The film version of the 1980s graphic novel “Watchmen” could not hope to be definitive; the source is uncommonly dense. Directors such as Terry Gilliam have thrown themselves at a treatment of the material for a decade, breaking, always, like angry surf against a cliff. There’s that much going on in the book.
You’d think adapting a comic book would be easy. The images are already there, right? If you examine the split reaction to the film, you’ll find that a good portion of critics have condemned the director, Zack Snyder. They ask: between “Watchmen,” Snyder’s film “300” (from the a graphic novel by Frank Miller), and “Dawn of the Dead” (a re-make of one of the greatest of all horror films), what has he added to cinema?
And fans of the book, after years of anticipation, have also in large part rejected the movie. Some think too much has been changed – notably, the incredibly bleak ending has been toned down. Paradoxically, some think too much has been included – that Snyder’s interpretation is slavish and glib.
Some, or none, or all of that may be your baggage going into the film. I now ask you to take this review as a palate cleanser. Not often will I ask you to swish a review around in your mind then spit it out, but today I will..
The fact is, the film version of “Watchmen” is about as good an adaptation as was humanly possible, ten times more uncompromising than we had any right to expect in a marketplace that never pushes a movie-goer out of his comfort zone, and about as emotionally powerful, visually beautiful, viscerally loaded, and ethically relevant a movie as any you’ll be seeing in theaters this year.
“Watchmen” is a superhero movie. The first “R” rated superhero movie, one that deconstructs our whole fascination; one where costumed heroes have real, adult problems, and where their biggest fight is simply to continue to care for humanity.
Take Rorschach, a 40s-style detective in a trench coat and fedora, reciting voiceover monologues about the corruption of the streets that is so harsh, it borders on the psychotic. Rorschach’s facial mask is a blank, white cloth stained black by a forever-shifting, symmetrical inkblot, roiling to match his inner rage.
This anti-hero’s problem is that he cares too much. The caregiver now hates his charges; he can see nothing but bloody horror everywhere, which can only be scoured by a spray of vengeance. As played in an inspired stroke of casting by Jakie Earl Haley, the pedophile from “Little Children,” when they confiscate his mask, he doesn’t beg, “Give me back my mask!” – he screams, “Give me back my FACE!”
Contrast Rorschach with Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), real name John, victim of one of those high energy physics experiments that always go so wrong in comic book movies. Now, John is a glowing a bright blue. He’s beautiful, bald, completely naked, can be any size or even number that he chooses, and appears to us to be nearly omniscient and omnipotent. He could probably save the world; but does he want to?
If so, that last thread of connection is Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman). She’s long-haired, latex-clad, ghasp-inducingly lovely when starkers – and though John’s electric fingers may be diverting in the sack, in the end, nothing is as cold as a god. She finds herself gravitating to Night Owl (Patrick Wilson, also of “Little Children”), or “Dan,” now a pudgy professor who has actually gone impotent from the depression of a life-course denied.
Because in this alternate 1985, where the Untied States won conclusively in Vietnam, the Watchmen have been outlawed by President Nixon, now enjoying a third paranoid, dictatorial term. When one of them is murdered, Rorschach begins an investigation that might stimulate the whole team to reassemble. But will it be soon enough to prevent a nuclear holocaust?
American fears have changed since 1985. The cold war plot feels dated, and director Snyder has tried to re-ground the anxiety in 9/11. He could have spared the gloss; our anxieties about our future transpose automatically. What works in 2009, on film, are those endlessly complicated, flawed and HUMAN characters – their passions, failures, loves, hates.
“Watchmen” has always been, above all, a work about the eleventh hour. We’re still there, the clock poised at one second to midnight. Here is a film that may be polarizing people chiefly because they don’t want to recognize how truly precarious is our position – a very long, baffling, achingly beautiful film that demands your surrender. Do that, and you may find yourself stumbling out of the theater suffused with renewed passion to fight the good fight.