When I hear “American Girl,” I am reminded, immediately, of Buffalo Bill, and his bumptious endorsement of skin lotion. A few bars from “Don’t Stop Believing,” and there it is, that final look of anxiety in Tony Soprano’s eyes, drawn to the minacious ringing of a bell. And now, thanks to Zach Snyder’s Watchmen, I shall forever identify Leonard Cohen’s oft-misused “Hallelujah” with the aciculate heel of a leather boot as it gently massages a pale butt cheek. During that one subversive, and hilarious, sequence, juxtaposed as it is with an absurdly apropos song, the superheroes Nite Owl aka Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) and The Silk Spectre aka Laurie Jupiter (Malin Åkerman) passionately make love among the clouds in the confines of an airship, and the director proves his mettle, displaying the sort of visual wit and panache that one hardly expects from a Hollywood blockbuster anymore. Even the ship climaxes, for heaven’s sake—but it ejaculates FIRE! Mazel tov!
Based on Alan Moore (as reclusive a pop-culture figure as Britney Spears) and Dave Gibbons’s seminal comic of the same name, Watchmen is, if nothing else, an incredibly rich experience, not to mention a jaw-dropping exercise in adaptation (props must go to Jim Emerson for homing in on this in his initial comments on the movie). It is a microcosm of unique images and ideas, inspired by its source material, sure, but vivaciously breaking through its confines—a cinematic vision of an alternate world of masked vigilantes, supermen (or -man, I suppose), and constant brinkmanship.
Some have found it impossible to consider the film on its own terms. In fact, the main criticism leveled against it on both sides—the furious online-fanboys and the disinterested critics—is the degree of the film’s connection to the source material. I can’t fault this approach (I recently saw the turgid Revolutionary Road, and my opinion was based as much on the heavy-handed direction as my impression of the original novel), but I must tell you that, here, it is unwarranted. This is not the ultimate adaptation of the source novel. Instead, it is merely one particular view of the book by an obviously dedicated fan. The original novel is a parable—no, a Rorschach test. And this is what Snyder sees when he looks at it.
The film is set in an alternate 1985, where Nixon has just begun his fifth term, and superheroes thrive—or used to thrive, until they were outlawed by Tricky Dick in 1977. Only two remain active, under the watchful eyes of the US government: The god-like Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who was transformed into a living atom-bomb and imbued with the power to command the elements of the universe to his will, and The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a nihilistic and cynical walking metaphor for the US military-industrial complex (he is the second gunman—you’ll see what I mean). The latter’s assassination kicks the plot into motion. He is sitting home alone, flicking though the channels, when an intruder breaks down the door, feeds him a healthy dose of shoe-pie, and summarily throws him out of the window of his high-rise apartment (the film’s possibly worst technical failure is in this sequence—it’s almost as if William Hoy, the editor, made sure to pick up all the shots where the camera got a full-on view of Morgan’s stunt-double’s face, and for a good few seconds, too. Incredible in a movie of this caliber).
The Comedian was a senior member of the Watchmen, a second-generation group of baby boomer superheroes, intent on continuing the good fight started by their predecessors, The Minutemen, a 1940s outfit of masked vigilantes, of which he was a founding member. (Any visual allusion to Robin The Boy Wonder is quickly discarded when The Comedian tries to rape the original Silk Spectre, Laurie’s mother, played by a sultry Carla Gugino). His assassination sparks the interest of his former teammate, the psychotic Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, brilliant), so named for his white mask on which two ever-changing patterns of ink blots do a parallel dance. He decides someone has it in for superheroes and pays a visit to Dan Dreiberg aka The Nite Owl, who, in turn, warns Adrian Veidt aka Ozymandias (the self-proclaimed smartest man in the world, one of the few superheroes who revealed his identity to the public, and who went on to make a fortune on research, energy and, erm, action figures). As the heroes reluctantly start to put the band back together, they realize something much bigger, and more cataclysmic, is at stake.
As ridiculous as the plot sounds (and it is as droll here as it is in the book), it is nothing but a flimsy excuse to delve into the psyche of the characters themselves, while deconstructing not just superhero mythology but also man’s lust for, and fetishistic admiration of, power. With another director, this could have been heavy-handed and dull, but Snyder makes it witty and fun. The film’s opening credits, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing,” are nothing short of magnificent, meticulously reconstructing familiar moments and iconic images from post-war America as taking place in a world with superheroes (this is only one of the many welcome instances of deviation from the source novel). A wealthy socialite couple are saved from a masked mugger by the original Nite Owl (the cover to the first Batman comic plastered all over the wall in the background to hammer the point home). An Alberto Vargas pin-up of The Silk Spectre adorns The Enola Gay. On V-J Day, it is the dominatrix-like Silhouette who kisses a nurse in Times Square, the moment captured for posterity once again by Alfred Eisenstaedt, who is one of countless real-life figures that make cameos: Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Annie Leibovitz, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, etc.
Alan Moore is a bit like William Goldman since both represent, for many, the first instances of breaking the fourth wall in their respective craft. My former infatuation with comics was never as comprehensive as it was (and is) with cinema, so even though I grew out of my “GOLDMAN IS AWESOME FOR HE TELLS THE TRUTH” phase some ten years ago, I still think of Moore as a bit of a god (irrespective of his blatantly false recollection of modern history). So does Snyder, who displays slavish dedication to not only Moore and Gibbons, like many have suggested, but to their ideas.
Yet this is not a literal adaptation. One of the great ways the film diverts from the source novel is the villain’s central plan, and, thus, the ending. Giant psychic vaginas with tentacles belong squarely in a comic book (trust Moore to make the symbolic female the ultimate weapon in a comic—no wonder so many fanboys got upset at its excision). Snyder, and his writers Alex Tse and David Hayter, complement the source material with inspired original scenes, as well as some very funny, albeit admittedly self-indulgent, lines (“Who wants to see a cowboy in The White House”). The one choice addition is a scene later on in the film when Veidt explains his scheme to provide free energy to the world to a bunch of fatcats from the energy industry, one of whom proclaims “’free’ is another word for ’socialist.’” As the original comic tapped into the zeitgeist of mid-80s England, the energy motif in the film is indicative of current hang-ups in American society. Then the film goes even further and implies that doing good deeds due to a fear of God is as absurd as doing the same for fear of extra-dimensional invasion. (That takes balls the size of Dr Manhattan’s.) There’s also a choice musical cue in Nena’s “99 Luftballons”, which is used to wonderfully ironic, and bizarrely touching, effect (not to mention, it’s a great foreshadowing of the film’s finale). In fact, the film manages to be funny as well as poignant at the same time. And a lot of the credit must go to the cast.
Patrick Wilson does a sterling job of portraying an affable has-been, wonderfully capturing the character’s inherent sadness, longing and nostalgia. Haley manages to turn the psychopathic Rorschach into a hopelessly pathetic figure, despite the occasional head-hacking and bone-breaking (the violence is over the top, but it makes the masks look like what they are: nutjobs). Malin Åkerman gives the best performance of her career despite a hairstyle that makes her face look like a donut. Goode plays Ozymandias as a man who has appropriated Wittgenstein’s famous line, “if people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done” a bit too literally. And Jeffrey Dean Morgan proves to the world that he has to be a movie star. Like, now!
If there is one standout performance, though, it’s that of Billy Crudup, who lends his voice to Dr. Manhattan, though the motion capture has done a great job of replicating Crudup’s quiet charisma, at times oddly reminiscent of David Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth. In what is possibly the film’s best sequence, he goes on a self-imposed exile on Mars, strung out on heaven’s high, hitting an all time low as he embarks on a hazy cosmic jive—the then and now, and the there and here, colliding, somehow mercilessly, in his panoptic mind. Memories have become forever for him, and the film achieves a transcendent beauty in visualizing this sequence, as it remains fairly accurate to the book.
Crudup’s voice, and his CGI enhanced face, perfectly deliver the juxtaposition of Dr. Manhattan’s rational solipsism with his latent humane idealism. Like many of the little touches that made the comic stand out, the enduring motif of Manhattan dropping the only known photo of his erstwhile self on the red sands is, wisely, discarded—nothing now but a punctuating beat. What works in sequential art does not necessarily work in a medium that conveys meaning through, as David Mamet astutely observes, the juxtaposition of uninflected images. There are sequences akin to a film’s storyboards in Dave Gibbons’ original compositions, sure, as there are cinematic cuts and dissolves. But what makes the comic exemplary is its complete mastery of the language of its own medium. There’s a reason they call it adaptation.
And this is a daring, beautiful, powerful one. You can go to this film, and watch a talented—fuck it, I’ll bite—visionary filmmaker’s passionate take on a seminal work of fiction. Or you can spend three hours obsessing about the degree of its kinship to the book.
I leave it entirely in your hands.
Adrian de la Touche is a cineaste from London who writes for various online journals under various names. He’s like James Bond, only sexier.