‘Watchmen’ movie review: Zack Snyder’s divisive, but excellent, adaptation

Based on the seminal comic book series by Alan Moore, Zack Snyder’s highly anticipated Watchmen has had a long road to the screen; written in 1986-87, the material was almost immediately put into development, with directors like Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky attached over the years. 

Often considered unfilmable, Snyder has filmed it, providing an incredibly faithful adaptation that’s both a blessing and a curse; the movie painstakingly lays it all out on the screen, daring viewers to accept or reject it on sight. I was often mesmerized but couldn’t shake the feeling that this is the male version of the Sex and the City film. 

A brilliant credit sequence, fashioned like Annie Leibovitz photo-shoots and set to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A’ Changin’, follows the rise and fall of masked superheroes over the years: once revered by the public, they’re soon torn apart (“who watches the Watchmen?”) and eventually outlawed. This leads up to an alternate-reality 1985, where Richard Nixon is serving a fourth term as US president and the doomsday clock has struck five minutes to midnight. 

Masked vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) begins an investigation into the murder of one of his own, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). He warns the remaining ‘masks’, now attempting to live normal lives: Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), and Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman). 

Save for Dr. Manhattan’s blazing blue omnipotent being, none of these characters have real superpowers, though they’re all quite proficient in combat techniques. What binds them is a desire to dress up in Halloween costumes. Watchmen slowly delves into each of these characters’ own stories, while balancing its two concurrent plotlines: Rorschach’s investigation of a potential mask killer, and an impending nuclear war. 

In bits and pieces, this is absolutely fascinating stuff, but as there isn’t much active story development, the movie doesn’t exactly build into a compelling whole. The style can’t be faulted: each frame of the film is beautifully realized, holding a delicate balance between the absurdness of comic book heroes and a harsh realism (something that’s fully realized in the Vietnam War scenes, as a giant Dr. Manhattan makes quick work of the Viet Cong). 

Unlike Snyder’s 300, which transported the viewer to a different realm, Watchmen unapologetically forces us to come to terms with the fantasy, reaching a middle point between the original 1966 Batman, played as straight parody, and last year’s The Dark Knight, played as realistically as possible.

The acting, too, is uniformly excellent, with standout performances by Jackie Earle Haley and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, whose Comedian rests at the soul of Watchmen. But there is one giant, impossible-to-overlook flaw: Watchmen is long and somewhat lumbering, rigidly faithful to its comic origins at the sake of cinematic success. 

There is, simply, far too little forward momentum to justify the film’s length. While I was never bored, the film is nearly three hours long and feels every minute of it. 

The soundtrack is also lacking, as some uninspired pop hits overtake any semblance of an original score. Dr. Manhattan’s backstory is set to some recycled Phillip Glass pieces from Koyaanisqatsi and The Hours, and it’s easily the most compelling segment of the film. 

Glass’ work can turn even something like Taking Lives into compelling cinema, and may just have given Watchmen the momentum it desperately needs; an original Glass score may have made this a masterpiece, but I digress… 

A couple days after seeing Snyder’s film I picked up the Watchmen graphic novel and read it for the first time. A day after that I watched the first episode of the Watchmen Motion Comic (available via iTunes), which was quite wonderfully stylized (but so poorly voiced I decided not to delve further into the series). 

This is, frankly, exceptional material, rich and rewarding, and justly regarded as one of the great achievements in comic book history. The film is shockingly faithful to its source, and not just in terms of theme and plot – much of the dialogue, and many of the angles and shots, seem to be lifted verbatim from the page. 

The biggest change is the ending, which takes a different path to reach the same effect; it works fine in the film. Otherwise, there’s some minor trimming to character backstory, most notably to Ozymandias. I was wondering why there was so little background to the Nite Owl character in the film, ostensibly the hero of the piece, but there isn’t much more in the comic, either. 

Alan Moore has famously pulled his name from the film (source credit goes to illustrator Dave Gibbons), and refuses to take credit for any films based on his work (and who can blame him, after From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). 

He’s right when he says (I’m paraphrasing) that the two mediums don’t mix, that what makes a comic successful is different than what makes a film successful, and too many sacrifices have to be made in the process of adaptation. Watchmen is not an entirely successful film. 

But it is incredibly faithful to the source material, and absolutely does justice to Moore’s work. That’s the highest praise I can give the picture, which may understandably not be enough for everyone. 

Yet, while it may be a divisive film, as an experience, Watchmen cannot be beat: richly detailed and packed with provocative themes, endlessly debatable and rewatchable, it’s an extraordinary work that has instantly rooted itself in cinema culture.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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