Review: “Watchmen”

Loyal to a fault, Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” takes Alan Moore’s subversive magnum opus of comic-dom and brings it to the big screen in a wildly ambitious, often frustrating, but ultimately successful experiment that will divide audiences.

More admirable than engaging, this is a dense work filled with so many layers both historical and intellectual that its deeper meanings are almost impossible to truly capture on a single viewing (making reviewing it under such conditions a daunting prospect). Yet like its most colorful character Rorschach, the no compromise mentality which fuses comic book pulp with existential overtones will ostracize it from reaching beyond a limited but hardcore set who will exalt it as the new standard.

One can’t blame them, even if you don’t warm to its icy and often inert tone which routinely drags in spite of the information overload, it’s almost impossible not to admire the sheer ambition on display and reverence to the source material. Considering the cinematic abortions of previous Alan Moore adaptations that bared no resemblance to their infinitely more interesting comic counterparts (ie. “From Hell,” “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”), nothing has come so close to capturing the mad Englishman’s idiosyncratic style like this.

Moore’s original 1985 work was a nihilistic satire which deconstructed super heroics in a real world setting, bringing an adult sensibility and approach to what had been until then a medium often dismissed as kids fare. At a time when the comics world had never seen anything like it, it has since gone on to attain almost mythical status amongst that particular geek-dom. Yet it remains very much an insider book, relying on a good knowledge of superhero comics which have never really caught on in a big way outside America except in other mediums like film and television.

For those of us on the outside who find their comic knowledge very limited, it is still an intriguing work of literature yet one not without issues. Moore’s use of a fairly predictable murder-mystery storyline for example seemed like a pale Agatha Christie imitation, lacking her ingenious skill of setup and diversion. In book form though, it was merely a way to tie the various episodic flights of fancy Moore had in mind together.

Transposed to the big screen however, that narrative has to take front and center stage while the book’s more interesting tangents are scaled back. To his credit Snyder tries to retain as much as he can, and no doubt the upcoming director’s cut will be able incorporate more. However it can’t resolve the inherent stillness to the whole thing, a distinct lack of energy, drive and cohesiveness that pulls everything together into a compelling story rather than blindly throwing up a hodge podge of intriguing ideas which are never followed through.

The result is a schizophrenic and overloaded film that veers between self-indulgent boredom, mere imitation of the very material it’s ironically trying to lampoon, and inspired pockets of genius. The opening credits sequence, the various back story flashbacks (especially Dr. Manhattan), Rorscach’s stint in prison, and the historical context scenes like the Comedian & Manhattan in Vietnam work beautifully. Certainly some of the liberties that Snyder takes with the material – from an ending that improves on Moore’s original tome to the odd whimsical but pointed soundtrack inclusion like German Cold War-protest song hit ’99 Luftballoons’ – work with surprising vigor.

Other elements however from Manhattan’s overly long but picturesque martian sojourn; Rorscach’s irritating voiceover monologue; the excessive violence – did we really need to see a dog’s crushed skull in close-up twice to get the point that it’s dead?; the surprisingly amateur make-up; Snyder’s signature slow-mo action nonsense and blindly rapid cross-cutting editing style; and the at times awkward infusion of pre-determined songs, Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” for example, simply don’t have the impact that they are obviously hoping to achieve.

Part of that, and one of the reasons fans will adore it so much, is the simple refusal to appeal to an audience unfamiliar with the material. Throwing us in the deep end right from the get go, it demands you pay attention for all of its near three-hour runtime and even then will often prove confusing during its first act in which so much information is being thrown at the screen that its daunting even amongst those well-versed in the material (for the record I normally don’t read much in the way of comics, but I did read this twice a few years ago and once again about two months ago).

With so much exposition being trucked out in an often dourly deadpan manner, I found myself warming to Nite Owl & Silk Spectre’s budding romance storyline as it is one of the few subplots that takes time to breathe and feels the most human. The film’s last act settles down into a more natural superhero film rhythm with a greater emphasis on action and larger scale villainy than dialogue. That third act tonal change, somewhat resembling Chris Nolan’s less complex but more accessible and emotionally resonant “Batman Begins”, will come as a relief to some. Yet it will likely upset those who prefer the more introspective and dramatic meat of the first two acts.

Performances are solid but never stellar, and none will really stand out as a truly memorable bit of work. Covered in his endlessly shifting facemask for most of the film, Rorscach is a more violent take on Phillip Marlowe with a gruff voice that’s every bit as irritating as Christian Bale’s Caped Crusader rasp. Wandering the streets pontificating about the bleakness of life, the performance only comes alive when the mask is ditched in prison and Jackie Earle Haley’s physically fascinating face comes into play. His fights with the inmates and verbal sparring with his shrink are some of the film’s best scenes.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s take on The Comedian is surprisingly engaging and makes us like or at least understand this amoral asshole who commits some pretty atrocious acts on screen from nearly raping a woman in one scene to the brutal killing of an innocent in the next. Patrick Wilson brings a human touch to Nite Owl and his various unresolved issues, while Billy Crudup does a strong job with the film’s most impenetrable and aloof role of the naked blue God among men Dr. Manhattan. Despite reports that Malin Ackerman or Matthew Goode are the weak links (a fair argument), neither are noticeably less than professional and do fine with the material they’ve been given (though their costumes border on Schumacher-level camp).

The ‘R’ rating is very much in play here. The gore quotient is reminiscent of the “Saw” sequels, although the violence here at least has a point much of the time. There’s a somewhat corny but effective sex scene which plays up the inherent fetishism of superhero antics and rubber/latex outfits, while the many other themes dealt with will go over the heads of teens (and even a few adults). That fusion of lower common denominator tastes with higher minded philosophizing feels awkward, much like the dialogue which is often perfectly reasonable for a 1985 comic book world but sounds glib even in this heavily stylized period-specific real world setting. Cinematography and production design of a noir-ish, rain soaked mid-80’s New York City is effectively realized.

In being so faithful to the word of the book, Snyder has in some ways missed its entire point. A film that’s truly faithful to the central conceit Moore put forward in “Watchmen” would bear little resemblance to the book, instead it would spend its time dissecting the cinematic superhero realm whether it be the campy 60’s incarnations, the overblown but epic 80’s and 90’s versions, or the tortured, self-serious loners that dominate the multiplexes today. That would also in many ways solve the inherent limited appeal of the original work as the global audience is far more familiar with the cinematic versions of Superman or Batman than the comic predecessors that spawned them.

This more timid approach of an utterly loyal adaptation, in being so authentic, is beholden to Moore’s deliberate style and thus never truly stands alone as its own piece of art. That disconnect means it will struggle to find an audience (this ain’t the box-office or critical ground breaker that “The Dark Knight” was folks), but it will allow the film to stand the test of time far better than many of its dumber comic book-to-screen brethren.

Indeed, in spite of my misgivings about the film’s pacing and stiffness, a few days on the stronger elements of it are still with me and it’s one of the few comic book films I would like to see again. Even other good quality efforts in the genre with more immediate appeal like “Iron Man” or “X-Men 2” I never felt such a need to go back to. “Watchmen” is not an easy film to categorize or review, and in a category dominated by formula it’s rare to come across something that can fairly be called unique and inspired.