Before Before Watchmen, there was....Watchmen!
Amazingly, this is the first review of an adaptation of a work I’ve previously reviewed. Many of the award-winning novels here have been adapted into films, including a fair number of Hugo and Saturn nominees, and many of the films have come from acclaimed sf&f novels, but this is the first time the twain have met. It’s fitting then that it’s a work that’s status as an adaptation has always been the main story.
As I said, Watchmen is the consensus pick for greatest superhero comic of all time. That alone made its adaptation controversial, and it took over a decade and a few lawsuits to get this film made. Then, writer Alan Moore asked to have his name removed from the film, more due to previous wrongs than this film in particular, but still. Finally, there’s the fact that the sprawling multimedia multigenerational superhero epic that pushed the boundaries of sequential art as a medium doesn’t particular lend itself to the feature film format… Well, add it all up, and it’s a recipe for disaster.
It’s not quite that, though I wouldn’t call it a rousing success either. It received mixed critical reviews and disappointing box office revenues. Is it any good? I’d say it depends on what you’re looking for. It you love the graphic novel and you want to see Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons's vision realized with first class special effects, you’re in luck! If you’ve never read the book, I imagine this won’t make much sense. If you’re looking for a movie that can stand on its own as a solid piece of filmmaking, I don’t think this qualifies.
The first problem is that it’s just too damn literal as a remake. For all the hubbub about whether the film would do service to the classic graphic novel – it does, to a fault. Director Zack Snyder made a name for himself with a very literal adaptation of Frank Miller’s Battle of Thermopylae graphic novel, 300, and he brings the same ethic to this work, directly borrowing almost all of his visuals from Dave Gibbons’ panels and almost all of his dialogue from Alan Moore’s word balloons. The mid-1980s setting, contemporary when the book originally came out, must have been fairly alienating for a lot of the young people who’d make up the majority of the potential audience for a superhero blockbuster. I’m not saying that I want to replace fifth term Nixon with third term Dubya and the USSR with China or Al Qaeda, but the book is very much of its time; the film is not. More importantly, the book is paced brilliantly as a twelve part monthly series, not as a three hour film, but that’s the pacing that Snyder ends up with by default. The film does manage to convey some of the rich history of the comics, but it never builds any momentum. The film’s pacing would better fit a tv mini-series.
The second problem is the acting. Jackie Earle Haley is fantastic as Rorschach, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is perfect as the Comedian. It’s all downhill from there. Patrick Wilson and Malin Ackerman are likable performers, and they do fine as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, though they don’t seem as damaged as the characters in the comic. Billy Crudup isn’t particularly convincing as Dr. Manhattan, and Matthew Goode is just plain terrible as Adrian Veidt. Those two characters play a crucial role in the story, and the actors’ wooden performances really damage the climax. Watchmen is a character-driven story, and this mixed bag of acting undermines it in some significant ways.
It’s not all bad though. By sticking so closely to the original story, Snyder doesn’t lose any of Moore’s fascinating world-building, and the opening credits that track four decades of superhero history are a highpoint (though "the opening credits are a highpoint" really isn't a great sign). Most of the visuals are very well-realized. A direct translation of Gibbons's panels may not have been the best choice, but that doesn’t make it easy, and I think Snyder has accomplished something very interesting here. Again, as a supplement to the book, it’s not bad at all. But that’s pretty faint praise for such an ambitious sf film.