Listen up, Watchmen virgins. I don't care if you know squat about the orgasmically received 1987 graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons: It's time to bust your cherry. With its alternate universe of vigilante superheroes and power-crazed U.S. politicians heading for nuclear disaster, Watchmen took comic books to the next level as literature. The film, directed by 300 wild man Zack Snyder, arrives after years of false starts from the creative likes of Brazil's Terry Gilliam, Bourne's Paul Greengrass and The Wrestler's Darren Aronofsky. Even if you don't see Snyder's version, which has its problems, it won't kill you to peek at the comic book that Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof called "the greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced."
As for you Watchmen junkies, enough with tearing down the movie before you even see it. Moore, soured by the Hollywood mangling of From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta, has removed his good name from the credits. In the process, he has inadvertently inspired a band of rabid loyalists ready to shoot Snyder on sight. Sheesh. Whether the movie soars or tanks, it won't make the comic book extinct. Get a grip.
Caught between the rock of fanboy adulation and the hard place of newbie indifference, the R-rated, nearly-three-hour movie version of Watchmen is a cinematic piñata getting whacked from every side. One look at mutant physicist Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), standing 200 feet, glowing with blue light and flashing a few yards of giant blue wiener, and you'll think you're in for the colossus of campfests. Or glom onto Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the vigilante in a white mask who shows a face of ever-changing ink blots, and you'll think a popcorn night at the movies has morphed into a Rorschach test administered by a lethally sadistic shrink.
What's the truth? A little of both, I'm afraid. Moore recalled his four years of toil on the 12-issue DC Comics series as "slam-dancing with a bunch of rhinos." That description also fits watching the movie, which stumbles and sometimes falls on its top-heavy ambitions. But there are also flashes of visual brilliance and performances, especially from Haley and Crudup, that drill deep into the novel's haunted soul.
Snyder, a director of TV ads (yikes!) who made his feature debut with a rockin' 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, took an ass-kicking from comic purists for getting too computer-flashy with his 2007 smash, 300, from Frank Miller's graphic novel about the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae. Snyder goes easier on the computer this time and strains to stay faithful to what's on the page. He and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse admirably resist updating to the here-and-now War on Terror. As the story moves from New York to Mars, the time is still 1985, Cold War tensions simmer, and Nixon — in his fifth term as president — hovers over a Doomsday Clock that ticks ever closer to atomic midnight. Snyder sums it up in a yowsa opening that merges Vietnam, moonwalks, you name it, into a visionary time capsule.
Plot point coming: Since 1977, masked heroes have been banned from doing their thing. Except for Dr. Manhattan, rendered Übermensch in a lab accident, they have no superpowers, just a jones to fight in drag. The feds have drafted Dr. Manhattan to take on the Soviets, but the rest of the Watchmen have been outlawed. Think The Incredibles without Pixar or pity.
Second plot point coming: The Comedian, a.k.a. Edward Blake, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, has been tossed from a window of his high-rise. "Somebody knows why," writes Rorschach, a.k.a. Walter Kovacs, in his journal. He thinks it's the start of a conspiracy to kill the "Masks," as the crime fighters were called. So he starts rooting out the second generation to fight back. He begins with Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), a.k.a. Dan Dreiberg, who's gone to pudge since putting away his Batman-like costume. Wilson (Angels in America) gained a few pounds but otherwise suggests nothing less than an Adonis in a role that cried out for, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Nonetheless, humdrum Dan is roused to action. He's all limp-dick with Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), a.k.a. Laurie Jupiter, until cracking heads makes him rock-hard. Laurie had been getting it on with Dr. Manhattan, a.k.a. Jon Osterman, but his interests had turned to physics and Mars despite his giant blue penis. What's a girl to do, especially one with a mom (Carla Gugino, perfecto!), the original Silk Spectre, who may have been raped by the Comedian? For Laurie, it's out with the Doc and in with the hottie spandex (hello, Killer Barbie), just the thingie to put new hoot into Nite Owl II.
The junior versions of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are the weakest and silliest part of the movie. Akerman, trying to channel Cameron Diaz, lacks the juice to do justice even to Charlie's Angels. The fights with this un-dynamic duo, sporting powers they're not supposed to have, are shockingly subpar. These doodles are helpless against Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a.k.a. Adrian Veidt, a mad genius who made a killing selling masked action figures to the gullible public.
No wonder the film loses its power and point. Luckily, Crudup (Almost Famous) has the acting chops to take us inside the moral battles raging in Dr. Manhattan's blue skull. And Haley, a revelation in Little Children, penetrates the heart of Watchmen's darkness. His origin story, involving child abuse and butchery, dovetails into a revenge drama that pulsates with the emotional intensity and artery-spurting violence that indelibly marked the graphic novel.
At its best, Snyder's movie gets at the symbolism of that smile button splashed with blood on the first Watchmen cover. Viewers who worry about the Giant Squid, the Black Freighter and other Watchmen elements missing from the movie are missing the point. Even in the time of a popular new leader, Watchmen tells us to be on guard about our alleged protectors. Moore worried about winding up with "a big, messy, steaming bowl of semiotic spaghetti." OK, Snyder should have worried more. But there are worse things than a movie that bites off more than it can chew. Look at the drool coagulating at the multiplex. And if you have to go back to the comic to learn that the freaks in Watchmen are not only for geeks, maybe that's not so bad. Just sayin'.