Given the meteoric rise of the "superhero smash," from Blade to Spider-Man to The Dark Knight (and everything in between), an adaptation of the Watchmen juggernaut seemed inevitable. Arguably the finest and most accessible graphic novel ever created, the book seemed both "unfilmable" and wonderfully cinematic at the same time. But there's a problem: Watchmen is many things, but it's not exactly A) action-packed, B) simplistic, or C) family friendly -- and this runs counter to everything that makes superhero movies so damn profitable: Lots of action, a basic story, and light enough to bring the whole family. So the producers of Watchmen had two choices: They could remain faithful to the widely-adored source material and keep their fingers crossed, or they could dumb the book down to a moronic degree and maybe make a little extra money in the process.
Fortunately the project went to Zack Snyder, a filmmaker who has proven (in Dawn of the Dead and 300) that he respects his source material, but he's certainly not above making a few tweaks for his renditions. An unquestionably gifted visual stylist, Snyder has finally found a story that he can sink his teeth into, plot-wise. (Dawn and 300 aren't all that "deep," really, plus they both have the same plot, if you think about it.) The result is a powerfully unique superhero movie that will dazzle some, confuse others, and live on to become one of the most geekily-debated films ever made. As for my own take, I think the film is a very welcome oasis of originality in a young sub-genre that doesn't really value originality all that highly.
Presented in an intricate structure that will appeal more to film noir buffs than it may to Superman fans, Watchmen is about an alternate reality, circa 1985, when Nixon is beginning his third term in office and the cities are populated by costume-wearing crime fighters. But when the government clamps down on the exploits of the masked vigilantes, our semi-heroes are forced to disappear into lives of everyday anonymity. Well, some of them do. It's pretty tough for a giant, blue, naked man who has the powers of a god to remain incognito very long, plus each of the former heroes has a rather distinct talent: Rorshach is a powerfully infuriated anti-hero with a strict, strange moral code. Silk Spectre really knows how to fill out the tights, and she's one hell of an ally to have in an alleyway brawl, but she's also carting around a whole bunch of emotional baggage. Another guy called Night Owl has become a generic schlub, while another (known as Ozymandias) enjoys his life as the mega-wealthy "world's smartest man."
The activity kicks off as a devious "hero" known as The Comedian is beaten up and tossed out of a 30th floor window. This prompts the angry-yet-righteous Rorschach to start sniffing around for clues, and it isn't long before he uncovers a plot to eliminate all the former "masks." Meanwhile, tensions keep escalating between the U.S. and Russia, and it seems to be only a matter of time before a nuclear war decimates the whole planet. But this is not a superhero action flick with a mystery spin. It's actually the other way around: An old-fashioned, hard-boiled film noir that just happens to have characters who are (sometimes only slightly) superhuman.
Snyder and his screenwriters had a ridiculously tough job, maybe the toughest since Peter Jackson put pen to paper on his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Obviously there's way too much stuff in Alan Moore's novel to make it into a film version, but the writers deserve ample credit for retaining the core of what makes the book so powerful, while being merciless enough to trim some of the "good stuff" that simply had no place in the movie. As a result, the ensemble seems a little less crowded, the plot seems just a little less unwieldy, and the unexpected turn of events in Act III seems to make just a little more sense. (That's not to say that the movie is better than the book, jeez no, but that it works as a very strong companion piece. Snyder's love for the material is evident in every sequence.)
Seemingly intent on not being upstaged by Snyder's phenomenal visuals (the FX are great, the cinematography is excellent, and the editor deserves an Oscar nomination right now), the cast is surprisingly strong throughout. The standouts are Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg / Night Owl, Jackie Earle Haley as the fascinating Rorschach, and Malin Akerman as a heroine who's both very powerful and very fragile -- although the background is populated with great faces like Carla Gugino (Sally Jupiter), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian) and hey, even good ol' Matt Frewer gets into the act, playing a former super-villain who's mellowed a bit with age. Lost beneath layers of FX trickery is an also-excellent Billy Crudup, who is asked to play a god with vague recollections of humanity. Tough role, great performance.
But it's not the superheroes that Watchmen supporters necessarily admire, nor is it the handful of (stellar) action scenes that pop up once in a while. It's what Watchmen actually has to say about human nature that fascinates us so much. This is not Superman's Metropolis or Batman's Gotham: The Watchmen live in a world that is terrifyingly close to our own reality, and it's rather scary indeed. One could imagine Watchmen being dreamed up as the answer to the question: "How would superheroes actually deal with the ceaseless ugliness that humanity produces? Not purse-snatchers or bank robbers, but ... well, would Superman side with US in the Vietnam war? Or would he just stand on the sidelines, depressed at how hateful and childish we are? How would "supreme" beings deal with things like rape, jealousy, betrayal, and death? Wouldn't a superhero eventually get sick of helping a species that never seems to help itself?
All of these questions (and more!) are posed quite excellently throughout Watchmen (the book), and it pleases me to no end that the movie seems intent on offering the same challenges. Yes, the movie has more than its share of "gee whiz!" moments, and they're quite dazzling indeed. But for most superhero movies, the spectacle would be enough. Here the flash and pizazz are laid down in support of a deceptively clever screenplay, which is why I'm calling Watchmen the first ever "Superhero Movie for Grown-Ups." Not in a "you're too young to come in" way, but the film demands that you put aside your pre-conceived notions of what makes a superhero, requests that you display a little patience and maturity, and asks you to buy into a completely unique concept: Superheroes who screw up, make the wrong decisions, and behave like jerks once in a while. Because, despite all the fancy powers, they're still human beneath it all. (Yep, even the giant naked blue guy.)
To be honest, films like Watchmen recharge my batteries where "studio product" is concerned. Here we have a film noir superhero story that runs about 160 minutes, has (and earns) a hard R rating, cost about $150 million, and sticks very closely to the smarts of the source material -- when I'm sure there were dozens of studio suits who were begging for two or three more action scenes and a PG-13 version. Studios and their marketing departments cannot be blamed for trying to turn Watchmen into a big-time "event" movie not unlike Spider-Man, but this movie does not fit that mold. It's much better than the high-end escapism of the finest superhero flicks, mainly because it's nifty and it's novel, but it also says something interesting about the people in the audience. How rare is that?
I suspect that Watchmen is destined to "underperform" at the box office, because frankly it's a little too smart for its own good, but will go on to live a rock-solid shelf life with the hardcore movie fanatics. Regardless of how much money the film makes for its producers, this is a powerfully good film, one that takes a bunch of familiar ingredients, and whips them up into a stew you've never tasted before. If it's not all that action-packed and a few of the cooler details had to be left on the cutting room floor, that's just fine by me. No adaptation is perfect, obviously, but it's tough to imagine the Watchmen fan who won't appreciate what's offered here.
As far as general moviegoers are concerned, I have no idea. I just know this is a damn good film.