In terms of fidelity, Watchmen is frequently flawless. To be sure, fanboy fact-checkers, diligently scrutinizing Zack Snyder’s cinematic retelling of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s landmark graphic novel, will find something to complain about—say, the general dispatching of Laurie Jupiter’s (Malin Åkerman) maternal-pressure backstory, the elimination of Hollis Mason’s (Stephen McHattie) rollicking past and ignominious fate, or the absence of the newsstand vendor and his assorted customers. In the final analysis, though, Snyder’s hotly anticipated, excessively hyped film achieves a faithfulness to its original that devotees could have only dreamed, including so many of Moore and Gibbons’s subplots, tangents, and peripheral details that those determined to judge the film based solely on the degree of its correctness—or, as much of the Internet chatter not-so-subtly implies, criticize it for its chosen liberties—will find their fears largely assuaged. As an adaptation guided by a fanatical desire for literal accuracy, this Watchmen is almost as faultless as vigilante Rorschach’s (Jackie Earl Haley) disgust for modernity is unflagging.
Yet flawlessness of this sort has its pitfalls. There’s unavoidable irony in Snyder turning this distinctly postmodern graphic novel—one that calls into question the motives of heroes and the efficacy of heroism through the alternate-history tale of forced-into-retirement, wholly dysfunctional masked avengers in a 1985 New York City on the brink of Cold War nuclear Armageddon—into a major studio, mainstream-accessible blockbuster. Snyder’s narrative streamlining of Moore and Gibbons’s genre classic, however, isn’t the primary issue, since the novel’s various textual modes (and their structural evocation of time’s predestination) could never have been unerringly duplicated cinematically. Nor is it his omissions, which don’t fatally detract from the story’s chief thematic arguments and will, in any event, likely be rectified in part by the already-announced director’s cut. Rather, it’s Snyder’s signature directorial style, a music-video aesthetic in which sleek, near-stationary images are the norm and come at the expense of dramatic depth or momentum, that remains his, and the film’s, most nagging inadequacy. As in the considerably inferior 300, Snyder’s replication fetish proves at once peerless and hopeless, true to the letter but petrifying some of the spirit of his source material.
Watchmen‘s finest use of its calcified tableaus is its credit sequence, a gorgeously wry, nostalgic, sepia-toned visual recap of America’s early fascination, and eventual disillusionment, with its 1940s and 1970s eras of costumed crime-fighters. Set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are A-Changin’,” this intro exhibits Snyder’s sturdy command of montage and flair for crafting arresting visions of static, self-consciously digitized pop artifice. Still, as the film segues into the story proper, his repeated attempts to freeze the action into facsimiles of Gibbons’s hand-drawn panels becomes a meaningless, and increasingly tedious, device. Whereas transforming certain flashbacks into virtual snapshots suggests how memories often crystallize into specific, defining images, his indiscriminate employment of slow motion—and, in combat sequences, his slow-motion-rubber-banding-into-fast-forward technique—drains it of any larger significance. Snyder, it increasingly seems, simply thinks his Matrix-indebted mannerisms are super-cool-awesome, not recognizing that they fail to convey the implied movement of Gibbons’s fixed illustrations, and have the adverse effect of stifling both the film’s overarching thrust and his fight scenes’ intended, brutal physicality.
If Snyder directs movies like a robot might play Beethoven—technically precise, but lacking heart—he nonetheless inevitably benefits from working with first-class material. Moore and Gibbons’s story is a murder mystery and an apocalyptic nightmare as well as a critical analysis of superhero fiction (and myths) that, through its intricate organization of comic-book panels, written texts, and parallel narratives (including Tales of the Black Freighter, soon-to-be available as a direct-to-DVD animated supplement), used its very form to evoke a gravely cynical opinion about the immutability of man’s bestial nature and the inexorableness of time. Despite its medium-mandated abbreviations, Snyder’s Watchmen retains much of this, its relatively successful approximation of the graphic novel’s twisty-turny structure resulting in a film that maintains, albeit with herky-jerky rhythm, its tale’s sense of impending, catastrophic chaos. The world is hurtling toward self-destruction, and though Snyder tastelessly strives to lend his Cold War saga contemporary relevance through background glimpses of the Twin Towers as suspicious foreground figures discuss saving civilization, his knotty plotting and preservation of his characters’ disturbed personalities help capture a sense of mounting individual and global disorder.
While nominally concentrating on an investigation into the deaths of former superheroes (all outlawed by Richard Nixon, serving his fifth term thanks to a public grateful for his unqualified victory in Vietnam), Watchmen primarily roots itself in the head spaces of its messed-up protagonists: Laurie Jupiter, ambivalent about her crusading days; Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), reduced to impotence by retirement; Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the nude, glowing-blue semi-god made paranormal by a Hulk-ish science-lab accident who feels little connection to humanity; the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a mercenary and rapist whose amorality mirrors his worldview about man’s savagery; Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Earth’s smartest man and a billionaire captain of industry; and Rorschach, an ink blot-masked hybrid of Dirty Harry and Travis Bickle who expresses loathing for mankind’s dissoluteness in both his journal and his lethal, gory tactics. They’re all psychological misfits, their perversions and sadism warped reflections of superhero virtues, and Snyder pulls few punches in his depiction of them, from the Comedian gunning down a pregnant woman in cold blood, to Dr. Manhattan smiting the Vietcong and callously betraying a lover, to the sexually messed-up Nite Owl and Laurie screwing (in a severely corny tryst scored to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”) aboard an airship that ejaculates a perfectly timed blast from its flamethrowers.
Everything is mostly as it was on the page, except for a modified doomsday finale that gets Moore’s despondent message across without the author’s more outrageous supernatural invention. Yet such slavish reproduction is too frequently more oppressive than exhilarating. The proceedings are deleteriously burdened by Snyder’s inability to handle dialogue-driven scenes (full of self-conscious zooms into close-up for one-liners, and only truly alive when featuring Haley’s fire-and-brimstone-crazy Rorschach), crude and blaring use of iconic ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s tunes, and a borderline-psychotic fixation on shifting speeds that turns even the action set pieces lethargic, devoid of the visceral, breakneck energy that defined the opening of Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead redo. Stuffed to the gills with as much as 163 minutes will allow, Watchmen comes off as feeling at once too long and, thanks to the nagging impression that we’re racing through abridged material that’s been shoehorned in lest the rabid fanboy base cry foul, not quite long enough to provide the formal and thematic inventiveness or contemplative soul of its source material. A reverential photocopy of a superior original, it’s often close to perfect, if also, to some extent, perfectly pointless.