Starring: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson. Rated
The year is 1985. Nixon is
entering his fifth term as president after leading the U.S. to victory in
Vietnam, the Cold War has led us to the brink of nuclear destruction, and the
masked superheroes of the world have been forced into early retirement by order
of the government. So goes the premise of Watchmen, Zack Snyder’s messy but
often fascinating take on Alan
Moore’s celebrated graphic novel.
Flawed though it may be as a sort
of Cliff’s Notes version of Moore’s defining work, Watchmen is the best
feature-length adaptation I can imagine,
particularly given Snyder’s unerring faithfulness to his sources. While Moore
may never see the final cut – or any cut, for that matter – Snyder’s reverence
for his brooding prose and the cynical depths of his vision is unmistakable. He
has hardly done the author a disservice.
Because Snyder (300) was forced to
abbreviate many of the novel’s labyrinthine
subplots – one senses he would have crafted a word-for-word re-creation if
given the chance – there will always be some who grumble that Watchmen doesn’t
go far enough in bringing Moore’s doomsday fantasy
to life. Still others will be overwhelmed (or just plain bored) by the richness
of detail Snyder has painstakingly crammed into every minute of a nearly
Give him credit for the lengths
he’s gone to to preserve the integrity of the original story while stripping it
down to its barest essentials. Though his narrative doesn’t always soar with
the same feral energy as Moore’s writing – one wonders if Snyder might have
served his movie better if he’d been more willing to deviate from the playbook,
considering that the liberties he does take fit so seamlessly into the story – Watchmen
is a grand spectacle that captures the novel’s subversive
spirit. No small feat, indeed.
Even the most reverent retelling
would be undermined without a capable cast to breathe life into Moore’s
conflicted superheroes, and Watchmen
benefits from at least two casting coups – Billy Crudup, as the omnipotent Dr.
Manhattan, and Jackie Earle Haley, whose Rorschach compensates for his
slightness of frame with searing ferocity.
As characters, they couldn’t be
less alike. Dr. Manhattan, long ago transformed by a freak accident into a
hulking mass of blue atomic particles, finds himself increasingly unconcerned
with the plight of mankind, for the simple reason that he himself exists on
humanity’s periphery. Recognizing man’s destructive nature and resigned to his
extinction, he is unmoved by the prospect of nuclear holocaust, pragmatically
turning his attention to the next stage of evolution.
Rorschach has no such luxury. A
superhero more by choice than biological design, he is the ultimate vigilante,
uncompromising in his pursuit of justice and merciless in his handling of
criminals. He is a savage, and as his ink-stained, black-and-white mask might
suggest, he sees the world in absolutes – good versus evil, with no
in-betweens. Yet the humanity Dr. Manhattan can no longer muster burns more
fiercely in Rorschach than in any of his fellow crime-fighters. He is the
ultimate defender of the innocent, and though his methods are extreme, his
passion to do what’s right – as he sees it – is unmistakable.
Jackie Earle Haley (Little
Children) infuses Rorschach with the
fearsome intensity he requires, but he pulls off a neat trick in the process,
rendering the character so earnest in his naïve idealism that he seems
downright sympathetic. He self-righteously clings to his archaic code of honor
long after his former partners have hung up their masks – all except Dr.
Manhattan, whose only mask is the corporeal form he assumes – because he
refuses to dismiss the possibility of a better world.
Dr. Manhattan envisions a better
world, too, but his vision doesn’t hinge on man’s salvation. Here, he is
largely a CGI creation – a fitting choice, if you think about it – but there is
a lingering mournfulness in him that Crudup conveys with his delicate, almost
whispery voice. Whether he is lamenting his own detachment from humanity or his
increasingly steadfast belief that humanity isn’t worth saving is never made
clear, but he remains a compelling figure, frustratingly aloof at times, oddly
vulnerable at others.
There are other fine performances
in the film – Patrick Wilson and Matthew Goode are standouts as erstwhile
superheroes whose careers have taken wildly divergent paths – that help
compensate for the film’s sometimes sluggish pacing. But even during its
slowest passages, when Snyder seems so determined to honor Moore’s dialogue and
expository flashbacks that the film loses its momentum, Watchmen remains a wondrous
anomaly, a film whose ideas about
heroism and human nature are just as forceful as its most elaborate set pieces.
It’s far from perfect. Watchmen
is uneven, littered with moments that fail to evoke the
emotions Moore played on as a virtuoso storyteller, and at least one key
character, Goode’s Ozymandias, seems underdeveloped. But Snyder’s epic
undertaking is also thrilling, affecting and boundless in its ambition – in
other words, a worthwhile experience for both the initiated and uninitiated