I first read Alan Moore’s seminal comic Watchmen when it was published in graphic-novel form in 1987, and it was a minor revelation. The audacity of Moore’s grim story of costumed heroes plagued by psychosis and alcoholism and lust, teetering on the brink between justice-seeking and sadism, was exceeded only by the style and imagination with which he (and illustrator Dave Gibbons) told it: the meticulous, nine-panel format that lent structure to the madness, the Philip K. Dickian comic-within-a-comic read by a peripheral character, the lengthy excerpts from (fictional) autobiographies and journal articles scattered throughout. It’s not without reason that Watchmen was long believed to be unfilmable.
Opinions will vary on whether self-announced “visionary” director Zack Snyder’s $100 million-plus adaptation is proof or refutation of this belief, though count me among those who judge it the former. Watchmen is in some ways an impressive movie, but it is a drearily over-literal one, the sober, well-financed retelling of a hallucinatory fever dream.
Snyder’s film opens sharply, tweaking the sequence of Moore’s original. It’s 1985, and Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), aging but still athlete-fit, watches television in his luxurious New York apartment. As a perfume ad set to Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” comes on, a mysterious figure bursts in and begins taking Blake apart, hurling him into walls and furniture and, finally, through his wide plate glass window. It’s a long way down to the street.
We soon learn that before his terminal fall Blake was a former crime-fighter named The Comedian, who’d more recently worked as a kind of paramilitary thug for the U.S. government. (With one notable exception, Moore’s “heroes” are not super-powered.) To get us up to speed, Snyder offers a historical montage on the evolution of costumed crusaders from the 1940s on, the early glories and tragic endings: a Mothman who went cuckoo, a lesbian avenger murdered with her lover, the eventual outlawing of the mask-and-tights set. It’s a nice sequence, although, in contrast to the sly appropriation of “Unforgettable,” it’s set ham-fistedly to “The Times They Are A’Changin.” (From here on out, the film rarely misses a chance to have a musical cue tell us something we already know: “The Sounds of Silence” accompanies a funeral procession, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” plays as one character wrangles with the captains of global industry, “Flight of the Valkyries”--!--blares during a Vietnam battle scene.)
No one much bothers over the death of The Comedian, except for Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a fellow vigilante and borderline sociopath who worries it may be the work of a “mask-killer” and sets himself the twin tasks of solving the crime and warning other former heroes of the threat: nice guy Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), vinyl vixen Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), corporate titan Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), and the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a former physicist whom a nuclear accident rendered blue, bald, and (frequently) butt-naked.
These varied vigilantes bicker, bully, rehash the (mostly woeful) past, and, by fits, re-inspire one another to action. Snyder is loyal to his text to a fault, and such alterations as he dares--the tighter, more telegraphic opening, the replacement of a climax involving a giant, interdimensional psychic squid with something rather less goofy--are frequently improvements. But there are problems both with the tale, which was an awful lot more subversive 20 years ago than it is today, and the telling, which in contrast to Moore’s radical experimentation is disappointingly staid and straightforward, imprisoned by its own legend.
In the 1980s, Watchmen was the definition of envelope-pushing, a bleak, violent subversion of a relatively innocent genre. But over the subsequent two decades the pop-cultural envelope has been stretched outward more or less continuously, by Tarantino and “24,” by the dark inquiries of David Lynch and Neil LaBute and Todd Solondz, by the torture porn of Saws and Hostels, and on and on. The superhero genre in particular has been tweaked and twisted and turned inside-out in recent years: It’s not merely The Dark Knight that has stolen some of Watchmen’s thunder, but to lesser degrees Hancock and The Incredibles and even Ang Lee’s Hulk. At this point, we half-expect anyone in tights and cape to turn out to be a dangerous lunatic.
Shorn of much of its novelty, Moore’s story often comes across as silly--an imminent-nuclear-war-with-the-Soviets storyline that was fairly ridiculous at the time now seems positively risible--or, worse, an exercise in adolescent unpleasantness. Moore’s original was bloody to begin with, but Snyder amps the violence up still further, as if worried the material has lost the ability to shock. In the comic, Rorschach offers a handcuffed man in a burning building a saw and tells him to carve off a limb if he wants to escape. But given that Saw has over-exposed this particular cruelty (which Moore himself had stolen from the original Mad Max), Snyder instead treats us to the sight of a man’s skull being split with a cleaver, not once, but again and again and again. Even a throwaway scene in which Nite Owl and Silk Spectre fight off a mob of muggers is now augmented with snapped bones emerging from torn flesh. (Visionary, indeed.) Worst of all, these abuses are generally shot in caressing slo-mo with a lover’s ardor. In Moore’s comic the blood was plentiful but not beautiful; Snyder’s film--like James McTeigue’s adaptation of Moore’s V for Vendetta--strives grotesquely to make it both.
The absurdities and uglinesses of Moore’s original work are also more evident because Snyder’s film is incapable of the narrative gymnastics of the comic. Though he retains Moore’s fractured chronology and frequent flashbacks--to The Comedian’s attempted rape of Silk Spectre’s superheroic mother, to the accident in which (apologies to “Arrested Development”) Dr. Manhattan blue himself--he does not undertake the more literary ventures that gave the original such unexpected texture: the “Tale of the Black Freighter” mirror narrative, the “found” book excerpts, etc. As a result, Watchmen, which ought to highlight the strengths of its source material, too often reveals the weaknesses instead.
Snyder’s cast runs the full spectrum from awful to awesome. Malin Akerman--who in 27 Dresses and the Farrelly remake of The Heartbreak Kid was cast in the role of beautiful woman who’s nonetheless so irritating you desperately want her to go away--is no more tolerable in the (intended) sympathetic role of Silk Spectre. As Ozymandias, the “smartest man in the world,” Matthew Goode has the wan whiff of puberty to him. Crudup, the most accomplished actor of the bunch, is largely wasted as Manhattan, his wry demeanor buried under so much CGI that the most memorable aspect of his portrayal is probably the glowing blue manhood with which Snyder equips him. Patrick Wilson is solid as paunchy sweetheart Nite Owl, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is rather good as The “with heroes like you, who needs villains?” Comedian.
But the film’s best performance by far is Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach. For the bulk of the movie, his face hidden by a mask on which ink-blot-like shapes form and re-form, he rasps with a cold fury that would have Christian Bale’s Dark Knight cowering in the Batcave lavatory. But it is when he is unmasked and incarcerated for a time that the character--and the film--come most fully to life. Though the diminutive Haley is about the size of one of Mickey Rourke’s steroidal biceps, he may offer the most compelling portrait of violent retribution since the latter’s turn in Sin City. One of Snyder’s shrewdest alterations was to take perhaps the best line in the comic, which appears in a psychiatrist’s report, and place it back in Rorschach’s mouth, a warning to his fellow prison inmates, many of whom he put there and all of whom want him dead: “None of you understand. I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re locked up in here with me.”
Such appeals to adolescent testosterone take one only so far, however, and not nearly the length of Watchmen’s 163-minute running time. Bit by bit, the convoluted plotting, sensualized ultraviolence, excruciating musical choices (did I mention an extended sex scene set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”?), and line readings in which Malin Akerman wrestles with the concept of character like a bunny with an anaconda overwhelm everything in their path. By the time a giant ball of energy is dropping down on Times Square toward the film’s conclusion you may worry that New Year’s 2010 is already upon us. Grant Snyder this much, though: It took balls to have the last line in his opus spoken by a major character be “Nothing ends. Nothing ever ends.”
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.