2009 | Director: Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) | Writers: David Hayter (X-Men) and Alex Tse
Advertisements for Zack Snyder’s Watchmen crowed that the director had emerged victorious in a battle with its “unfilmable” source material, the beloved late-‘80s limited comic book series of the same name by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. Moore’s history of declining cooperation with the filming of his works—from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to From Hell and V for Vendetta, all relatively poor movies compared to the critically-acclaimed comics from which they were spawned—might have something to do with the “unfilmable” designation attached to his most famous series. The odd thing is, the ads were correct: Snyder was the perfect helmsman to bring Watchmen to life, so literal is his translation and so faithfully does he mimic the tone and look of Moore’s brainchild. But even odder still is the fact that, despite hitting all the right notes, the film comes up disappointingly short in some very basic ways.
The film recounts an alternate American history where superheroes—or “costumed adventurers”—once roamed the streets; Nixon is still president, having been successful in the latter half of the Vietnam War; and Cold War tensions are still sky-high, despite the presence of America’s in-house Superman, a glowing, god-like man of unspeakable power named Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). In the alternate 1985 of Watchmen, all superheroes but Manhattan have since been outlawed due to public backlash, but that doesn’t stop Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley in the film’s meatiest performance), a noir-styled masked detective with a black-and-white worldview and a penchant for extreme violence, from investigating the apparent murder of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), one of the superheroes of old, under suspicion that someone is out to bump off vigilantes one by one. Rorschach warns ex-teammates Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) about the apparent plot, but their probe unearths an even more catastrophic threat, all while nuclear war grows more likely after an increasingly-disconnected Manhattan leaves Earth for the uncomplicated vistas of Mars.
Snyder, as he did with Frank Miller’s 300 before, uses the source material much like a storyboard, lavishing his mostly-panel-for-panel adaptation with a fanatical attention to detail, down to his casting of actors who bear startling resemblances to Gibbons’ characters. He even makes an improvement or two along the way, such as in the unsettling looks of delight on the faces of Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre as they brutalize a hallway full of criminals, indicating the pathological mental state it would take to become something as crazy as a person who beats up criminals while wearing tights and a mask.
But Moore’s comic series is more than just a dissertation on why a person would become a vigilante; it’s a deep, all-encompassing examination of why we have created heroes for ourselves, why we revolt against them, and most importantly, why the ideas behind their creation are as dangerous for the individual as they are for society as a whole. To show this, every panel in the comic is teeming with human life—a street-corner vendor and his comic-reading patron, an oft-combative same-sex couple, a prison psychologist and his wife, all of whom listen with growing anxiety to media reports of imminent nuclear threat—giving his story high stakes in the face of frightening world events. These people are why the heroes matter; their understandable distrust of their protectors is the story’s backbone.
In a nutshell, Snyder’s film lacks this crucial human element, reportedly having been cut out of the movie due to time constraints, making the second half of Watchmen an hour and twenty minutes of incessant sound and fury, but of utterly artificial tension, leading to explosive results that feel underwhelming in spite of their scope. It’s not fair to fault Snyder for this fatally flawed but energetic and loving adaptation of Moore’s brilliant work. It’s also difficult to predict how someone who has not experienced the comic series will receive the film. Moore’s mature and intelligent themes still run behind the carefully-designed mayhem on screen, leaving Watchmen no less significant than its source, even if it is less rewarding. Really, Snyder’s only crime is ambition; he successfully filmed the “unfilmable,” but at the cost of perverting its importance, thanks to the limits of his medium. There is hope, however, in the rumor that Snyder’s even-longer version, with its multitudinous subplots and supporting characters put back into place, will find release in the upcoming year. Heaven knows Moore deserves as much.
Rating: Three of Five Stars