Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino. (2009, R, 161 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 6, 2009
"Nothing ever changes," opines the leggy superheroine Silk Spectre II (Akerman) toward the end of Watchmen, just after a huge chunk of New York City is reduced to a smoldering crater, the intentional fallout from one good superhero gone bad. She's right, of course. New York/Gotham/Metropolis is forever taking its lumps from the bastard offspring of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jews from Cleveland who witnessed the rise of Euro-fascism and created their own non-Aryan superman to defend the dime-store candy-counter imaginations of the kids who would grow up to fight der fuehrer and kick-start the Cold War. Watchmen is the most eagerly anticipated superhero film of all time – by its culty legion of fans, at least, and I count myself among them – and so it pains me to say that, while scrupulously faithful in nearly every regard (save the ending) to writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons' landmark DC Comics series (which ran from 1986 to '87 before being collected into a single-volume graphic novel), the film itself is bizarrely cold and uninvolving. It has ideas galore, all of which are, if anything, more relevant to our disintegrating postmillennial culture than they were when the comics were first published. As Moore (who had his name removed from the film and is donating all his royalties to Gibbons) wrote it, the events in Watchmen unfold in 1985, on an alternate Earth where superheroes are real (but out of favor). America has won the Vietnam War, Nixon is in his fourth term, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the brink of mutually assured nuclear annihilation. When an aging, misogynistic ex-hero dubbed the Comedian (well played here by the burly Morgan) is murdered by forces unknown, another ex-hero, the paranoid vigilante Rorschach (Haley), whose face is obscured by an unnervingly shifty stocking mask, goes overboard trying to figure out who killed his friend and why. Moore's intent with the comic series was to upend the heroic mythos by rendering his characters as less than super and more simply human, with all the attendant foibles (sexual inadequacy, jealousy, creeping amorality) inherent in being human. Moore's Watchmen, arriving in the midst of the Reagan/Thatcher era, was a revelation then and remains unchallenged as the finest postmodern graphic novel ever made, dense with philosophizing, pitch-black gallows humor, and a nihilistic streak a mile wide. Snyder's Watchmen is as meaty an adaptation of Moore's meta-comic as we're ever likely to see, but it never quite clicks, and I think that has everything to do with both the medium and the contemporary world we live in. Simply put, Watchmen the comic is, as it turns out, unfilmable, and so what we're left with are the comic panels made mobile, the dialogue spoken aloud, but none of the visceral punch that comes from discovering the comic firsthand. Just as important, too, is the fact that, while downright transgressive in their day, the themes and meta-ironic motivations of these anti-superheroes have been utterly upstaged by events in the real world (a problem that has also effectively killed off the entire cyberpunk literary genre). The alarms sounding the potential of a seriously dystopian future have become, in the time since Watchmen's initial publication, daily headlines, hourly blogs, and moment-by-moment tweets. The unforeseen result is that Snyder's film is, at two hours and 41 minutes, a bit of a snooze. It's beautifully designed, stoically paced in the finest film-noir tradition, and awash in arresting imagery – one brief sequence of the towering man-god Dr. Manhattan (Crudup) decimating a group of fleeing Vietcong is unforgettable – but it never manages to make the exquisite emotional connection the comic so handily does. The most memorable thing about it is Haley's riveting performance as Rorschach, a borderline sociopath whose black-and-white morality has no place in a four-color world. Watchmen is worth seeing, fan or no, for Haley's squirmy presence alone, and all the other characters are also well-served. But at the end of the day, Watchmen the movie hasn't nearly the impact of Watchmen the comic. The latter was and is apocalyptically challenging in its literary and graphic ambition, breadth, and scope of narrative. The former, despite its desperate attempts to stay true to the heart, mind, and soul of its source, is apocalyptically bland and ultimately unnecessary, an addendum to a world gone mad, a Post-it note on an asylum door.