Prepare to be bludgeoned. Watchmen is sledgehammer entertainment, an action epic with tremendous production values that acknowledges good and evil but is much more interested in things that go boom.
As director Zack Snyder amply demonstrated in his previous adaptations of other people's strikingly original source material (Dawn of the Dead and 300), he is more than up to the task of creating a multitude of dynamic, viscerally-exciting action sequences. As a bonus, there are small moments in Watchmen that prompt warm, unexpected laughter, skillfully-recreated scenes that inspire pure fanboy bliss, and one lengthy flashback segment that is entirely transcendent, as dazzling, thoughtful, and emotionally-stirring as anything I've seen in recent years.
And then there's the rest of the movie, which crams in a remarkably high percentage of the plot points from the original Watchmen series of comic books by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and faithfully includes tiny details, classic panels and a checklist of characters. Yet it skims over deeper reflections about masked crime fighters, superheroes, the essential nature of man, and the future of the world. It's like someone decided the alphabet was too long: most of the consonants are still there, but Watchmen is missing a couple of vowels.
The film features a bewildering assemblage of performances, with juicy turns by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jackie Earle Haley, wildly uneven, uncertain performances by Malin Akerman and Patrick Wilson, and sleepy monotone pronouncements by Billy Crudup and Matthew Goode. Some of the actors sound as though they're delivering their lines for the first time, reading off cue cards.
Watchmen begins with the murder of a superhero and then quickly sketches in the back story of an alternative universe in which masked vigilantes have been outlawed. The few who remain either work for the government or are retired. Set in 1985, it's a world that closely resembles our own during the last days of the Cold War in the 1980s. Russia has invaded Afghanistan and the US wants them out. The doomsday clock is ticking towards midnight, with the threat of nuclear annihilation in the air. In the world of Watchmen, the Vietnam War ended in 1971, Watergate never happened, and Richard Nixon is still President.
The murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) reverberates among the remaining superheroes. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), who may be insane but has definitely ignored the government ban on his crime fighting activities, investigates and quickly discovers a possible conspiracy, putting the lives of all the masked heroes in danger. He warns Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson, channeling Chevy Chase), who is living quietly amongst a huge basement stuffed with elaborate gadgets, and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who has used his superhero past to build a business empire.
Rorschach also tries to warn blue-skinned Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and his longtime paramour Laurie, AKA Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman). Doctor Manhattan works for the government and helped end the Vietnam War with The Comedian. But ever since suffering a horrific accident that transformed him into the god-like, super-powered creature called Doctor Manhattan, he has been steadily losing touch with humanity, causing conflict in his relationship with Laurie. Laurie also harbors resentment toward The Comedian, who tried to rape her mother, the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), and seeks solace in the company of her old friend Nite Owl.
That's a lot of ground to cover, and the film isn't in a hurry to cover it, taking the better part of an hour just to establish the world. There are periodic jolts of action to try and keep things lively, as well as some of the most egregiously on-the-nose music cues I've ever heard. Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" under the title sequence was fine (Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" is cited in the book, and Jimi Hendrix's version of that tune shows up later), but Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence" for a funeral scene was far too obvious, and Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to accompany Vietnam helicopters had to be a joke, right? Was it meant as an homage to Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now? Was Zack Snyder trying to reclaim the songs for a new generation? If so, who would be claiming that K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogie Man" was the right (or even a fittingly ironic) soundtrack for a street riot? By the time Tears For Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" started playing softly under a scene with Ozymandias, I was half-convinced, half-fearful that Watchmen might become this generation's Forrest Gump.
Speaking of distractions, it was difficult to ignore Doctor Manhattan's big blue penis, dangling like a participle with no tomorrow. In the book, of course, you never actually saw his smaller than average genitals move; it was an outward show of the character's increasing disconnect with humanity that clothes served no purpose for him, so why wear them?
What both the music and the nudity point to are the challenges of fidelity and integrity in adapting a film from another medium. What is only hinted at on the printed page can be fleshed out, enhanced, and extended for the big screen. On the other hand, what is considered extraneous or non-essential can be minimized, reduced, or excised. So what did Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse choose to keep, what was left behind, and what was added?
The attention to detail is extraordinary, starting with the look of the characters and their costumes (Rorschach's mask looks awesome), and extending right down to props and signs. A fair amount of dialogue is lifted straight from the book, along with a number of individual shots that recreate individual panels. Nearly all the basic plot points are intact. Background material is smoothly integrated.
Left behind were various elements that, combined, provided a human perspective on the proceedings: the newsstand vendor and his customers, excerpts from the pirate comic Tales of the Black Freighter, the home life of the psychiatrist treating Rorschach, the fiery tabloid editor and his sloppy assistant, and so forth. They helped the original Watchmen to convey a feeling of dread, of mortal concern, of a coming apocalypse. It's not light entertainment, and most of the darker, more apocalyptic intimations have been left out.
Snyder added a few light / grisly / explicit touches of his own: a pool of blood that forms a smiley face; the bloody, pulpy aftermath of a superhero "rescue," a street prostitute exposing her breasts, and so forth. One character gets his hands cut off instead of having his throat sliced. The ending ... well, I'll avoid spoilers and come back to its muted effectiveness at another time.
What frustrates me as much as anything is that one transcendent sequence, which is a brilliant distillation of an entire issue (or a chapter in the collected graphic novel edition). It's so good that it made me wish for the rest of the movie to rise to that level. But things come crashing down to earth in the next scene with a shot of President Nixon's wacky long nose. It gets a laugh, yes, but it also breaks the spell that was the best thing in the movie up to that point. From that point forward, the action scoots along. Other sequences are memorable -- Rorschach in prison, Archie returning to flight -- but nothing quite lives up to that flashback segment.
Were the right choices made? Watchmen is a lighter version of very dark material. On its own, the movie is an efficient adrenaline delivery machine, occasionally taking flight and occasionally sputtering, but most often just motoring down a long road with colorful scenery to pass the time.