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 his adaptation of Frank Miller's comic book Thermopylae, 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 twelve-part graphic novel and, even at a running time that tops two hours and forty minutes, made it commercially viable.
In its movie incarnation, Watchmen (which first appeared early in Ronald Reagan's second term) 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, amid many noir tropes (endless night, constant rain) and numerous flashbacks, in the shadow of impending nuclear obliteration.
As the United States and Soviet Union face off over Afghanistan, the irascible renegade "mask" Rorschach (played, in an inspired bit of casting, 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 responsible for doing away with the alternate universe's Woodward and Bernstein, as well as numerous Vietnamese and hippie protestors, who at his height claimed to embody the American Dream — so his death has a particular resonance. Rorschach, a paranoid type who keeps a Travis Bickle-oid journal, 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 onetime 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, brandishing an alarming ski-nose) 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 with Ted Koppel (Ron Fassler), 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 both in public (rescuing fire victims from the roof of a flaming apartment tower) and in private (humping like porn stars amid the piles of their passionately discarded superhero paraphernalia in Nite Owl's flying whatchamacallit).
It should be apparent that Watchmen is founded on a pop mythology nearly as detailed as The Lord of the Rings. Moreover, in its parodic historical references, integration of various written texts and temporal simultaneity that only the comic-book page can afford, the graphic novel has a modernist structure even more complex than its characters' tangled genealogy. 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. Indeed, the credit sequence, which scores a frozen tableaux history of the Watchmen and their precursors, the Minutemen, to the young Bob Dylan declaiming "The Times They Are A-Changin'" is far wittier filmmaking than any of the movie's excessively juicy fisticuffs or the escalating pandemonium Snyder orchestrates as Watchmen staggers toward its climactic Armageddon.
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 no-less-convoluted comic-book saga Southland Tales) would have made of Moore's magnum opus. 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; not just metaphysics and narrative are simplified, but even character is ultimately eclipsed by the presumed need for violent spectacle.
The philosopher Iain Thomson (who valiantly brought Heidegger's Being and Time to bear on his reading of Watchmen) maintained that Moore not only deconstructed the idea of comic-book super-heroism but pulverized the very notion of the hero — and the hero-worship that comics traditionally sell. For all its superficial fidelity, Snyder's movie stands Moore's novel on its head, trying to reconstruct a conventional blockbuster out of those empty capes and scattered shards.