Movie Review: 'Watchmen'

Dedication to source material derails director Snyder's own grand vision

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Writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons did not intend "Watchmen" to be a purely aesthetic experience. Those of us who bought it at comic shops in the mid-1980s recall its four-color brutality with an inappropriate fondness. It was visceral and bloody. It raised questions about morality, violence and the meaning of existence that weren't easily answered.

"Watchmen" was also philosophically astute, cinematic, a treasure trove of visual puns, pulpy, an unprecedented deconstruction of the superhero mythos, erotic, funnier than it had a right to be, a collection of meta narratives and a gripping whodunit with a resolution you never saw coming.

You could catch a paper cut from "Watchmen's" vividly rendered pages if you weren't careful. It was primal-scream therapy in comic-book form. It was a symposium on urban decay, a meditation on mankind's cosmic loneliness and the most gorgeous piece of nihilistic propaganda to appear in pop culture in years. Because of that, it was better than anything in movie theaters at the time. Hollywood has been trying to capture and bottle the magic of the Moore-Gibbons series ever since.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, director Zack Snyder has mounted the great beast that is "Watchmen" like a gaucho riding bareback. He valiantly holds on for much of its 163-minute running time, but in the end the bucking beast proves to be too much for him. Still, Snyder's "Watchmen" is a hell of a ride, brutal and exhilarating in its own way.


'Watchmen'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matthew Goode
  • Rating: R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language.
  • Web site: watchmenmovie.warnerbros.com

The plot of the "Watchmen" movie doesn't depart much from the print version. It is 1985 in an alternate reality. Richard Nixon is president and America is marching inexorably toward a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union. As a Doomsday Clock ticks to five minutes before midnight, the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an unpunished war criminal and former "superhero," is beaten and thrown through his high-rise apartment window by an unknown assailant.

The Comedian's murder attracts the attention of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), another unsavory vigilante who could give "24's" Jack Bauer a run for his money. The paranoid Rorschach is convinced that the Comedian's murder is part of a plot to kill all "masks." Rorschach reaches out to his former colleagues in the Watchmen, a team of costumed heroes disbanded by an act of Congress many years earlier.

Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) are initially too preoccupied by their own dramas to be persuaded by Rorschach's theory. When they're finally able to see the merits of his paranoia, the apocalypse is almost upon them.

The best part of "Watchmen" is arguably the opening credits, where Snyder breaks with the text to give the viewer a sense of the world with witty vignettes about earlier generations of superheroes. It includes a peek at the Comedian, rifle in hand, at the grassy knoll in Dallas on the day Kennedy was shot -- an incident that is referred to in passing in the graphic novel.

Snyder also departs from the ending Moore penned, turning the weakest element of the original story into something far more interesting. When Snyder is working without a net, he manages to make dramatic sense of Moore's intentions.

"Watchmen" benefits from its very able, though mostly unheralded cast. Haley and Wilson are especially good as former crime-fighting partners turned uneasy allies in the search for a killer. Crudup nails his character's growing disconnection from ordinary life as the blue-skinned, quantum-powered Dr. Manhattan, who would just as soon study a quark than save the world. (Note: If you have a problem with frontal male nudity in movies, you may want to avert your eyes when the computer-generated Dr. Manhattan is on the screen).

"Watchmen" captures the look of Moore and Gibbons' dystopic vision of an alternate America in 1985, but it is mostly content to fixate on the surface. In his eagerness to remain faithful to the text, Snyder turns what was once a visceral experience into an exercise in visual nostalgia. It feels detached even when blood covers the screen.

In the days before the Cold War ended, the United States and the Soviet Union held each other's populations hostage in a game of nuclear chicken. When the first issue hit the streets in 1986, we had a president who felt comfortable joking about "bombing Russia" in five minutes. Moore picked up on this absurdity and penned a vision that felt like a prophecy wrapped in that era's newspapers. It may be difficult for audiences who didn't experience or don't remember the social context to understand what made "Watchmen" such an urgent read at the time.

My biggest problem with the movie is that it comes 20 years too late. Unless we count the nuking of our 401(k)s, there is no equivalent sense of imminent apocalypse today. Our dread is of a wholly different variety that the comic book, as good as it is, couldn't anticipate. That's why I believe Moore considers it an act of folly and disrespect to try to make a movie based on the book. It would be time bound in a way that vital art should never be.

Instead of striving for absolute fealty to the original, Snyder should have defied comic fandom's expectations and made a film that would resonate today. Watching "Watchmen" is like experiencing a very good cover band. It hits all the right notes, but you never forget that you're listening to skilled imitators. Because a cover band isn't free to innovate, the performance can never be anything more than second rate. In the same way, Zack Snyder is a prisoner of his desire to avoid offending Alan Moore.

Snyder is a good enough director to have pulled off his own revelatory vision of "Watchmen." Honestly, there aren't many fanboys who would have forgiven him for that.


Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Sharon Eberson and Barbara Vancheri discuss the film in the Rated PG podcast this week at post-gazette.com/podcast .


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