Zack Snyder’s adaptation of “Watchmen” is slavishly committed to the details of Alan Moore’s original comic book. From its opening sequence to its final moments, Mr. Snyder loyally renders the story as close to the comic book as humanly possible, meaning the need to move the action along often takes a back seat to speeding up, slowing down, and flattening the scenes to approximate the stylized squares that tell stories in the comic format. But if that bothers you, why would you even consider watching “Watchmen”?
The film is a worshipful homage to Moore’s story, which was itself obsessed with the comic superhero universe. “Watchmen” won over legions of fans for its alternate version of American history and incorporation of human pathos into the comic world. Written and set in the 1980s, its characters are sort of inside jokes, oozing with the dysfunction, limitations, and excess endemic to the decade.
Moreover,”Watchmen” humanized its characters. With films portraying conflicted superheroes like “Spiderman 2,” “Dark Knight” and “X-Men” already under our belt, this may not seem so nuanced, but at the time, Moore’s story may have even seemed subversive.
Even the poster for the film, which looks like a knockoff of another superhero movie (probably most like “Dark Knight), plays with the history of the plot. Moore’s characters were not new or deeply wrought when he created them, they were simple variations on well worn superhero archetypes. It comes as something of a surprise, considering the hard line that Moore has taken on cinematic adaptations of his work. Like “V for Vendetta,” “From Hell,” and “300” before it, “Watchmen” does not bear Mr. Moore’s name on the credits nor any of his fingerprints in its creation.
The characters of “Watchmen” are mostly culled from a company called Charlton Comics that was acquired by DC Comics in the 1980s. And they will be familiar to many: Night Owl, Silk Spectre, Captain Metropolis, Hooded Justice, Mothman, and Silhouette all have the look of B-list players who never made it to the big time of Superman’s and Wonder Woman’s Justice League. Known as The Minutemen, these Manhattan residents donned masks to guard the city from the villains and violence of the 1940s.
The Watchmen, direct descendants of The Minutemen, are similar, supersized knockoffs. But aside from their fascination with rubber and gadgets, The Watchmen have no super powers or hidden talents. They simply have a passion for justice and some well-honed fighting skills.
The new Silk Spectre, Laurie Jupiter (played by Malin Akerman), is hot. It’s hard to tell, but that might be the extent of her powers. Night Owl (Patrick Wilson) probably lives in fear of being sued by Batman for copyright infringement on his suit and gadgets. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) is the world’s smartest man, who seems to exist as proof that a superior intellect does not beget commensurate fashion sense. Masked vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) has some mommy issues that he handles by seeking out inventive ways of torturing criminals. And The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the lone leftover from The Minutemen, enjoys walks on the beach accompanied by bullet ricochets and ultra violence. His murder on a Friday night in 1985 is our entrance into the story.
As the story begins, Richard Nixon is president in his third term, and the Russians are threatening nuclear war. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the only Watchman with actual superpowers, is Nixon’s not-so-secret weapon in this struggle. A mere physicist in 1959, an accident rendered Jon Osterman into a glowing blue orb of power. Able to grow and morph to meet the problems at hand, Dr. Manhattan helped Nixon win the war in Vietnam and seems to have only one limit to his physical capabilities — a growing alienation and loss of empathy for the human species.
Dr. Manhattan is hard at work trying to keep the Russians at bay when the Comedian gets it. Moral absolutist vigilante detective Rorschach sets about trying to reveal who’s gunning for retired superheroes as the audience sets about trying to uncover who all these people occasionally covered in latex are and what purpose they serve to the plot.
Among his many abilities, Dr. Manhattan can shift back and forth through time at will, and Mr. Snyder uses that as a dramatic vehicle for shifting the audience through the story. Throughout the film, we learn that these superheroes, less super than human, are riddled with flaws.
Mr. Moore took the opportunity of writing “Watchmen” to unveil every pathological issue and dysfunction you could ever want to see a superhero engaged in. That includes lots of superhero sex — lesbian, heterosexual, unconsummated, unconsensual, and otherwise — residual parental resentment, post-traumatic stress disorder, and exposed blue genitalia.
Given the source material, Mr. Snyder can be forgiven for the film’s heavy-handed ending, which dismisses the human species as a race of easily duped sycophants. Especially considering that Mr. Moore’s heavy-handed wrap-up of the tale involved a giant alien squid descending onto Manhattan, blowing a large hole in it to achieve world peace.
The real problem with the film is that its climax comes at the beginning. Through the impressive opening credits, Mr. Snyder recreates the look and feel of the comic book while telling the backstory of its characters and their nation in nuanced detail. Interspersed between iconic American scenes and the history of The Minutemen, we get a perfect sense of the world we’re in and what came before it.
But as the credits roll to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changing,” we get our first sense that Snyder’s attempts to jog the American sensibility may fall flat. His crash course in the cinematic soundtrack includes such unsubtle choices as Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower,” Nena’s “99 Luftballons,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and Simon and Garfunkle’s “The Sound of Silence,” repeatedly rendering scenes overblown and deflated at the same time. Rather than creating new American iconography, the songs merely highlight how the scenes lack the electricity they’re striving for.
In the end, “Watchmen” often feels more like a glimpse into a fishbowl than an action movie. Despite Mr. Snyder’s fetish for bones breaking through flesh, it’s hard to get caught up in the action. But that said, “Watchmen” has got one important thing going for it that any superhero flick needs to survive: it’s often quite pretty to look at.
Meghan Keane is a writer in New York City.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin