The year is 1985. The Cold War rages on. While serving his fifth consecutive term in the Oval Office, President Richard Nixon contemplates nuclear assault against an aggressive Soviet Union. Elsewhere, an egomaniacal villain unleashes a mysterious threat that promises to decimate several of the world's major cities. Help, meanwhile, is not on the way. The masked superheroes who used to protect our crumbling society are in exile, banned by Congress from practicing what's now believed to be vigilante justice. And our nation's top weapon -- a sky-blue, radioactive superbeing nicknamed Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) -- has fled to Mars following a fight with his longtime girlfriend. He peacefully sits and contemplates whether humanity is worth saving.
Originally published by DC Comics in 1986, Watchmen is an anti-superhero diatribe set in a hellacious alternate universe imagined by writer Alan Moore (V for Vendetta) and artist Dave Gibbons. Twelve individual issues were bound into a graphic novel in 1987, and have been worshipped ever since by serious comic enthusiasts who consider Watchmen a watershed moment in the ongoing fight to legitimatize the art form. Depending on which timeline you follow, Hollywood has spent the better part of the last 20 years trying to adapt Moore and Gibbons' magnum opus from page to screen.
It was worth the wait.
It's somewhat appropriate for director Zack Snyder to accept the challenge of translating Watchmen to film. Like the proud but overmatched Spartans in Snyder's breakthrough smash, 300, he's waging a battle that can't be won. Whatever version he delivers, it will be compared to Moore's vision -- which means it's likely to disappoint the graphic novel's uncompromising fan base. Even Moore refuses to endorse any cinematic renditions of his work, believing film, as a medium, can't do his comic-book story justice.
He might be right. But I do think Snyder comes about as close to Moore's intent as we're likely to see in adapting the sprawling Watchmen into manageable, feature-length form. I liked what Snyder kept, and agree with what he left behind.
Using the green-screen tricks that brought 300 to life, Snyder deftly recreates Gibbons' grimy visuals, while screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse retain the bulk of Moore's plot. As Russia and the United States position themselves for potential nuclear holocaust, sociopathic superhero Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) investigates what he believes is a plot against members of his former crime-fighting team, The Watchmen. Following the brutal murder of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) -- Snyder takes Moore's carnage to extreme levels in this film -- and the alienation of Dr. Manhattan, Rorschach coaxes Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) out of retirement for one last case.
It goes without saying that your Watchmen experience should start with the actual comics. Moore stockpiled his dense and jaded adventure with prescient political commentary, pessimistic social observations, deep characterization, a sadistic pirate tale, and a squid that demolishes half of New York City. Even with a 162-minute run time, Snyder's film has to omit chunks of the source material. So long, pirates, and adios, squid. Plus, it's Moore's gift for narrative flow that impresses in the comics. The author gracefully interlocks multiple storylines that ping-pong from past to present, tying together an army of players who share a rich, twisted history of crime fighting.
Some of Snyder's contributions do miss the mark. Rorschach's gravely voice will be compared (unfavorably) to Christian Bale's Dark Knight bark. Speaking of, the comical fight choreography during a pivotal jailbreak scene is one "Wham!" away from being part of the vintage 1960s Batman television series. It's always convenient when rampaging bad guys can be subdued with one punch.
Call-to-arms classic-rock staples by Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel also seem too obvious when paired with Moore's revolutionary material. And song selection actually degrades two important sequences: Dr. Manhattan's intervention in the Vietnam War, and Nite Owl's post-battle relations with a willing Silk Spectre.
But Snyder's largely faithful adaptation, while hardly perfect, boasts one key enhancement -- it has flesh-and-blood actors who bring tangible hopelessness and palpable hesitation to the story's very real pathos. Wilson and Haley triumph as mousy Nite Owl and his polar opposite, the delusionally confident Rorschach. They help offset Crudup's monotonous Manhattan and Matthew Goode's stiff turn as Adrian Veidt, reportedly the world's smartest man.
Moore and Gibbons posed a philosophical question in their graphic novel. Who watches the Watchmen? It's meant to address society's checks and balances, to debate who steps in when those we ask to lead have failed. But it can also be applied to this adaptation. Who will watch? And will they like what they see?
From my perspective, Snyder's Watchmen achieves two goals. It delivers a visually stimulating companion piece for dedicated fans. And it provides a portal for newcomers taking their first tour through Moore and Gibbons' thought-provoking but pessimistic universe. Their next step should be toward the bookstore, where the definitive version of Watchmen still waits.
I smooch blue people.
As the opening credits roll, we meet Stacy (Brittany Murphy), a young college grad heading out into the exciting world of low-budget television production. She dreams of one day working with her childhood idol, Diane Sawyer. And her mother loves Carly Simon. I don't know why the part about Carly Simon is important, but it's a recurring theme throughout the film. If her mother ever actually got any screen time, perhaps the Carly Simon thing would become at least marginally relevant to the story. But no dice. Even so, we're treated to several inexplicable Carly Simon moments that have nothing to do with anything, really, and don't add anything of substance to the film.
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The BBC drama starring Aidan Turner returns to BBC One on September 4th.