For legions of comic book fans, Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen provides a long-awaited nerdgasm. Bogged down in development hell for 20 years, the project changed hands numerous times and underwent several script rewrites.
Many said it couldn’t be done. Terry Gilliam, once attached to direct, called Watchmen un-filmable. For original screenwriter Sam Hamm, turning Moore’s 338-page graphic novel into a workable script was taxing. And most damning of all, Moore himself asked not to be associated with the project. In 2008, Moore told Entertainment Weekly, “There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can’t.” When Warner Bros. announced that Zack Snyder (300) would direct, blogs and message boards asked: who will watch the Watchmen?
For the uninitiated, Watchmen is considered one of the most important graphic novels of all time and the only one to make Time Magazine’s list of All-Time 100 Novels. The plot revolves around one question: what if superheroes existed? Set in the 1980s, Watchmen takes place in an alternate reality that closely resembles our own, except for a couple of glaring differences: Richard Nixon is still president, and the United States won the Vietnam War. The United States has the upper hand on the Cold War with the Soviet Union thanks to Dr. Manhattan, the only character in the series with actual superpowers.
The movie starts off in Edward Morgan Blake’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) high-rise apartment. Known as the Comedian in his costumed days, Blake is a ruthless and cynical mercenary who fought in Vietnam. An anonymous figure murders him by throwing him out the window, setting into motion the film’s events. Rorschach, another masked crusader, investigates the Comedian’s death. What he discovers will draw in a host of other characters and have consequences for the fate of the world.
First off, let’s address the elephant in the room: Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is not Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Snyder won some praise for 300 with his visually faithful reproduction of Frank Miller’s original comic book; this approach doesn’t work for Watchmen. It’s not a matter of comparing frames and panels, but of judging whether the film stays true to the spirit of the graphic novel.
That being said, Watchmen looks stunning. Snyder’s slick visuals and trademark slow-motion action scenes allow viewers to pick out Easter eggs and appreciate the detail in each frame. For a movie that clocks in at two hours and 43 minutes, Watchmen rarely lags. The plot sometimes diverges to explore some of the characters’ back stories, but never veers off the path.
Visually, the only real hiccup is Dr. Manhattan (meekly voiced by Billy Crudup), the naked blue man with godly powers. Despite some impressive technical work, the computer-generated Dr. Manhattan ended up looking kind of silly. And there’s also the small question of the blue peen, which the frat boys in the audience will never let you forget.
Speaking of wanting to forget: the music. The film uses many of the songs mentioned in the graphic novel, such as Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin” (played over the excellent opening sequence) and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.” That’s fine, but the placement of the songs is largely hit and miss. In the most embarrassing moment of the movie, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallellujah” is blared over Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl’s farcical love scene. Yes, I’ve heard that secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord – but it doesn’t please me and it won’t please scores of other moviegoers.
Another shortcoming is the age of the actors. Thirty-seven-year-old Carla Gugino portrays Sally Jupiter (aka Silk Spectre I), who is about the same age as the actress when we first see her and 67 years old in the film’s present. Malin Akerman, who plays her daughter, is 30 years old but appears much younger. No matter how you look at it, they’re beautiful people playing ostensibly washed-up superheroes; the glove just doesn’t fit.
On the other hand, Jackie Earle Haley is superb as Rorschach, a crusader who pursues vigilante activities even after they’re outlawed by the Nixon government. Although psychologically disturbed, his uncompromising stance on crime ironically makes him the moral centre of the film. In another strong performance, Matthew Goode plays ubermensch Ozymandias, “the smartest man in the world.” Tall, strong, and blond, he nails down the character’s refined idealism.
All in all, Snyder’s adaptation is not perfect. As a graphic novel, Watchmen is phenomenal; as a film, it’s just good. However, Snyder’s version is the best we’ll get – and that is no small compliment.
Watchmen opened at ScotiaBank Theatre last Friday.