'Watchmen' takes place in an alternate reality of America, where Richard Nixon is serving his fourth term as president and the U.S. won the Vietnam War. This is also a world where men and women actually donned what were essentially Halloween costumes in the 1940s and served street justice to the criminals the law couldn't catch. This has significantly altered the events of history, including comic books. Nearly forty years later, the public and the police force have grown resentful of these individuals working outside the law. With the Keene Act of 1977, all acts of masked vigilantism are effectively outlawed, forcing many into retirement and others to seek work within the government. By 1985, the year in which the plot is set, superheroes are a thing of the past while civilization teeters on the brink of nuclear holocaust.
One October night, the murder of Edward Blake interests Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a masked avenger considered by the public more as a psychotic criminal than a hero. His investigation leads him to discover that Blake was the man behind The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a fellow crime-fighter turned secret operative. Fearing a conspiracy against costumed adventurers, he sets out to warn his former comrades: the Batman-esque Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), the successful businessman Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), an angst-ridden Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II(Malin Ackerman), and the only true superhero of the bunch, Dr. Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup). 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 'Watchmen' film was seen as a mild success, never coming close to expected box-office figures. It was also heavily criticized for failing to truly capture the spirit of the series by fans around the globe. Being one of those critics, 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. In the end, the theatrical cut seemed more concerned with reverence for its source than a commitment to being a legitimate film. Much of the novel's power and depth was lost in the translation. Last summer, we saw an extended Blu-ray version where director Zack Snyder added 24 minutes of footage back to the film, which better maintained the comic's central conceit. 'The Director's Cut' better captures the story's dark, gritty appeal, providing it more substance and an improved narrative flow.
Six months later, filmmakers again released what is dubbed "The Ultimate Cut" — a version of the story which could only be appreciated by the most devoted of fans. Clocking in at 215 minutes, this much longer adaptation is truer to its source by incorporating an integral section of the 'Watchmen' narrative, one which allows viewers to delve deeper into this alternate reality and the psyche of costumed heroes. The Tales of the Black Freighter is the comic within a comic subplot and was filmed separately as an animated feature. Here, those sequences have been integrated with the live-action portion of the movie in the order as they would appear in the original novel. For those with little interest, this cut of the film understandably feels like a daunting chore, maybe even boring. But for fans, this only adds another layer and depth to already complex story about masked vigilantism.
The Black Freighter comic functions as a commentary to the action occurring outside itself. By deliberately interrupting the flow of the story at key moments, it becomes an allegorical subtext and provides a metaphysical insight into the psychology of superheroes. It makes it possible for viewers (or readers) to fully deconstruct the archetypes, which each central character typifies, and confronts them with contemporary real-world events. The plot of a sea captain caught on dark, tormenting, and all-consuming journey to save his family from the clutches of evil relates one way or another back to our ragtag group of costumed avengers.
Despite its short length, the story exposes questions about the limitations inherent within these would-be heroes and posits thoughts on the failure of salvation when humanity is so heavily flawed. The captain's need to quell and conquer a perceived evil prefigures their subconscious motives. His compulsive purpose and dedication for one end alone leaves an especially dramatic implication of both Rorschach and The Comedian — the madness born of only seeing the world as black & white, and the comic irony of knowing that building a raft of dead bodies is wrong but doing it nonetheless to satisfy one's personal goal. The shock at the end of the captain's journey hints at the reality of their lofty pursuits. It's the answer to the question often asked throughout the film: Why do they do it?
Unlike its peers of the same genre, 'Watchmen' is more dramatic and lacks the action-packed heroics typical of comics, especially now with the inclusion of The Tales of the Black Freighter. Also missing is a central villain or villains commonly utilized to move such stories forward because the real enemy is within. The conversation between Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan alludes to this. And if the ending feels at all like a letdown due to its build up, that's precisely the point and clearly expressed by Bernie's reaction in reading the comic within the comic. The discovery that the young boy and the newsstand owner happen to share the same name only deepens the story's overall theme of a flawed world.
As viewers (and readers), we can choose to acknowledge the coincidence of two completely opposite individuals sharing a similarity and contemplate further on the possible meanings. (This is in reference again to the philosophical implications of the Ozymandias/Dr. Manhattan conversation at the end.) Or, we can choose to simply ignore the whole thing as a big load of incidental hogwash and walk away, choosing to never think about it again.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video presents 'Watchmen: Collector's Edition' inside a durable black box with a lenticular cover showing the characters from the graphic novel or the film, depending on your view. The reason for the inclusion of the illustrations is because inside the box is a hardcover edition of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' landmark work, which "contains the high-quality, recolored pages found in Watchmen: The Absolute Edition, restored by Wildstorm FX and original series colorist John Riggins, as well as selected bonus sketch materials."
Underneath the book is a gatefold cardboard box with four discs. The three Blu-rays contain 'The Ultimate Cut', a Special Features disc, and 'Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic', which was previously reviewed. On DVD is the theatrical version of the film. Lastly, there is a redemption code for the UltraViolet version.
For this complete story version of 'Watchmen,' Warner Home Video uses the same 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.40:1) from the Director's Cut, so portions of my assessment of that review are reiterated here. This is also the same encode used for the standalone release of 'Tales of the Black Freighter.' Although the switching back and forth from live-action to animation is a bit jarring at times, the picture quality is consistently beautiful, with the actual film taking the obvious edge, which is astounding and one of the finest video presentations on Blu-ray.
The heavily stylized film is drenched in heavy, dark shadows, so black levels are very important to the overall effect. Fortunately, they are exceptional, delivering some the truest, blacker-than-black renderings available, and the cleanest gradients I've seen on this side of CGI movies. The fine lines of background objects are clearly distinguished in the darkest areas of the picture. Contrast is intentionally muted for a dreary tone which complements the subject matter, but offers plenty of visibility without hindering the rest of the video and provides the film with excellent depth. Even in the animated sequences, blacks remain inky and intense while whites are bright and crisp, but it's understandably a two-dimensional feature.
Details are remarkable and distinct, adding to the terrific dimensionality of the image. Facial complexions are equally impressive, appearing natural with incredible lifelike texture. In the 'Black Freighter' segments, the artwork shows terrific definition and resolution, but there are times when they suddenly go a bit fuzzy. This same section also shows some aliasing in a couple frames. The palette consists generally of pastel colors, and they yield a strong, bold tonality with accurate vividness. The animated portion is, of course, more energetic with very enthusiastic primaries. The only nitpick in the presentation is the minor instances of banding that are negligible and don't distract from enjoying the gorgeous film-like quality of 'Watchmen' on Blu-ray.
Surprisingly, Warner has replaced the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack from the Director's Cut with a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack for this Ultimate Cut. For all intents and purposes, the tracks are identical, and comparisons reveal no discernible, real-world difference. With that in mind, the high-resolution audio is nothing short of reference, with a sound design focused on subtle ambiance and generating a believable environment.
Whether we're watching live-action or the animated segments, the track is excitedly immersive, with tons of activity filling the speakers and creating a wonderful 360-degree soundfield. 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. The original musical score by Tyler Bates fills the entire soundstage with great separation and room penetration, full of warmth and breadth. But where the lossless mix really shines is in the stunning and spacious dynamic range, exhibiting some of the sharpest and cleanest differentiation between the highs and mid-levels without a single loss to detail. Imaging is convincing, with seamless pans and excellent directionality, enveloping the listener with great depth, clarity and definition. Low-frequency effects are very aggressive with a nicely refined punch, adding serious weight and power to each punch, kick and explosion. As with its predecessor, 'Watchmen' arrives on Blu-ray with a reference quality audio presentation that will surely impress.
The same set of special features from previous Blu-ray releases are repackaged here. Missing is the very excellent Maximum Movie Mode commentary found in the 'Director's Cut', which is replaced by two commentaries. Also gone the Digital Copies for 'Tales of the Black Freighter' and 'The Complete Motion Comic,' as well as the first look at 'Green Lantern.'
The 'Ultimate Cut' of Zack Snyder's 'Watchmen' contained within the 'Collector's Edition' is an impressive adaptation of the source material, and the Blu-ray offers a very satisfying high-definition experience. Although the graphic novel seemed better suited for a television miniseries or multiple films, as is the current rage in Hollywood, I am hard pressed to know what more someone would want from a single 'Watchmen' film.
For fans who don't own any of the previous 'Watchmen' releases, of which there are many so it's hard to imagine they waited this many years to indulge, the 'Collector's Edition' is highly recommend, especially with the inclusion of the graphic novel in hardcover. That is until the eventual 'Ultimate Collector's Edition' comes along offering everything here along with toys, shirts, and the Before Watchmen books.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.