(Author’s note: This is actually a much, much older review that I somehow missed in adding reviews from my older blogs to Something Useful. I am not this much of a slacker.)
What a mess. What a glorious, flawed, and strangely watchable mess. Snyder’s Watchmen is a tangled and twisted juggernaut of failed storytelling and breathtaking sensationalism, a film that shows it’s audience (in stunning detail) the sight of a nuclear explosion silhouetting the forms of two lovers, but cannot portray those same people having a conversation. As a bit of hyper-violent, ultra-stylized popcorn cinema, it mostly works; as an adaptation of Alan Moore’s masterwork graphic novel, it doesn’t.
Adaptations are tricky to discuss. What does an artist owe to the source material he or she is adapting? Answering vaguely, they must at least keep the essence of the original work intact; this is to say that the characteristics that define that original work, the aspects that make it important or memorable, should be kept intact in translating it from page to screen (or from page to stage, or whatever you like).
To a degree, and to his credit, Snyder succeeds in this endeavor. He translates Watchmen‘s panels into perfect cinematic recreations of moments and images from the novel, literally bringing the original work to life as a faithful visual companion to the comic. The look and feel of the movie is utterly captivating, vivid and full of eye-popping detail and dazzling color and composition. It is quite literally like watching the comic come to life on screen, and it is undeniable that an incredible amount of painstaking and genuine effort went into each frame of the film. To deny Snyder that credit would be criminal; however you feel about the material of the film, whether you love it or hate it or find yourself somewhere in the middle like me, it cannot be stated enough that regardless of the end result, he put 110% of himself into this film. Few directors manage to do so even in their successful movies, and Snyder deserves great praise for his attention to the detail that makes the universe of Watchmen so iconic.
That detail can also be found in most of the cast of characters; Snyder has not only captured the look of Watchmen‘s heroes, he has also mostly coaxed the spirit of those characters out of his actors. In particular, Jackie Earle Haley nearly steals the movie as the lunatic masked vigilante Rorschach, a man so consumed by his quest for justice that he has completely disappeared into his alter ego. Billy Crudup is the film’s true triumph as Doctor Manhattan, a blue-toned demigod and the only character in the book with actual superpowers (which are nigh-unlimited as far as we can see), giving humanity to a character defined by his disconnection from his fellow man and portraying him as a Buddhist master who has attained nirvana.
It’s not just the characters, either, but the world Watchmen unfolds in that Snyder so successfully brings to life. This version of Earth, and specifically the US, is grim and cold, saturated with dark colors against which the bright blue hue of Doctor Manhattan and the crimson streaks of blood that frequently run through the film absolutely pop. Even in the movie’s ugliest moments (such as a prison-wide revolt replete with severed limbs and humans lit ablaze) the movie looks stunning and beautiful. Watchmen works best as a piece of world-building cinema; the movie takes place in a familiar place, but in an unfamiliar (non-existent) time, and the challenge of both accurately reflecting the US of the 80s while also differentiating the film’s version of the 80s from our own is one that Snyder was clearly well up to.
Ultimately where the film stumbles lies in the telling of Watchmen‘s story, a superhero opus about a world where such heroes are outlawed by government legislation and Nixon still holds office in the 80’s. The novel is famous for stripping down the superhero as a character archetype by questioning what sort of person would decide to be a superhero and examining such a figure’s place within a larger context rather than through a narrower lens. How does a character such as Batman fit into world affairs? What would Spider-Man do in the face of Armageddon? And what sort of person would decide to become a superhero? The answers– an egotistical fascist, a raging psychopath, and an emotional rube, among others.
These questions are flirted with, but never satisfactorily answered, leaving viewers looking for a heavier thematic film disappointed. All visual fidelity aside, the eschewing of substance results in Snyder’s film feeling like Watchmen-lite, and perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise; the novel has long been thought to be unfilmable, if not for reasons of scope then for reasons of a more commercial nature. It is impressive that Snyder managed to get even this much-reduced version of Watchmen into theaters, and he deserves credit for that. Unfortunately, what Snyder has done is created the best movie adaptation of possible, and it still doesn’t add up to much more than a visually appealing bit of insubstantial pop art.