4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Adapting a beloved text to the screen is a daring, treacherous task. In addition to satisfying critics and new, unaccustomed audiences, one must also consider the sometimes millions of well-established fans and face the common collective belief that “the book is always better than the movie.” Especially tricky are the translations of popular comic books, which carry armies of geek followers who are often more cutting than the most astringent film reviewers and more protective of their babies than a cornered lioness. More sensitive still is the case of “Watchmen,” a limited edition, 12-part superhero serial by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons that was originally published in 1986 and has since become a hallowed fanboy bible. Its road from cells to celluloid has been long, hard and full of detours – rewrites, directorial changes, battles over ownership – that plagued the project all the way up to weeks before its release. Now, it's finally here, and it's a slick, beautiful and bad-ass piece of cinema.
I've only flipped through the particularly graphic graphic novel once or twice, so I can't say if director Zack Snyder (“Dawn of the Dead,” “300”) and screenwriters David Haytre (“X-Men”) and Alex Tse (“Sucker Free City”) have made a worthy adaptation or if disgruntled Watchmaniacs are already flooding the blogs with wrathful complaints. But I have seen enough movies to comfortably proclaim that, by marrying the best aspects of modern masked-men motion pictures (the post-“Matrix” stylings of “V for Vendetta” and “Wanted,” the coarsely realistic world view of “The Dark Knight”), Snyder and company have created one of the best comic book films ever. Its only major downside is that, at a hair under three hours, it demands a bit much from those who aren't ga-ga over the source material.
“Watchmen” is as American as “Superman,” as noir as “Sin City” and has as much balls-to-the-wall bravado as both “Kill Bill” flicks combined. Deemed un-filmable by its champions and creators (a stance still held by Moore, who removed his name from the movie's credits), the elaborate story's controversial content includes volatile international relations, societal collapse, nuclear war, grisly gore and – most taboo of all – superhero sex. Its vision is one of an alternative America, the history and conditions of which have been tweaked by the presence and consequences of folks like the Watchmen, a band of superheroes who live among the general public. The year is 1985 (though there are also several flashbacks). The place is – where else? – a cold, wet and shadow-enshrouded New York City. The Watchmen aren't the first superheroes (a painterly, nostalgic opening credit sequence provides a glimpse of their predecessors), but they will be the last according to President Nixon, who's demanded they hang up their capes even after they led him to a Vietnam victory and five consecutive terms in office.
Now in early retirement, Nite Owl (the appropriately all-American Patrick Wilson) is a humdrum homebody who wears thick-rimmed glasses and trades war stories with an aged colleague. “World's Smartest Man” Ozymandius (Matthew Goode) has capitalized on his image and high I.Q. to become a billionaire business mogul. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) still prowls the streets, disgusted with their decline in the Watchmen's absence. Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) lives a sheltered, pseudo-domestic life in a government stronghold with the almighty Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup and lots of digital makeup). And The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) spends his sleepless nights watching TV and smoking cigars until he's hurled out of a high-rise window in the film's gorgeously rendered first scene. His killing jump-starts the plot's key strand (wherein Rorschach initiates his own renegade murder investigation), which operates within a larger, doomsday component involving Dr. Manhattan and the trigger-happy Soviet Union.
There's not a whole lot of superheroism taking place in this superhero tale, at least not of the typical “it's a bird! it's a plane!” variety. Graciously, much more emphasis is put on legitimizing the characters and their circumstances than showing them shooting laser beams from their eyes, etc. The only Watchman who even possesses supernatural abilities – the others are highly trained in combat and weaponry but still very human – is Dr. Manhattan, whose early exposure to atom-crushing forcefields in a nuclear test facility transformed him into a blue-skinned god-weapon who can do just about anything (teleport, replicate, manipulate matter, walk on the Sun). (Originally contracted by the federal government, he's the reason for the U.S./Soviet tension.) All-powerful but irrevocably all alone, the Doc is seen withdrawing from humanity when it needs him most, thus pushing Silk Spectre into the arms of Nite Owl. He's also seen, as in the comic, completely naked, and Snyder's full-frontal faithfulness to this detail will surely provoke many a conservative gasp (there was a small chorus at my screening). The nudity isn't indecent, it's logical, and it's one of many brave and brilliant choices made by the director, whose graphic style is an ideal match for this material. Snyder shies away from nothing. “Watchmen” is ultra-violent, explicitly sexual and uncommonly grim, but it is still supremely sophisticated.
The actors are all commendable aside from Goode, whose inability to hide his British accent leads to some muffled, distracting line deliveries. The best performance comes from Haley, a gifted character actor who rebounded in 2006 with an Oscar nomination for his work in Todd Field's “Little Children.” Haley brings some serious psychological depth to Rorschach, a pitiless vigilante whose ever-changing inkblot mask is a fun metaphor for his inner demons. Rorschach unearths a turning-point conspiracy, inspiring his fellow Watchmen to come out of hiding and seek justice once more. The prolonged delay of the rock 'em, sock 'em gallantry makes its arrival rewarding, but it comes around the two-hour mark, by which time the film has just begun to wear out its welcome. It's conceivable that Snyder tried to include as much as possible to please the die-hards but, in doing so, he robbed his movie of its perfection. Exciting, smart and offering a cultural perspective through a kind of dirty pop prism, “Watchmen” is a titan of its genre. If only its running time didn't loom as large.