In adapting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ landmark 1986 graphic novel Watchmen (considered by many to be the medium’s greatest achievement) to film, director Zack Snyder has done what every die-hard fan would seemingly hope for: He’s stayed as close to the source material as possible, slavishly following the narrative structure and visual style of the book, using large chunks of Moore’s dialogue verbatim and frequently framing his shots to look exactly like Gibbons’ comics panels. Why, then, is his version of the story so dissatisfying, both as an adaptation and as a standalone work?
The answer is that it’s simultaneously too faithful and not faithful enough; in meticulously following the letter of the source material, Snyder has lost sight of the spirit. Indeed, sometimes his film works completely at odds with the themes of Moore and Gibbons’ work, and not in a way that comments on their intentions or recontextualizes the story. It’s as if all Snyder understands is that the graphic novel is totally awesome, but has no understanding of why it’s awesome, or a completely different definition of the concept of awesomeness. Watchmen was revolutionary at the time it was released for the way it deconstructed the concept of the superhero, the methods of comic-book storytelling and the wish-fulfillment thrill of seeing good guys in gaudy costumes beat up criminals. Despite the fact that there have been enough superhero movies released by now for them to warrant their own meta-commentary, Snyder doesn’t seem interested in deconstructing anything; all he wants to do is make another badass superhero blockbuster.
And so he does, because the basic beats of the story allow him to. Set in an alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon has been re-elected president multiple times, costumed vigilantes have been outlawed and the U.S. stands on the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, Watchmen opens with the murder of aging hero the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), thrown out the window of his high-rise apartment by a mysterious man. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the lone masked vigilante still operating, takes it upon himself to investigate, and soon becomes convinced that someone out there is murdering heroes—specifically, those who banded together years ago under the moniker the Watchmen (a name that, in the graphic novel, was never used to refer to one specific group).
Those people include Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), since retired and living a normal life while pining for his crime-fighting days; Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the alleged world’s smartest man, who revealed his identity to the world and now runs a business empire; Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, mostly via motion capture), the only character with actual superpowers, which he developed after a lab accident; and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), Manhattan’s increasingly disillusioned girlfriend. As Rorschach tries to piece together the mystery, and the world inches ever closer to nuclear annihilation, long-buried secrets of the Watchmen come to light.
It sounds like pretty exciting stuff, and it could be: Moore and Gibbons’ book is dense and experimental and full of heady allusions, but it’s also suspenseful and at times wondrous, a simultaneous celebration and criticism of superhero comics and pulp fiction. Snyder, working from a script by David Hayter and Alex Tse, goes through all the plot motions, but by barreling headlong from one event to another, ticking things off a checklist, he never captures the impact of Moore and Gibbons’ creations. Sure, the mystery is eventually solved, and the villain (of sorts) is revealed, but it doesn’t end up meaning anything. The horrific events of the movie’s climax don’t have the sickening certainty that they did on the page; instead, they just seem like details being wrapped up to get to the end of the story.
That finale is one of the few places where Snyder departs from Moore’s story, and he actually comes up with a smart solution to the impracticality of depicting what happened in the book. Everywhere else, though, he consistently emphasizes the wrong things; every moment of violence is amplified, drawn out and made more graphic, to the point where the movie is often fetishizing the very things the novel condemned. Snyder opens with a graceful montage of posed images giving a compact history of the costumed adventurers in the movie’s world, but that’s the last time he ever attempts any sort of subtlety. The rest of the time, he spells out explicitly what is better left inferred; even the title ends up transformed from an ambiguous statement on oppressive authority into a simple group name.
Watchmen is less blunt and pseudo-fascistic than Snyder’s last comic-book adaptation, the distasteful 300, but the director still throws in his share of slo-mo action and loving close-ups of viscera. The actors often seem consumed by the enormity of the production, but Wilson does nice work as a romantically frustrated nebbish who gets his kicks from fighting crime, and Haley, doing a variation on the Christian Bale Batman voice, makes about half of Rorschach’s stylized hard-boiled dialogue sound believable, which is more than a lot of people could manage. Akerman, however, is flat as the character who should be the movie’s emotional center, and Crudup’s approximation of Dr. Manhattan’s aloofness and distance from human affairs just sounds like sleepiness.
Snyder is a skilled craftsman, and he fills the movie with an impressive level of detail. Theoretically, he’s done everything right, and for a lot of fans of the graphic novel, that will be enough. But all he’s really done is replicate the surface, giving it a glossy coat along the way. Scratch it even a little bit, and you’ll see there’s nothing underneath.