There's no need in wasting time recapping the plot to the long-awaited screen adaptation of the graphic novel classic Watchmen, suffice to say that it's set in an alternate history (from the 1940s to 1985) where costumed crime-fighters really existed. As the world inches closer to nuclear Armageddon, masked vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) investigates the murder of his former teammate Edward Blake, a.k.a. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and uncovers a plot by a mysterious enemy to kill off other former costumed heroes. Rorschach warns his former colleagues Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), and the godlike Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), before realizing that their common enemy may be among them.
That's ultimately my biggest problem with Watchmen; I didn't care about what happened, who it happened to and, as a result, what it all meant. Reading a comic is a different experience; you read it at your own pace, taking your time to digest the information you receive. The story, especially one published monthly over the course of a year, allows you the opportunity to savor and mull over what you just experienced. When the story of Watchmen is distilled down, faithfully or not, into a two and half-hour film, you're just holding on for the ride and hoping you "get" what it's all about. While Watchmen gets more right than it does wrong in adapting the book, it's definitely a film where the parts are greater than the picture as a whole. Snyder's film is cool, yes, but it's also cold; it culminates with tragedy of a global scale, yet you feel next to nothing during or after it happens. Characters talk about the horror of what's happened, but the sheer scale of the crime is lost and the attack on New York is simply a rather unimpressive special effects sequence. The destruction of the White House and other landmarks in Independence Day have more emotional impact than this sequence, which looks no different than anything seen in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. This is the movie's greatest sin: it's two hours of build-up for a pay-off that fails to generate any real impact. The movie's R rating would have been better used in making the finale more harrowing in depicting the breathtaking human toll of Veidt's plot (as the comic does) rather than on the inclusion of so many shots of the Doctor's lower Manhattan.
Dropping the squid isn't the problem; it's that the logic of the new finale that Snyder and the writers came up with doesn't hold up under the least bit of scrutiny. On the surface level, making Doctor Manhattan the scapegoat sounds like a great alternative... until you realize that there is simply no way the countries of the world are going to set aside their differences and join hands in peace after America's ultimate super-weapon -- which he has been touted as for the whole film -- is to blame for the deaths of millions. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. are at the very brink of war, remember. Complete and total nuclear annihilation is at hand, with the rest of the world wondering if America might use the blue-skinned ace it has up its sleeve (as it did to win in Vietnam). So given that state of anxiety, if Doctor Manhattan took out the world's major cities, why would any foreign nation now want to work with America for a better future? If there was ever a time when they'd want to wipe us off the map, it'd be after such an attack. As silly as the squid was, it worked because it was an external threat that united these disparate human factions in a common cause against a more powerful outside force. Imagine if the world knew that the squid was an American creation, there would have been no Utopian outcome. Also, by losing the squid and Veidt's experiments in genetic engineering that created it, the inclusion of Bubastis in the film makes absolutely no sense. It's completely random: "And now, for no apparent reason, a blue tiger with antlers." So the story's outcome doesn't work, but at least the journey to get there does, right? You know, the murder mystery that was the core of the comic's narrative? Unfortunately, not when you can see who the Comedian's killer is from the opening scene. Even if you hadn't read the comic, you'd be able to figure out that Ozymandias was the killer because of his body type, height and his not entirely obscured face. (In the comics, there are only a few panels showing Blake's murder: the movie has a long, dragged out donnybrook that's almost as over-the-top as the brawls in The Spirit.) This isn't helped by the fact that western audiences are conditioned from decades of WWII and Cold War movies to know that once you see the urbane, blond-haired, blue-eyed guy with the vaguely Eastern European accent, he's the villain. (I call it "The Rutger Hauer Factor.") Matthew Goode's nearly mustache-twirling performance makes the heroes look dumb for not figuring out the whole "mystery" sooner. Goode is simply miscast. The role needed someone less obvious, a more heroic, stalwart and self-righteous figure who you'd be heartbroken to find out was the mastermind. Imagine a young Charlton Heston, who played larger than life and noble characters, and you can see where I'm going.
Goode's isn't the only performance that doesn't work. Malin Akerman is the cast's weakest link, delivering a wooden performance and failing to nail Laurie's biggest scene, her climactic plea to Doctor Manhattan to save the world. What should have been moving and impassioned comes across as shrill and nagging. No wonder he went to another planet to get away from her! Carla Gugino is serviceable as Laurie's mom Sally, a.k.a. Silk Spectre I, but the idea of the character as sort of the Betty Grable of super-heroines is more interesting than her besotted, post-glory days depiction. Bad wigs and makeup are evident throughout the film, from Goode and Gugino to Robert Wisden's Nixon, who is in the film far too much for its own good. His makeup is so distractingly bad and obvious that it's a wonder Snyder, who appears to be such a perfectionist with so many other visual details in the frame, allowed it to be used. As a story, Watchmen lumbers along from one expository chapter to another. This worked in the comic when the reader got some backstory each month, but as a film it simply grinds the plot to a halt while a flashback fills us in on exposition that doesn't necessarily advance the story. The story lurches from one obvious, jarring pop music cue to another, so much so that Watchmen feels like Forrest Gump with superheroes. Some of the song selections work -- everyone has likely heard by now about the marvelous opening credits sequence set to Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" -- and some grow on you, such as the Comedian's riot busting set to "I'm Your Boogie Man," while many simply pull you right out of the movie (a love scene is laughably set to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," "99 Luftballoons" is like a shot out of the blue, and even the obligatory use of Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" feels oddly placed in the story). I kept waiting for Rorschach to start running across the desert to "Against the Wind."
Jackie Earle Haley IS Rorschach. It's not just a career-defining performance, it's one of the best this genre has seen other than Heath Ledger's Joker. He owns the screen whenever he's on it (which is amazing seeing as how his face is obscured for most of the film), and his scenes as Walter Kovacks in prison are among the most gripping and entertaining in the film. Arguably, his very best moment is his climactic stand against Doctor Manhattan. With this film, Haley has earned a career comeback no less amazing than Mickey Rourke's in The Wrestler. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a revelation as The Comedian. It was a brilliant move to cast someone most fanboys don't know from Adam in this role as Blake -- a man whose life is almost as mysterious as his death. Morgan captures the character's darkness while also making him captivating; he does monstrous things, but you understand why some of his teammates may have a begrudging secret admiration for him. Once Morgan/The Comedian is no longer in the movie, it begins to fall apart and become tedious. It took two viewings for me to fully appreciate the work done here by Patrick Wilson and Billy Crudup. Wilson has the cast's most unenviable task: He manages to make blandness interesting. Rather than being the chubby schlub of the comic, Wilson's Dan Dreiberg is a mild-mannered, bookish everyman, a nerd who is only cool and masculine when he's in costume. Crudup, who also does voice-overs for many popular commercials, is robbed of one of the best tools an actor has -- their eyes -- and must largely rely on a subtle vocal performance to convey his character's almost imperceptible humanity. The CG work on his character is hit and miss, realistically recreating the gravity and swing of Doctor Manhattan's junk but making his mouth and movements too animated at times. Thankfully, Crudup's brief scenes as Jon Osterman help establish a level of sympathy for this increasingly cold and detached character.
As a fan of the comic, it was thrilling to finally see it come to life. It's an almost literal adaptation of the book, in ways both good and bad. Visually, Watchmen is sumptuous. But you sense that Snyder simply doesn't comprehend the thematic and intellectual complexities of the original text. He wants to make a film and a movie at the same time, and I'm not convinced he knew which one he wanted to make more. Whenever Rorschach or the Comedian are on-screen, Watchmen is a darkly entertaining movie; whenever Doctor Manhattan or Ozymandias appear, it turns into a slow-moving, ponderous opus that wrestles with issues global and even cosmic in nature, until it ultimately collapses under its own considerable weight during the last act. A more seasoned filmmaker -- sorry, but three films does not a "visionary director" make -- would have been less susceptible in going for what looks cool and in appeasing the fanboys, and more concerned with what is best for the film as its own distinct entity and in advancing the story.
I truly wanted to love Watchmen, but I never warmed up to it and ended up only liking it in parts. There are moments where it rouses to life and I was reminded of what I've appreciated about the graphic novel for close to a quarter of a century now. But every time the movie pulled me in, it almost immediately did something else -- such as a cheesy, almost campy image or music cue -- that pulled me right out. Snyder's film failed at accomplishing two fundamental tasks -- the "whodunit" aspect of the story, and making you feel and understand the magnitude of what Ozymandias did -- and because of that Watchmen is a noble failure. It's praiseworthy to see a film strive to be deeper and more serious than many other comic book movies, but a hit-and-miss effort doesn't help the genre no matter how lofty its intentions.