Comic Relief

Andrew Hultkrans on Watchmen

Zack Snyder, Watchmen, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 163 minutes. Publicity still. Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), and Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley).

AFTER DECADES OF DEVELOPMENT HELL at multiple studios (Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros.), the protracted attachments of several directors (Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass, Darren Aronofsky), and the subsequent disenchantment and self-erasure of its source author (Alan Moore), Watchmen, the so-called Citizen Kane of graphic novels, has finally hit movie screens on a wave of Hollywood hype and fan expectation. Your response to the film will have almost everything to do with whether you are already intimate (and in love) with Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons’s original comic (published in a twelve-issue run from 1986 through 1987). Directed by 300’s Zack Snyder (2006) with an ur-fanboy’s attention to seamless mimicry, Watchmen the movie is—barring an altered ending and the deletion of the paratexts that lend the comic its peerless density—as close to an illuminated manuscript of Moore and Gibbons’s vision as anyone had a right to expect.

This is both good and bad—again, depending on your ardor for the source material—and is the reason for the wildly mixed reviews Snyder’s adaptation has received. If you already know and worship the original (I do), there’s no denying the adolescent thrill in seeing these aging, morally ambiguous, all-too-human superheroes brought to life. However, if you are new to the plot and characters, Snyder’s fidelity to the complex, discursive, time-jumping comic may strike you as slow, confusing, and needlessly portentous.

The production design is fantastic: Its obsessive re-creation of the color palette, costumes, and set pieces of the graphic novel should satisfy the most hardened Gibbons devotee. The direction, by contrast, suffers from an overly static camera (to evoke still comic panels) and an occasional mishandling of the deep melancholy and creeping nihilism of these “heroic” characters. Nobody who saw 300 would mistake Snyder for a nuanced, Bergmanesque dramatist, but his not-quite-mature understanding of the human condition (super- or otherwise) does Moore’s characterization a disservice.

Here, too, be howlers: A sex scene between Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) inside the former’s flying-owl craft, set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” almost ruins the song and the film in under three minutes; Dr. Manhattan (a former nuclear physicist turned all-powerful blue being) has an exposed penis that changes size (in a continuity, not sexual, sense) from scene to scene as often as the fake nose on Robert Wisden’s Richard Nixon does; overplayed ’60s songs (“The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “The Sound of Silence,” “All Along the Watchtower”) leech meaning out of the sequences they’re supposed to buttress.

Nevertheless, Snyder and the filmmakers’ slavish re-creations are clearly done in good faith. Those new to the story will still receive some of Moore’s themes: the inherent silliness and psychopathology of superheroes; the fascistic implications (both right- and left-wing) of their existence; the often disastrous geopolitical effects of the neoliberal custodial impulse. And Jackie Earle Haley’s portrayal of Rorschach, the street urchin–cum–uncompromising vigilante based on Steve Ditko’s Objectivist avengers the Question and Mr. A, is as good an incarnation of a comic-book character as we’re likely to see. (That includes Heath Ledger’s Joker.) Ultimately, Watchmen is an ambitious, reverent, flawed adaptation of what both Moore and Terry Gilliam (who, it should be noted, inflated Chris Marker’s spare, experimental 1962 short La Jetée into a sci-fi thriller starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt) once called “unfilmable” material. Its very existence makes it worth a look.

Watchmen opens on Friday, March 6.