Watchmen is the story of the end, or perhaps the beginning, who knows, of the world, and it is set in an alternate universe, one resembling our own but just ever-so-slightly laterally shifted off centre. It is a 1980's-ish universe in which Richard Nixon is serving his third term, America won the Vietnam war, and in which costumed heroes and masked vigilantes, heroes and villains both, are not the stuff of comics and kids stories but of every day life. Or at least they had been until a government act banned "masks" and outlawed costumed heroes. Now, most of these former heroes and villains live ordinary lives, haunted by the deeds and heroics of their past shadow lives. But when, with the doomsday clock sitting at five minutes to midnight and with the Americans and the Russians staring down the barrel of mutually assured nuclear annihilation, one of these former heroes, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dead Morgan), is murdered, the one costumed hero who has refused to give up his vigilante ways, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), suspects that a plot to kill off "masks" has been hatched and sets off to find answers. What ensues is a sprawling, ambitious super hero epic, one that quickly spirals much deeper then one dead former hero into a plan to change the world, entirely, forever.
Though I love the source material (and I mean really love it, which probably only exacerbates my disappointment), and though there are parts of this film that work, and work really well, Watchmen as a whole doesn't work. I don't know, perhaps no adaptation of it could work. I'm not quite sure how to nail down my criticisms of it, however, since individually all the elements seem to work on their own. The casting, especially Jeffrey Dead Morgan and The Comedian and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, is dead on, and the decision to go with relatively unknown actors (Billy Crudup as Doctor Manhattan and Malin Akerman as Silk Specter II are probably the most recognizable actors here) probably serves the film well since none of the actors bring too much of their filmographic baggage to the show. The effects, and many of the set-pieces, like the prison break scene, also work very well. Zack Snyder, who's last film was the vacuous though visually arresting 300, can obviously direct action and manage CGI. But, though everything looks good on paper, and even looks good on film, and though the film is remarkably faithful to the novel, perhaps even to a fault, something is missing, and I'm not only referring to the cut material. As a fan of the source material, it's impossible for me to separate my expectations for the film from what I already know and love of the novel. And though I can tolerate and even appreciate (when done well) changes or updates when it comes to adaptations, I can't forgive shallowness. Watchmen the film only skims across the surface of Watchmen the novel, never diving deeper into its murkier depths. So while all the important components of the story are present and accounted for, they aren't quite used to their proper effect.
To illustrate all this, especially the film's failings as an adaptation, a comparative digression. As if the darker pages of Marvel or DC had spilled over into reality, allowing costumed heroes to roam about the cities, accepted - even if begrudgingly - as a feature of ordinary life, Alan Moore's Watchmen deconstructed the super hero genre. However, Moore's heroes are not the shiny, wholesome types of heroes we've come to expect from comics.* His heroes, instead, are ones that fight or participate in crime in order to fulfill the needs of some psychological disorder. Costumes don't hide identity; for the characters in Watchmen, they create them. Walter Kovacs is Rorschach's alter-ego; the ordinary man is the vigilante's disguise. So sociopaths, lunatics, and borderline schizophrenics: these are the kinds of people putting on costumes. These are the watchmen guarding society - ethically suspect, viciously violent, teetering on the fine edge between moral certitude and outright insanity. In Zack Snyder's Watchmen, however, these ambiguities and subtleties of character are never explored. They are present, yes, but only in some perfunctory sort of way. An example: a scene, a pivotal one in the Rorschach origin story, is clumsily represented. Instead of letting us feel what Rorschach felt, instead of developing the scene in a way that allows audiences to share in his moral outrage, we are hastily told what Rorschach felt. What should be experience becomes exposition. Another example: the lust and sexuality hidden in both Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson)** that emerges as the two of them resume their long-repressed costumed ways is present on screen (boy is it ever) but isn't given its proper weight. It comes off more as cinematic titillation and as a strong desire to earn that 18A rating than as a psychological imperative driving these characters. Now both of these examples would be fine (though probably not so graphic) if this were just another Spider-Man movie or X-Men movie or just another of any of the major comic book movies plugging up theatres all over the place, but with is Watchmen, dammit. The film has pretensions beyond this. It deserves to have its themes handled by a steady hand and not by someone more concerned with making them look right. And when the film so obviously wants to be taken seriously and considered portentous, it needs to offer more than Snyder seems capable of delivering.
Since Christopher Nolan re-launched Batman and gave us what were essentially arthouse films disguised as summer blockbusters, comic book movies have been trying to outgrow their ordinarily B-grade britches. Now, here is a story ripe for such a treatment - demanding such a treatment, screaming out for it - but which gets, instead, Zack Snyder. While I have no doubt that he loves Watchmen, I do doubt Snyder's ability to direct anything of real emotional or intellectual substance. When the Watchmen teaser debuted a few months ago (conveniently embedded above), I watched it over and over again, reveling in its visual splendor, salivating over its images and the promise that they offered - an adaptation worthy of its source. Now, having seen the final product that Snyder delivered, I know why I liked that trailer so much and why I am so disappointed in the film. Snyder is a surface director. He can make anything look good. But while Watchmen looks good, it never gets past the make-up and the CGI, never dives into those deeper waters. It's like he pain-stakingly recreated the panels of Watchmen without actually understanding what they meant, giving us a pretty forgery instead of a true adaptation. I want to love this movie. I want Watchmen to be brilliant. Even just watching the trailer again, I wonder if I've got this wrong. But I don't think that I have.
Experto Crede: Though visually stunning and lovingly rendered, Watchmen fails to deliver much more than a shallow recreation of the graphic novel. It's a decent film, sure, but it's not the film the novel deserves.
* This worked better, and packed a heavier punch, I imagine, when the graphic novel was initially published, in the late 80's. Now, sociopathic heroes are all too commonplace.
** Um, just ignore the genealogical numbering. It would take too long to explain. Let's just say I'm too much of a purist to leave them off.
UPDATE: Here's a link to an AICN interview between Quint and Zack Snyder. While Quint is polite, and geeks out at the right moments, the whole interview only confirms my suspicions: that Snyder, probably through no fault of his own, I don't know maybe he's too young or something, should not have directed the film.