It’s a comic book. No, it’s a graphic novel. Hang on, it’s one of the most significant literary works of the 20th century (according to Time magazine). It’s “Watchmen,” and almost from the moment the final issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ magnum opus hit the shelves in 1987, it was deemed unfilmable. The narrative was considered too dense and nuanced for a standard length feature. Moreover it was thought the books’ parallel reality setting, including an issue-long interlude on Mars, would be too difficult to re-create on the big screen. The latter concern was easily addressed with the advent of powerful computer effects, and as for the former…that still proves to be a problem, unfortunately. “Watchmen” is indeed gorgeous, with Gibbons’ original work reproduced and – in some cases – improved upon by detailed F/X, but even at a healthy two hours and 41 minutes the story feels truncated. Even abrupt.
It doesn’t seem that way at first. Set on an alternate Earth where Nixon is serving his 5th Presidential term, America won the Vietnam War, and costumed heroes have been outlawed, “Watchmen” starts off briskly, opening with the murder of one Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Also known as the Comedian, Blake was one of only two superheroes employed by the U.S. government. A nifty opening credits sequence introduces us to the Comedian’s fellow superheroes and their history together, including his early years with a group known as the Minutemen and later as a member of the Watchmen.
One of the Comedian’s former colleagues, the masked vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley), has defied the government’s ban and conducts his own investigation, concluding that a conspiracy is afoot to rid the world of superheroes. He takes it upon himself to warn his old partners, including gadgeteer Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), “world’s smartest man” Ozymandius (Matthew Goode), reluctant femme fatale Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman), and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the only one of the bunch with actual (near godlike) powers. In a combination of flashbacks and present-day action, we learn of each member’s origins and their attempts to unravel the apparent plot to eliminate the remaining superheroes.
Skipping plot summaries, let me just say director Zack Snyder is really in a no-win situation here: those unfamiliar with the original comic are coming in with no knowledge of the main characters and are faced with a flick lacking much of the action of its genre contemporaries (though no doubt they’ll cheer Rorschach’s antics while missing the entire point of his nihilism). Fans of the series (who tend to be zealous in their affections) are already steamed at the expurgation of some of the book’s elements (“Tales of the Black Freighter, “Under the Hood,” most of the New Frontiersman subplot) as well as Snyder’s stylistic…enhancements, which kind of fly in the face of his assertions that he’s a “big fan” of the comic.
The biggest departure is actually the ending, which – amusingly enough – ends up being the change that makes the most sense. The mid-1980s were the height of the Cold War, after all, and Moore’s hypothesis that even in an alternate reality we were likely doomed to nuclear extinction made the original climax that much more effective. But this is a new century, so antiquated fears of hegemonic warfare must take a back seat to the energy crisis.
Likewise, today’s jaded audiences won’t be satisfied with vintage mid-1980s style violence. Everything about Snyder’s film is “Watchmen Extreme:” It’s no longer enough for Rorschach to beat up a dozen cops, jump from a second floor window and get arrested; now he has to beat up another dozen before they wrestle him to the ground. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II don’t use high-pitched “screechers” to disable the inmates and prison guards, they just beat the s**t out of them. And – not content merely to wipe out central New York – Snyder destroys no less than the six biggest cities in the world.
Speaking as a 25-year fan of Alan Moore’s work, my curiosity at someone finally managing to bring “Watchmen” to the big screen is tempered by other, conflicting emotions. For starters, there’s annoyance that Ackerman is all wrong for the role of Sally Jupiter, and Goode is far too callow to have trod the paths of Alexander of Macedonia. There’s also exasperation at the stripping away of most of the story’s nuance – for example, in the comic Blake joked about his whereabouts when JFK was assassinated, here we see him firing from the grassy knoll. It’s also unclear if Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse are unaware of the fact that the group never referred to themselves as “The Watchmen” or just ignored it.
Finally, there’s outright contempt for Snyder, who – with his repeated use of the quit cut/slo-mo gimmick utilized to such effectiveness in the gleefully excessive “300” – ironically embodies the very overindulgence that Rorschach repeatedly points out will be the death of our society. Is the movie visually arresting? Certainly, but it’s also glossy and ham-handed where the source material was unvarnished and introspective. In the end, all “Watchmen” proves is that some things are better remembered as relics of their era.