Watchmen shouldn’t be judged by the standards of a superhero movie, because it’s really the first anti-superhero movie Hollywood has made.
Sure, The Incredibles deconstructed the genre – as have comedies from Superhero Movie to Mystery Men – but these have done so with loving affection for the idea of ordinary men and women performing heroic feats. Watchmen sees such figures as egotists, sociopaths and masochists who, by the way, can’t save us.
That was the gist of the 1986 graphic novel by author Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons, which director Zack Snyder has adapted with extreme fidelity. The story takes place in a 1980s America that is on the brink of nuclear war with Russia. Although “masked avengers” – superheroes – have been outlawed for years, a handful of them come out of retirement after one of their kind is mysteriously murdered.
The Watchmen movie is a companion piece more than an entity of its own. As with the first, tentative Harry Potter picture, this will likely earn praise from protective fans of the novel and condemnation from critics who disdain such cautious, market-minded filmmaking. Yet there is room for something in between. Watchmen isn’t a comic-movie classic – it’s no Dark Knight – but it is an artful, provocative sidebar to one of the classics of the graphic-novel genre.
As he did with Frank Miller’s 300, Snyder painstakingly recreates many of the frames from the Watchmen book. This is especially true of the opening sequence, in which former masked hero The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is attacked in his high-rise apartment. Snyder is a frame-by-frame director – that’s what makes him a natural for comic-book properties – and so each shot here is meticulously staged, with the action frequently freezing to heighten the impact of a particular image that’s been drawn directly from the source material.
Still, even with such fanatical faithfulness and nearly three hours of running time, Watchmen can’t match the novel’s depth and breadth. Instead, the movie dutifully covers the basics: the heinous details of The Comedian’s past (rape, cold-blooded murder); the sordid source of the anger that drives the vigilante known as Rorschach (a riveting Jackie Earle Haley); the middle-aged malaise of the former Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson).
What with all the regret, shame and rage on display, Watchmen offers more opportunities for real acting than most superhero movies, and the cast – which also includes Billy Crudup as the nude, blue brainiac Dr. Manhattan – is up to the task. Only Malin Akerman, as second-generation crime-fighter Laurie Jupiter, is too slight for the material (which is a shame since the burden of addressing the film’s few feminine concerns falls on her).
Ultimately Watchmen does everything exactly right, yet it leaves you wishing it did more. Moore was onto something in 1986 that’s even more applicable now, at a time when we regularly turn to superhero movies as escapism from the grim realities of everyday life. Watchmen could have worked as a bracing rejoinder to that sort of mentality – a reminder that superheroes don’t exist and that their movies can’t save us – if Snyder and his screenwriters had taken the implicit themes of the novel a few steps further.
The movie does have one stroke of inspiration, a sequence that breaks the most from the source text. In brief vignettes over the opening credits – each elegantly art directed, costume designed and filmed – Snyder offers a visual reference point to a specific element of the book’s rich lore (including a group photo come to life of the 1940 superhero cadre known as the Minutemen). It deconstructs the superhero myth in explicitly cinematic terms.
With these quick snapshots, Snyder offers something all his own. For a thrilling few minutes – set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” another reference point – Watchmen is much more than a graphic-novel adaptation. It’s a movie.