Are you ready to take a parody of superheroes seriously? That’s the attitude Watchmen requires. A Day-Glo panorama of alternate history and ultra-violence, it may merely dazzle and deafen viewers who don’t appreciate the ironies rooted in its source, the 1986 graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. Director Zack Snyder (300) has pulled off an unusually faithful adaptation, yet he doesn’t always seem to be in on the joke.
Watchmen takes place in a bizarro version of the 1980s in which America won in Vietnam, thanks to superheroic intervention. But all is not well. A triumphant Nixon, still in office, is chomping at the bit to nuke Russians. Meanwhile, the “costumed heroes” who patrolled the streets of mid-century America have been put out to pasture, and it’s not hard to see why. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a sneering Rambo figure who has no compunction about mowing down civilians. (Naturally, he still works secretly for the government.) Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is a raspy-voiced, masked sociopath. Even Moore’s less shady superheroes are pretty messed up: Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), his version of Batman, is paunchy and impotent, while Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) acts like Superman might after he spent several years holed up in the Fortress of Solitude smoking peyote.
In short — saving the world? Not gonna happen. Still, when Rorschach, Nite Owl and token female the Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) don their forbidden costumes to track down a mysterious assailant who murdered the Comedian, they do become heroes of sorts. In Moore’s world, the difference between good and bad guys is far less important than the rift separating the old noir-style vigilante crime fighters — exemplified by Rorschach — from new-style technocrats such as Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who would rather manipulate the populace with insidious marketing tactics than whip it into shape. When it comes down to the question of who’s right, Watchmen offers no easy answers.
Brilliant storyteller as he is, Moore sometimes comes off as an earnest high school teacher lecturing his readers on man’s inhumanity to man. But it would be hard to accuse the Watchmen comic of promoting fascism, brutality and general nastiness, a charge some critics have leveled at the movie. Perhaps they’re responding to the glee with which Snyder takes each violent scene in his source and expands four or five drawn panels into a ballet of bone crushing and blood squirting, complete with realistic sound effects.
This is exactly what fans of 300 expect. And a dose of sheer mayhem may be required to guarantee big grosses for a film in which a giant, glowing, nude blue dude wanders Mars expounding on the nature of time. (That’s Doctor Manhattan, an unusually convincing CG creation.)
Still, the film’s comic-book violence doesn’t always feel true to its comic-book source. Snyder uses his patented slow-motion/freeze-frame action technique to create visually stunning effects, often reproducing panels straight out of the text. But he doesn’t always get the lighter moments, such as the scene where Nite Owl regains his sexual potency thanks to a Spandex costume. What came across as tender and silly in the book, Snyder stages as a cross between opera and Cinemax softcore.
Luckily, a (mostly) good cast is on hand to highlight the human element in the material. Haley, who played the pedophile in Little Children, makes self-righteous, self-hating Rorschach a compelling antihero. As a physicist transformed by one of those convenient lab accidents into a superhuman, Crudup has the most difficult role: He could save humanity from nuclear annihilation, but he can’t be bothered. With voice acting that combines regret, resignation and infuriating intellectual detachment, he suggests HAL 9000 from 2001 with a soul. On the negative side, Goode is strangely mush-mouthed, and Akerman — well, it’s clear why she generally plays the second banana in bad romantic comedies.
Running nearly three hours, the film is so stuffed with plot, imagery and throwaway allusions that anyone who can stomach it the first time may crave a second viewing. Others may come away with a bad taste in their mouths after the clumsily handled denouement.
The ideological differences between Snyder’s Watchmen and Moore’s Watchmen will be fodder for countless college (and Internet) bull sessions. But one thing the film is not, and that’s negligible. For those who don’t appreciate the rise of genre lit to mainstream artistic respectability, it’s a sign of the apocalypse. For those who welcome that shift, the studio’s willingness to bankroll this geek wet dream of a movie augurs better things to come.