The long-awaited film of Alan Moore's classic comic book/graphic novel Watchmen is a work that's easier to ponder than enjoy.
Director Zack Snyder has delivered a literal, almost page-by-page transcription of Moore's and Dave Gibbons' messianic, End of Days superhero epic. It gives you a lot to chew on in its 2 hours, 43 minutes. But as striking as it is to absorb and behold, as literal as the adaptation is, Watchmen rarely hits the thrilling or entertaining stride that Snyder's 300 had from start to finish.
Costumed heroes, "vigilantes," have been illegal for years. Most of those who came to fame in the 1940s and '50s have hung up their capes, tights and masks and slipped back into normal life.
But now, in 1985, the heroes are in their 60s, and someone is killing them off. We see the sadistic thug The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) give as good as he gets but die a violent death anyway. We hear the masked Rorschach, played by Jackie Earle Haley in a Dark Knight growl, narrate his investigation into the crime.
"One of us died tonight. Somebody knows why. Somebody knows."
In this alternate 1985 America, Vietnam was a "win" and Richard Nixon never left office. He and Kissinger are into their second decade in power, with World War III still just an eye blink away. America's secret weapon? Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a nude, blue, nearly omnipotent hero-god who was once human but who is losing his connection to humanity. And when his girlfriend, the former Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), ditches him, he exiles himself to Mars. The World War that the Earth avoided might happen after all. The Watchmen won't be around to prevent it.
"It's too late," the ethereal Dr. Manhattan prophesies. "Always has been. Always will be."
Who's behind all this? The twisted and ruthless Rorschach teams with his old friend, the brainy and less violent Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) to bust heads (and arms, and legs) to get to the bottom of the killings, no matter that the world is about to end. Another "mask," Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the world's smartest man, is enlisted. But he's in deep with Dr. Manhattan's plan to solve the world's energy problems in one fell swoop.
Snyder fills the screen with eye candy. But the violence of the comic book is here, too: brutal murders, dismemberments, attempted rape. The sex is graphic, the violence more so.
What Snyder and his team add to the mid-'80s comic is a pop-cultural mash-up sensibility. Bad impersonators abound, from a heavily made-up Nixon to a feeble Ted Koppel and Lee Iacocca. On the soundtrack, 99 Luftballoons crashes into All Along the Watchtower.
The film's dizzying array of flashbacks (also from the graphic novel) gives only a couple of actors enough time to shine. Haley is a ferocious presence, Akerman is comic-book sex incarnate, and Wilson does a nice Clark Kent turn as the reason-over-violence hero.
At every turn, long pauses in the action force us to chew on what Moore, who went on to write the more obvious jeremiad V for Vendetta, was getting at. Watchmen is biblical, political, psychological and not the least bit whimsical. And after absorbing it over almost three hours, the best one can say of the filmmakers is that they did what no team before could manage: They got the movie made.