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Sooner or later there was going to be a Watchmen movie. It was inevitable. Sure, a lot of people said it was unfilmable; but that wasn't going to stop Hollywood. It was only a matter of time, and a matter of how bad the cinematic adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic twelve-issue comic book series was going to be.
Originally published in 1986 and 87 by DC Comics, Watchmen was then, and is still now, a landmark work of the comic book medium. It deserves its status as a true work of literature, and the accolades that have been bestowed on it for the last twenty-plus years. Moore's vision of a world where superheroes are real, and have long been outlawed by the government, was a pivotal point of maturation for a medium long associated with children. Watchmen, along with Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, were the comic books that helped lend credence to the adage, "Comics...they aren't for kids anymore."
The film, like the comic book, takes place in 1985 in a United States where a repeal of term limits has allowed Richard Nixon to remain in office for closing in on two full decades, and America in on the brink of nuclear war with Russia. Once a regular fixture in the public eye, costumed crime fighters have all but disappeared from view. As Watchmen starts, the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a former crime fighter and covert government hitman is attacked in his apartment and brutally murdered. The mentally unbalanced Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley) is convinced that the murder of the Comedian was more than just some random crime--he believes someone is bumping off the last of the costumed crime fighters. Rorschach shares his theory with Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), who years ago fought crime as Nite Owl; but Dreiberg is not convinced. Meanwhile the nearly all-powerful Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and his wife Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), better known as the crime fighter Silk Spectre, a career she inherited from her mother (Carla Gugino), are struggling with their failing marriage. At least Laurie is struggling with it. The blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan, who has become increasingly removed from his humanity, is more focused on working on a secret project with Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), the multi-billionaire who once fought crime as Ozymandias. Soon it becomes very clear that while Rorschach is delusional, he's not mistaken in thinking that the murder of the Comedian was more than a random crime. There is something very big and very sinister going on, with the lives of perhaps the entire planet hanging in the balance. With this much at stake, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre once again don their costumes and leap into action, eventually joining forces with Rorschach. Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan, who is essentially the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of the United States, abandons Earth altogether, setting up home on Mars, and creating greater tension in the imminent conflict between America and Russia.
If all of this sounds a bit complex, it is. Watchmen ran for twelve issues, and Moore and Gibbons pack in enough material for almost double that many. As far as comic books go, Watchmen is one of the most dense, multi-layered and intricately structured works ever created. It truly is a masterpiece. And concerns that it could not be translated to film were more than justified--there simply was too much material in the original series to be crammed into one film. So, the question has always been how much of the comic book would make it to the big screen and what sort of liberties would filmmakers take.
Well, with a running time of almost three hours, director Zack Snyder has managed to keep large parts of the comic book intact. Given the constraints of time and how much any one film can contain, Snyder does a commendable job of remaining faithful to the source material. Sure, some elements have been removed altogether, others condensed and a major plot element has been changed in the end, but much of the film is lifted directly from the comic. That said, however, the faithfulness of Watchmen is not always a good thing. Sure the film looks impressive much of the time, and is even effective at various times, but there is still something fundamental missing.
At first it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with Watchmen, but at some point, as you're nodding your head and thinking, "this is just like the comic," it becomes clear that the film doesn't have much life of its own--it is missing heart and soul. So much care was put into bringing the story to life and trying to be faithful to the original material that somewhere along the way it seems like people forgot that you need to do more than simply translate what is on the printed page to the moving picture. You need to allow the moving pictures to have their own life, and not simply be an imitation of a previous incarnation in another medium.
There is a bitter irony in the fact that the film hits its greatest stumbling block by appeasing the naysayers who claimed that Watchmen could not be made into a movie. Snyder and his capable crew have given fans of Watchmen a film that at times works slavishly to remain faithful to the original material. Many fans of the comic book will love Snyder for his loyalty to the series. They will think the film is great, because it goes to such great lengths to be just like the comic (aside, of course, from the radically altered ending). But the best cinematic adaptations of other literary works succeed because they have the audacity to be their own thing. The film version To Kill a Mockingbird is, quite frankly, not a very good adaptation of the novel. And the film version of Planet of the Apes is a simply terrible adaptation of the book. But both are incredible movies. Recent examples of films that took extreme liberties in the making the transition from book to screen are Adaptation and Tristram Shandy, both of which strayed incredibly far from where they began. Unfortunately for Watchmen, straying too far from the material, even in an attempt to define itself as a different work created for a different medium, would have probably resulted in crucifixion from the fans.
Another problem with the film is that it doesn't feel as if it exists in a real world. Others films create fantastic worlds that transport the audience to different realities, but Watchmen never feels like more than a really well designed set. You never feel like this world actually exists beyond the confines of a soundstage or a Hollywood studio backlot. The fundamental job of all movies is to make real the world in which they exist, and filmmakers like Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro have proven that pretty much anything is possible in that regard, which is part of what makes the "constructed" look of Watchmen so disappointing.
There is a similar problem with the costumes, which at times look really cool (depending largely on the lighting), and at other times look simply ridiculous. The problem with all superhero movies is the ability to sell the silly looking outfits to an audience, and Watchmen is not always successful. By contrast, the X-Men films managed to make those costumes work, as did The Dark Knight. But there are moments where the characters in Watchmen look more like something out of Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin, a sad state of cinematic crime fighters if there ever was one.
None of this is to say that Watchmen is a bad movie, because it is not. But it is not great either. Instead it is a decent film with some flaws, not the least of which is a pace that starts to drag, and a sexual interlude with Nite Owl and Silk Spectre that is nothing short of unintentionally laughable. But when the film works--really works--it is very entertaining. This is especially true of the sequences with Rorschach, who was the most interesting person in the comic, and remains so in the film. The scenes with Rorschach are among those that remain incredibly faithful to the material, while at the same time really come to life on the screen. Jackie Earl Haley, obscured by a mask for most of the movie, gives the best performance in the film, and at times it's hard to not wonder if the movie would have been better if it was told more exclusively from Rorschach's point of view. Patrick Wilson is also good as Nite Owl; while Cruddup gives a solid performance that is often lost under all the special effects, including his frequently exposed penis (instead of Dr. Manhattan maybe they should call him Dr. Long Island). The rest of the cast, however, is more of a mixed bag.
Entertaining at times, boring at times, laughably bad on at least one occasion, and more than a little ambitious, Watchmen is a film saddled with the tremendous weight of where it came from and the fans it must serve, both casting long shadows that hinder the final film. And again, none of this is to say that this is a bad film. But at some point, as I checked my watch and realized with a certain level of discomfort that there was still over an hour to go, I asked myself a crucial question I often ask while watching films: "Is this a movie I'm looking forward to seeing again?" Unfortunately, my answer pretty much sums it all up: "Not really."
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]