Written by Old Bluffer 13th Mar 2009
*** Spoiler Alert - this is a new film and this opening review spoils a great deal of plot. If you haven't read the novel or watched the movie I strongly advise you not to read any further ***
Well the anticipation is over, the film that many (including Terry Gilliam) said was unfilmable has arrived, and it kicks off with an Ambivalent Major death, which are always interesting.
Edward Blake is in his sixties, but is still an imposing figure, having the build of a "linebacker". Retired for years, he used to be The Comedian - one of the most famous masked superheroes in the world. In Watchmen however, there are no true superheroes in the traditional sense, which we grow to learn throughout the story.
Blake is relaxing in his apartment on the night of his murder, and although the interior has the squalor of a single man that doesn't much care for hygiene, it still looks as if it costs quite a bit. Evidently, The Comedian is comfortably well off. There are also clues to his secret identity, with pictures of his former crimefighting partners on the walls, and a badge that he wears, with his trademark yellow smiley face.
He is disturbed by a masked intruder kicking down his door, but this doesn't seem to particularly surprise him.
"Just a matter of time, I suppose." he growls, and reaches for his firearm.
The assassin is far too fast for him though, and what follows is as brutal a mashing as you're ever likely to see. Blake is huge and imposing, and clearly knows how to brawl with the best of them, but in his final fight, he is comprehensively outmatched. Every powerful, wall-smashing blow he swings is either blocked or avoided and then answered with a barrage of punishing strikes. He is thrown across his apartment, smashed into walls and furniture and has his head powered through a stone worktop.
All the while, during this carnage, Unforgettable by Nat King Cole plays in the background - the mellow croonings serving as a welcome counterpoint to the hard-core drubbing being meted out to the old man.
In desperation, he grabs some kitchen knives and cleavers, but these are contemptuously brushed aside and he finally stops fighting.
As he is grabbed up as if he weighed nothing, he grins; saying, seemingly with genuine if bitter amusement, "It's all a joke." and blood drips from his battered face onto his smiling badge, forming the iconic Watchmen logo.
His killer then hurls him through what we later find out is a reinforced plateglass window, that would normally only smash if struck by a car at speed.
Nonetheless, Blake crashes through as if it wasn't there, and we suddenly go into slow motion. His badge is ripped off and we see it spin as his body falls many floors below, amidst a cascade of glass shards.
Still tumbling gracefully, the badge hits the ground slightly after its former owner, and comes to rest, smile up, as blood slowly pools across the sidewalk.
This, of course, is the opening frame of the graphic novel. And later on fans will be pleased to here that the famous pan from the bloodied smiling face all the way up to the broken window is reproduced faithfully.
He is buried with full American military honours, giving us a clue as to how he earned his money later in life, and the funeral is beautifully and ironically directed, seguing into other scenes and overlaid with Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of Silence".
The end of the Comedian?
The Comedian's role in the movie is by no means over now that he is dead, as his life is shown in flashback, and shows him to be one of the most important characters in the story, both thematically and for the plot.
Publicly, he was a glamorous costumed hero for The Minutemen, an old-school crimefighting team during the forties. Even then though, he was a nasty piece of work, attracted to the anarchic and violent lifestyle rather than from any motivation for doing good.
The first glimpse we get of his true character is back in this "golden", simpler age, when he follows the buxom and scantily clad Sally Jupiter into her changing room, and crudely attempts to hit on her. When she refuses his advances, things get nasty and he punches her into submission in a brutal fashion. Slamming her over a pool table there is nothing she can do as he prepares to rape her. She is saved by another team-member though, Hooded Justice, who is ostensibly her partner, but is in reality gay, like several other Minutemen.
Events then happen which change the role of so-called superheroes forever. A freak laboratory accident transforms a scientist into a being with seemingly limitless atomic powers. Dubbed "Dr Manhattan", he is immediately used by the US government to further their own political ends. When the Vietnam war starts, America sends in Dr Manhattan to end the conflict within a week. The Comedian is also a government agent by this point, and goes along for the joy of it, slaughtering men, women and children alike. In one scene, he is confronted by a Vietnamese lady, heavily pregnant with his child, who wants to talk about their future together. He cruelly rebuffs her and in furious despair she vows he will remember her and her country forever, as she smashes a beer bottle into his face, scarring him for life. Dripping with blood, he pulls out his gun and shoots her dead - he's that kind of guy.
Years later, most of the Minutemen have either retired or been killed, The Comedian is still going strong (in fact it is he that is ordered to assassinate Kennedy) . The golden age has well and truly passed though, and the public are growing increasingly disenchanted with what they see as outdated vigilantes who have no real relevance in the modern day. After all, what's the use of a spangly costume in a world that could end at any moment due to global thermonuclear war?
The Keane Act is passed, banning masked crusaders, and we see a flashback of Nite Owl II (the younger successor to the original Nite Owl) and the Comedian attempting to disperse a rioting crowd. Nite Owl tries to reason with them but The Comedian has no patience for that style of public relations by this point. He leaps into the mob, easily crippling anyone that stands in his way, and then proceeds to fire smoke grenades directly at them, just for the entertainment value.
"What happened to the American Dream?" laments a stricken Nite Owl, as he realises how far they have fallen.
"It came true. You're lookin' at it!" guffaws Blake, as he zings another projectile at a hapless bystander with bone cracking force.
And he is right - America is unassailably the dominant power on the planet, as nobody dares attack them due to the presence of Dr Manhattan.
The Comedian understands the sick humour in all this, especially the ridiculous irony that he is considered to be a hero and a patriot, when in reality he is a brutal, amoral thug.
Towards the end of his life, we learn that he has stumbled onto a plot involving all the retired superheroes. For some reason this causes him to get blindingly drunk and seek out his old supervillain nemesis, Moloch the Mystic, who is by then an old man dying of cancer. Crying like a babe, Blake babbles almost incoherently, talking about a list and repeating that everything is just a joke. He is killed shortly afterwards, putting into motion the main mystery that serves as the story arc for the movie - because at this point we don't know who his killer is, or their motivation...
So why is this death listed as being Major Ambivalent?
It is all too easy to look at The Comedian's life as a series of flashbacks and paint him as a purely evil character. Even Sally Jupiter has some fond memories of him in her twilight years, despite the brutality of her attempted rape. And for all his self-acknowledged faults, he did alleviate a great deal of suffering in the world (as well as causing a lot) as part of his crime-fighting career. The Comedian never made any excuse for what he was, but he chose to channel his violent nature in ways that mostly fought crime, or served his country, as well as satisfying his base needs.
As with all the characters in Watchmen then, it is up to the viewer to ultimately decide whether they have any sympathy for him.
Old Bluffer's Thoughts
This was an outstanding start to the film, with an unusually one-sided and well choreographed fight. The soundtrack and following scenes work especially well too.
By the way, Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays the role perfectly, and I for one am glad that the rather too obvious choice of Ron Perlman didn't happen.
More Watchmen death reviews to follow, hopefully in the next few days...