One of the most audacious studio blockbusters in modern Hollywood history, Watchmen succeeds in spite, not because of, its widely recognized pedigree. Alan Moore’s sharp, detailed writing and Dave Gibbons’ iconic illustrations helped to make it the most celebrated superhero comic of all time. Fans, many of them diehard purists to whom alterations to the book’s labyrinthine plot reacted in horror to nearly every proposed filmic iteration (recall Sam Hamm’s thankfully unused screenplay, for instance). Far greater filmmakers than Zack Snyder have flirted with the material – Terry Gilliam (who decided it was unfilmable), Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass (whose “modernized” adaptation reached early pre-production before it got its plug pulled by a distrusting studio) to name three. Yes, the material was great, but any even vaguely faithful adaptation demands a prohibitive budget and a disregard for Hollywood mores (more on that later). Given the morally conundrous material in play here, it’s perhaps appropriate that every motivating body who had a hand in the creation Watchmen, the movie, is responsible for both its glaring flaws and its sometimes-surprising virtues.
Watchmen takes place in an alternate 1985, in a world where costumed heroes have existed for decades – at first celebrated, but then, with the appearance of an actual superhero with supernatural powers (Dr. Manhattan, played with extensive CGI aid by Billy Crudup), they eventually drop out of public favor and are outlawed. Toiling in obscurity both in and out of their masks, they include the psychopathic, morally indignant Rorshach (Jackie Earle Haley); his former partner, the upstanding-turned-impotent Nite Owl II, aka Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson); Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), aka Ozymandias (the only one of the costumed heroes to volunteer his true identity), an ultra-rich tycoon and supposedly “the world’s smartest man”; Sally Jupiter (Malin Akerman) aka Silk Spectre II, Dr. Manhattan’s lover and the reluctant heiress to her mother’s heroic lineage; and Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), aka the Comedian, a hedonistic brute whose black sense of humor looms over the film long after he is thrown out of his high-rise apartment window in the film’s opening sequence, kickstarting the plot’s many moving parts.
Zealous fanboys found their match in Snyder, a geek’s geek who already had one faithful comic-to-screen translation under his belt. Here, he has done everything in his power to please as many of them as possible. The film runs a daunting (yet still constricting, given the sprawling source material) 163 minutes, and folds in many – if not absolutely all – of the book’s many historical tangents and character details. The result is a film that mimics the book’s exposition-heavy style, which lends the film a disjointed but oddly satisfying sense of pacing, save for a weirdly truncated final act. A six-minute credit sequence deftly fills in the finer details of the film’s alternate-universe timeline. One downside to the approach is the inevitable shortchanging of some characters’ backgrounds; the Comedian and Ozymandias, in particular, suffer from asymmetric amounts of screentime.
The film’s biggest source of antipathy from viewers will likely be Snyder’s cartoonish visual style, replete with digital effects and sets, slow-motion effects, and slavish reproductions of many of the comic’s panels. In some respects, Snyder and his effects team create a compelling universe, particularly in scenes revolving around the spectacularly-rendered Manhattan (concocted using a blend of practical and digital elements). On the other hand, many of the film’s more violent sequences are filled with unnecessary and distracting digital blood and guts. Those sequences aren’t helped by uninspiring fight choreography and Snyder’s overuse of his beloved motion effects.
The film’s greatest asset, however, is a surprising sense of levity. Yes,it’s still a deeply nihilistic, brooding, ultra-graphic story about dysfunctional weirdos in masks and their inability to accomplish much of anything, but it features many sequences that hearken back to ’80s-movie excess appropriate to its setting, particularly a virtuosically funny love scene set, preposterously, to Leonard Cohen’s original version of “Hallelujah,” and ending with an ejaculatory blast of flame. An appearance by “99 Luftballons” accomplishes a similar effect, while other soundtrack choices (particularly “The Sound of Silence”) are a little overbearing. The film’s rare blend of dark, bloody psychodrama, would-be superheroism and (most likely) deliberate kitsch makes it an utterly unique experience, even if it is bound to disappoint many viewers with its aesthetic failings and rote reproduction of much of the comic’s form and dialogue. Its idiosyncrasies – and impending three-and-a-half-hour long director’s cut – ensure it will be an item of debate for quite some time to come.