Would you believe me if I told you that I, a fairly geeky comic book fella, only read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s opus Watchmen within the last 5 or 6 years? It’s true. I remember seeing a trade paperback version at a Coles bookstore I frequented when I was young, but it was always sitting on the top shelf that I just couldn’t reach. By the time I finally got around to reading Watchmen, the legend of the book had reached mythic proportions. I mean, this was the “comic book” that appeared on Time Magazine’s list of “the 100 best English language novels from 1923-2005”. You won’t find the Kree-Skrull War on that one. I checked.
Perhaps because I’m a latecomer to the story of an alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is in his fifth term as President and superheroes have been outlawed, I’ve never been particularly invested in the long and complicated history Watchmen has faced in its journey to the big screen. I’d never tried to assemble a dream cast in my head or lost much sleep when various attempts at adaptations fell through. But my interest was certainly peaked when Zack Snyder was announced as the director who would finally be entrusted with bringing Watchmen to the big screen. While fanboys love Snyder for his previous comic book adaptation 300, I was actually a big fan of his first film, Dawn Of The Dead. Zombies, shopping malls, and Sarah Polley. You really couldn’t go wrong.
Which brings us to the here and now. Watchmen is being unveiled to the masses, some who have been waiting for what seems like forever, and others who probably wonder what all the fuss is about. Ultimately the question is, is Watchmen any good?
Well, from this viewer’s perspective, the answer is a cautious yes. It’s bold, majestic, epic, and ambitious. It is also at times unnecessarily dense and humourless, just like the book.
For all the talk of how the Caped Crusader’s success this past summer has opened the door for more dramatic comic book fare, The Dark Knight, this ain’t. Watchmen does not deliver that one, awe-inspiring performance akin to that by Heath Ledger. There are some great ones, courtesy of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as The Comedian, Billy Cruddop as the CG enhanced Dr. Manhattan, and Jackie Earle Haley, who delivers the goods as the certifiably crazy Rorshach. Crudup brings the required distance and sadness to his seemingly indestructible character who has lost all connection to humanity. But of the three, Morgan is a star that is “this” close to breaking out to even bigger things, and while his Grey’s Anatomy groupies may not appreciate his vicious turn in Watchmen, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
But even with these solid actors as standouts, don’t go looking for another Joker, because you’re not going to get it. And unlike The Dark Knight, there are some surprisingly poor performances in Watchmen. Most disappointing is Canadian Malin Akerman, who is underwhelming as Silk Spectre 2. Akerman is a beautiful woman and stunning to look at, but her performance is stilted and underwhelming, as is that of Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, the world’s smartest man. While neither are outright duds, neither Goode nor Akerman remotely measure up to their Watchmen teammates.
How about the good? Well the film is visually stunning, and is perhaps the most literal adaptation of a comic book story I’ve ever seen. Scene for scene, panel of panel, so much of what began on the page is there moving around on the silver screen. It’s an amazing accomplishment that never feels fake or overwhelmingly CG. Not a bad compliment for a film that has some of its pivotal emotional scenes on Mars and which features a protagonist that’s blue.
That same visual translation doesn’t always work for the script, mind you. So much of the dialogue and narration is taken straight from the comic book, which is both a blessing and a curse. Devotees will revel in the film’s authenticity and devotion to Alan Moore’s work, but words that read well on the page don’t always sound great when spoken aloud. I found this most jarring during the extended sequence that introduces us to Dr. Manhattan. In remaining reverential to its origins, it sometimes feels as though Snyder forgot that he was making a movie and not just a living, breathing graphic novel.
Ironically, one of the aspects of Watchmen that I enjoyed the most was how it deviated from the graphic novel’s original ending. The original is far more comic booky, and would no doubt have suffered had it been utilized verbatum. Instead, Zndyer and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex TSe created a resolution that I would argue actually surpasses Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original concept.
Ultimately, even at over 2 ½ hours, Watchmen is almost always compelling viewing, an amazing adaptation of a landmark work that you can’t help marveling at, even when you’re wondering what exactly is going on. Did I love it? No, but I liked it a lot, and that’s really good enough for me. Now we’ll just have to see if it’s good enough for all the fanboys who’ve been waiting 20 years to see Watchmen come to life.