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The most eagerly anticipated (as well as the most beleaguered) movie of the year, Watchmen is neither desecratory disaster nor total triumph. In filming David Hayter and Alex Tse's adaptation of the most ambitious superhero comic book ever written, director Zack Snyder has managed to address the cult while pandering to the masses.
Warner Bros., which battled Fox for possession of the property, is marketing Snyder as a "visionary." That's a grateful studio's code word for "competent hack." The master of the vid-game aesthetic has successfully streamlined Alan Moore's twelve-part graphic novel and, even at two hours and forty minutes, made it commercially viable.
In its movie incarnation, Watchmen could be most simply described as an apocalyptic sci-fi murder mystery cum love story set in an alternate universe where masked superheroes are real, albeit largely retired, thanks to Richard Nixon, who is enjoying his fifth term as president — in part because the greatest of the Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan, a mutated atomic scientist who glows like blue kryptonite and possesses unlimited cosmic powers, settled the Vietnam War in a week. The story unfolds, amid many noir tropes and numerous flashbacks in the shadow of impending nuclear obliteration.
As the U.S. and Soviet Union face off over Afghanistan, the irascible renegade "mask" Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) discovers that an even more asinine colleague formerly known as the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has been murdered. The Comedian is a cigar-chomping a-hole responsible for doing away with the alternate universe's Woodward and Bernstein, as well as numerous Vietnamese and hippie protestors, and once claimed to embody the American Dream — so his death has a particular resonance. Rorschach, a paranoid type with a Travis Bickle-oid journal, decides that someone is plotting to kill all surviving Watchmen, though he fails to persuade either Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the most successful of the "masks," or his depressed onetime partner Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) to come out of retirement and join him on the case.
Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), to whom the president has given the responsibility of deterring Russia's nuclear threat, is increasingly alienated. Having offended his inamorata, Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), by projecting a pair of avatars for her sexual gratification while he solves a difficult equation in the lab, the azure godling teleports himself from his boudoir to a guest TV appearance with Ted Koppel (Ron Fassler), and then, angry at being accused of spreading cancer, sulkily bungs off to Mars. After Rorschach is set up, busted and sent to the pen, the two second-generation masks, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, return to action both in public (rescuing fire victims from a flaming apartment tower) and private (humping like porn stars amid piles of their passionately discarded superhero paraphernalia).
It should be apparent that Watchmen is founded on a pop mythology nearly as detailed as that of Lord of the Rings. Moreover, in its parodic historical references, integration of various written texts and temporal simultaneity that only the comic-book page can afford, the graphic novel has a modernist structure even more complex than its characters' tangled genealogy. Snyder enriches the mix by riffing on alt-'80s periodicity and a strategic '60s soundtrack.
Although the movie's ending has been somewhat modified from the novel's, let it be said that Watchmen doesn't lack for self-confidence or even entertainment value. Its failure is one of imagination: While faithfully approximating Dave Gibbons's original drawings, the filmmakers are unable to teleport themselves to the level of the original concept. Snyder's movie is too literal and too linear. Social satire is pummeled into submission by the amplified pow-kick-thud of the sub-Matrix action sequences; not just metaphysics and narrative are simplified, but even character is ultimately eclipsed by the presumed need for violent spectacle.
The philosopher Iain Thomson maintained that Moore not only deconstructed the idea of comic-book super-heroism, but pulverized the very notion of the hero — and the hero worship that comics traditionally sell. For all its superficial fidelity, Watchmen stands Moore's novel on its head, trying to reconstruct a conventional blockbuster out of those empty capes and scattered shards.
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