Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter / Silk Spectre II
Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan / Jon Osterman
Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias
Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs / Rorschach
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Blake / The Comedian
Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg / Nite Owl II
Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter / Silk Spectre
Matt Frewer as Edgar Jacobi / Moloch the Mystic
Stephen McHattie as Hollis Mason / Nite Owl
Directed by Zack Snyder
Zack Snyder’s attempt at being faithful to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ vision is ultimately the film’s biggest fault since it makes the flaws in the original source material far more obvious.
Someone is killing retired superheroes, and the murder of Eddie Blake a.k.a. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) comes at a time of great change in the country. As the United States veers ever closer to Nuclear War with the Soviet Union, the costumed heroes Night Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) have teamed with the vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) to find out who is trying to kill and discredit the heroes.
If you’ve willingly bathed yourself in the Kool-Aid claiming that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel “Watchmen” is the greatest piece of artwork ever put to paper and you’re hoping to see the original creators’ vision brought to the big screen intact, rest assured that Zack Snyder’s adaptation of “Watchmen” is exactly that, nothing more, nothing less. “Watchmen” was groundbreaking for its time, influencing and inspiring the medium and superhero writers for over two decades, but twenty years after Communism and the Cold War came to a whimpering halt, its doomsday theories seem dated, as does its attempt to deconstruct superhero archetypes, ironically two things that tend to take a backseat in Snyder’s adaptation.
From the very opening sequence and through the extended credits, it’s obvious what painstaking lengths Snyder went to bring every detail of Gibbons’ artwork to the screen, making for an incredibly stimulating film in terms of the visuals. Snyder’s mastery of the medium makes this amazing recreation possible, though it’s hard to call it “visionary” when one is essentially bringing someone else’s vision to life. In fact, the film’s best writing comes directly from Moore’s words in the graphic novel, and though Moore refuses to take any credit, there’s not one but two screenwriters who are more than willing to step in.
The biggest problem with any literary adaptation is that when you superimpose a specific voice, face or personality onto a character, it becomes something different. Snyder isn’t working with the strongest group of actors to bring these character to life. Jeffrey Dean Morgan clearly brings the most to the cigar-chomping womanizer, The Comedian, and Jackie Earle Haley’s best work in the film is when he’s not wearing the ever-changing mask and growling all his lines in a tone that falls somewhere between Batman and Wolverine. Malin Akerman seems slightly ditzy as Laurie Jupiter, at least at first, though she looks so incredible in spandex (and less), it can be forgiven, which isn’t as true for Matthew Goode’s deliberately flouncy delivery as Adrian Veidt, the self-proclaimed “world’s smartest man,” also conveniently the richest and fastest.
Even during the actors’ strongest moments, Snyder doesn’t quite have the storytelling finesse of Moore and Gibbons, who deliberately minimized the amount of panels used to show fight sequences, rather than using them as the crux of the story, which was the case with most superhero comics at the time. In just one or two panels, they were able to parlay all the necessary information, while Snyder stretches every fight using the slow-motion FX he loves so dearly, enhancing every blow with loud cheesy sound FX. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, since this type of action movie is Snyder’s specialty, but making the characters seem even more superhuman, further alienates the viewer from relating to them, part of what made the original graphic novel so ahead of its time, the revelation that even superheroes have human flaws.
The real question is whether “Watchmen” works as a standalone film apart from whether you’ve read the graphic novel, and sadly, that’s where the film’s main problems lie, because the original work’s dated subject matter and excessive exposition becomes far more obvious when seeing it condensed into 160 minutes. Snyder has made a film that’s long and plodding with long stretches of dialogue that frequently bogs down the sparse action sequences, creating pacing issues that could have been avoided. A more confident filmmaker would have taken what worked and keep only what was needed, rather than adhering to a structure first developed when the story was told in 12 serialized parts. To work as a film that’s accessible to those who haven’t read the graphic novel, it needed to be restructured to make it clear who everyone is from the beginning. In its attempt to remain faithful to the source material, it takes over an hour before anyone will know what to make of that big blue naked guy, since it takes that long before we get Dr. Manhattan’s origin. Maybe the best example of finding the right balance of catering to readers and non-readers alike are the last few “Harry Potter” films, a balance that “Watchmen” never quite finds.
In fact, watching the movie forces questions that never would have arisen while reading the graphic novel, such as why Rorschach–who based on his past, one would assume to be uneducated–has a Journal filled with flowery narrative and literary references that could only have come from the pen of Alan Moore? Similarly, when Jon Osterman is transformed into Dr. Manhattan, why would he create his body as an idealized muscleman rather than something closer to his original physicist frame?
The very decision to create Dr. Manhattan using motion capture CG seems questionable when first viewing the results which often look worse than Ang Lee’s Hulk. Like the casting, it’s something that does improve as one adjusts to it, but the same can’t be said about his Mars palace, which looks like it was designed and created as an animation school extra credits project. This is compared to the sets based on the minimal backgrounds in Gibbons’ artwork that look faker than the deliberately stylized backgrounds that worked so well in “300” for essentially the same reason. Another point of frustration comes in the form of the soundtrack, which seems to be cobbled together using vintage tracks from Simon & Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix and even Nena (really?) that do very little to complement the epic look and feel Snyder was attempting and are more distracting than complimentary.
Then again, some of the best moments are when Snyder revisits the gory ultra-violence of his “Dawn of the Dead” remake, which is why the prison escape is the high point of the film. By that point, the movie has become so bogged down in setting up the characters that Snyder leaves himself far too little time to wrap up the story. It ultimately leads to a moment right out of the ’60s Batman TV series as the main villain brags to the heroes about his masterplan. Like the fight scenes, it’s another clear indicator that as hard as one might try to get away from the clichés of superheroes, one can only go so far before they have to return in order to maintain the status quo.
The Bottom Line:
Whether or not “Watchmen” is as good as the graphic novel (or “300” for that matter) is irrelevant when trying to judge it on its own merits or even compared to other films based on the sequential art medium. There’s no denying that Snyder’s meticulous attempt at bringing the visuals from the book to the screen is successful, though it never tries to add anything significant to make the material work better as a film, making it a flawed adaptation that falters by trying too hard to cater solely to its fans. Mileage may vary if you haven’t already read the graphic novel since you’ll be experiencing the story and characters for the first time, though at that point, why bother making a movie at all since one would be better served reading the graphic novel than having it spoon-fed to them?