05 March 2009
Apparently, comic book fans have been waiting for a film adaptation of Watchmen for a long time. It’s been in various stages of development ever since DC Comics published the limited series, later packaged as a “graphic novel,” in 1986.
Written by Alan Moore (who refused to be credited on the movie due to his dissatisfaction with adaptations of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta) and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, “Watchmen” was hailed as revolutionary in the comic book world. It’s publication has been described as the moment when comic books “came of age.” In 2005, Time included it on its list of the “100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.”
I know this because Wikipedia knows this.
I don’t know much about comic books, but the way I see it, comic book movies started to come of age early this decade with X2 and Spider-Man 2, before The Dark Knight made it official last summer.
So it is virtually impossible for Watchmen the film to have the same impact as Watchmen the comic book—which is immaterial for me, since the movie is my introduction to this alternate 1985, in which costumed vigilantes, specifically a group known as the “Minutemen,” played an integral role in modern U.S. history; in which the all-powerful, bright-blue-glowing (and usually naked) Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) intervened in Vietnam, allowing the United States to emerge from the conflict victorious; in which public favor turned against the heroes later in the 1970s, leading to the U.S. government’s ban on them; in which the Doomsday Clock, signifying the risk of nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union, rests precariously at five minutes to midnight; in which Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden) is still president.
Most of the vigilantes—such as Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), known as Nite Owl, and Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), following in her mother’s (Carla Gugino) footsteps as the Silk Spectre—have abandoned their crime-fighting personas in an attempt to survive and lead normal lives. Others—including Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), aka the Comedian, and Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), formerly Ozymandias—work for the government.
But Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), who has all but abandoned the name and life of Walter Kovacs, still prowls the streets. When the Comedian is murdered, he suspects a plot to eliminate costumed heroes is afoot and he takes his theory to his former partners.
Rorschach’s investigation is the engine that drives the narrative forward. However, momentum is hard for the movie to come by, as packed as it is with the backstories of the many characters. The film is so dense with exposition that there is little time for anything to actually happen.
I don’t know how much director Zack Snyder (300) and screenwriters David Hayter (X-Men) and Alex Tse cut from the comics, but it wasn’t enough. No doubt it was painful enough for Snyder to cut what he did, as he is so obviously in love with every frame he put on the screen.
The origins of Dr. Manhattan and the disconnect he now feels from ordinary people because of his godlike powers and his perception of all time simultaneously make for an interesting story. But spending time with him while he broods on Mars and tries to explain himself to his ex-girlfriend seems distracting and wasteful, given that the world’s two superpowers are on the brink of nuclear war.
The reverential tone stands in the way of storytelling. 300 had a similar feel, but it needed that treatment to prop up its thin plot. Watchmen, on the other hand, is dense and needs room to breathe. Snyder never provides that, resulting in a stifling experience, even at a running time of 163 minutes.
The violence isn’t nearly as pervasive as it was in 300, though Snyder films it with the same festishistic stylization—the close-ups, the slow and fast motion.
The actors are buried under so much style and pretense—all except Jackie Earle Haley. His Rorschach is a driven, deadly, darkly humorous crusader. He might be a sociopath, but he never strays from his mission. The gravelly-voiced narration that appears periodically, always starting with the words “Rorschach’s journal” comes on like a sigh of relief each time.
A great noir detective movie could be made with Rorschach as its focus. From what I see here, Watchmen would be much better suited to a TV miniseries.
(Rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language. 163 minutes.)