Based on renowned misery-wizard Alan Moore’s legendary DC graphic novel (some say the greatest ever written) Watchmen takes place in an alternate universe where costumed heroes are not only real but our world history as we know it is subtly different. Foolishly brave/bravely foolish visual auteur and slo-mo enthusiast Zack Snyder, fresh from successfully translating the Frank Miller ab-a-thon 300, desided to tackle the white whale of graphic novel adaptations with ultimately mixed results.
In amongst a story that spans decades and contain many characters that weave in and out of recorded history we meet the Watchmen, the latest incarnation of a group that came together as a crime fighting team during the late 60’s but who have been disbanded for the 8 last years due to the insistence of a third-term serving Richard Nixon. The team is formed of Nite Owl: once a batman-esque vigilante – now a mild mannered, doughy, bespectacled civilian, Rorschach: a paranoid masked psychotic who insists on still enforcing his version of the law, Dr Manhattan: a man elevated to deity type levels of power thanks to a lab experiment who may be losing his humanity, Silk Spectre: a second generation female hero living painfully in the shadow of her mother, Ozymandias: the smartest man in the world complete with the biggest ego and The Comedian: a thuggish government spook prone to nihilistic, sardonic acts of cruelty.
These lost and damaged souls drift back into each other’s lives after The Comedian is viciously beaten and fatally flung out of his apartment window and suspect that a conspiracy may well mean that they are in the crosshairs of a cape killer. As the group begins to reforge connections in the looming realisation that nuclear war is a very real outcome of a global arms race that has raged ever since Dr Manhattan aided in America’s victory in Vietnam, the Watchmen pool together their tortured pasts to figure out what is happening only to find that plans have been set in motion that will change the very face of the entire world.
Watchmen is one of those irritating experiences that seems to stubbornly get that little bit worse everytime I watch it. The first viewing had me floored at how much accuracy and detail Snyder manages to obtain from the source material making all the “unfilmable” comments a moot point by doing nothing more than simply replicating as much as he can. It comes at a price, however, and that price is how much of your life it insists on consuming as the directors cut clocks in at an immense and hefty 3 hours; and that’s without the faux documentary and animated feature that adapts in-story pirate comic book Tales Of The Black Freighter. Other filmmakers in the past (including Terry Gilliam who knows his way around an unfilmable source or two) have come unstuck trying to wrestle Moore’s epic down into a manageable size but Snyder doesn’t even try and instead (almost admirably) attempts to adapt it virtually verbatim. Unfortunately this serves to highlight the subtle differences between the two mediums of comic books and film and primarily means Moore’s numerous branching threads that drip feed the complicated plot and back stories in a non-linear fashion regularly slow the film down to an irritating crawl.
However, as well meaningly flawed as Watchmen is, the sum of it’s parts turns out to be greater than it’s whole and taken purely by a scene by scene basis actually reveals individual sections of pure genius inbetween other parts that simply just don’t work. For example for every part that doesn’t work (the most excruciatingly awful sex scene since Elizabeth Berkley writhed around in a swimming pool like an octopus with epilepsy in Showgirls, for example) we get a scene of undisputed excellence like the birth of Dr Manhattan set to the minimalist strains to Phillip Glass or quite possibly the greatest opening credit scene ever made as we travel through 20 years of alternate history to the iconic warbling of Bob Dylan’s “The Time’s They Are a-Changing”.
Much like the uneven nature of the film, so too are the leads a mixed bag. Jackie Earle Hayley as the hard boiled Rorschach proves to be an inspired choice and Patrick Wilson and Jeffery Dean Morgan as sad sack Nite Owl and the trigger happy Comedian respectively also nail their characters but Malin Åkerman and Matthew Goode feel weirdly miscast.
An extra honorary mention goes to Billy Crudup, emoting subtly through luminous CGI with his glowing blue wang on display and pulling off a difficult concept with style.
His ambition far out stripping his talent you still have to give props to Snyder for having the sheer testicular fortitude for trying to pull this off and technically succeeding, it’s just you feel that maybe less dedication to the source material and more creative storytelling might have made a less accurate but more compelling result.
You’ll watch the Watchmen but Snyder’s kitchen sink approach ends up as more is less instead of Moore is more…