That it was declared too ambitious by the likes of Darren Aronofsky – who promptly delivered The Fountain), and unfilmable by such men as Terry Gilliam – who has since coughed up Tideland), speaks to the towering stature of Alan Moore’s monolithic graphic novel. A revered tome of cascading political discourse Watchmen was a calculated deconstruction of the superhero genre, and a thumb in the eye to a cocksure American people whom Moore believed had empowered some very dangerous people with some potentially catastrophic agendas.
Arriving on the heels of Frank Millers’ The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen cemented a new era for the comic book and the exaggerated caricatures of America’s perceived superiority that dwelled within its pages. Not just a single origin story but many, compartmentalized yet fiercely interdependent against the backdrop of a sprawling period of social upheaval that is both a distorted mirror to our past and a terrifying vision of our future. For twenty years directors more accomplished and renowned than helmer Zack Snyder had grappled with the adaptation, and none had come close. Could Snyder really achieve the impossible?
Partly in an attempt to please the legions of adoring fans, and partly to show us he isn’t completely off his rocker, Snyder has opted to remain almost entirely faithful to Moore’s text, and while it falls short of the masterpiece we were praying for, it is far from the unmitigated disaster many were expecting. In something of an inspired piece of genius Snyder ably lays out forty odd years of revised history in a beautifully assembled title sequence that for a carefully disguised info dump is arguably as good as anything we’ve ever seen. In just five short minutes we witness the emergence of costumed heroes, the formation of the Minutemen (a justice league type cabal – a prelude to the Watchmen). America triumphs in Vietnam, the space race, and the arms race thanks to the assistance of the Godlike Dr. Manhattan. Tricky Dick is elected for a third term in office, and America falls in, and quickly of, love with masked avengers as we enter a period of social unrest, political extremism and teeter precariously on the brink of nuclear war with the soviets.
In a neo-noir netherworld, New York 1985, government sanctioned assassin The Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan) is tossed from his high-rise apartment block window. Masked vigilante Rorschach, suspicious that someone is targeting retired costumed heroes, wants to know why, and reaches out to the rest of the now mothballed Watchmen – now scattered in various stages of discontentment – to help him investigate.
Rewriting the rulebook Moore posited what might occur if superheroes were a facet of everyday life. How would they perceive us, and how would they react if they were forced to confront, on a day-to-day basis the worst aspects of the very people they are championing?
Names like Ron Pearlman, Hilary Swank, and Simon Pegg to name but a few, have circled this project, but having now finally experience it, it’s tough to imagine anyone else in these roles. As the cigar chomping Edward Blake, aka The Comedian, Jeffery Dean Morgan bleeds self-loathing, a man who has seen humanity’s true face and is sickened by it, pledging allegiance not to a flag or ideology, but to whomever will grant him freest reign to inflict his pain unto others. Matthew Goode balances genius with subtle delusions of grandeur as billionaire industrialist Ozymandias. Billy Crudup is suitably austere as Dr. Manhatten. As Nite Owl, Patrick Wilson gives us a real window into the psychology of the Watchmen, impotent without his suit (literally and figuratively), yet a paragon of courage and integrity inside it. Only Malin Akerman in the role of Silk Spectre falls noticeably short, Akerman failing to effectively convey the pain of her stolen childhood nor comprehend the gravity of her role as the last link between humanity and Dr. Manhattan, the only one with the true power to save it.
But any Watchmen adaptation lives or dies in one single respect, Rorschach. As the distrustful, borderline psychotic Jackie Earle Hayley has surely crafted the definitive screen vigilante. Unhinged, conflicted, monumentally badass, Hayley’s antihero puts Snyder’s vision on his back and carries it far closer to the finish line than would otherwise have been possible. All too aware of how crucial it is for audiences to latch onto him Snyder has smoothed a couple of edges; his homophobia, his latent leaning towards fascism as a form of order. But even with those compromises Rorschach is still sharper than a draw full of knives as the numerous acts of brutal, unapologetic brutality will ably attest to.
Given that Watchmen already has found its perfect medium it’s perhaps better to view Snyder’s effort as a companion piece rather than an adaptation because as comprehensive as it is there is enough missing to handily fill out another 163 minutes. So much more than mere story panels the chapters are interspersed with diaries, interviews, letters and personal correspondence, newspaper stories – the film lacks the knockout blow of the broader socio-political context. Moore’s intention was to illustrate that people by their very nature are self-serving, destructive and morally bankrupt in the face of realized self-interest, and that the people we revere and expect to lead/save us really aren’t all that different.
Focusing almost exclusively on the Watchmen themselves and Snyder really had no choice) the film lacks a sense of the world at large. With the lengthy second act dwarfing both the set-up and the somewhat hurried conclusion the pacing is at times languid where your ability to feel out and signpost the story for yourself with regulate enjoyment. Indeed the sole attempt Snyder makes to combat Moore’s chronological jumble, a sequence of Mars where Dr. Manhattan experiences his past, present and future simultaneously succeeds only in highlights the limitations of the medium at hand, coming over like a jumbled, poorly thought out flashback.
It’s Moore’s vision but it’s Snyder’s film certainly, and the much talked about soundtrack that ranges from the inspired (Bob Dylan’s Times They Are A-Changin for the titles) to the badly misjudged (Hallelujah for a graphic, extended sex scene) puts his signature on it. It’s a brave, admirable effort for which he is to be applauded; faithful almost to a fault yet accessible enough for anyone to walk in off the street and enjoy. Best of all Snyder promises all that was left on the cutting room floor (no small amount apparently) will be reassembled for an unrated director’s cut DVD. Whoo, and indeed, hoo!
Starring: Jackie Earle Hayley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino
Director: Zack Snyder
Runtime: 163 Minutes
Distributor: Warner Bros.