Upon its publication in the mid-1980s, the 12-issue graphic novel Watchmen earned a reputation for being “the Citizen Kane of comic books.” That’s not just hyperbole: Both works feature multiple narrators trying to piece together an enigmatic death, although in Watchmen, the ensemble happens to be former masked heroes, sleuthing against a backdrop of impending nuclear war.
Like Orson Welles, Watchmen writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons drew on seemingly every stylistic innovation in their respective media and shot them with lightning, raising the bar for a popular but increasingly sophisticated art form.
Zack Snyder’s long-awaited film adaptation of Watchmen is not a classic worthy of Citizen Kane. Thankfully, it’s not a bomb on a par with Howard the Duck, either. It comes close to being something like A Clockwork Orange for superhero movies — a dystopian satire marked by meticulous craftsmanship and sluggish pacing, of incongruous music and horrific violence, of heavy-handed sermonizing and astonishing imagery.
Snyder’s ingenious opening credits montage, played to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin,’” sets the context of Watchmen’s alternate America, in which real, costumed crime-fighters emerged at the same time Batman comic books were first published. Initially a World War II-era lark, superheroes change history when a nuclear accident turns physicist Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) into Dr. Manhattan, a sapphire-colored superman who can rearrange matter in every imaginable way, but can’t arrest his estrangement from humanity. Dr. Manhattan’s presence turns the United States into a fascist superpower, secretly abetted by a former hero-turned-government-hit-man called the Comedian (a thuggishly charismatic Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
When an unknown assailant hurls the Comedian through a skyscraper window, a psychotic vigilante/crank called Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) suspects a vendetta against former “masks.” The revelation that Dr. Manhattan may cause cancer lends fuel to Rorschach’s conspiracy theory, destabilizes the global balance of power, and threatens the humanitarian ambitions of an idealistic industrialist nicknamed Ozymandias (Matthew Goode). In one of the film’s head-spinning highlights, Dr. Manhattan ruminates on his origin while getting away from it all. On Mars.
Snyder offers an obsessive re-creation of Watchmen’s dialogue and artwork: For fans, Patrick Wilson looks amazingly like Dan Dreiberg, a middle-aged pudge who used to be a Batman-style crusader named Nite Owl. Snyder has a flair for replicating comic book panels as potent, data-packed cinematic frames, which explains why last summer's Watchmen trailer and his 300 adaptation caused such sensations with audiences. Images such as the Comedian’s blood-spattered smiley face button, Rorschach’s shape-shifting face mask, and Dr. Manhattan’s appearance as a nude, blue giant, or multiple copies of himself, cling to the memory.
Stanley Kubrick crafted similarly powerful tableaux, and though Watchmen includes some visual puns on Dr. Strangelove, Snyder doesn’t have Kubrick’s command or control. Ideas that were acceptable when confined to the page, like lines such as “What happened to the American dream?” prove nearly unspeakable on the big screen. And why hire actors to put on unconvincing make-up as, for instance, a fifth-term President Nixon, when such momentum-killing moments could be easily replaced with brief shots on Ozymandias’ bank of TV screens? Watchmen feels like the unrated, ultra-violent, 160-minute director’s cut of material that would benefit from a leaner, sharper focus. Snyder gives you Moore, but you’d rather have a little less.
Fortunately, Watchmen’s concussive action scenes dispel the doldrums. While the supporting players tend to be weak and arch, the six leads emerge as distinctly weird personalities, and we look forward to see how they’ll play off each other. Malin Akerman, playing Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre, offers a sympathetic portrayal of an adrenalin-junkie crime-fighter reduced to Dr. Manhattan’s neglected girlfriend. Haley and Crudup poignantly play polar opposites — one too emotional, one not emotional enough — doomed to be society’s outcasts. Even the “normal” ones like Dan and Laurie have some serious issues with sex and violence. Watchmen suggests that if superheroes really existed, they’d be mentally ill, in contrast to today's ubiquitous feel-good superhero flicks.
It’s one of Watchmen’s ironies that Snyder crafts a fanboy monument to a graphic novel that mercilessly deconstructs and discredits the whole idea of superheroes. Watchmen takes place in the comic book’s original year of 1985 and features plenty of witty period-specific references. Despite such cleverness, the film shows little consideration of how the book’s ideas resonate today, except for some intriguing implications about 9/11 that don’t get fleshed out. Watchmen almost feels like a work stuck in the past as it looks back at the comic book pioneers and the Cold War terrors of the 1980s with equal nostalgia.