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Amazon prime has Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut available on Prime Video as I write this. Actually, it has three different versions of the movie, all on Prime. The Ultimate Cut is the longest, followed by the Director’s Cut, followed by the Theatrical Release. It was the Ultimate Cut that caught my eye. Never having watched this movie (in any version) before, this is the one I went with.

I am not typically a fan of comic book to movie conversions, mostly because I’ve never been a fan of comic books themselves. This one didn’t really speak to me when it came out nine years ago and hadn’t thought much of it since. Over the last couple of years, though, I’ve seen people post the opening credits on Facebook and I really like the look and feel of that sequence. More recently I’ve seen some positive comments (also Facebook) about the film so when it popped up on Amazon, it was on my radar.

As well it might be. The movie starts on October 12th, 1985 in an alternate reality where the U.S. has won the Vietnam War resulting in a nuclear showdown between still-going-strong President Nixon and the Russians over Afghanistan. Much of the details are revealed through flashbacks wherein we come to learn of a post-1930s world infused with masked superheroes. More importantly in 1959, a human achieves godlike powers through a nuclear accident and, via his new persona as Dr. Manhattan, comes to dominate world events.

I struggle with what to think of this film. It is a dark, violent, and explicit version of a superhero tale. Director by Zack Snyder following his success with 300, it is laden with style. I particularly like the soundtrack. The casting also is inspired. Actors bear a resemblance to other, older (80s?) actors bringing in subtle allusions from earlier film and television. In fact, the whole film is interwoven with oblique references. Sometimes it takes quite a bit of concentration, as so much of the film scatters clues for you to pick up rather than being shoving it all right in your face.

But is it just a mesh of pop-cultural snark, ultimately leading nowhere? Or does it all come together to produce something far greater than the sum of its parts? My suspicions are aroused by the decidedly left-wing bent to the whole narrative. Save one, the superheroes of course forgo the use of firearms. The one character who does not, The Comedian, is a rapist and murderer. The dystopia in which the film finds itself has birthed, apparently, from a right wing dream – Victory in Vietnam followed by permanent conservative majority. Is this just a canvas on which to paint a bigger message, or is it itself the message?

The source book was created in, roughly, the same timeframe as portrayed in its story. It was released as a comic book series in 1986 and 1987, using the alternate timeline to portray the recent past as dystopian future. The original series is lauded as a significant work of literature by critics and is credited by the BBC for launching the serious, mainstream appreciation of graphic novels. Given writer Alan Moore’s anarchic leanings, this all would argue for a more nuanced interpretation than the obvious “Republicans are bad” take within the movie’s script. Still, Moore does write that part of his message was to be an attack on the Reaganism of the time in which he wrote.

A film can rarely do full justice to its source material and apparently this holds true in the case of this graphic novel. I gather that the film makes an effort to stay true, particularly with the extended versions. There are some changes in plot. In particular the decision to insert an annoying sub-narrative about energy scarcity and evil automotive and oil companies seems rather childish, given its ultimate irrelevance in the main story. The movie also seems to a flipped history to make the U.S. the aggressor in Afghanistan that (assuming I’ve interpreted it all as intended) in what is an unnecessary jab of anti-Americanism. The extent to which the film follows the comic, in my mind, benefits the cinematic version by being able to draw for meaning on the greater depth of that material.

Regarding this particular version, it is a three hour and 35 minute marathon. It’s twenty-nine minutes longer than the Director’s Cut and just shy of a full hour longer than the theater release version. Having not seen the shorter versions, it is tough for me to really analyze the differences. I have read that between the Director’s Cut and the theater release, the missing material actually changes the story substantially (and that the longer version is truer to the source material). Much of the remaining difference going to the Ultimate Cut is from the inclusion of the cartoon short, Tales of the Black Freighter, interwoven with the movie. This is a graphic novel which a minor character  reads periodically throughout the story. In the theatrical release, the reference to Black Freighter is through a single line which would seem to obscure the purpose of its message relative to the main story. Inserting the story in its entirety is either enlightening or overdone, depending on how critical you feel the short’s message is to the overall interpretation of Watchmen.

In the end, this is probably worth the watch. The bits that show true promise then get stepped on by pieces that muddle and simplify. In the end, it may all well be less than it appears. Getting the viewer to work their way through it all, though, that’s worth something in and of itself.