Fanboys (and girls) have been squabbling for years over whether Watchmen, one of the most lauded comics of all time, could be translated to film. The movie was released today, but critics still can't decide.
Watchmen is based on Alan Moore's 1986-87 comic book series, which is considered the Citizen Kane of graphic novels. A film adaptation has been in the works since 1986, and finally wound up with director Zack Snyder. (Moore had his name removed from the project because he didn't like Snyder's adaptation of the graphic novel 300 and says Watchmen is meant to be read.)
Nevertheless, Snyder has created a painstakingly faithful adaptation of the comic. Watchmen is set in an alternate universe in 1985 in which costumed superheroes are part of everyday society, Richard Nixon has been president for five terms, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear war. When former superhero The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is killed, his former colleague Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) sets out to solve his murder and realizes there is a conspiracy to kill members of the Watchmen, a retired group of superheroes, including Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Silk Specter 2 (Malin Akerman), Nite Owl 2 (Patrick Wilson), and Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup).
Critics agree the film is visually stunning and spectacularly violent. From there, the reactions varygreatly depending on whether the critic is a die hard fan of the graphic novel or, like The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, unfamiliar with these newfangled "comic books." (He laments that Moore's dystopian deconstruction of the superhero marks the end of the "comic strip" and asks, "where did the comedy go?") Below, we take a look at the reviews of Watchmen.
Director Zack Snyder's cerebral, scintillating follow-up to 300 seems, to even a weary filmgoer's eye, as fresh and magnificent in sound and vision as 2001 must have seemed in 1968, yet in its eagerness to argue with itself, it resembles A Clockwork Orange. Like those Stanley Kubrick films - it is also in part a parody of Dr. Strangelove - it transforms each moment into a tableau with great, uncompromising concentration. The effect is an almost airless gloom, but the film is also exhilarating in breadth and depth.
Other directors shake the camera to instill excitement. Snyder meticulously choreographs action scenes and thrills audiences with his inventiveness. Other directors go in for brutal realism. Snyder goes in for brutal surrealism, adding little visual grace notes that comment on the action and allow for audience distance. These touches, some of them genuinely odd but strangely right, show an unconscious engagement with the material, the work of a director not going through the motions but pulling from all sides of his brain ... Part conscious and part unconscious, Watchmen tells us of a world without hope and then makes us wonder if we're already living in it.
Watchmen is a spectacularly violent movie; Rorschach's dispatch of a child killer, for example, is far more gruesome in the film than in the comic. Axes split heads; saws rend limbs; tides of blood flow. Snyder positively revels in the slow-mo gore, but his camerawork is also effective in the film's dark, quiet moments, such as when he captures the rain dripping slowly from Nite Owl's glasses. And yes, the Mars sets are never quite convincing, and Akerman's Silk Spectre lacks the complexity of her male colleagues (isn't that always the way?). Dr. Manhattan's discourses on humanity are occasionally a drag on the action, though the film never feels bloated even at its considerable length. Still, though Snyder could hardly follow Rorschach's motto — ''Never compromise'' — his faithful vision of this classic comic all worked out in the end.
The infliction of pain is rendered in intimate and precise aural and visual detail, from the noise of cracking bones and the gushers of blood and saliva to the splattery deconstruction of entire bodies. But brutality is not merely part of Mr. Snyder's repertory of effects; it is more like a cause, a principle, an ideology. And his commitment to violence brings into relief the shallow nihilism that has always lurked beneath the intellectual pretensions of Watchmen. The only action that makes sense in this world - the only sure basis for ethics or politics, the only expression of love or loyalty or conviction - is killing.
The performances are a mixed bag. Akerman is downright bad, but the role of Laurie was always half real woman and half fanboy fantasy. Crudup, by contrast, manages to get Dr. Manhattan's sub-atomic Zen majesty even under the full-frontal blue pancake makeup and white contact lenses. Goode is miscast as Ozymandias; in a role the comic creators thought of as a jut-jawed Redford type, he only suggests Seth Myers of Saturday Night Live - a petulant lightweight rather than a Master of the Universe. Wilson is good as the neurotic Nite Owl, though, and Haley is tremendous as Rorschach, creating an entire tormented character through whispered voice alone. (When the mask comes off and we finally see his face, it's like the fulfillment of a bad dream.) The movie's Rorschach is the only remaining vestige of Moore's demon message: that we dream up superheroes to break the laws - physical, legal, social - we're too timid to break for ourselves.
Yet the movie is ultimately undone by its own reverence; there's simply no room for these characters and stories to breathe of their own accord, and even the most fastidiously replicated scenes can feel glib and truncated. As Watchmen lurches toward its apocalyptic (and slightly altered) finale, something happens that didn't happen in the novel: Wavering between seriousness and camp, and absent the cerebral tone that gave weight to some of the book's headier ideas, the film seems to yield to the very superhero cliches it purports to subvert.
Unless you're heavily invested — as countless fans and fervent fanboys are — in the novel's flawed superheroes, its jaundiced take on heroism and its alternate vision of American history, watching Watchmen is the spiritual equivalent of being whacked on the skull for 163 minutes. The reverence is inert, the violence noxious, the mythology murky, the tone grandiose, the texture glutinous. It's an alternate version of The Incredibles minus the delight.
Watchmen, like V for Vendetta, harbors ambitions of political satire, and, to be fair, it should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex, and whose deepest fear-deeper even than that of meeting a woman who requests intelligent conversation-is that the Warren Commission may have been right all along. The problem is that Snyder, following Moore, is so insanely aroused by the look of vengeance, and by the stylized application of physical power, that the film ends up twice as fascistic as the forces it wishes to lampoon. The result is perfectly calibrated for its target group: nobody over twenty-five could take any joy from the savagery that is fleshed out onscreen, just as nobody under eighteen should be allowed to witness it.
No one who watches Snyder's 160-minute blockbuster could doubt that he is deeply, sincerely in love with the source material. From its opening moments, his movie is meticulous, even slavish, in its re-creation of Gibbons's imagery, from colors to costumes to composition. Entire sequences are preserved, frame by frame ... Snyder has appropriated Moore's doomsday themes without any sense of how to animate them. That's the trouble with loyalty. Too little, and you alienate your core fans. Too much, and you lose everyone-and everything-else.
Watchmen was conceived at the height of the eighties disarmament movement, after Reagan's election inspired waves of fresh doomsday scenarios, and its resolution has dated badly: Outlandish even then, it now seems both insanely pessimistic and naïve. As you watch the surviving characters slink away after a long two-and-three-quarters hours, you might long for the relative giddiness of The Dark Knight. Alan Moore refused (in advance) to put his name on the movie, which must have hurt Snyder and company terribly; they've made the most reverent adaptation of a graphic novel ever. But this kind of reverence kills what it seeks to preserve. The movie is embalmed.
The film is slavishly true to the letter of the book, with a few exceptions: Moore's use of nested narratives-interpolated text from imaginary books and newspapers, comics being read within comics-has been streamlined into a single master story line. But the book's spirit-its paranoia, its dark humor, and above all its bleak anti-triumphalism-has been squelched in the transition to a big-budget action epic. Watchmen fans wondering whether their graphic novel has been ruined will be thrilled to see its key scenes reproduced with storyboardlike fidelity, but those who've never read it will be unlikely to understand what the big deal was in the first place.
Watchmen is absolutely devastating. Dense, intense, tragic and visionary, this is the kind of movie that keeps setting off bombs in your brain hours after you've seen it. After coming out of the theater, I wandered the frozen streets of Manhattan watching passersby and wondering which was the real city, the apparently peaceful one I inhabit now or the one that faces Armageddon at the mid-'80s height of the Cold War in the Moore-Gibbons universe. If I could have gone back inside and watched the movie all over again, I'd have done it.