watchmen1Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Watchmen, the groundbreaking graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons. I’ve read it dozens of times since it came out over two decades ago; I know it like I know my own face. That said, I tried to go into the new movie version as blank as possible — to bring neither high hopes nor cynicism, to give it a shot as its own beast. What I found was a strange and gorgeous beast indeed, not without problems, a mesmerizing epic folly of the sort hardly anyone attempts any more. It is absolutely sick with ambition, each frame jammed with detail and eye candy. I know that Alan Moore has disowned it — disowned the very idea of it — but I don’t have the heart to join him.

The spine of this epic is a murder mystery. We’re in an alternate 1985, where superheroes are real, or were until they were outlawed years ago. One of them, a retired black-ops spook named Edward Blake, or the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), has been thrown out of his high-rise window. Who did it? Another masked avenger, the stubbornly unretired Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), suspects a conspiracy to do away with costumed heroes. His thesis is met with skepticism by Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), the former Nite Owl, now softly and nostalgically retired; Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), or Ozymandias, now an immensely prosperous corporate bigwig; and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who used to be physicist Jon Osterman before a lab accident turned him into a glowing blue superman with godlike powers.

I didn’t expect much from director Zack Snyder, who made the passable but hollow Dawn of the Dead remake and the oafish 300 (to be fair, the oafishness was transcribed more or less intact from the Frank Miller graphic novel). But his work on Watchmen, while perhaps not “visionary” as the ads claim, has the feverish quality of obsession. Like Peter Jackson with King Kong, Snyder has undertaken this massive effort with a mix of geek gratitude and the privilege that comes with having made gobs of money on past films. Often, the result is refreshingly soothing; many scenes, driven by dialogue or exposition, have a confident echo-chamber quietude only found in big movies that aren’t afraid of losing your attention. (The young audience I sat with remained hushed throughout.)

Clearly no expense has been spared (except in the old-age-makeup department); this story ranges from Rorschach’s filthy street gutters to the splendor of Mars, where Dr. Manhattan transports former lover Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) to discuss why he may or may not be interested in saving the world from almost-certain nuclear holocaust. Each stop on this journey is lovingly rendered and detailed, with some full-fledged dramatic performances to match. Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach is a right-wing mad dog deformed by childhood abuse, full of sadness as well as rage; Patrick Wilson gives us a Nite Owl made flabby by enforced rest but eager to get back into the game. And for the second time in a Zack Snyder film, Matt Frewer turns up in a small but indelible turn as a man with a bitter acceptance of his impending painful death. Others aren’t so fortunate; when one character says “I’m not a comic-book villain” — well, to paraphrase Rob Rodi’s Comics Journal review of the original Watchmen, all I could think was, he sure acts like one.

The mood here is paranoia and dread, spiked with the exultation and disgust of gory — sometimes extremely gory — battle. Watchmen is not your father’s superhero-team flick, unless your father was collecting the original series back in 1986. There’s always something going on; much of it made me wince (Rorschach’s brutality isn’t slowed down a bit when he’s briefly sent to prison), some of it made me cringe (of the actors who’ll get a career bump from this film, the inexpressive Malin Akerman will probably get left out), none of it made me bored. I called it a folly: it’s deeply problematic at times; Snyder’s reach sometimes exceeds his grasp. But at least he has reached, and has not disgraced himself or the book. (Which, by the way, remains intact on shelves everywhere, so the changes didn’t bother me.)

The only true tragedy would be if this film and The Dark Knight — like the original Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in the ’80s, conceived as grand statements and summings-up on the subject of the superhero — led not to the medium moving on from caped crusaders but to a bunch of grim, gritty superhero ripoffs, which is what happened in comics.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, comic-book, cult, drama, one of the year's best, science fiction

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