Considering that we’re in a golden age of comic-book movies, a time when titles such as “Spider-Man 2,” “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight” wow audiences and critics alike, it’s no wonder that “the most acclaimed graphic novel of all time” - if “Watchmen’s” advertising campaign is to be believed - is hitting the big screen.
“Watchmen” is set in an alternate timeline where superheroes exist and have interacted with historical world events. The movie and comic both posit a universe in which President Nixon has won a fifth term, a superman exists (and he’s American!) and costumed vigilantes have been banned by act of Congress.
That hasn’t stopped Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) from roaming the streets and roughing up hoods. Nor has it stopped the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) from knocking off South American Marxists. However, most of their brethren, including Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson); Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman); and Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) have retired.
After the Comedian is murdered, the Watchmen (slowly) reunite to find the killer.
Events actually are more complicated than that sounds. The Soviet Union is still kicking around and stirring up trouble in Afghanistan, held in check only by the fact that America’s superman, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), is a nuclear-powered, blue-skinned god capable of destroying anything and incapable of being destroyed. Oh, and Dr. Manhattan is working with Ozymandias to create an alternate energy source that will save the world from itself.
Fortunately, Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” does a good job of setting up this information for the uninitiated. In an extended title sequence, the Comedian is killed while watching television’s “The McLaughlin Group,” and the panelists lay out the information necessary to settle us in our 1985 time frame. After the Comedian is tossed out a window, there are a series of very brief vignettes that chart the course of superherodom from the 1940s to the movie’s present.
As for the meat of the movie, things are far less clear. The problem is structural.
At its heart, “Watchmen” is a whodunit with a massive, world-changing twist at the end. It’s a noir with global consequences. Originally spread over 12 issues and more than 400 pages, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s graphic novel had the time necessary to introduce an entire universe of superheroes without feeling rushed and was able to give every character his proper due.
No movie - not even Mr. Snyder’s epic 163-minute adaptation - can afford to indulge that languid pace. Instead of shifting seamlessly between narrative perspectives at organic breaks in the plot (namely, when one issue ends and another begins) the film throws the audience without warning from the psychotic rantings of Rorschach to the metaphysical musings of Dr. Manhattan to the budding relationship between Dan and Laurie to the titan of industry Ozymandias.
The whiplash induced by these shifts in tone and perspective is almost too much to overcome, jarring the viewer out of the film every 20 minutes or so. It’s unfortunate, and an entirely avoidable problem. The answer is television.
“Watchmen’s” source material is perfectly suited for a premium-cable adaptation. An eight- or 10-hour “Band of Brothers”-style adaptation would allow Mr. Snyder and company to revel in the brutal violence and overt sexuality of the series while simultaneously allowing for real character development and an exploration of the deeper issues raised by the shock ending.
Instead, we’re left with a movie that feels overlong and incomplete at the same time, a frustrating combination. “Watchmen” isn’t bad, necessarily, but it’s not nearly as impressive as it could have been.
The acting jobs are all pretty nondescript, though Mr. Haley’s Rorschach stands out as the life of the party; when he’s on-screen, “Watchmen” sticks closest to the noir sensibility that drives the movie. He gives an impassioned, pained performance, no easy task for a man who spends most of the movie hidden behind a mask.