Starring Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, and Jackie Earle Haley. Directed by Zack Snyder. Rated 18A.
What if Superman were real? And what if he didn’t like us very much?
The notion of a malevolent god has rarely been the subject of a major motion picture. However, director Zack Snyder, emboldened by his triumph with Frank Miller’s 300, has turned to this theme with Watchmen.
Based on the series by Alan Moore (himself an irascible superbeing in the world of comic-book authors), Watchmen is set on a parallel Earth where costumed crime fighters exist, albeit under tight scrutiny and often beset by personality disorders.
The most powerful of all is Dr. Manhattan, a physicist transformed by a helpful laboratory mistake into a glowing blue wizard. He is one of two American superheroes legally permitted to operate, the other being the Comedian, a laughing sociopath whose demise triggers an investigation by former compatriots Rorschach, Nite Owl II, and Silk Spectre II. In examining the Comedian’s death, the retired adventurers are forced to confront mistakes of the past and horrors of the present, the most lethal of which may be the world’s electric-blue protector (who doesn’t wear pants!).
So, ’tis a philosophical tale, then? Well, yes. Aside from some shockingly explicit violence, and tastefully explicit sex, quite a lot of Watchmen consists of outlandishly attired superfolk musing about death, impotence, and imminent nuclear war.
These remarks, while evidence of Snyder’s devotion to an extraordinarily dense narrative, contribute to a constricting solemnity that makes viewers feel all of Watchmen’s two hours and 45 minutes.
Then again, rabid fans—which is to say, pretty much everyone who read this classic story—are going to be riveted. Snyder has not so much interpreted the book as animated it, importing great swaths of Moore’s dialogue and Dave Gibbons’s drawings. There are changes to the ending and in the deletion of the Black Freighter comic-within-a-comic.
But overall, Snyder cannot be faulted for disrespect. As a director of actors, Synder extracts performances that are at least plausible and in two cases compelling: Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian. The most vicious masks contain the most humanity, a necessary ingredient in an overwhelming spectacle that is rather more likely to impress than entertain.