Although I've had it on my shelf for several years, I only recently read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' acclaimed graphic novel, Watchmen, primarily in anticipation of the beleaguered production that just opened in movie theaters. Set in an alternate 1985 United States — a nation on the brink of nuclear war with the USSR, and with Richard Nixon enjoying his fifth term as president — Watchmen on the page and, now, on film serves as a fascinating deconstruction of the superhero literary genre.
I wasn't as familiar with or as enamored by the source material as some prior to the movie's premiere. Nevertheless, I saw the film's potential for disappointing Watchmen's "fanboys." If the movie eliminated or departed from too much of the graphic novel's storyline or treated it with more of a camp mentality, I figured all hell would break loose. Unlike some of those fanboys and fellow critics, I was very pleased by the film adaptation. While it traffics in some of the same philosophical and moral themes as last year's über-smash The Dark Knight, I believe Watchmen does so more successfully and with a much more interesting visual style.
Director Zack Snyder (300) was a wise choice to helm this expensive movie. He respects the graphic novel's core plot and characters while only making a few departures that improve the story. One example: the movie's ending, which is the most dramatic departure from the book. The script, by David Hayter and Alex Tse, utilizes the same basic scenario — millions of people are killed rather than billions would be in a nuclear holocaust. But the means is quite different in the graphic novel: the villain creates a giant squid with psychic abilities that kills everyone in NYC. To those unfamiliar with Watchmen, I assure you I'm not kidding! Needless to say, I prefer the movie version, which takes advantage of one of the heroes not unlike Batman in The Dark Knight.
Snyder has also cast the film exceptionally well. While Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) is a standout as the tortured vigilante Rorschach, Patrick Wilson (also of Little Children, as well as Angels in America) makes a strong impression as Dan Dreiberg, a.k.a. Nite Owl. Usually cast for his good looks but emotional blandness, Wilson has put on weight, glasses and a zest for the super- heroic life here that expands his image. He and Malin Akerman (as Silk Spectre) play the two Watchmen who most enjoy being superheroes, and they run with it.
The Comedian, whose murder the Watchmen plot pivots on, isn't as well developed on film as he was on the page, but Jeffrey Dean Morgan gives the character the requisite questionable morality. Matthew Goode (Match Point), as the ambitious Ozymandias, and a primarily-digitized Billy Crudup as the otherworldly Dr. Manhattan round out the cast well.
Between 300 and Watchmen, Snyder continues to reveal an unrivaled cinematic appreciation for the male form. Whether it be the loincloth-clad Spartans in his previous blockbuster or, here, the frequent but matter-of-fact nudity displayed by Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl, Snyder clearly isn't afraid to show men for all they are physically as a means of revealing their overall strength. This has led some to question Snyder's sexuality (he is reportedly a heterosexual, married father of six children), or to accuse him of baiting gay viewers with homoerotic imagery while seemingly condemning homosexual tendencies or behavior in other scenes of both 300 and Watchmen. I don't share their concerns.
Similarly, my fellow Movie Dearest Man on Film, Neil Cohen, and I have been debating all weekend whether Ozymandias is supposed to be gay. Despite Ozy's presence at a Studio 54 celebration and his occasionally mincing mannerisms, I didn't find much evidence of homosexuality, unless being brilliant and cultured equals gay. (On second thought ...)
Watchmen is long at nearly three hours and it brings the book's graphic violence to vivid life on screen. Thoughtful viewers, however, ought to find the movie intelligent, engrossing and often exciting entertainment, whether one is familiar with the source material or not.
UPDATE: Watchmen is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.