Published Mar 05, 2009Director Zach Snyder, who took up the challenge of adapting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic masterpiece Watchmen after numerous directors had tried and failed, has indeed managed the impossible: he's made an entertaining movie that is true to the source material without being slavishly chained to it.
Among the fears assuaged by Snyder's efforts: he downplays the flashy freeze-and-go stylistic tics that dominated his last comic adaptation, 300; he doesn't shy away from the story's gruesome side, featuring some truly brutal and shocking incidents of violence; and with one exception, the decision to cast relative unknowns throughout pays off.
Although ostensibly a superhero story and a murder mystery, Watchmen is actually neither. Its costumed crime fighters have been forcibly retired by the fascistic government of this alternate 1985, when Nixon is still president, the cold war rages and having won in Vietnam, American foreign policy is dominated by fighting off communism the world over.
The disgruntled former heroes are in varying stages of denial or depression. The Comedian (Grey's Anatomy's Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is actually enjoying retirement; the current political climate not only tolerates but encourages his "might is right" viewpoint, and it's his brutal murder that sets the events of Watchmen underway. His death is of greatest concern to Rorschach (and Jackie Earl Haley is perfect in this thankless, masked role), whose own misanthropy and unwavering sense of justice make him an uncompromising outcast even amongst his peers.
Rorschach tries to rouse his former colleagues into action but Silk Spectre II (Canadian Malin Akerman) and her emotionally, and literally, distant boyfriend, super powered naked blue man Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), are caught up in relationship drama. Dweeby Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) has settled into middle class drudgery and the world's smartest man Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) has leveraged his celebrity into the world's biggest corporate brand. Unlike the great responsibility that heroes are supposed to feel when attaining great power, each of the Watchmen has their own lack of agenda in a world that betrayed them.
The darkness, that willingness to embark upon a superhero tale in which the protagonists are neither notably heroic nor in several cases very super (vain, selfish, angry, violent or at best, emotionally detached are some of their more prominent attributes) is what makes Watchmen a tough sell to a popcorn movie crowd. And to his credit, Snyder has turned an action movie, in which most of the action happened long ago and far away, into a compelling movie that holds your attention throughout its near three-hour running time.
Of course there has to be a but, especially when dealing with something as complex, detailed and dense as Moore and Gibbons' work. What Watchmen does as a film is honour the graphic novel's narrative on the most superficial level. But it's on that level that Watchmen is actually weakest.
(Mild spoilers ahead for those unfamiliar with the book.) As a murder mystery, who's behind Comedian's death is the least interesting part of the narrative, yet it's the most obvious narrative "frame" on which to hang the movie. As an important protagonist, Ozymandias is all wrong in film terms: he's introduced only minimally, has zero personality and is such a merely functional pawn as to closely resemble one of Hitchcock's famous Macguffins. And structurally (Snyder hues as closely to the story as told as he can) what works in a 12-issue comic series - pausing to tell Dr. Manhattan's origin story, or Rorschach's prison stint, or Spectre's relationship with her mother - can distract from the forward momentum of what is ostensibly the primary narrative.
By stripping away the "unnecessary" parts of Watchmen's dense layers - not just the comic-within-a-story of the Black Freighter but the day-to-day life around the newspaper stand and its common folk inhabitants - Snyder has left only the superheroes and none of the people. What Watchmen did as a book was straddle a line: commenting on the nature of superheroes both in the book and in social milieus, as well as placing the work in a real-world context of politics and capitalism.
As a book, Watchmen is a comic about comics and about the world in which those comics are written and consumed. Watchmen as a movie is only about the book. To say that Snyder fails to bring his movie into any relatable scenario, any allegorical relationship between our lives and these stories, is to imply that he tried and did not succeed: he doesn't even try.
His only goal is to represent Moore and Gibbons' work on the big screen, and in that he succeeds more than anyone really had a right to expect. It's just that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons actually had much bigger and more ambitious goals in mind. (Warner)