I have to admit I went into ‘Watchmen’ the movie with enormous trepidation. Widely considered the greatest comic work of all time – perhaps unfilmable – and directed by Zac Snyder, who last worked on Frank Miller’s ‘300’ (which I loathed), it was laden with issues before I even set foot in the IMAX theatre. Well it’s good. It’s a long way from great, and it’s shockingly long (at over 2 1/2 hours), but the look of it is amazing, it’s remarkably faithful to the book, and the acting is often terrific.
It opens with the murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), longtime stalwart of defunct & outlawed superhero team the Watchmen. But who would need the Comedian dead? In this alternate 1985, where Richard Nixon is still president, and the world is on the brink of nuclear armageddon, the answer could be: almost anyone. Two generations of Silk Spectre? Nite Owl? Ozymandias? Rorschach? In a world of flawed heroes with dysfunctional relationships and dark, hidden pasts steeped in conspiracies, who got to him first? Those of us familiar with the source material know the answer going in and (for the most part) why, it’s just difficult here to care. Co-creator and source material writer Alan Moore laced his story with Cold War paranoia and it was a ruthless social commentary, very much of its time. Much of this is lost given the time it took to get this to the screen (which is hardly director Snyder’s fault) but Snyder also doesn’t take much of a stand on what he wants the film to be. Is this a period piece, is it a literal translation of comic to film (a la ‘300’), or what? It’s never clear, and it never allows the viewer much of an opportunity to emotionally engage with the characters. It’s a barely forgivable omission, given how intelligent and biting the source material is.
Having said that it’s incredibly cool to see these all-time iconic characters finally on the big screen. Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan is a standout (and for obvious reasons often an uncomfortable one), as is Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl, seemingly at ease with the demise of the Watchmen, but unable to function without his alter ego. But it’s Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach who trumps them all, as the psychotic Question-analogue who paradoxically is the heart and soul of the disbanded superhero community. His ultimate demise is annoying, considering it fundamentally breaches canon, but he has an effective, humanising effect on characters who have come to sacrifice their own true nature. The effectiveness of the translation is ultimately extremely entertaining, but Snyder again expends so much effort in getting the film to look like the comic, that it frequently suffers from style over substance. Imbuing the screen narrative with stylised sex and violence doesn’t make up for sticking so slavishly to the plot (whilst largely sacrificing its point). I don’t believe it’s inaccessible to people who haven’t read the book, it’s just a real shame that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ vicious, multi-layered political narrative is largely sacrificed by a director who doesn’t focus on why the characters are doing what they’re doing. It looks incredibly good (often too good), but it’s ultimately a film without a soul. 6/10