Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is at once better than I had expected and a lot less than it might have been. If it’s never quite the train wreck it could have been, neither is it much more than just OK. The problem is that OK is far removed from the delusions of grandeur and pop intellectualism that surround this film version of the highly regarded 1986-87 comic-book/graphic novel by Alan Moore (whose name is not on the film) and Dave Gibbons. Stripped of its gory, blood-soaked, sexed-up R-rated approach and its plodding 163-minute running time, the film isn’t much more than another entry in the dysfunctional superhero subgenre.
If The Dark Knight (2008) offered us the most pretentious comic-book movie to date, Watchmen tops it by offering us the first pompous one—with considerably less justification. While I’m in the minority in considering The Dark Knight more than a little overrated, I would at least concede that its depressing nihilism is grounded in a single vision. Watchmen is more like a grab bag—one that tries too hard to honor its source material, brings little new to the table, and ultimately subverts both its source and what little identity of its own it has. Snyder hasn’t so much made a film of Watchmen as he’s performed taxidermy on it.
Assuming for a moment that you’re out of the loop on just what Watchmen is all about, it’s a story set in an alternate version of America in 1985. This is an America where Richard Nixon (TV actor Robert Wisden with a really cheesy prosthetic proboscis) is still president (term limits have been removed) and the threat of nuclear war is omnipresent. It’s a world where masked/costumed “superheroes” have been outlawed as vigilantes and where America’s biggest asset is a bulky blue unmasked bona fide superhero (thanks to an accident in something called an “Intrinsic Field Subtractor”) called Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup with a blue CGI willy). The famous costumed heroes of the past have been killed, vanished or retired to other pursuits—save for a couple of renegade spirits, The Comedian/Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, TV’s Grey’s Anatomy) and Rorschach/Walter Kovacs (Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children).
The film opens with The Comedian’s murder by an unknown assailant. This is the event that propels the story, which, despite claims to the contrary, isn’t that hard to follow as a story. Understanding the dynamics and motivations behind it all is another matter—one that even the source material doesn’t completely master, though it comes much nearer than the film. It’s not just that the film simplifies the material—that’s a given—it’s that it’s too hung up on duplicating the look of the comic to deal with its essence. Changes are to be expected in a film version. They can even be desirable, forcing the viewer to consider the source in a new light. But that’s not what happens here. Instead, what we get is a movie that exchanges ideas for how “badass” it all is. It’s not a good trade.
I’m not going to make a case for the book as great literature, because I don’t think it is, but it does deal in ideas. Granted, the whole business of deconstructing and de-mythifying superheroes was a lot fresher 20-plus years ago. The movies got into the flawed/damaged hero as early as 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman and have rarely let up. But Watchmen, the book, went a step further. It addressed a specific time and type of hero—one with a strong relationship to the WWII serial films (specifically referenced in the book as “Republic serial villain” and dumbed-down and generic-ified to “comic-book villain” in the film). It tackled the whole question of the need to dress up and fight crime. And it dared to take a poke at the very fan base that supports the genre. Snyder’s film subverts nearly every aspect of this and smothers it in his so-called “style,” which mostly means ramped-up violence and lots of slow-motion.
The idea that the film might be confusing to viewers unfamiliar with the novel owing to its “complex structure” is laughable. The novel has a complex structure, the movie doesn’t. Flashbacks do not a complex structure make. (You want a complex structure, go see Slumdog Millionaire, with its time-shifts, flash-forwards and visual cross-references.) The potential confusion in Watchmen stems from its clunkiness, sketchy motivations and even sketchier characterizations.
It’s not all bad. The montage sequence that traces the history of the characters is actually brilliantly achieved. Unfortunately, nothing that follows comes anywhere near it. Overall, the movie is less repellent than Snyder’s last film, 300 (2006), which is some kind of a gain, though hardly a great one. While Snyder’s use of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Desolation Row” on the soundtrack are dictated (sort of) by the novel, and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Sounds of Silence” are effectively used—there’s a sense of a greatest-hits mentality at work that’s just plain dull. On the other hand, the use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to back the dismal soft-core make-out scene (a sop to the geek fantasy of being a superhero and getting the “hot babe”) is inexcusable.
In the end, I can’t say I hated the film. I’d respect it more if I did. I’m left largely indifferent to it. I wanted to like it, if for no other reason than the spectacle of certain nervous fanboys being made uneasy by the movie’s big blue penis. The problem isn’t fidelity to the source; it’s the dumbing-down of the source’s intellectual quality. I’ve often criticized comic books for reducing complex ideas to the level of bumper stickers. This goes one step further, and reduces them to Twitter feeds. Rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language.