Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 23, 2009)
Just in time for the release of the live-action Watchmen flick, we get Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic. This takes the original Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel and animates it – sort of. Actually, this Watchmen replicates the original visuals, animates it, and adds audio. It’s an interesting way to adapt material like this.
Set during an alternate version of 1985 in which the US won the Vietnam War and Nixon remains president, Watchmen posits a world in which superheroes have been banned. Most go underground or into retirement, as only two heroes – nearly omnipotent Dr. Manhattan and hotheaded Comedian – operate with government approval. Rorschach continues to do his thing as a vigilante, however. When government official Edward Blake gets murdered, Rorschach discovers that Blake was The Comedian, and he sets out to solve the crime.
This leads to a potentially deeper plot. Questions remains whether The Comedian’s death was an isolated incident or a grander scheme to eliminate superheroes from the world. As Rorschach attempts to discover the truth, we follow the lives of his former compatriots and learn more about their lives and situations.
Given that this adaptation of Watchmen runs nearly five and a half hours, that synopsis provides a rather rudimentary overview of the story. To a certain degree, the larger series of events – the potential “mask killer” and the threat of nuclear war – feels like something of a MacGuffin. Those elements motivate the story but don’t present as its main focus.
Instead, Watchmen provides a surprisingly strong character base. At times it teeters on the edge of soap opera, as it digs into the various participants and their interactions. That side of things – and how it effects the world as a whole – becomes the program’s main focus, and it makes the series effective. Watchmen absorbs us into the lives of the characters, and it fleshes them out in a satisfying way.
For a nominal superhero piece, we don’t find a heck of a lot of action. The occasional set piece occurs, but again, characters and drama remain the most important elements. They become more than enough to keep us absorbed.
This was my first experience with the Watchmen story, and I enjoyed it. I do wonder how if I would’ve liked it even more had I read the original comic series. While the “motion comic” brings the material to the screen in a satisfying way, it obviously has to put its own stamp on the novel.
The biggest impact comes from the vocal work. In an interesting choice, Watchmen uses one “narrator” (Tom Stechschulte) as the voice of all the characters. At first this seems off-putting, especially when we hear Stechschulte play female roles. After a while, matters feel more natural, though I admit it can remain confusing. Stechschulte does his best to make each role distinctive – and he usually succeeds – but with so many different participants, they can start to sound a lot alike.
Would this “motion comic” work better with a bigger cast? Perhaps, but I think the decision is intriguing since it might better replicate the experience of someone who inspects the original graphic novel. When you read a comic book, you do all the voices in your head. Here Stechschulte acts as our surrogate and does the same thing. He may give the characters different inflections than we might choose, but the result is the same: personalities all acted out by one person.
As for the “motion comic” visual presentation, it usually succeeds. While the animation remains limited, it actually displays more movement than I anticipated. I thought we’d get little more than barely-tweaked comic panels, but quite a lot of motion occurs. Nothing here approaches the level of a good animated film – or even a mediocre one – but it helps add some life to the panels.
My one quibble might be from the use of speech balloons during the program. Since we get both spoken dialogue and this text, the two sides tend to compete with each other. It’s like watching an English movie with the subtitles activated; you can’t quite decide whether to listen to the lines or to read them. I understand that the speech balloons appear here to replicate the comic book experience, but I’d like an option in which I could deactivate them; they become too much of a distraction.
While not a perfect presentation, this “Complete Motion Comic” of Watchmen does bring it to life in an evocative manner. The graphic novel provides a truly epic adventure, and the program delivers it in a vivid way.