In 1986, writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons unleashed Watchmen upon the world. It would change the face of comic books and become the first comic that was hailed by the literary world. Since that time the idea to adapt the book into a film has been bandied about Hollywood. Directors such as Terry Gilliam, Darren Aaronofsky and Paul Greengrass were all attached to direct at different points. The project was considered unfilmable. But two years ago Zack Snyder, fresh off 300, decided to give it a shot.
Watchmen is a deconstruction of the superhero concept. In an alternate version of US history, superheroes emerge in the 1940’s, fighting crime in the US. The superhero phenomenon continues into the 1970’s when the government, led by Richard Nixon, outlaws masked vigilantes. In 1984, a former superhero, The Comedian, is murdered by an unknown assailant. Rorschach, a former colleague of The Comedian’s, and still operating covertly, takes it upon himself to solve the case. But his investigation reveals a plot to eliminate all former Watchmen. Meanwhile, the US edges closer and closer to a nuclear war with the USSR. And only Dr. Manhattan, the only superhero with superhuman powers can stop nuclear Armageddon.
Watchmen has been the holy grail of adaptations for comic book fans. The community was split as to whether the book could be successfully adapted into a film. It is an incredibly dense work and the thought was that there is no way such a convoluted story could be boiled down into a 2 and a half hour film. And... those who said it couldn’t be filmed... were right. Watchmen is a heroic failure. There are elements of greatness in it. But overall, the flaws are too apparent and take away from what could have been the ultimate comic book movie.
To be fair to those behind the cameras, their job of bringing Watchmen to the big screen was monumental. As I’ve said, the book is incredibly dense. It reads more like a novel than a comic book. And a novel that is thick with plot, exposition and character development. The story unravels at a very measured pace, and this is lost in Zack Snyder’s adaptation. The film seems to strip the story of it’s very essence and delivers version of the story that seems to have missed the point. Snyder does attempt to cover all bases, and I think this is where things become unstuck. He does a good job of delivering the back story to Doctor Manhattan. And his adaptation of the Rorschach is the strongest part of the film. Largely thanks to a brilliant performance from Jackie Earle Haley. But the story isn’t just exposition. There is a plot. And while this plot works in the confines of the book, it is just lost on film.
But the structure and plot development aren’t the only slip-ups in the film. While Jackie Earle Haley really excels as Walter Kovaks/Rorschach, and Billy Crudup is great as Doctor Manhattan (for a guy who’s essentially a CGI creation for the majority of the film), the rest of the cast falls rather flat. There is little chemistry between Patrick Wilson, playing Nite Owl II and Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre. And this is a huge problem, as their story is integral to the dissection of the superhero mythos. And Matthew Goode, who plays Ozymandias, is terrible. He mumbles all his lines and floats about like a prat. Some of the make-up effects also seem pretty poor for such a high-budget film.
One of the surprising things about the film is that it’s gratuitously violent. I understand that this is to jazz proceedings up a little. The source material is very character driven and not thick on the action. But it’s window-dressing and does little but distract from the flaws. It’s a shame really. The story really is brilliant. And, as mentioned by a friend of mine, would have made for a really excellent mini-series. But as it is, two and a half hours just isn’t enough time to fit all the complexities of the story into one film. It’s a fundamental flaw and cannot be overlooked. To leave out elements of the story just makes everything seem rushed and stripped of it’s brilliance. Snyder does his best. And when he gets it right, he really does nail it. But unfortunately, these moments are rare. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach is definitely the highlight and makes you long for the film to focus on him. But alas, it’s not to be. And with an edit that is 40 minutes longer, you just don’t imagine that the film can get any stronger. A failure. But an admirable attempt.