Who watches the Watchmen? If director Zack Snyder were to have his way, then everyone should. The movie version of the acclaimed, seminal graphic novel from the fertile mind of Alan Moore, not so curiously deprived of a co-creator credit for being an openly vocal critic of this cinematic endeavor, wanting nothing to do with it, is packed to the brim with inventive, highly stylized visuals. Not to brush aside the films dark, brooding premise, which it owes entirely to the source material, but in its own right, it all starts off promisingly well, with a soundtrack heavy on Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, to cement its desire to capture an era from the past. All is for naught though, when midway, it eventually starts to feel like nothing more than a superhero whodunit as it moves along. The film isn't bad on its own merit, its just a very compressed version of something even better, a fact that lingers throughout the viewing making it feel stuffy, confounded and yes, even dull by the end.
As it stands, Watchmen will probably be a great film for those who've never read the graphic novel, or don't know (or care) what a graphic novel is. That is not to say that the film is dumbed down in anyway. It retains all the allusions of a post Vietnam US during a fictional mid 1980's where Nixon reigned supreme, and a team of superheroes who'd given up and retired, were pulled back into the game with the world on the brink of nuclear annihilation, but all of this, more often than not, ends up feeling like the highlights of the actual story, a cliff notes version of the real thing. Snyder injects each scene with the reverence that he has for the source material, the best of these being the first arc where the masked hero Comedian is violently beaten to a pulp and thrown to his death from his high-rise apartment window. This setup establishes things very well; its true to the book, while being innovative with its energy with the engaging mix of Nat King Cole's 'Unforgettable' in the background. It's some of the choices that the filmmaker's make, especially a conclusion that questionably tinkers with the greatness of the original to be more convenient for the audience to follow while being logically flawed and the aimlessness of its central themes, being unsure of what it wants to be more – a fanboy fantasy come to life or a meaningful film with something to say.
Watchmen the book was a veiled critique of costumed heroes and American cold war pursuits, the film by comparison merely provides passing references to these things. It acknowledges these aspects but is more content to move along and reach a muddled, frenzied conclusion. Whereas 300 the graphic novel, which Snyder's previously adapted with more success, was originally a shallow adolescent bloody fantasy, more memorable for its oversized pages of art than its writing, Watchmen the graphic novel is perhaps the best example of the kind of synergy possible in a medium that marries literature with art. Which is why what worked in 300 the movie, glossy slow-mo action, story at the service of style, doesn't work in Watchmen the movie. Missing are the sly narrative cues and the sensible ending, but also the sharp social commentary and a lamentation of being a washed out superhero. Watchmen the graphic novel was philosophy as art, the film is art as commerce.
Movies like Watchmen can never be made without being compared to their source material. Because the work of Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons was such a watershed of the comics industry and some would say of the very medium itself, it carries an inbuilt characteristic of being forever scrutinized if adapted while leaving an indelible impression on readers that's hard to shake off. Very few recent cinematic adaptations of books have truly transcended the grasp of their inspirations, perhaps the Lord of the Rings films, and maybe not even those for some purists. Moore's work has always been a little odd, they have been quintessential comic book works, unlike Frank Miller's 300 or Sin City, which were practically begging to be adapted for the big screen. Perhaps this is why nearly none of the adaptations of Moore's stories has ever found a comfortable place among other films, especially in this age of superhero glorification. Not everything about the Watchmen movie is a failed attempt, the re-imagining of Rorschach onscreen is nearly spot on, thanks to Jackie Earle Haley's fierce performance and voice work, and he makes the character, along with Patrick Wilson's Nite Owl, one of the two most engaging in the film. Everyone else, including a Dr. Manhattan who looks like blue, glowing goo, is a miss and the film makes following much of what happens nearly impossible with its dingy lighting. As a whole, the film's themes are unsure of what they want to be, becoming more about costumed heroes in tights engaged in violent battles with each other. This is certainly not what Watchmen was all about. - Faizan Rashid