Movie Review: Watchmen
By Matthew Huntley
March 14, 2009

Newspapers can't be a dying medium if the Comedian reads them, right?

I've seen Watchmen twice now and I'm still not convinced any filmmaker could have perfectly adapted Alan Moore's graphic novel for the cinema. The plethora of ideas, subtext and topical themes that inhabited Moore's words and David S. Gibbons' illustrations were so broad and captivating, it's possible no one film could hold them. Nuclear war, sexual liberation, sacrifice, love, rape, murder, child abuse, impotence, revenge - this is a lot for one movie to handle, even if it is nearly three hours long.

With that said, Watchmen is still a fascinating movie on many levels. Not all of it works, but it is a faithful adaptation of its source - sometimes too faithful - and anyone familiar with the novel will inevitably link the movie to the book and either condemn it for not getting it right or applaud it for trying. I'm of the latter mind. For those who have never read the book, the movie will probably be overwhelming and perplexing, which is why, in this case, literature is the better medium to tell this particular story.

In the movie, there's so much going on, a simple plot summary wouldn't do it justice, but I'll try my best. In an alternate United States, it's October of 1985 and Richard Nixon has just been elected to his third term as president. "Tricky Dick," as he's called, has outlawed masked heroes, called Watchmen, who first emerged in the middle part of the century as volunteers to fight crime and win wars (namely Vietnam). The Watchmen are not superheroes, but ordinary people with incredible strength and agility. They have more in common with Batman than Superman (all but one of them at least).

One of these heroes, The Comedian, a.k.a. Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), sits in his upscale New York City apartment channel surfing and smoking one of his signature cigars. Suddenly, a masked man breaks in, beats The Comedian to a pulp, and throws him out the window. The Comedian wears a smiley face pin that gets stained with his own blood, which becomes the story's lasting icon.

Investigating the murder and keeping a daily journal of the events is Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a black-and-white masked vigilante and one of The Comedian's former colleagues. Rorschach's investigation propels the rest of the story as he questions the other heroes from their justice league, including Nite Owl II, a.k.a. Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson); Silk Spectre II, a.k.a Sally Jupiter (Malin Akerman), who inherited the role from her mother (Carla Gugino); Ozymandias, a.k.a. Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), now a billionaire businessman seeking to produce infinite resources of energy for the world to share, which he believes would end all wars; and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a.k.a. Jon Osterman.

Out of all these characters, only Dr. Manhattan possesses superhuman abilities. A nuclear accident disintegrated his body, but he was resurrected, bald and blue-skinned, with a perfectly toned body. He now has the ability to manipulate energy and particles with the simple pointing of a finger.

At the time of The Comedian's death, the United States is on the brink of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Tension and paranoia envelop the country and America's only hope is Dr. Manhattan, but along with The Comedian, somebody is trying to rid the world of him. On a talk show, Dr. Manhattan is accused of giving his former lover and colleagues cancer, which causes him to go into exile on Mars. Somebody obviously wants the Watchmen out of the picture.

Like the graphic novel, the movie takes the time to flesh out its characters and provide them each a backstory and individual conflict, but screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse seem to only include events from the book because they were in the book. It's like they went through it page by page, simply copying the words into a screenplay and felt too afraid to make creative changes.

Don't get me wrong - the movie is ceaselessly watchable, but it's not an adaptation so much as a filmed version of the novel. The art of adaptation involves changing things and making them more suitable for another medium, and while there are considerable changes from the book, they don't seem to cater to the movie. The book (and screenplay) bring so much to the table, the movie should have either been longer to deal with it all or shortened so it didn't make the mistake of biting off more than it could chew. There are rumors of a director's cut, but even so, for a general release, I think Watchmen would have worked more as a series instead of a single picture (think Kill Bill) to properly accommodate all its content.

It sounds like I'm being hard on the movie, but that's only because the graphic novel was so good. It'd be interesting to gather the opinion of someone who saw the movie without having read the novel. I'm thinking it won't translate well for them, which is another problem. Director Zack Snyder (300) hasn't made a fully realized picture but one that's too self-conscious of its source. During production, I imagine he kept the book on-hand just to make sure he included everything so as not to disappoint fans, and not necessarily for the sake of cinema.

Still, as a movie, Watchmen offers plenty to get excited about, including an awesome production design, special effects, costumes and colorful characters. The Dr. Manhattan effects are especially impressive and could probably not have been done better. Some of the casting is spot on, too, including Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, whose voice, tone, facial complexion and rough disposition make him seem like he was born for the role. I also liked the soft-spoken Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, who embodies the detached, stoic figure who's about to give up on humanity.

The other actors are adequate, but not exactly memorable. Akerman and Wilson seem to merely speak the lines of their comic book counterparts, while Goode and Gugino are rather flat. Other nuances that don't quite work are the Richard Nixon parody (the makeup job is laughable, perhaps intentionally) and some of the music choices (just because they were mentioned in the book doesn't mean they work on film).

The makers of Watchmen must have known they would not get away with critics and fans comparing the movie to Moore's lauded novel. Would I have liked the movie as much without having first read the book? Probably not, but I can say with confidence it would have given me the incentive to read it.

When news broke of a Watchmen movie finally being made (it allegedly passed through several studios and directors over the past 20 years), many thought, and probably still believe, it was un-filmable. That's not entirely true. Snyder's current cut is still worthy of praise for its production values, but it needs help in the screenplay department. If anything, the movie deserves adulation for the enormous effort taken to at least try and do the novel justice, which may just be an impossible feat.