its theatrical release, the film version of the popular graphic novel was seen as a mild success, never coming close to expected box office figures. It was also heavily criticized by fans on internet boards around the globe for failing to truly capture the spirit of the series. Being one of those critics (yes, I am that kind of a nerd), the 162-minute adaptation felt rushed and heavily cluttered, as a wealth of information was quickly thrown at the audience with little time to digest it all. Those unfamiliar with the novel were alienated by the onscreen events, while the core fans saw a large amount of exposition skimmed over for the sake of time. Ultimately, what is now considered the theatrical cut seemed more concerned with reverence for its source, rather than a commitment to acting as a legitimate film that stood on its own. Much of the novel's power and depth was lost in the translation.
Now, in this Director's Cut, Snyder is allowed to thicken the plot and create a better flow within the already-trimmed narrative. Arguably, Snyder shows more style over substance, seemingly imitating the original look of the comic rather than offering his own interpretation. But with 24 minutes of footage now added to the story, the film captures the comic's dark, gritty appeal nicely, giving it more of a realistic feel and creating more human fascination. These masked vigilantes are confronted with contemporary real-world events, where they are frequently made aware of the Cold War reaching the breaking point and the fact that nuclear holocaust is imminent. As gloomy and pessimistic as that may sound, the idea posits these would-be superheroes against issues of power and the failure of salvation. They must cope with the world as it truly is: a dark and unpredictable existence, driven by fear and uncertainty of the future.
This band of costumed avengers challenges what normally typifies the superheroics of their peers. They are flawed humans and deeply haunted by their pasts, primarily a shared experience of feeling unwanted from The Keene Act. Their interactions with one another and society at large expose questions about the limitations inherent to the superhero archetype trying to save humanity from itself. It's the reason why fans are attracted to the two most complex characters in the series: Rorschach and The Comedian. While one idealizes his fight against injustice as a battle that must be won, the other possesses a harshly cynical worldview of civilization doomed beyond repair. The narrative also opens doors to discussions on power relations and politics, issues of certainty and doubt, metaphysics and existential nihilism, moral ambiguity, and Ozymandias's actions bring to mind Nietzsche's central theme of the "Master-slave morality".
Coming in at 186 minutes, 'Watchmen: Director's Cut' may be daunting to some viewers, but for fans, this will be the closest we'll ever come to seeing a faithful adaptation of the ragtag group of outcasts. Some of its drawbacks, I feel, are quickly outweighed by the overall sense that the comic book's central conceit is maintained and clearly expressed with a genuine approach. Granted, certain aspects are still missing, but I admit they are necessary alterations to make the transition into film a success. As a long time fan of the illustrated novel, this director's cut of 'Watchmen' easily bests the theatrical version, making it worthy of multiple viewings to take in its dense and complex implications.
Considering the high expectations and the strong following, anything less than spectacular from this freshly-minted transfer would not suffice. Thankfully, the 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.4:1) delivers stunning picture quality that is sure to please fans. Not only does it faithfully reproduce 'Watchmen' as it was shown theatrically, but it also embodies a beautiful cinematic appearance that remains consistent throughout.
Stylistically, the film is drenched in heavy, dark shadows, so black levels are very important to the overall effect. Fortunately, they don't falter and are exceptionally well rendered, coming across as inky and intense with objects clearly distinguished in the darkest areas of the picture. Details are remarkably sharp and distinct, which only adds to the terrific dimensionality of the image. Facial complexions are equally impressive, appearing natural with incredible lifelike texture. Contrast is intentionally muted for a dreary tone which complements the subject matter, but offers plenty of visibility of background information with crisp, clean whites. The palette consists generally of pastel colors, and they yield a strong, bold tonality with accurate vividness.
If there are any nitpicks, it would the minor banding around Doctor Manhattan's blue glow and in the blue flames that burst from Archie's thrusters. However, they only occur for less than a second in a couple of scenes and are barely noticeable while enjoying the film. As such, I find them to be negligible, since they don't distract from the otherwise gorgeous film-like quality of 'Watchmen' on Blu-ray.
Marking Warner's first venture into the DTS-HD Master Audio codec, the lossless soundtrack on this Blu-ray edition of 'Watchmen' is nothing short of reference quality. The sound design isn't dependent on a loud, aggressive, in-your-face attitude. Rather, it remains focused on subtle ambiance and generating a believable environment for this parallel universe of masked avengers.
Dialogue reproduction and character interaction is perfectly discernible, even in the whispered conversations of Laurie and Dan, and remains fixed in the center of the screen. Dynamic range is clean and spacious, conveying terrific differentiation between the highs and mid-levels while in the middle of all the thunderous action. The original musical score by Tyler Bates fills the entire soundstage with great separation and room penetration, feeling warm and wide. Imaging is convincing as atmospheric effects nicely extend the soundfield into the background, enveloping the listener with great depth, clarity and definition. Pans are smooth and seamless, with no loss to details as objects move between the channels. Low-frequency effects carry a hefty and nicely refined punch, adding serious weight to each action sequence.
Warner Home Video has ported over the same bonus material from the 2-Disc special edition released on the same day. Only on this Blu-ray version of 'Watchmen: Director's Cut', fans are rewarded with a nice collection of exclusive features that span three discs, sure to entice anyone still sitting on the fence. The webisodes which were released prior the film's theatrical release are preserved here as "Focus Points". Each featurette is also presented in high definition and quite enjoyable.
After twenty years of hardcore fans hearing that the 'Watchmen' comics are "unfilmable", Zack Snyder defies logic and gives audiences the closest we'll ever come to experiencing the novel on film. In the 'Watchmen: Director's Cut', Snyder is allowed to flesh out the details better and create a smoother narrative flow, offering an improved vision of this alternate reality. The Blu-ray edition offers a top-notch A/V presentation and arrives housed in a 3-disc package that's sure to entertain with exclusive content and one of the coolest features yet devised in "Maximum Movie Mode". This is a must-have for fans everywhere.