There's no winning this argument.
Twenty plus years ago Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons completely took comic book superheroes apart and put them back together again. It was an obsession Moore would revisit in his truly exceptional Miracleman (Marvelman in Britain). His take was, whatever else, the kind of person who would dress up in a funny costume as a means of fighting crime had to be deeply and irrevocably damaged inside. There had to be something wrong with you if you thought that was a good idea. (In Miracleman, the question instead is, what would it really do to you, in all honesty, if you had the kind of power Superman has; you would, in effect, become like a god.)
The thing about Watchmen is that it is dense. It is a complex storyline that takes place over several decades and features no less than twenty characters. There are two different sets of superheroes and unresolved issues from the first, Golden era set (the Minutemen) spill over into the second spin-off era (the Watchmen). Over the course of the decades, Moore and Gibbons retell an American history in which the US won Vietnam, Nixon managed to get re-elected three times, and technological breakthroughs caused by a real, honest to goodness superman have led to advanced flying machines and electrical automobiles. On top of that, Moore ladled stories within stories, and so we are treated at the end of eleven of the twelve issues of Watchmen to chapters from one hero's autobiography, essays, magazine articles, psychiatric evaluations and more, not to mention excerpts from an allegorical horror comic that turns out to play a larger role in the main plot that at first glance it appears.
All of which to say, adapting this kind of material would prove a challenge. The film has its own storied history of film adaptation rights legal wranglings, not the least of which the tussle between Fox and Warner Brothers that potentially threatened to derail this year's release.
And all of this before we even get to the demands of the fanboy legions who would settle for nothing less than absolute 100% loyalty to the source material -- no matter what the cost. Stung by repeated bad adaptations of his comics to film. writer Alan Moore had pre-emptively removed his name from any page to screen adaptations leaving a vital voice out of the writing process. His own insistence on 100% loyalty creating unrealizable goals for any film maker anywhere.
Despite insisting that nothing less than a miniseries would do the book justice, we have had to settle. Settle for the adaptation directed and partly written by Zack Snyder, director of the remake of the zombie classic Dawn of the Dead* which was followed up by the homoerotic Spartan exercise 300. Apparently, such things were enough to get him the nod for this ambitious undertaking. My own wishes after seeing Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight was that someone like him had been given the task.
To be sure, Snyder doesn't slack in the ambition, delivering a movie just fifteen minutes shy of three hours (and I'm betting the DVD director's cut version will easily go for three and a half), as well as providing additional straight-to-DVD material comprising the Nite Owl autobiography as well as the comic inside the comic, Tales of the Black Freighter, that was so integral to the print run's storyline.
And to be further sure, Snyder and his cinematographers have worked to lift specific angles straight from Gibbons art, to include precise reproductions of typography and background images like posters and bean can labels. The attention to detail has been unsparing.
And unfortunate. With some ideal compression, the opening credits made me believe that we might really be finally getting the Watchmen comic nerds have wanted all these years. Throwaway lines about the fates of very minor characters are treated in a short history of the two superhero teams. History is reframed in this new world of costumed heroes. The stage is well set for the background, though I felt that it might seem a bit perfunctory for those who've not read the material going in. And after a while I began to get the distinct feeling that in all the visual accuracy (no character looks anything unlike their comic book counterpart; in some cases this is even frighteningly well done) the underlying feeling was being short-shrifted. Almostthe characters were well-done-ish with some standout moments.
Jeffery Dean Morgan's depiction of The Comedian was gritty and bitter and had just the right curdled notes. He is the first superhero we meet and quite quickly we come to the conclusion that he's not particularly heroic. Oh, he's tough and good in a fight, but scenes of him laughing as he applies a flame thrower to the Viet Cong quite quickly demonstrate that Man of Steel material he ain't. Morgan's Comedian is a pitch perfect translation from page to screen and unfortunately he is perhaps the least interesting of our main characters.
In the category of real superheroes, Billy Cruddup, holographically displayed as the neon blue Dr. Manhattan brings a completely medicated tone to his delivery. Disintegrated in an atomic experiment in the fifties, Jon Osterman has managed to put himself back together as some form of pure energy. Beyond human in almost every respect, he has become a weapon of the Nixon administration and is subsequently, threateningly redubbed as Dr. Manhattan, an atomic nod to keep those Commies in awe. We learn throughout the film that there are emotions churning within Cruddup's Blue Man Group reject, but Snyder's direction never really lets us get under the impervious blue hood to the personality underneath.
And that's probably Watchmen's greatest flaw: its director. Snyder is an able craftsman of action sequences, but wretched when it comes to coaxing real human interaction out of his actors. He'd be ideally suited for First Assistant Director duties, handling minor scenes like when characters order coffee or helping out with the fight scenes.
Because scenes where you'd want the pace to slow down, emotional pivots of the story where some humanity would be warranted, Snyder sprints through to his next action spectacle. Worst of all is that it's not necessary. Snyder blatantly overuses slow-mo effects throughout his movie for gee-whiz coolness and in some instances this works. Ditch all but the best moments of that trick and maybe you'd shake free another five minutes for your film where you could focus on pacing and delivery.
By far and away the best full-fledged portrayal in the film is Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach. At times, Snyder, in slavish fidelity to the source, dollops on too much voice over narration from Rorschach's journal (the needs of a audiovisual medium are not the same as a printed text's), but the hardened angry shell is pitch perfect. Rorschach's turn in prison after he's caught by police includes a brilliantly done scene where he turns to assorted convicts and snarls, "None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with you. You're locked up in here with me." Haley's delivery in this moment gives you just the right kind of cinematic goosebumps. But Snyder goes and ruins things in his race to the finish line. Where in the comic book (and in any depiction of life resembling reality), Rorschach would take some time to psychoanalyze, in the film, since we have so little time, he confesses to everything in his first meeting with his shrink.
This also leads to one of the first places where Snyder deviates significantly from the script to his detriment. In the print version of the story, Walter Kovacs is just "playing at" being the masked vigilante Rorschach until the kidnapping and dismemberment of a little girl sends him over the edge. Once he finds the killer, he handcuffs him to a steel bar, leaves him a saw to cut off his own hand should the villain wish to escape, then he sets the place on fire. Simple, brutal, effective storytelling, and more importantly, psychologically complex. Kovacs/Rorschach in his own mind almost gives the guy a chance with this method, and it's part of his inner transformation. It is the last time he will go that far toward mercy. In the film, his disgust rises up all of a sudden and after handcuffing the man to a wood burning stove, he splits his skull in two with a meat cleaver. Repeatedly. Simple, brutal, and psychologically bereft of depth and interest. Ho hum, Kovacs has become Rorschach.
Elsewhere, Snyder hustles the emotional development and epiphanies of his characters just as ham-handedly. Osterman's telling of how he became Dr. Manhattan is probably the best character study of emotions done here just because there are so few of them -- or at least, they are expressed in such subdued fashion.
The movie's "villain" is supposed to be charm itself and instead Snyder directs him with creepy near asexual coolness. We are supposed to believe he is beloved of the people and brilliant and capable of charting the course of a vast business/criminal enterprise. If you've never read the book, you'd be hard-pressed not to guess who the "bad guy" is supposed to be. If you've read the book, you'd be hard-pressed to believe that this cinematic character is supposed to at all resemble the comic book character in anything but hair color and name.
The character we are most likely supposed to identify with, Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), not only most resembles a hero we've seen before (Batman) in his costume as , but in his uncertainties, in his moral dilemmas, in his paralyzing feelings of helplessness he acts as the cast's Common Man. Where Snyder should use him most effectively, he is just a foil to other action, where his decency is supposed to give us emotional intimacy he's played instead as a hapless milquetoast. At the film's conclusion it is the duty of this poor thespian to fall to his knees and scream, yes, scream for humanity. Oh, the humanity.
With other characters, Snyder also bigfoots the emotion, such as the parental revelation for Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman). As Silk Spectre II, daughter of the original who got into the costumed hero game really as a showbiz bid and who pushed her daughter into it as a kind of vigilante stage mommy, she's used more as an emotional toy. Where we're supposed to put pieces together ourselves, walking along the same path with Laurie, Snyder adds to the script a completely unnecessary flat statement by Dr. Manhattan regarding her real father that jolts the scene with a side-nudging obviousness. Didja get it? Don't you see the irony? Huh? Huh?
Snyder's worst transgression of all against the story, however, comes at its conclusion. The climactic resolution to the Cold War is hijacked in probably the only way there was time to fit into this near three hour piece, but it feels like a horrible rip off and cheat. It's probably the best possible way they could get to an end of the film that most resembled the book without padding in another hour's worth of material. Still, the betrayal here, by adaptor and inside the story by the characters, feels wrong enough to be an abomination.
If it sounds like I'm trying to have it both ways, I probably am. Where Snyder is faithful, I find him a servile transcriptionist. Where he deviates out of necessity or desire, I find him the lesser craftsman. It is, of course, just possible that I am right on both counts, that Snyder, a bad choice of director for this film, can't win because of who he is and not for what he tried to accomplish. Like I say in the review title, the film certainly has moments of true greatness, but it is Snyder's insistence on coolness for effect, for surface rather than depth, that prevents the picture from really soaring.
But some blame, again, must be laid at the door of the original writer. Yes, novelists, screenwriters, and other assorted scribblers get such short shrift in the film making business that their complaints are legendary. What the Hughes Brothers did with From Hell is on par with what happened to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose: all the original attempts to demolish a cliche were swept aside and the cliches reinflated only now as absurdities. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was so bad I could only stand short snippets. V for Vendetta came the closest to success but even it fell by the wayside of cool instead of collected. One could hope and dream that had Moore involved himself in the process a much better picture could have been created. The demands of fanboy fidelity might have given his criticisms more weight than in the other projects and a finer piece of film might have been the result.
That is the world as it might have been. Instead, aloof from the process, hidden away as much as to be in another galaxy, Moore came to this film as Dr. Manhattan eventually came to the world. Remote, disinterested, abandoning us and leaving the film to its own failings.
* Updated film reference due to alert reader Joe Smith.