Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse remain super glued to the series in their rendering, retaining everything from the 1985 setting and Cold War atmosphere to the bare-bones plot and characters. Despite a few noticeable cuts, Snyder is devoted to the graphic novel, recreating some shots as they appear in the comic book. Snyder captures the nihilistic, apocalyptic tone of the story, and the deconstruction of the superhero paradigm—one of Watchmen’s main themes—is easily achieved. But as Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, once said, the focus of his series is not on its plot but on its structure. It is the telling of the tale that is paramount, not the tale itself. And for a film nearly three hours long, this doesn’t translate well. After the first half of the film has passed one still wonders when the story will begin.
It’s October 1985 and nothing is funny anymore in New York; the Comedian is dead. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a costumed vigilante living outside the law with his ink blot face, is investigating the murder of Edward Blake, known in some circles as the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Paranoid that someone is out to get masked heroes, Rorschach warns “old friends” of his fears: Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), now known in retirement as middle-aged and pudgy Dan Dreiberg; Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman), a.k.a. Laurie Juspeczyk, a.k.a. eye candy for fan boys; Laurie’s naked and remote blue god-lover Jon Osterman, also called Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup); and the smartest man in the world Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) who used to be Ozymandias, catcher of bullets.
Although Laurie and Dan have hung up their costumes and don’t appear at all desirous to don their spandex and owl cowl ever again, they are nevertheless drawn back into the fight and simultaneously to one another. In the meantime, Rorschach gets framed for murder and thrown into prison, where dozens of men he put in the jail are now itching to tear him apart. After busting out, Rorschach re-teams with Nite Owl and Silk Spectre to investigate the Comedian’s death.
As a newcomer to Watchmen, I can’t say I watched its cinematic adaptation with unsurpassed glee the way I would watch a screening of say, the newest Harry Potter film. But I can understand that kind of fierce devotion, and I respect those fans who extolled the virtues of the film as they exited the theater opening night. But speaking as the average moviegoer with an open mind, Watchmen impresses as a spectacle of visual effects and action sequence exploitation, but is mortally wounded by its source material—the very same material that had the fan boys and fan girls overflowing with delight.
Watchmen is a dragging, lengthy treatise on flawed humanity with interludes of bone-cracking violence. Credit is due to actors Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Billy Crudup for injecting nuance and energy into their roles; it is lucky that these are the characters that frame the story’s core themes and provide the most plot development. Without these actors, the film would have been much less than it is. Patrick Wilson is a fine actor, and like Jeffrey Dean Morgan he is destined for stardom thanks to this film, but his role as Nite Owl offers little development and is only ever fun when he’s in costume; the fact that he is paired most of the time with Malin Ackerman as Silk Spectre is 75 percent of this problem. The weakest links, Malin Ackerman and Matthew Goode, are weak for different reasons: Ackerman because she lacks range and her character does little more than mope, have sex, and fight; and Goode, because his character was scaled back from something meaningful into just another superhero.
Watchmen is simultaneously difficult and easy to love. It’s simple to love for those dedicated fans whose dream has finally come true, but for the casual moviegoer, Watchmen could be a tough sell. After coming out on top at the box office in its first weekend, yet falling short of its projected opening weekend taking, Watchmen proved that there is an audience for the film. But will it be large enough for its one-hundred million-plus price tag? Watchmen is a respectable undertaking, but let’s be honest: the hype celebrating it as an improvement on The Dark Knight—a film that redefined the superhero movie—is quite exaggerated.