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
Laura Mennell as Janey Slater
Rob LaBelle as Wally Weaver

Super heroes are real. That’s how it begins. Real people, with real problems (and strengths) who decided to put on costumes and fight crime. But where most super hero stories try to stay as far away from the real world as possible (Superman can never end world hunger because then the fantasy would become too removed from the real world), “Watchmen” tries to imagine how they would affect ever aspect of life. They fight in Vietnam for the U.S., and the war is won because of it. But far from being some jingoist message of the way things could/should have gone, it becomes a repressively logical thought experiment, heading inexorably towards one conclusion. On the heel of victory Richard Nixon is elected again and again, Cold War tensions ratchet up and up as the Soviet Bloc tries to hold onto its sphere of influence. The world isn’t necessarily a better place because it has people in costumes in it. It’s a powder keg of humanity that just needs one spark to set it off, a spark it gets when The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), one of the few costumed adventurers still active, is murdered.

Transplanting any story from one medium to another, let alone a well-regarded masterpiece, is a tricky piece of business. That’s especially true when the work in question is being transformed into a film, which by its nature traps its audience in both time and space. Images on screen are constantly moving, leaving the audience no time to pour off them and delve out subtle themes and meanings. Information must be spelled out as broadly as possible to make sure everyone (or at least, as many people as possible) get it and no one is left behind. The audience also doesn’t have the luxury of stopping and looking up references and then coming back with a deeper understanding of the story. For all but the most self-assured (or, if we’re honest, over-confident) of directors, everything must be up front and spelled out. It doesn’t hold out much hope for stories built on dense symbolic imagery and structure.

Which is a problem considering how much of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s “Watchmen” that was; a meditation-cum-deconstruction on super heroes that ultimately cast its net at the structure of reality and the individuals’ place in it. If that sounds extremely far reaching, that’s because it is, and the likelyhood of that being perfectly distilled into a film version with all the power, craft and artistry of the original is about the same, as Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) put it, as ‘oxygen turning spontaneously into gold.’ If only a perfect translation will do, you are in for a crushing disappointment. If your expectations are a little closer to reality (or if you have no experience with the original), director Zack Snyder’s (“300”) adaptation is faithful enough to be entertained and absorbed, despite being a little shallow.

Snyder knows a good thing when he sees it and he and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse have produced a solid film that’s faithful throughout to the spirit of the novel, even as it makes changes to suit its own ends. The problems “Watchmen” has are entirely in execution, not conception. Despite a lot of good intentions, Snyder is a very surface-oriented director more in love with visuals than narrative. He’s tackling a story where the surface and deeper thematic elements are very strong and could easily overwhelm the whole without a careful balancing act, but Snyder has a tendency to put his thumb on the scale on the surface side. He loves his action scenes and his tableaus of visual wonder and he produces with equal glee (and talent) blood splattering violence, effects grandeur, and a sex scene that borders on soft core pornography. His best moments are the ones of pure cinema, like the beginning of The Comedian’s funeral or Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Rorschach’s (Jackie Earle Haley) approach to Antarctica; scenes and moments that stand completely on their own, separate of any narrative. While he certainly understands the importance of narrative and how to use it, it plainly comes second place, and in a film with as dense a narrative heart as “Watchmen” that is a problem. There’s a bit of a plastic sheen to everything, which is fine when a couple of people in latex and capes are fighting their way through a prison riot. But when it comes to a couple of human beings trying to have an honest conversation about their innermost feelings and fears, it does add an air of falsity.

Performances run the gamut from great to decent, but that usually has more to do with the strength of the individual character’s conception than directorial ability. Haley and Morgan are probably the best, but they also inherited the two most dynamic roles in the story, especially Morgan’s Comedian who shares Rorschach’s extremism but has a more rational perspective on his place in the world, instilling what should be a horrible human being with a fair bit of bathos. That’s probably the real trick to “Watchmen” and the one element that its many imitators have never seemed to bother with, or at least been able to bring off. Despite being filled with alternately pathetic and horrible people (and those are the heroes) they all come across as fully rounded human beings that you generally care for. Even Patrick Wilson’s sad sack Nite Owl II, who can’t bring himself to admit how much he misses being a superhero, or Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre II, in her thirties and still desperately searching for her identity. Their story is the most human, in many ways the most compelling, and one of Snyder’s biggest failures. It’s not bad, but because it doesn’t have the extremism some of the others do, but he doesn’t seem to be able to get as good a handle on them. The only real trouble spot is Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias, the self proclaimed smartest man on Earth, who comes across very wooden, but that’s mainly because he’s forced to speak in exposition ease.

Still, there’s a lot to like about “Watchmen.” It looks fantastic, despite having a smaller than average budget for this sort of thing. It’s certainly epic feel, flying around from the grime of New York to Vietnam to Los Alamos to Antarctica and even Mars, and back and forth in time from the 1940s to the 1985 of the film. It’s a fantastically large canvas, but nothing feels out of place. Most of what’s really good about the original is still really good in the film, though some of it can occasionally feel dated (so many of its innovations having been used by others over the years, including almost every modern superhero film) and some parts of it work better on the page, like Rorschach’s very purple voice over, than it does in real life.

Like any adaptation there are alterations and cuts. Despite being nearly three hours long, almost all of the supporting characters are gone or reduced to absolute necessity, and the overall plot is a bit different from the comic (but in affect, essentially the same). But unless you’re a purist none of the changes really hurt the film. That’s the kind of thing you have to do, and it tends to work much better than slavish devotion does. Even the moral ambiguity is mostly there (and the media in general gets along with moral ambiguity the way oil does with water), though Snyder can’t seem to resist a little sermonizing at the end, just to make the audience clear on where they should stand.

That being said, the best individual scenes are almost always the ones that are closest to book, especially Dr. Manhattan’s sojourn on Mars as he meditates on his life and the nature of determinism and fate. Crudup’s intentionally emotionless delivery takes some getting used to, but works perfectly for the character and never more so than that scene, where “Watchmen’s” disparate pieces–small and large, narrative and visual, human and super human–come together to form a whole. Snyder can’t quite hold onto it, but while it lasts, it’s great.

If he could have kept that up for the whole film, he’d have his own masterpiece on his hands. What he does have is actually pretty good, but his lack of subtlety keeps it from ever being more than that. But it doesn’t have to be. Despite its length, “Watchmen” flies by and I suspect will be one of those rare films that gets better with more viewings. The less beholden to the original you hold it the better you’ll like. It’s not the best super hero movie ever made, but taken on its own, it’s good. Snyder and company might not have made it to the bleachers, but at least they aimed for them, and there is certainly virtue in that.