Review: The Watchmen saga continues (sort of) in Tales of the Black Freighter

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Released on March 24, a little more than two weeks after the live-action film arrives in theaters, Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter serves two purposes: to provide newcomers to Alan Moore's superhero meditation with more background material, and to satisfy the longtime fans who want to see every last word and image from the series come to life.

But while it's understandable that Warner Brothers would try to augment the blockbuster adaptation's commercial potential by producing versions and interpretations of every aspect of the Watchmen universe, the studio has overestimated interest in their spring tentpole, if not also the size of their audience's wallets.

Unlike its predecessor, the epic, five-hour Complete Motion Comic, Tales of the Black Freighter and its companion piece Under the Hood offer together only an hour of new footage, making this set a collection of content that would better serve the film's future DVD and Blu-ray iterations than exist as a standalone release.

Rated R for "violent and grisly images," Tales of the Black Freighter re-creates the infamous comic-book-within-a-comic-book that was wisely excised from Zack Snyder's live-action film, and it does a good job capturing the depravity of the source material. While directors Daniel Delpurgatorio and Mike Smith certainly didn't need to simply replicate the style of Dave Gibbons' original panels, they employ a visual style that feels either too detailed or not detailed enough, giving the story a more literal cartoon feel and undermining its relevance as a story parallel to Ozymandias' nobly insane strategy to save the planet.

While it might qualify as blasphemy to suggest another artist's style would be better suited to adapt Dave Gibbons' original artwork, a visual landscape that looked more as if it were designed by someone like Bernie Wrightson would have been more effective than the Saturday-morning aesthetic the filmmakers adopt here.

Meanwhile, Under the Hood does its able best to rejigger the text pages from the graphic novels into something visually digestible, and for the most part it succeeds. Using several of the actors from the film, including Stephen McHattie, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Carla Gugino, the 1980s-era PBS-style documentary weaves together "archival footage" and new interviews with former Watchmen members, providing some "in their own words" segments that further enhance or explain the background between specific characters.

At the same time, however, sticklers for period accuracy will note that the material mostly looks like digitally manipulated high-definition footage than, say, 16mm newsreels or even aged videotape, which suggests that the makers of this did not quite embrace Snyder's commitment to authenticity.

What's actually more interesting is "Story Within a Story," the making-of featurette that accompanies both of these short features, because it examines the relevance each of them has to the central Watchmen story. Notwithstanding the odd prospect of critiquing the making-of of a deconstruction of a commentary, this is actually the most illuminating of all of the material on this release, because it really does demonstrate how every part of the graphic novels was tailored and developed to dovetail into one central thesis about the nature of comic books and superheroes.

For those who skipped the Complete Motion Comic, this set includes Episode 1, but it's safe to assume that if you didn't care to see the comic come to life before, nothing here will further stoke your interest. Otherwise, there's a preview of the forthcoming Green Lantern DVD that looks vaguely promising, but as a whole this is a disc that probably should have simply accompanied the live-action film upon its DVD and Blu-ray release—and probably will—because it feels like a supplement rather than a companion piece to what is already available.

Then again, if you just can't get enough, then this should serve as a satisfying stopgap between trips to the multiplex; but if once was enough for you to absorb, understand or just enjoy Watchmen, save your cash and wait for something a little more substantial.