Most of what's good about Zack Snyder's Watchmen was already good about Alan Moore's graphic novel. But give credit: For a generally faithful adaptation, Snyder commendably lets Watchmen feel like a movie.
Comic book fans can be as bad as Harry Potter fans for flipping a lid whenever a film adaptation deviates from its source. Since Watchmen is one of the most beloved works in the comic medium, the movie presented a can't-win scenario. If it replicates the book exactly, it pacifies, but big deal. To be a great movie, Watchmen would have had to let down loyalists by being surprising and new---the film medium equivalent of the fresh feeling the 1986 tome possesses.
Having only first read the Watchmen comic two months ago, the film wasn't something I was anticipating or dreading too much. It's not like I've lived with this story for 20 years. But Snyder, fresh off bringing Frank Miller's 300 to screen in literal-translation-bloodshed, tackles Watchmen's complex tapestry with moments of style. The opening credits (the first 10 minutes of Snyder's movies are always their best) present the exploits of past superhero team the Minutemen in fascinating still frames with elements, like gun smoke, still in motion. Other shots, such as the Sam Raimi-style move up the side of a skyscraper, show the director at least doing what he can to make the movie its best.
Watchmen stands nobly among recent comic-to-movie adaptations by virtue that its source has an intricate multi-sided approach to which the director feels in debt. The melee of present reality with flashbacks, and of fantasy with altered historical events, makes the movie weird, thus worthwhile. But Snyder's technical skill surpasses his creativity. He doesn't find a way around the most difficult traps Moore sets for him. What resonates in the comic is its placement of human realism within the pop genre. The movie never gets that far with its characters. They deliver lines and are photographed in noir artifice when they should have been observed more naturally. This particularly grates in long scenes between Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II (Malin Ackerman). In their superhero outfits, the crime-fighting gig looks as serious as a Halloween party.
The writing is good enough (again, virtue of the source) that it often engages anyway. Too bad Snyder takes Moore's adolescent "Woe unto us all" theme more seriously than the comic's superior attention to character. When Snyder feels unsure he amps the violence. Sawing off a goon's arms gets the expected response, but a fetishistic recreation of JFK's head exploding leaves a bad taste.
By scoring a sex scene to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and the blue mutant Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup)'s victory in Vietnam to "Ride of the Valkyries," Watchmen the movie has a sense of humour, even if it's not a good one. Giving Dr. Manhattan's origin story the tone of a monster movie is a highlight, but the film betrays the creature's professed detachment from humankind. Always looking about to cry, Dr. Manhattan never comes across as stoic. But the will to go places that might not work is what works for Watchmen. It steps off the beaten superhero path. It trips up a lot. The last hour is mostly a drag. But its best moments resonate of a blockbuster that's taking risks.
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