In the geek universe, there is no more anticipated film this year than Watchmen. The complex story is set in an alternate 1980s where someone is killing off costumed superheroes, an omnipotent nuclear man wrestles with his humanity, and the world lies at the brink of Armageddon. Adapting the widely-acclaimed graphic novel masterpiece to the big screen is no mean feat. The author himself, Alan Moore, did not believe that Watchmen could be made into a movie. However, 300 Director Zack Snyder has done a pretty good job of faithfully compressing a 12-issue series into a 2.5-hour movie.
Unlike many comic book fans who worship Watchmen as a sacred text, I only just read the books for the first time. I wasn’t blown away, but I acknowledge that the series was revolutionary for taking the mystique away and exploring the messier psychological and social aspects of superhero characters. Would an omnipotent man lose his humanity? Is a masked vigilante any better than a psychopath? What is moral “good side” when you’re powerful enough to manipulate the fate of the world? (Heavy issues for grown-ups, not Saturday morning cartoons.) Despite an decent job of adapting Moore’s story into a screenplay, there are some clear drawbacks with trying to squeeze too much into the span of a single movie. For one thing, the backdrop of rising tensions between the US and USSR played a very big part in the original story, but it lost its subtlety by having to fight for screen time with the many other character subplots (which are given much more time to develop in the comic books). Also, because of the nature of the book, there are a lot of less-action-more-conversation scenes which make the movie pretty dense. I’m no purist, but I’m hoping that the 4-hour director’s cut DVD will give the story more time to unfold.
While the hero characters looks very cool, and I think they were well-adapted from the comic, the blockbuster-style action sequences didn’t seem to ring the right tone. It’s supposed to seem odd that adults dress up in tight outfits to punch out bad guys. Unfortunately, when director Snyder pours on his patented slow-mo and close-ups, it makes perfect sense that heroine Silk Spectre would kick butt. After all, her hair flows so nicely in the breeze as she does a spinning kick in her thigh-highs. Sadly, in scenes like this, the amped-up soundtrack has also done its work to obscure the inherent irony.
Another problem with the music was song choices that were too on-the-nose. Nena’s “99 Luftballons” was pretty good (if a little cliche) for evoking the 80s vibe while referencing the anxiety of imminent nuclear annihilation, but Tears For Fears’s “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” while featuring a superhero-turned-billionaire-industrialist was corny, and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” during a Vietnam War flashback scene was outright uninspired plagiarism.
From an acting point of view, most of the performances were quite good, especially Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the government-employed thug called The Comedian, and Jackie Earl Haley as the mask-wearing psychotic vigilante Rorschach. Both actors balanced their characters’ mean grittiness, and cold cruelty with wounded depth and emotionality. They brought a lot of dramatic complexity to the kind of characters who are normally pretty two-dimensional (no pun intended).
As far as adaptations go, after 300 and now Watchmen, Zack Snyder deserves his merit badge for being faithful to source. Despite the way Watchmen appears to be marketed (aiming at a younger audience seeking some mindless fun with superheroes), the movie remains true to the original dark and cynical themes. There are many scenes of brutal violence as well, so it’s not an easy movie to love. Watchmen is still an enjoyable movie and provokes a lot of interesting moral and existential head-scratching — just don’t think of it as a movie to bring the kids to. Even if they don’t mind the grown-up content, they probably won’t appreciate the themes or the length. (Let them stay home and enjoy The Incredibles on DVD again instead.) 4 out of 5.