Reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen today, it’s striking how this 1985 masterpiece has penetrated to the marrow of countless movies, TV shows, and novels about superheroes since then. Themes like moral ambiguity, metafiction, psychic baggage, superheroes as public figures and pop-culture icons, and even the sexual proclivities of people who dress up in colorful tight-fitting costumes – Moore’s comic series got to all of them first.
After such a long delay in reaching the screen and after so many other superhero sagas have plumbed the same territory, what does the movie version of Watchmen have to say that’s new? Sadly, despite the film’s many accomplishments, the answer turns out to be “not much.”
The story takes place in an alternate version of 1985 in which Richard Nixon is still president, having won the Vietnam War thanks to the intervention of America’s superheroes. That doesn’t prevent superhero activities from eventually having been prohibited by law, but even that’s not good enough for the person who brutally murders The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in his home as the movie begins. A cigar-chomping former soldier, The Comedian has a scuzzy history that includes rape, war atrocities, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the casual killing of a woman who’s pregnant with his child. He probably deserves to have his door kicked in by someone who beats him to a bloody pulp before throwing him from the window of his high-rise apartment. Even so, The Comedian’s former comrade, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) – named for the inkblot design on his mask – doesn’t believe this is a random murder, and he alerts his fellow retired superheroes that someone might be targeting them. What they find is a conspiracy that envelops far more than themselves.
True to the graphic novel’s density, director Zack Snyder makes every shot pregnant with meaning, with important information lurking in the background and the corners of the frame, so that you’ll need multiple viewings to catch it all. He spends a good chunk of the movie mimicking the moody, saturated look of 1970s paranoid thrillers like Klute and All the President’s Men, though the computer-generated effects (which create everything from the shifting blots on Rorschach’s mask to a 50-foot-tall naked man made of glowing blue energy) give this superhero movie a look all its own. Snyder uses well-known period music to surprising effect: The Comedian’s rain-soaked funeral is set to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” The fight sequences are well-staged, especially the one with the superheroes kicking their way through a prison riot. The opening credit sequence is an even better set piece, giving the history of the previous generation of superheroes from World War II to the 1980s. Maybe the best touch here is a blackly comic running gag with actors portraying such real-life celebrities as Pat Buchanan, Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Annie Leibovitz, and Dick Cavett, who rub shoulders with our heroes. (Funniest of all, when a contract killer makes an attempt on his life, one superhero uses Lee Iacocca as a human shield.)
That last bit is one of the few substantive changes the movie makes from the book. Overall, Snyder’s so concerned about preserving Moore’s plotlines that the story frequently stops dead. The director’s virtuosity keeps this 161-minute film from bogging down too seriously, and there’s no shortage of “wow” moments like when the matter-transmogrifying Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) goes to Mars and spontaneously creates a giant clockwork device out of the soil. For all that, the movie feels stiff and dutiful in its reverence toward its source, never achieving the hurtling momentum or the nightmarish power of The Dark Knight.
First-rate visual stylist though Snyder is, Watchmen presents him with far more intense emotions than he had to deal with in Dawn of the Dead or 300 and tackling them proves to be a bridge too far for him. The love affair between the nerdy Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and the emotionally needy Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) never reaches critical mass, and the scene in which Silk Spectre learns the truth about the circumstances of her birth doesn’t have nearly the shattering impact that it should. Tyler Bates’ objective score doesn’t bring out any of the emotions in the story, either, and though the B-list cast doesn’t encumber the roles with star personalities, none of them quite makes their characters pop off the screen and win the audience’s sympathy. (Haley comes closest, which is no small feat given that Rorschach is not only masked most of the time but also basically a psychopathic serial killer who happens to be on the good guys’ side.) The film’s apocalyptic climax – a different one from the book’s – is more logical than Moore’s, but Snyder’s rendering doesn’t pack nearly the same terror.
All told, Watchmen feels like a marble monument to one of history’s great graphic novels as opposed to simply a great movie. It’s tempting to think what a filmmaker like Alfonso Cuarón, who’s more attuned to the human element, would have made of this. It’s also telling that we’d feel the need to make such a comparison. Fans of the book who’ve been waiting decades for this movie won’t be terribly disappointed. Then again, maybe the coldness of this piece of work will show them that fidelity isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.