Big-screen adaptations of Alan Moore's work have been a decidedly mixed bag, from the enjoyable V for Vendetta to the flawed From Hell and the excremental The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In bringing what is considered Moore's finest work to the big screen, Zack Snyder has made every effort to do justice to the graphic novel and satisfy the fans. But the finished project is found severely wanting in crucial areas, resulting in either a big, long folly or a missed opportunity.
Of all the Alan Moore adaptations, Watchmen has the longest and most troubled production history. The film was first mooted in the early-1990s when Terry Gilliam was approached by Sam Hamm, who had recently achieved success writing Tim Burton's Batman. Despite being initially interested, Gilliam concluded that the novel could only work as a TV mini-series; he left the project and Hamm's script was indefinitely shelved.
The project re-emerged in 2001 with a new script by David Hayter, which lay around for three years before Darren Aronofsky was attached to direct. He subsequently dropped out to make pet project The Fountain, and his replacement Paul Greengrass did the same a few months later, in order to make United 93. Snyder was first offered the project in late-2005, shortly after his success with the remake of Dawn of the Dead. The project was formally green-lit in 2007 after shooting wrapped on 300.
There is no doubt that Snyder and everyone involved in Watchmen wanted this to be the best possible adaptation of the novel. This is in spite of the fact that Alan Moore has disowned it, along with all other adaptations of his work (and looking at The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it's not hard to see why). Various stories have circulated about the cast having copies of the novel on set, so that it could be referred to directly whenever there were questions over plot or characters. The film was clearly made for the fans and not for the money: with an 18 certificate and a budget of $130m, no expense or effort has been spared to replicate the comics as closely as possible.
But in spite of this obvious affection, there are a number of big problems with Watchmen which render it at least a partial failure. The first and biggest problem is that Snyder is a fanboy. He loves the comic to such an obsessive degree that either he can't explain it to the rest of us, or he isn't willing to explain it.
As a result the story of Watchmen is largely impenetrable to anyone who didn't spend their teenage years immersed in comic books. Snyder is focussed so much on meeting fans' expectations that the backstories or reasoning of the characters gets buried or lost, not to mention the mechanics of the alternative universe they inhabit. This is particularly the case with Doctor Manhattan, whose origins are only touched upon about halfway through the film.
The second, deeper problem is with Snyder as a director. He is not the "visionary" that he is made out to be, being visually stylish but a very poor storyteller. While the novel is purported to have substance coming out of its ears, the film gives the impression that it is all surface and no depth, amounting to little more than people in latex hitting each other. One could say on these grounds that Snyder is the new Joel Schumacher - and for all its disinterest in the comics, Batman Forever is a better film.
On top of his irritating use of slow-motion, most of Snyder's visual decisions smack of impatience, incompetence or showing off. His impatience is seen in the constant cutting between multiple, similar angles in scenes which would flow much better with longer, simpler takes. His incompetence is found in beginner's-level mistakes: he shoots several scenes through windows, resulting in lens flare or distracting reflections. And his showing-off is evident in Veidt's interview being reflected through a lens of another camera, or a sex scene being captured through the glasses on the table. In each example the visual decisions are an unnecessary indulgence which contribute little, and in many cases detract from and undermine the story.
Regardless of how complex or multi-layered the story of Watchmen is, it does not require two-and-a-half-hours to be told. On the one hand, it feels like the film always wants more time to develop the characters, and Gilliam was probably right that it would have worked better as a miniseries. On the other hand, if Snyder was determined to make a manageable film, he would have accepted the necessary compressions and moved the character development forward. But he doesn't do this, at least not as much or as well as he should. We have to wait nearly two hours for things to come together with the twist involving Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan, by which time most of us will have given up.
So much of Watchmen is window-dressing, confirming Snyder's pursuit of style over everything else. Rorschach's film noir narration might work in the comics, but it serves little to no purpose here: the end point involving the discovery of his journal is silly, and it does nothing to move the plot forward other than stating the obvious. Snyder's choice of pop songs on the soundtrack is lazy, particularly in the opening montage: he settles for Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changin' where Quentin Tarantino would have put on something more entertainingly esoteric.
This feeling of superficiality, coupled with the unrelenting pursuit of style, causes all of the arresting themes of Watchmen to get buried. In fact, the story raises a number of interesting issues about the ethics of nuclear war and peace, the workings of mutually assured destruction, and in particular the role of "costumed heroes" and how they could be controlled or policed. The slogan "Who Watches the Watchmen?" recurs as graffiti throughout the film but is barely addressed in a constructive way.
The tone of Watchmen keeps flipping between flippant and portentous, with Snyder being unable to balance the dark or forbidding elements with the inherent silliness of a naked floating blue man. This is perfectly demonstrated by a scene halfway through on Night Owl's ship: Silk Spectre II makes a comment about impending nuclear war, which then cuts to her and Night Owl making love in their costumes. Such lurches in tone are akin to erotic fan fiction and threaten to drag the whole film into parody.
Because the flippant aspects of Watchmen are so prominent, scenes which are meant to be more thought-provoking lose much of their impact. During the scenes involving Richard Nixon, what sticks in your mind is not the threat of global destruction but his comedy rubber nose, which makes the war room scenes feel less like Dr. Strangelove than Spitting Image. More problematically, when the film has a near-rape sequence, or a child abduction, or any number of brutally gruesome deaths, Snyder can't pull himself together: he can't deliver the emotion punch that such scenes require to prevent them from seeming inexcusably adolescent.
Watchmen is a deeply flawed, over-long and often boring attempt to bring Alan Moore's vision to the big screen. Whatever the merits of the graphic novel, and regardless of his good intentions, Snyder was the wrong director and this adaptation will put many newcomers off the source material. It pales in comparison to both V for Vendetta and Christopher Nolan's Batman films, both as a comic adaptation and an attempt to explore serious political issues. Fanboys will leap to its defence, but everyone else will be bored, annoyed or confused.