The most eagerly anticipated (as well as the most beleaguered) movie of the year (if not the century), Watchmen is neither desecratory disaster nor total triumph. In filming David Hayter and Alex Tse's adaptation of the most ambitious superhero comic book ever written, director Zack Snyder has managed to address the cult while pandering to the masses.
Warner Bros., which battled Fox for possession of the property (from which author Alan Moore has, typically, removed his name) is marketing Snyder—who remade George Romero's Dawn of the Dead in 2004 and had a surprise mega-hit two years later with 300, as a "visionary." That's a grateful studio's code word for "competent hack." The master of the vid-game aesthetic has successfully streamlined Moore's 12-part graphic novel and, even at a running time that tops two hours and 40 minutes, made it commercially viable.
In its movie incarnation, Watchmen could be most simply described as an apocalyptic sci-fi murder mystery cum love story set in an alternate universe where masked superheroes are real, albeit largely retired, thanks to Richard Nixon, who is enjoying his fifth term as president—in part because the greatest of the Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan, a mutated atomic scientist who glows like blue kryptonite and possesses unlimited cosmic powers, settled the Vietnam War in a week. The story unfolds in the shadow of impending nuclear obliteration.
Directed by Zack Snyder. Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse. Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Starring Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup and Malin Akerman.
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As the United States and Soviet Union face off over Afghanistan, the irascible renegade "mask" Rorschach (played by Jackie Earle Haley) discovers that an even more asinine colleague formerly known as the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has been murdered. The Comedian is a cigar-chomping a-hole who at his height claimed to embody the American Dream and who was responsible for doing away with the alternate universe's Woodward and Bernstein, as well as numerous Vietnamese and hippie protestors. Rorschach, a paranoid type, jumps to the conclusion that someone is plotting to kill all surviving Watchmen, although he fails to persuade either Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the most successful of the "masks," or his depressed one-time partner Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) to come out of retirement and join him on the case.
Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), to whom the president (Robert Wisden) has given the responsibility of deterring Russia's nuclear threat, is increasingly alienated. Having offended his inamorata, the erstwhile Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), by projecting a pair of avatars for her sexual gratification while he solves a difficult equation in the lab, the azure godling violently teleports himself from his boudoir to a guest TV appearance, and then, angry at being accused of spreading cancer, sulkily bungs off to Mars. After Rorschach is set up, busted and sent to the pen, the two second-generation masks, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, return to action.
It should be apparent that Watchmen is founded on a pop mythology nearly as detailed as Lord of the Rings. Snyder enriches the mix by riffing on alt-'80s periodicity—a simulated McLaughlin Group with Pat Buchanan opining on the nature of Dr. Manhattan is particularly funny—and a strategic '60s soundtrack.
Although the ending has been somewhat modified from the novel's, let it be said that Watchmen doesn't lack for self-confidence or even entertainment value. Its failure is one of imagination—although faithfully approximating Dave Gibbons' original drawings, the filmmakers are unable to teleport themselves to the level of the original concept. Perhaps no one could have, but it would have been fun to see what sort of mess Terry Gilliam (who hoped to make a movie version back in the '80s) or Richard Kelly (who surely took inspiration from Watchmen in conceptualizing his comic-book saga Southland Tales) would have made. Snyder's movie is too literal and too linear. Social satire is pummeled into submission by the amplified pow-kick-thud of the sub-Matrix action sequences.