'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 (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 by fans around the globe for failing to truly capture the spirit of the series. 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 brings 'Watchmen' to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a flyer for a Digital HD Copy. At the moment, we are unable to verify the size of the content, but the triple-layered UHD100 disc sits comfortably opposite a pair of Region Free, BD50 discs sitting atop each other. The first contains the Director's Cut of the film while the second comes with all the special features. All three discs are packaged inside a black, eco-cutout case with a glossy slipcover. At startup, the disc goes straight to a static menu and music playing in the background.
The complete version of the graphic novel classic unfortunately fails to find redemption on Ultra HD Blu-ray, giving rise to a concern I've expressed before about any title hitting the new format in these early stages: the condition and original quality of the source. The movie was shot on traditional 35mm, for which there is a source master, and later mastered in a 2K digital intermediate. Although I can't say with certainty which was used, but given the results, this HEVC H.265 encode is the result of an upconverted 2K DI, failing to show a significant upgrade over its Blu-ray counterpart aside from a few visible improvements.
As would be expected, the overall video does land with better definition, sharper details, and excellent clarity. Fine lines and objects are distinct even during poorly-lit interiors or nighttime sequences, of which there are many. The lettering on books, papers and on signs hanging on the side of buildings in the distance are plainly visible and crystal-clear. Viewers can better appreciate the threading, fabric and unique design of each costume. Unfortunately, this isn't alway consistent, as several scenes are noticeably comparable to the Blu-ray while an A and B comparison doesn't reveal the massive night-and-day difference between the two formats. It's worth mentioning that the 2160p video comes with many minor instances of aliasing along the sharpest edges of windows and television sets. And worse still is the mild posterization in several areas, especially in the faces of the cast looking pretty digital and unattractive.
Of course, it must be noted that this is a heavily stylized film drenched in heavy, dark shadows, so black levels are very important to the overall effect. For the most part, they are exceptional, delivering true, blacker-than-black renderings for a majority of the runtime with some of the cleanest gradients and differences between the various shades. The fine lines of background objects are clearly distinguished in the darkest areas of the picture. However, there a couple moments where crush rears its ugly head to hurt the overall quality. Also, the intentionally muted and dreary contrast meant to complement the somber subject matter seems all the more noticeably here, creating a somewhat drained and very flat two-dimensional image. Although rendered accurately, the lackluster whites look more grayish and dim, meaning the transfer doesn't take advantage of the high-dynamic range that should be one of the format's biggest selling points.
Presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the overall color palette is largely affected by the intentional look and feel of the video, but thankfully, it is not entirely ruined by the filmmakers' creative choices. Because it was filmed with a darkly bleak outlook, much of the 4K presentation lacks a variety of colors and it seems as the though source was not graded for the wider gamut, which is unfortunate. The few instances of primaries are fairly vibrant and cleanly rendered, but honestly, they are not much better than what is seen on the Blu-ray. However, secondary hues are the clear winners when making the making to UHD, offering a larger array of magentas, cyan and orange throughout. While Dr. Manhattan glows an electrifying blue, the rest of the room and space around him is bathed in a neon purple brilliance that adds a strangeness to his character. And finally, in the 'Black Freighter' segments, the artwork shows strong, bold primaries with accurate vividness. Sadly, what also troubles some of these best moments are more instances of very faint banding, which is not supposed to happen in the new format, and flesh tones, more often than not, look rather pale and sickly, making this UHD passable with some noteworthy drawbacks.
Surprisingly, Warner has decided not to upgrade this Ultra HD edition of the Ultimate Cut with a Dolby Atmos track, but instead ports over the same Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Nevertheless, 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.
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. By integrating the animated short for The Tales of the Black Freighter into the Director's Cut live-action film, it's difficult to imagine we'll ever see a better adaptation of the Watchmen universe.
This Ultra HD Blu-ray arrives with a strong 4K video presentation, but unfortunately, it also appears to be plagued with a couple of noticeable issues and in spite of delivering some pop, it’s not quite wholly satisfying. On the plus side, the audio presentation is excellent, accompanied by a small collection of supplements, making the overall package worth checking out for fans and early adopters enthusiastic about the new format.
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.