Once upon a time
Yes, I’ve read and enjoyed Watchmen, but, no, I don’t think it’s the greatest graphic novel. (I give that honor to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.) As for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s apocalyptic ode to masked avengers, there’s been a lot of hemming and hawing about changes made for the movie, some of the grousing delivered by Moore himself. (He removed his name from the credits.)
Moore is a big baby because this is a sturdy, worthy adaptation of his work. It captures a significant amount of the novel’s paranoid essence, while making changes that help with pacing and keeping things filmable. It’s a nice homage to his fine work.
The “unfilmmable” Watchmen is quite filmable indeed, and director Zack Snyder (300) does mighty good by it. Maniacal fans of the graphic novel will discover that the film is extremely faithful to large swaths of the tome and almost always faithful when dealing with the characters of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). The ending gets a significant alteration, and some subplots, such as the Black Freighter sequence, are gone, but this feels very much like a Watchmen movie.
It takes place in an alternate universe 1985, where Nixon is still president, Russia and the United States stand poised for nuclear war, and most superheroes have been banned from practicing their vigilante art. Edward Blake, aka The Comedian, is thrown out of his apartment window to his death, and Walter Kovacs, aka Rorschach, investigates. He deduces that “masks” are being targeted and takes it upon himself to visit and warn some of his former crime fighting partners.
Dr. Manhattan, a former scientist transformed into a size-shifting blue man after a radioactive accident, now works for the government. His superpowers almost single-handedly won Vietnam for the U.S.A., and his presence on our soil is a big reason why Russia has never launched its nukes.
Snyder chose to go the CGI route with Manhattan, and it’s a wise choice. Crudup is a mostly vocal presence—and a stunning, oddly soothing one at that—but we do see him before his transformation during a flashback sequence. That flashback sequence, as Dr. Manhattan recalls his past while vacationing on Mars, is one of the film’s best.
Other retired heroes include Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II (Patrick Wilson and Malin Akerman), each a successor to a first generation superhero. Wilson, to me, is an improvement over the novel’s bland characterization, while Akerman winds up being one of the film’s small flaws. She has the look of Silk Spectre II, but her characterization is surprisingly flat. Not terrible, but noticeably less effective than those around her.
Haley is Rorschach. I felt the same way watching his adaptation of this character as I did watching Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal the Cannibal in Silence of the Lambs. I pictured the characters a certain way when I read them, and the actors brought them to life perfectly. Haley’s coiled rage is always evident through Rorschach’s constantly shifting inkblot mask, and it’s downright frightening when that mask comes off. It’s just a great thing to see this man in movies again.
The changes to the ending, while a bit drastic, don’t do anything to harm the effectiveness of the picture. Contrary to some reports, it does not slander Moore’s original vision. It’s different, but the message remains the same.
Snyder and his cast are truly successful with Watchmen, a project that had a lot of stops and starts. It’s a swirling, hallucinogenic, crazy adaptation of a nutty book, and I choose to be impressed by what Snyder managed to get into the film, rather than being bummed by what he left out. It stands right alongside Christopher Nolan’s Batman films as some of the best in the genre.