I'll spare the standard background info, because chances are, at this point, you are either a "Watchmen" fan or have an idea of the origin of "Watchmen." That being said, I'll answer the question that springs to mind first: Is "Watchmen" a perfect adaptation of the original graphic novel? Hell no. However, if you were to ask, "Is 'Watchmen' the best adaptation will ever get from a feature length film," I would have to say, "pretty much." Love him or hate him, Zack Snyder has done his best to make the "Watchman" a watchable, sub-three hour film, and after having seen it twice, I really appreciate what he has done.
The film manages to try and compress twelve, dense issues of the original comic series into less than three hours of screen time and obviously, changes had to be made. This is where, sadly, "Watchmen" will fail to entertain the masses. As I sat in the theater for the first time, I would think, "so, he cut that part," but the story still made perfect sense; however, to the average viewer who hasn't read the graphic novel like myself, these minor cuts create plot holes and short change the characters, which are the heart of the film. These characters are brought to life with varying levels of success, the best being Jackie Earle Haley's performance as Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan's brief, but incredibly crucial role as Edward Blake, The Comedian.
As much as Rorschach was the last beacon of justice in the world of "Watchmen," Jackie Earle Haley's performance is the heart and soul of this film. He becomes Rorschach, much like Heath Ledger became The Joker in last year's "Dark Knight." He transforms himself from the seemingly quiet, mellow spoken, man he comes across in interviews and other films, into an incorruptible, menacing, symbol of vigilante justice, with a voice of a demon. Rorschach's voice is a large part of his character, as the character is a masked hero, and the vocal work Haley does, despite being largely without emotional inflection is fantastic. It's difficult to discuss Haley's role too much without going into spoiler territory, but midway through the film and towards the end, his performance shines the brightest. He brings the necessary emotional depth to the character and his acting ability is incredibly underrated. I dare say, in terms of comic book character performances, he is as good, if not better than Heath Ledger's "Joker" and is entirely deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Unfortunately, the axe seems to have fallen on a few scenes providing more insight into the character of Rorschach, and the average viewer might not find him as fully a fleshed out character as I did. I sincerely hope these scenes were filmed and Snyder reinserts them into his now confirmed 3-3.5hr directors cut on DVD
The other performance that stands out, as mentioned above, belongs to Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He nails the almost impossible feat of making The Comedian a sympathetic character, despite his amoral behavior. Morgan brings physical credibility to the character as well, which completes the transformation. Despite his short screen-time, Morgan is the second most memorable part of the film for more than one reason. However, the majority of the film doesn't revolve so much around these two characters, as it does The Nite Owl, Dan Dreiberg, and Silk Spectre II, Laurie Juspeczyk.
Played by Patrick Wilson and Malin Akerman, respectively, these performances are more of a mixed bag. Wilson is for the most part, fine as Dreiberg, but some critical character changes leave portions of the film feeling awkward and unnatural. Akerman is not nearly as bad as I feared. Her performance is far from great (a few lines fall as flat and unemotional as Rorschach), but she strikes me as naturally charming. The biggest complaints I have about her performance could once again be partially caused by character changes.
The final two characters are that of the mysterious Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). Goode, is, pardon the pun, quite good in the role. Again, his character underwent artistic and story changes from the source material, but the end result is very satisfying. He is suave, sophisticated, and credible as the world's smartest and strongest man. Crudup's performance as Dr. Manhattan was a bit of a shock. First and foremost, is the mellow tone of the vocal performance. I had always envisioned Dr. Manhattan having an otherworldly, godlike voice, but Crudup brings the humanity needed to the character. He walks the fine line of struggling to keep a connection to the human race, while at the same time understanding every aspect of the known universe. It's a bizarre concept on paper, but the film's adaptation of Manhattan's origin, along with his concept of time is one of the highlights of the film.
Performances aside, visually the film is stunning. Snyder has a great eye for style and has captured the visual essence of the graphic novel and tweaked it for more believability, most notably in the costumes of Nite Owl, Silk Spectre II, and Ozymandias. I had heard back when the first trailer came out that Ozymandias' costume was a jab at the Schumacher Batman costumes, while Nite Owl's was more representative of a more practical Batman. I definitely see the comparison, and it fits the personality of the characters as well.
I've already made mention of character and story changes and as I first pointed out, this is where, as a mass appeal film, "Watchmen" doesn't cut it. The first two acts of the film feel well paced and despite cuts, for the most part, very coherent. The third act, is incredibly rushed and it's here where story omissions and character changes take their toll. Snyder takes the time to introduce a pivotal character from the graphic novel in the first act, but neglects to follow up on the character in the third act, which dramatically alters actions of characters. These little changes are what bothered me most, big changes, such as the ending (which has been dramatically altered in execution from the graphic novel, but the theme has not been lost) actually sat well with me. I have a hard time wondering why Snyder chose to excise the pieces he did, but then leaves utterly incomprehensible stuff in like Bubastis (Ozymandias' odd pet), who has no bearing on the story and is nothing more than fan service; the first time I saw the film, I audibly heard more than a few confused murmurs from people in the audience who had no clue as to what they were seeing.
The most inappropriate additions are some scenes of truly sadistic violence involving Dr. Manhattan's ability to vaporize bodies and an ultra-violent extended fight scene involving Nite Owl and Silk Spectre against a gang. This scene was in the graphic novel, but was fairly brief. Snyder extends it out to a few minutes to show us bones being pushed through arms in slow motion, taking precious time away from the little character moments that made the graphic novel so great. The most ridiculous addition/change by Snyder is a slow-motion sex scene set to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." It's a pure exercise in excess and the choice of music makes it unintentionally funny.
As much as the changes bugged me, I still think the film is a successful adaptation, but one aimed only at fans of the source material. There isn't another director alive, who could have, in the same runtime, delivered a more dramatically complete adaptation. For the average filmgoer, "Watchmen" may be a mixed bag; some will enjoy it purely for the visual treat it is, others will appreciate the story and be able to look past the plot holes, but others will just feel they have wasted more than two and a half hours of their lives. If you know what you're getting into though, I don't think you'll be terribly disappointed. My one hope is Snyder's extended cut restores some critical character and story moments. I can think of three specific additions to the film as it stands now, that would have made it a much more, accessible film to the average viewer.
The bottom line is, for fans of the series this is a must see (although a lot of the initial magic doesn't hold up on repeat viewings). For everyone else, this might be better suited as a rental. Recommended.