Director Zack Snyder has his work cut out for him with Watchmen, his self-avowedly slavish adaptation of the watershed comic-book series. In 12 jam-packed issues, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons subverted almost every tenet of superherodom ' which means that Snyder has essentially tasked himself with crafting a reverent tribute to irreverence. The result is cosmetically faithful but tonally scattershot, a frustrating 163 minutes in which every set piece is as likely to land on point as beside it.
The setting is an alternate 1985 in which superheroes not only exist, but have changed the course of history. A glowing blue god named Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) has helped America win in Vietnam and net Dick Nixon five terms in office. Yet nuclear tensions between the U.S. and USSR run alarmingly high. As Armageddon looms, a mysterious death befalls a sadistic government operative named the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, excellent but unavoidably underused). Connecting the two threads falls to Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a right-wing vigilante as ideologically rigid as every House Republican put together.
That's about 5 percent of what's in the comic, which is why it has long eluded translation. Snyder has managed to retain a huge amount of it, cramming in an entire portfolio of received images and dialogue while still reserving space for his own sight gags and ironic music cues. The latter are often pithy, sometimes merely pat; the whole movie, in fact, veers crazily from the brilliant to the plain lousy, often within the same sequence. There's no consistency of approach, with pensive, adult ruminations intruded upon by cartoonish over-emoting. (As the perpetually hectoring heroine Silk Spectre II, the barely amateur Malin Akerman sinks every scene she's in.)
It's also a noticeably meaner take than the original. Almost all of the film's flawed protagonists break bones, shove knives into necks and reduce their enemies to soggy entrails. It's hard to tell if Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300) is suggesting that even 'righteousâ?� violence is an abomination or simply pandering to the Saw generation.
To his credit, he hasn't instructed screenwriters Alex Tse and David Hayter to cut back one iota on the original's inflammatory politics, which is why the film is still recommended viewing for anyone unfamiliar with the text. A quarter-century on, nothing else in pop culture rivals the sight of a state-sponsored thug like the Comedian opening fire on rioters, calling the carnage the most fun he's had 'since Woodward and Bernsteinâ?� ' and reassuring his horrified partner (Patrick Wilson) that what they're witnessing is the American dream come to life.
In preserving such transgressive passages, Snyder at least proves himself a conscientious stenographer. Yet there's no mistaking who's actually responsible: the original author, who, despairing of Hollywood, has ordered his name left off the film and forfeited all royalties.
For an ensemble piece that purports to deconstruct costumed do-gooders, Watchmen has one true hero. His name is Alan Moore.