Malin Akerman and Patrick Wilson get their leather-and-latex-in-prison fetish on
Among a significant segment of the comic reading crowd, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is a little like holy scripture. From an artwork standpoint, it’s a highly cinematic piece with its colored panels unfolding in storyboard-like fashion, but it also brings to bear the power of literature with its density, its numerous thematic layers and its precise structure. The comic is truly the fusion of movie and novel, drawing strengths from both kinds of art in a nearly perfect realization of the form.
Narratively Watchmen accomplishes a kind of complexity that neither a novel nor a film can quite convey and therein lies the main problem with Zack Snyder’s faithful, well-intentioned and almost successful cinematic adaptation: a two hour and forty-five minute film can only effectively capture one aspect of the comic. In this case, though it’s a little too slick by half (the comic felt grungier somehow), Watchmen is an at times eerily accurate visual reproduction of the comic. Unfortunately however, it mostly fails to convey the original’s richness and the end result feels a little hollow and pointless.
Taking place in 1985 in an alternate real world where superheroes actually exist, Watchmen asks the question what such a world would be like. In Moore’s vision, the original superheroes are simply slightly bent citizens who dress up in costumes and fight crime for kicks. Then, in the 1960s, a physics experiment gone awry gives birth to Dr. Manhattan, a nearly omnipotent being who can shape matter itself. The first superhero with actual super powers, Dr. Manhattan wins the war in Vietnam (allowing Richard Nixon to repeal term limits and remain president) and the Soviets are kept at bay in the Cold War. However, in order to counteract the threat of Dr. Manhattan, they build up a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons. When one crime fighter is murdered and Dr. Manhattan disappears, the world is left on the brink of war and it’s up to a group of retired (and now outlawed) superheroes to find out what’s going on before it’s too late.
The good news is that Snyder appears to have approached the story with a desire to do it justice and without a trace of cynicism. It shows in the at times almost fetishistic reproductions of some of the original comic panels and the myriad tiny details that aren’t necessary for the telling of the story but should give fans a bit of a thrill. He also did a mostly remarkable job in casting. Jackie Earl Haley captures the tenor and spirit of the unhinged vigilante “Rorschach” perfectly, both in and out of costume. Patrick Wilson meanwhile nails the soft, middle-aged, impotent Dan Dreiberg who once dressed up as the Batman-like “Night Owl.” Malin Akerman is probably the weakest link as “Silk Spectre” Laurie Juspeczyk, but it’s kind of a goofy character to begin with and she doesn’t ruin the film.
A little more problematic are some shaky musical choices. Some of songs are referenced directly in the comic. Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower and Desolation Row for example are featured in the book and heard in the film, though in versions by Jimi Hendrix and My Chemical Romance respectively. Dylan’s version of The Times They Are a Changin’ on the other hand is used over an opening credit sequence that neatly lays out the Watchmen history of superheroes. It’s a nifty introduction to the film, but the song is an obvious and overdone choice. Worse still is Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries used for a sequence in Vietnam. It’s an affectionate nod to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but a distracting misstep that takes you out of the film.
Speaking of quotes, there are at least two shots of the president in the war room that are lifted directly from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove – right down to the lighting and set design. It’s a fun bit of cinematic geekery, but like the Coppola nod, it’s distracting if you notice it and pointless if you don’t.
Sure to be the most controversial among the purist and fanboy set is the fact that Snyder completely reconfigured the ending of the comic. It’s understandable since the original ending requires a considerable side story – a side story that unbeknownst to Moore had already been the subject of an Outer Limits episode (and is alluded to in both the comic and the film). Though the new ending is less elegant, it’s a more economical expression of the same idea. It’s fully within the spirit of the comic, but it’s jarring if you know how it’s really supposed to play out.
Despite some of the changes, many of the individual sequences make you smile with their fidelity to the comic. The opening death of Edward Blake “The Comedian” is especially remarkable in this regard and so is his funeral. These scenes are literally the comic brought to life. Unfortunately, they’re only a simulacrum of reality and that’s ultimately the problem with the film. Though Watchmen tries its best, it ends up feeling a bit like a travelogue or greatest hits version of the comic, hitting all the most memorable notes while only skimming across the surface. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either. On one hand it gets just enough right to frustrate you with the possibility of what could’ve been, but on the other hand the parts that work are still a lot of fun.
In a perfect world, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen would’ve reinvented how we tell superhero stories in movies the way Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen did for comics. That’s a lot to ask especially when you consider that Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 is one of the emptiest and most irritating comic adaptations to come down the pipeline. Though this film falls far short of revolution we should probably be happy that it doesn’t fall completely on its ass.
Snyder’s Watchmen isn’t quite the R-Rated, adult superhero movie I yearned for after enjoying The Dark Knight last summer, but it does nothing to mar the original source material and it gets enough right to be worth seeing. The unfortunate irony is that the film will probably make the most sense to people who’ve read the comic, but for this same audience it adds little new to the experience.
Watchmen. USA 2009. Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse based on the original comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Cinematography by Larry Fong. Edited by William Hoy. Music composed by Tyler Bates. Starring Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Patrick Wilson. 2 hours 41 minutes. MPAA Rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language. 3.5 stars (out of 5).