Finally, someone’s gotten this comic book-to-film thing right, or at least as right as the transport of different mediums, philosophies and the very definition of art itself will allow. “Watchmen,” Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s literarily acclaimed graphic novel, is the pop culture equivalent of Yin and Yang merging with E=MC2.
Too bad Confucius and Einstein didn’t live to see it. Aw, just a left-handed jab at the notion of smugness usually attending these highfalutin comic books. Fact is, up until now most of this stuff was as indistinguishable as the silent dog whistle. One wonders if cultish devotees will feel diminished with the welcoming of this breakthrough piece.
Not that the tale of an alternate America, circa 1985, where superheroes walk among regular folk, approaches mainstream manna. But its intelligence, creativity and boldness are undeniable. Indeed, the presumption and sweeping statement on occasion ring naïve. But once the weirdness spools up and gets its act together, one is sure to be wowed.
We get a great inkling of it with the fabulous opening credits, a kaleidoscopic, historical survey of the lore surrounding the Watchmen. Flashbacks and a whirling, lazy Susan selection of watershed events lay the groundwork for the screenplay co-written by David Hayter and Alex Tse. Enticing yet obscure, such is the film’s double-edged sword.
Trust that all gets resolved, or at least explained, before closing credits roll. However, once sucked into the black hole of things “Watchmen” there are moments that can be sheer agony. Novices will bemoan being strangers in a strange land; whereas fans upset by director Snyder’s necessary shortcuts will doubtless question the filmmaker’s loyalty.
The narrative style is film noir, told in fatalistic tones by Rorschach/Walter Kovacs (Jackie Earle Haley), a superhero currently not on the government’s approved list. We don’t know why being a superhero is outlawed, and why some receive dispensation. Just suffice it to note it’s 1985, Richard Nixon is still President and we won in Vietnam.
Serving for the most part as our tour guide, perceptibly dangerous if not entirely off the hook, Rorschach is on a mission. Fellow crime fighter The Comedian/Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has met his untimely demise at movie’s outset and our boy wants to know why. Of course, the powers that be will have something to say about that.
The murder mystery then is essentially a road trip through the catacombs of superhero relations—among themselves and with the Feds. There’s even a pretty good love story—the triangle kind—featuring Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) and Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup).
How all this is connected to a nuclear crisis and what it has to do with the panoply of superheroes is way too complicated to dissect here. The details are tightly woven within multifarious pods of subtext, unraveled at the author’s whim. The result is a wild roller coaster ride that carves its own tracks, its path seemingly a big question mark.
Along the route, which takes us back to 1940, down to Antarctica and up to Dr. Manhattan’s favorite getaway spot on Mars, there is action aplenty. Concurrently, the Doomsday Clock informs how long the Earth has before it is annihilated, a hyperbolic nod to the Cold War mindset that influences much of the work
Dazzling art direction, wherein CGI technology is used to augment rather than substitute for traditional movie magic, makes for a fine melding of live action and comic book sensibilities. It allows an examination of each player’s special powers. Better get your scorecard. The properties and characteristics could daunt Arthur C. Clarke himself.
As a college seminar in Moore’s Watchmen franchise might suggest, there is profound inconsistency at practically every interstice and juncture…to be kind, a relativity of thought. At some points the perspective is downright subversive. Next it seems garden variety liberal. Then again, perhaps it’s reactionary. Or, maybe it’s just a lot of nuttiness.
Crazy like a fox is more like it. While there is ostensibly nothing completely original in his writing, the energetic, intricate thesis about superheroes having their human foibles dusts off a great old form. After all, it has been a while since we’ve pondered the day-to-day troubles and turmoil of the Olympian Gods and just how they might relate to us.
To boot, it’s smart, entertainingly nasty, R-rated bawdy and precariously on the fringe while, alas, still optimistic. Making classical antiheroes of superheroes, putting a reality into why someone might perilously steal out into the night to render the world a better place, pleases our moral gyroscope. All of which makes “Watchmen” worth a look-see.
“Watchmen,” rated R, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Zack Snyder and stars Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup and Patrick Wilson. Running time: 163 minutes