In the years since its publication (1986 to be exact), writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ groundbreaking graphic novel Watchmen has become something of a holy writ of illustrated lit. Referred to as The Catcher in the Rye of comic books, Watchmen has become a necessary right of passage for anyone who claims to love the superhero genre and arguably the most important point of reference (Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns being the other contender) among nerdy intelligentsia. So it is with both crushing trepidation and manic anticipation that fans have awaited director Zack Snyder’s filmic adaptation.
Of course, those who have never picked up the original book (which, despite its massive popularity, covers the vast majority of Americans) are left somewhere in the middle—vaguely aware of the fact that this is a Big Fucking Deal and still slightly confused by the idea that comic books can be aimed at grown-ups. The film industry speculation has been that general audiences are finally prepared for a dark, mature, two-hour-plus superhero movie thanks to the success of Christopher Nolan’s smash adaptation of The Dark Knight (which, despite its title, isn’t actually related to Miller’s comic). No such luck. This is not the symbol-heavy operatics of the last Batman film. Watching the brutal, sexually charged, deeply humanist, neon-noir epic that is Watchmen is enough to convince us that nothing could have prepared viewers for this experience.
Ultimately, it will boil down to two camps. Those trepidatious about a “serious” superhero movie are likely to be shocked by the overwhelming nature of it all. Like a movie musical, it takes a while to get into the mood of this brave new world. Thanks to an informative historical credit sequence, viewers are quickly introduced to an alternate America in which superheroes are real and actually helped win the Vietnam War. This leads to an unprecedented fifth term for Richard Nixon and contributes to an early-’80s world marked by rampant paranoia over superpowered vigilantism and the still-escalating Cold War. When one of America’s (now retired) masked heroes is murdered, rebellious (and more than slightly crazy) crime fighter Rorschach hunts down his old colleagues to find out who’s killing whom and to what end.
The film slowly unravels this murder mystery, supplants it with huge helpings of alternative history and gives multiple, divergent storylines tracing back the long and detailed origins of its various masked marvels. The actors (Patrick Wilson as the impotent Nite Owl, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the sadistic Comedian, Malin Akerman as the sexy Silk Spectre, Billy Crudup as the godly Dr. Manhattan, Matthew Goode as the brainy Ozymandias and especially Jackie Earle Haley as the unhinged Rorschach) all prove to be well chosen. Those unversed in the history and mythology of comic books might still have a hard time adapting and accepting, seeing the movie as an uncomfortable wedding of cape-wearing camp and shock-technique reality. Or not. I didn’t think people could handle the dense, turgid mythology of The Matrix. Turned out they were fine with it—at least until the second and third movies.
On the other side of the divide, the fanboys (and fangirls) will very likely love every hyperviolent fight sequence and each Spandex-clad sex scene. (In terms of screen time, this movie has more big blue dong than any other film in history—parents are advised to heed that R rating!) Sure, the initiated will argue over niggling details, debate the tweaked (and notoriously squidless) ending and bemoan the cuts necessary to squeeze Moore and Gibbons’ massive narrative into a jam-packed 163 minutes.
But even for the most hardcore of fans, it’s hard to find fault with the vision lovingly conjured by Snyder (still hot off Dawn of the Dead and 300) and the script faithfully fashioned by David Hayter (X-Men) and first-timer Alex Tse. Everything in the movie is in the book. The converse can’t be said, but the exclusions are either highly excusable (the symbolic Tales of the Black Freighter sequence will be released as an animated DVD movie later this month) or incredibly minor (no, Rorschach doesn’t eat “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes the entire film).
Having read the graphic novel a good 20 times, I could complain that the film’s intrusive soundtrack is a bit too on-the-nose. (Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” for the history-making credits? Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” for the funeral scene?) I could point out that the parade of historical doppelgängers (Richard Nixon, John McLaughlin, Pat Buchanan, Henry Kissinger, Ted Koppel) ends up feeling more like a cheap masquerade than an immersive re-creation. I could say losing some of the minor characters robs the film of certain emotional moments. I could say the narrative doesn’t hit its stride until Rorschach’s capture about a third of the way in. But from that point on, the film goes great guns, heading toward one hell of an intense climax (even for those who know what’s going to happen). The much-debated ending (don’t worry, no spoilers here) does end up retconning a few details of the ultimate conspiracy. But the ultimate point remains intact. In fact, it could be argued that the new solution is even more logical than the original, setting up some nifty philosophical repercussions.
The one thing I can’t say about Watchmen is that it’s unfaithful. It’s faithful all right. Fanatically so. This is tough, thoughtful, literate, colorful superhero action at its morally ambiguous best. Is it perfect? Probably not. But frankly, it’s hard to imagine what a better version of this story would look like.