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Watchmen (2009).

March 31, 2009

The Scoop:
When Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen” was released in 1985, it became a landmark in the emerging genre of graphic novels and has cast a long shadow. Not only did it enlarge the storytelling possibilities in the comics field, but its effects have also been felt in the larger popular culture, particularly the way films and television shows have handled superhero themes. It was also very much a product of its times, delving deep into the Cold War anxieties of the mid-1980s.

All of which make any sort of film version of “Watchmen” especially problematic. As written by David Hayter (“X-Men”) and newcomer Alex Tse and directed by Zack Snyder (“300”), the film is full of thunder and excitement, but runs up against a few walls.

The story takes place in a darker, alternate version of 1985 America in which costumed adventurers and vigilantes are common place and, after their halcyon days in the 1940s, have become increasingly distrusted by the public for enforcing the oppresive policies of the U.S. government, led by Richard Nixon in his fifth term as president. Against the backdrop of escalating nuclear tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union, the hero-turned-military-mercenary The Comedian is murdered. As the sociopathic vigilante Rohrshach tries to solve the crime, he and his former compatriots (including Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias) uncover corruption and a global power grab.

The novel’s genius lies in its multi-layered storytelling, which is rich in symbolism, literary allusions and a wonderfully fleshed-out cast of supporting characters. The history of this alternate world is also richly detailed, providing a running commentary on the main story and rewarding careful attention. All these elements combine to debunk the idealized superhero mythos, turning a cynical eye to the corruption possible when so much power is concentrated in the hands of flawed human beings. It is a world that is less about Superman and more about Travis Bickle.

Accordingly, a faithful film adaptation is a pretty tall order. The Cold War paranoia has lost much of its edge in the nearly quarter century since its release, as had the shock of the novel’s innovations. The filmmakers do their best to honor the source material, but come up with a mixed bag.

For the sake of brevity and to not alienate those who haven’t read the novel, the filmmakers sweep aside much of the complex backstory for the film. While this serves to keep the focus on the current generation of heroes, it also diminishes the psychological realism of the piece. Consequently, a lot of the characters’ actions exist in a vaccuum, and much of Moore’s original message is lost. Almost all of the cast of minor characters is lost, too, making the proceedings seem so much thinner and one-dimensional.

And then there’s the violence. While the novel and the film are each especially violent, they wind up being two different creatures. Snyder and his writers toned down many of the more brutal passages of the book in favor of Snyder’s patented garish fight choreography. Limbs shatter and blood gushes in gruesome slow motion. It’s hypnotic and balletic, but ultimately just eye candy. The amoral brutality that Moore used to illuminate his hard-edged characters is replaced by empty and gratuitous exercises in CGI wizardry.

But it’s not all bad. The novel’s greatest weakness — its convoluted, inorganic ending — is given a minor revamp here to better effect. It’s still not wholly satisfying, but it is definitely a step in the right direction. There is also terrific cinematography by Larry Fong (a veteran of “300” and “Lost”) that vividly brings to life some of the best parts of Gibbons’ original artwork.

The acting, too, is solid. With the exception of a wooden turn by Malin Ackerman as the second Silk Spectre, this is a talented ensemble. Billy Crudup (as Dr. Manhattan) and Jackie Earle Haley (as Rohrshach) are particularly great.

In total, “Watchmen” is not completely successful, but it’s not a failure, either. Just be sure to read the book first, to fully appreciate the story’s rich possibilities.

Best Line:
“Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon.”

Side Note:
Having been in development for decades, “Watchmen” has had numerous actors, writers and directors attached to the project at various times. Among the directors considered were Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greenglass and Michael Bay. Among the candidates to play Rohrshach were Robin Williams, Simon Pegg, Daniel Craig and Doug Hutchinson.

Companion Viewing:
“V For Vendetta” (2005) and “The Incredibles” (2004).

Links:
IMDb.
Official Site.
Watchmen Wiki.
The Annotated Watchmen.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

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