Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson, Malin Akerman, Matthew Goode
First things first: it's not a cock-up. Not a complete cock-up, at least. In bringing Alan Moore's unfilmable graphic novel to the screen, there were always going to be glitches. But where to start with such an amazing, epic project? Watchmen's basic premise is this: it is 1985. Nixon is still in power. The USSR and America are on the brink of war. Both have nuclear weapons. The world is minutes away from Doomsday.
Who will save them? Not costume heroes: they've been outlawed. Except for Dr Manhattan, that is. Years ago, a freak nuclear accident turned scientist Jon Osterman (Crudup) into America's superhuman God. He's big, he's blue, and he can meddle with atoms on a mere whim. He was the only one of the 'superhero' troupe, The Minutemen, to actually have super powers. And the only one to be butt naked.
And so, our former crime-fighters age outside of their masks, (mostly) inactive, impotent, until one of them is severely defenestrated. Who killed The Comedian (Morgan)? An amoral man who brutally butchered his way through 'Nam, raping and pillaging both home and away, the list of enemies seems long. Rorschach (Haley), a vigilante sociopath with an inkblot face, is determined to find the killer.
Watchmen the novel was a bleak examination of the superhero condition, showing the psychological, philosophical and political results of leading a double life - all of them got pretty much screwed up. Here, Moore's murder-mystery unfolds over nearly 3 hours, as David Hayter and Alex Tse's script encompasses everything: Silk Spectre's (Akerman) battered relationship with her mum, the original Spectre; Dan Dreiburg's (Wilson) search for meaning without his alter ego, Nite Owl; and the attempts of certified genius Adrian Veidt (Goode) to solve the world's crisis.
But such acute attention to detail (Snyder is slavishly dedicated, to say the least), comes at the cost of depth and richness. Although Haley and Morgan breathe life into their characters, filling out the frame with their flawed identities, the weak links lie with Akerman's Spectre and Goode's Adrian, neither of whom elevate their parts above foppish plot functions or soap opera dramatics.
At the helm, Zack "the visionary director of 300" Snyder is a geeky fan gone to heaven. Slowing down the action willy-nilly (and often for no reason whatsoever), he's clearly having a whale of a time holding it all together. He does it pretty well. Blood splatters here and limbs severed there, he's definitely unafraid of Moore's graphic material. If anything, he revels in it, from the Doctor's lower Manhattan to a very blue 5 minutes, involving Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, and Leonard Cohen's Halelujah - who knows what he was thinking?
The risk is, of course, that in adapting a gritty, character-driven satire of the glossy, action-driven superhero, it can become what it lampoons. Snyder keeps the risk at bay (just), retaining its retro soundtrack and downbeat conclusion, whilst consistently glorifying its violence. A faithful rendition of Watchmen's narrative, uncommercial and uncompromising, is a remarkable achievement. But by targeting Moore's readers as its audience, Watchmen sets itself up as a disappointment; filming the unfilmable was always going to be an anti-climax.
A big slow-motion spectacle. Made for the fans who will no doubt hate it, Watchmen is like the Official Movie Companion to the Graphic Novel; read it first, watch this later.