Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 03/06/09 04:18:13

"Don't believe the (superhero) hype. Actually, maybe you should."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

After twenty years of missteps and aborted attempts, vocal disapproval (from some comic book fans) and "Dark Knight"-sized expectations (from others), a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign, and an unexpected lawsuit from 20th-Century Fox, the highly anticipated, big-screen adaptation of Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ genre- and medium-redefining graphic novel (first issued as a 12-issue series), "Watchmen," finally arrives on more than 3,500 screens in the United States alone under the direction of Zack Snyder ("300," "Dawn of the Dead") and a screenplay written by David Hayter ("X2: X-Men United," "X-Men") and Alex Tse ("Sucker Free City"). Hyper-stylish and hyper-violent, "Watchmen" captures the essential themes, ideas, and story elements from Moore and Gibbons’ graphic novel faithfully (maybe too faithfully) within the limits of a sub-three hour-running time (an extended director's cut will follow this summer on DVD and an "ultimate edition" later this year).

Watchmen follows several superheroes (or, to borrow Moore’s phrasing, "costumed vigilantes" or "masked avengers") in an alternate past (1985, the year Moore and Gibbons began working on Watchmen for DC). In Watchmen, rising crime rates and the increasing popularity of superhero comic books in the 1930s led to the "real world" emergence of costumed heroes, first in New York City and then, presumably, in other major cities in the United States. These unsanctioned, unregulated heroes, however, didn't have the superpowers of their comic book counterparts, just the willingness to slip into a homemade costume and mask and sacrifice limbs, bodies, and often their sanity for the greater good, with or without the implicit or explicit approval of the legal authorities. Costumed heroes also helped with the war effort on the battlefield and as symbols of ultra-nationalistic, über-patriotic Americanism.

After Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup), a research scientist, dematerializes in a research accident involving an “intrinsic field subtractor,” he returns as the glowing, blue-skinned Dr. Manhattan, the world's first (and only) super-powered superhero. As an American working for the U.S. government, Dr. Manhattan's presence has far-reaching effects: the U.S. wins the Vietnam War; President Richard M. Nixon (Robert Wisden) wins reelection (the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up go undiscovered). In 1977, the U.S. Congress passes the Keene Act, banning masked avengers, except those that work directly for the government. As Dr. Manhattan's allegiance to the U.S. government falls into doubt, the Soviet Union threatens to invade Afghanistan. Other costumed heroes retire, while new heroes take on the names of their predecessors. Diverging from the graphic novel for the first (but definitely not the last) time, Snyder conveys key moments in this alternate history through a decades-spanning montage edited to Bob Dylan's " The Times They Are a-Changin'" tied to the opening credits.

In the alternate universe 1985, an unknown assailant murders Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a government agent/costumed hero known as the Comedian. Walter Kovacs/Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a mask-wearing vigilante, sets out to find out the identity of Blake's murderer. Working alone since the Keene Act's passage outlawed costumed heroes, Rorschach turns to an old associate and former costumed hero, Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), a.k.a. Nite Owl II. Dreiberg turns to Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), Dr. Manhattan's current lover and the former Silk Spectre II, for help in uncovering the Comedian’s murderer. As Dr. Manhattan becomes increasingly detached from humanity, the Soviet Union’s boldly attempts to reassert its superpower status leads the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. When an assassin attempts to kill Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), a wealthy inventor, industrialist, philanthropist, and a costumed hero Ozymandias, Rorschach's suspicions and fears of a wide-ranging conspiracy to kill costumed heroes seems increasingly likely.

Watchmen interweaves the larger, overarching murder mystery with the origin stories of each costumed hero via flashbacks. We meet Dr. Manhattan as an ordinary mortal, Jon Osterman, a research scientist working on a super-secret government project. Seemingly killed in an experiment, he reappears days later as an apparition. Almost immediately, he manifests the ability to reconstitute and shape matter according to his will. His near god-like power eventually alienates him from his aging lover, Janey Slater, but several years later he meets and falls in love with the younger Laurie Jupiter. The U.S. government drafts him as a weapon of mass destruction. Dr. Manhattan helps the United States decisively win the Vietnam War, but with each passing year, his connection to humanity decreases, symbolized by the clothes Dr. Manhattan gradually sheds until, inevitably, he stops wearing anything at all.

Each character represents a superhero archetype or an aspect of that archetype. Laurie, the daughter of Sally Jupiter, a.k.a., Silk Spectre I, reluctantly followed in her mother’s footsteps. Using his family fortune, Dreiberg took on the Nite Owl persona once Hollis Mason decided to retire. The Nite Owl borrows the avian-themed costume, underground lair, inherited wealth, and gadget fetish from Batman and personal traits from the Ted Kord iteration of the Blue Beetle, another Charlton character with a similar background (e.g., he’s a legacy character, an inventor, travels in a bug-like, flying vehicle).

Rorschach represents the costumed vigilante driven by a binary morality and his costume resembles the Question, a Charlton character created by Steve Ditko (the co-creator, with Stan Lee, of Spider-Man). The Comedian grounded his amoral behavior on allegiance to a right-wing, authoritarian faction within the federal government. Adrian Veidt, the "smartest man in the world" uses his wealth for global philanthropy. Moore and Gibbons developed Dr. Manhattan as a cross between Captain Atom, one of several superhero characters DC purchased from Charlton Comics in 1983 (Charlton shuttered its comics imprint three years later) and Superman.

For many comic book fans (and some academics) Moore (Promethea, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell, V for Vendetta) and Gibbons’ Watchmen is the sine qua non of superhero comics, a post-modern marker for comics as a medium and superhero comics as a genre. After Watchmen, superhero comics no longer existed on a continuum, but before and after Watchmen (B.W. and A.W.). Moore and Gibbons expanded the superhero genre to explore weighty philosophical, political, cultural, psychological, and existential themes through a mix of different genres (e.g., murder mystery, Cold War drama, political satire, conspiracy thriller, crime noir, and science fiction).

Even before the teaser trailer for Watchmen debuted before The Dark Knight last summer, almost immediately creating anticipation, enthusiasm, and, in some cases, dread among fans of the graphic novel, some Watchmen fans expressed concerns about the costumes (e.g., Ozymandias’ mock-worthy outfit), the potential for an over-reverential, emotionless adaptation, plot compression, the heavy use of voiceover narration, broad, over-stylized acting, the hard “R” rating, and, at least for purists who wanted nothing less than a literal translation, the "trans-dimensional, giant squid"-free ending that Snyder and his screenwriters substituted for the graphic novel’s pulpy, Outer Limits-inspired ending (e.g., the “Architects of Fear” episode). Some of these concerns are, unfortunately, justified.

Some concerns, like the costumes, are superficial, but others, like the irregular tonal shifts, are more serious (e.g., any scenes involving President Nixon or Adrian Veidt). As played by Robert Wisden in heavy makeup and an oversized prosthetic nose, the Nixon we encounter in Watchmen is, sadly, a cartoon caricature. Many of the early scenes suffer from stylized, overbroad acting. Oddly enough (considering that most films are film non-sequentially), once Watchmen introduces all of the major characters and focuses on the events surrounding the Comedian’s death, the performances become more restrained and less of a distraction with, again, the exception of any scenes involving the alternate universe President Nixon or the fey, German-accented, maybe-gay Adrian Veidt.

Later scenes are hampered by Malin Ackerman’s over-restrained performance: at times, she fades into the CGI-enhanced background, even in two-character dialogue scenes. It also doesn’t help that Laurie is the most passive character in both the graphic novel and in the film. Other concerns, like the amped-up violence (broken limbs, exposed, shattered bones, a cleaver through the head, etc.) seem to have been calculated for Watchmen to receive a hard “R” rating from the MPAA (which, unsurprisingly, it did). These scenes or, more accurately, individual shots, definitely count as gratuitous and, thus, unnecessary, but they’re counterbalanced by the equally amped-up action scenes that fill in the gaps between comic book panels that readers of the graphic novel had to imagine for themselves. Still attached to the “bigger is always better” philosophy that helped to make 300 a box-office hit, Snyder gave Dr. Manhattan a larger-than-the-miniseries blue penis.

Snyder’s lack of subtlety also shows up in a soundtrack that fits uneasily with Tyler Bates’ classically oriented score. While the graphic novel included excerpts from period-specific songs as commentary on the action and themes in Watchmen, Snyder decided to include full songs (i.e., lyrics and music) to counterbalance individual scenes. During the opening fight scene, Snyder use Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.” As mentioned, he uses Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing” during the opening montage (one of the few times a song matches the visual and narrative content). During a riot scene flashback, Snyder relies on KC & the Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man.” During a late-film sex scene, Snyder uses (and abuses) Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” For another, short scene, Snyder cranks up Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” He even uses Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” famously used by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now, for a similarly themed scene. Only the late-film use of Philip Glass’” Pruit Igoe & Prophecies” makes any thematic sense. It helps too that the Glass’ track is an instrumental piece, rather than a song containing lyrics.

Not surprisingly, Watchmen dilutes and, in some cases, simplifies some of that narrative and thematic complexity. If any graphic novel was meant to receive the mini-series treatment, it’s the Watchmen and its multi-layered, multi-plot density. Snyder, Hayter, and Tse compressed Watchmen’s twelve chapters/issues and 338 pages into two hours and 43 minutes. What did survive the translation from the comic book panel to the cinematic screen, however, conveys the epic sweep, themes, and ideas that made Watchmen a genre redefining work of superhero/comic-book fiction. The ethical and moral dilemmas the masked avengers or costumed vigilantes in Watchmen’s alternative universe faced are still present in Snyder’s adaptation, just not to the same level of narrative or thematic complexity.

To their credit, Snyder, Hayter, and Tse implicitly understood the differences between the two mediums: what worked twenty-three years ago for comic book readers wouldn’t work for the non-comic book fans that will make or break the "Watchmen" at the box office. Snyder’s adaptation also eliminates several subplots or story elements, including the comic-book-within-a-comic-book, "Tales of the Black Freighter," Hollis Mason’s death, and excerpts from Mason’s autobiography, "Under the Hood." All, however, will appear on the direct-to-video DVD scheduled for release later this month. An extended edition will follow during the summer and the “ultimate edition” that integrates "Tales of the Black Freighter" and the Hollis Mason material will be released later this year.

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