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Watchmen Review – Comic Book Noir Post Haste

Watchmen Review – Comic Book Noir Post Haste” width=”560″/>

Watchmen, the graphic novel, is the most probing and perceptive deconstruction of the superhero genre ever attempted. It gracefully insists the cape and cowl fantasy entails an abdication of human responsibility by posing the question, what happens when a superman, ensconced in a secret identity and immune from earthly law, decides to make a life-or-death decision for millions? To adapt Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ renowned work, director Zack Snyder and his screenwriters were charged not merely with translating a deep, difficult work; but one that is essentially the word of God for the fans that would make up their core audience. Departures from the sacred text would not be tolerated — and besides, why mess with greatness?

So they left the book alone. Watchmen, the movie, is one of the most slavishly faithful adaptations ever attempted. Snyder dutifully reproduces both the look of individual frames and the structure of entire sequences, hoping, I guess, that the greatness would translate. But the novel gets the best of him. The movie was reportedly trimmed from four hours to two hours and forty minutes, and that turns out to simply not be enough time. All the material is here, but its scope and power are lost. In trying to respect Watchmen to the utmost, Snyder tragically shortchanges it.

Set in the ’80s — during Richard Nixon’s third term — with the United States and the Soviets on the brink of nuclear war, Watchmen presents a world where a legendary league of superheroes has degenerated into something almost pathetic. Most, like the Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), have hung up their costumes. The uncompromising Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is a despised and feared vigilante. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) has revealed his true identity and now runs a giant corporate empire. The nearly omnipotent Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) single-handedly staves off nuclear attacks, his very existence assuring Soviet destruction should they launch. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is dead — murdered in the opening scene, an event that sets in motion the complicated, intensely character-driven plot.

There’s a half-century of background that props up the story. Snyder doesn’t try to skirt this; he does his best, dedicating a beautiful opening credits sequence to convey as much of the story as he can. But it just doesn’t sink in, leaving the relationships and ideas at the heart of the movie half-cooked. Dr. Manhattan’s existential crisis, leading to his petulant departure for Mars, is key to the story, but feels arbitrary. The same can be said for the complicated relationships among the characters. Everything about these people comes across in general outlines. It’s not that Snyder handles the material incompetently. It’s that he wants to cover everything, which is simply impossible in the time he has.

Snyder’s harried attempts to cram in as much as possible hurt more than just the characters and the story. He wants to make Watchmen into a sort of modern comic book noir, set to Rorschach’s gravelly voiceover and a melancholy soundtrack of pop standards (“The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “The Sound of Silence,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to name a few). But it’s hard to do good noir when you’re constantly in a mad rush, and like most everything else here, the sights and sounds of Watchmen never get under our skin. Snyder is more at home in the action scenes, which are appropriately rousing — though, as in the book, few and far between.

The movie’s only major departure from the source material is in the refashioned ending. Even the most die-hard Watchmen fans tend to agree that Moore’s original conclusion is practically unfilmable as written, and I doubt many will complain about the change. Snyder’s version stays true to the book’s spirit, merely substituting one mode of mayhem for another.

Nothing here, in other words, is bastardized. Snyder has not sold Watchmen down the river; on the contrary, he worships at its altar. But great books rarely become great movies with a mere translation. Maybe the promised four-hour director’s cut will deliver the goods on DVD. This version maddeningly skims the surface.

For an alternate view of Watchmen, check out James Rocchi’s review in AMC News.

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