The seminal limited comic book series Watchmen (the first to be published as a "graphic novel") still stands as a high water mark of comic-book artistry. Over 12 issues spanning 1986-1987, writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons conjured a fascinating and alarming alternate reality for 1985. If superheroes functioned within the continuum of American history, they would, of course, affect the course of human events, and the course of human events would affect the superheroes in return. As the graphic novel was a postmodern comic book, director Zack Snyder's adaptation qualifies as a postmodern superhero movie. Both ask us to consider what superheroes mean to us, why they have such a hold on our imagination. The answer should rattle the nation's mallrats or, at the very least, confuse them. So far, so good.
As seen in Snyder's faithful but limited rendering, Watchmen explores an America in which most superheroes saw their vigilantism outlawed by the government. Nevertheless, two sanctioned heroes-a Nietzschean "Superman" imbued with nuclear capability (Dr. Manhattan) and a costumed hero coopted as a secret operative (The Comedian)-made Vietnam a cakewalk, Nixon a five-term president, and established a tentative world peace with their super-deterrence. When a killer throws The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) through the plate glass window of his high-rise apartment, disbanded heroes reunite to mull over the possibility of a "mask killer" picking off superheroes; meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan (a motion-captured Billy Crudup) skips the planet, advancing the Doomsday Clock by tipping the Cold War balance of power toward World War III.
Screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse render the complex plot in reasonably coherent fashion, though certain plot points may be lost on the casual viewer. In his comics, Moore wrote himself a Gordian knot, then undid it in an audacious climax, one that the film necessarily streamlines. Still, streamlining is what undoes this Watchmen, perhaps unavoidably. Refusing to believe a film of Watchmen could artfully tell the same story, Moore removed his name from the project long ago. "With a comic, you can take as much time as you want," Moore said. "But in a film, by the nature of the medium, you're being dragged through it at 24 frames per second." Terry Gilliam, one of three major directors once attached to the project, concluded it could only be done honorably as a five-hour miniseries.
Undeniably, Watchmen retains a healthy saturation of subversion in its deconstruction of archetypal superheroes, from the cigar-chomping punisher that is The Comedian to Dr. Manhattan's blue nudity and dangerously philosophical quantum perspective on the universe (I guess that's why they call it the blues). The characters are accurately interpreted as psychologically damaged: the psychopathic Rorshach (Jackie Earle Haley, ideally cast), with his ever-shifting mask of ink blots; Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a super-genius with a God complex and an ancient-world fetish; retired Silk Spectre Laurie Juspeczyk (an underwhelming Malin Akerman), with self-esteem issues borne of being Dr. Manhattan's estranged lover; and one-time Nite Owl Dan Dreiberg (standout Patrick Wilson), who pines for Laurie, but has been rendered impotent since being forced to hang up his cape. The film retains one of the novel's most pungent jokes: that only breathless violence and costumed role play can cure what sexually ails Dan.
The graphic novel brimmed with significance, but the film fails to evince a clear perspective on its various elements: the flash and dazzle too often drown out the ideas, and besides, Moore was right: the necessarily ruthless forward momentum allows no time to ponder them anyway. Savored on the page, Watchmen evokes contemplation and an emotional response; in his screen version, Snyder excels at recreating the spectacle (with the help of Fight Club production designer Alex McDowell) and retains the toughness of the story, but only sporadically connects with its funkiness (one of Gibbons' best gifts) and its transcendent, contrapuntal layering of meaning (one of Moore's).
Where the comic mostly created its own pop culture references, the film uses existing ones to good effect (a McLaughlin Group scene that accomplishes grounding exposition and chuckles) and bad (the clichéd and distracting recreation of Kubrick's War Room from Dr. Strangelove). Snyder's (over)use of source music is likewise hit and miss ("Unforgettable" and "All Along the Watchtower": yay; "The Sound of Silence" and "Hallelujah": nay). The director of the Dawn of the Dead remake and 300 is least impressive when obviously relishing the gory bits, the juvenile but happily fleeting way Snyder applies his authorial stamp.
Overall, Snyder should be commended for what he's pulled off here, in particular a flat-out brilliant opening-titles sequence that, for once in the film, explores a clever double-meaning. Using montage and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," Snyder both primes the story with a review of superhero history over decades of change, but also schools the audience: pay attention, for the times you know, they are a-changin' to an alternate reality.
To be fair to Snyder's Watchmen, repeated viewings will allow audiences to tease out and consider more of its meanings, and the promised release of both a Director's Cut and an Extended Edition will restore more of the comic while allowing the film to breathe more, presumably for the better. The only real compromise Snyder made was to negotiate his theatrical running time with the men footing the bill, and its doubtful he had any choice in the matter. Any film that depicts a "superheroic" rapist-brute as a self-styled parody of America's "true face" can hardly be accused of thematic squeamishness, and any film that sends readers back to the comic for Moore (and Gibbons) has served the public interest.